Multipolar disagreements (Hal’s religious quandry)

Hal Finney wrote: "…reminds me of my justification for not being religious: the majority of people in the world are not Christian, the majority of people in the world are not Muslim, the majority of people in the world are not Hindu, the majority of people in the world are not Buddhist, etc… So I can’t pick any religion without being in a minority! I’m not sure the conclusion really follows though. Something I’m still working on."

Also, the majority of people in the world are not atheist (or non-religious, or secular). Absent reasons to weight some opinions more, what should one believe when there are several inconsistent views, none of them commanding majority support?

I think in such a case one should believe a superposition of the views, i.e. one assigns a probability measure over the alternatives that reflects the degree of support they each have from their various constituencies. In the unrealistic, simplest case, where everyone’s reliability is the same and errors are uncorrelated, this might perhaps amount to assigning probability proportional to number of proponents.

Assuming the unrealistic simplifying premiss, in Hal’s case this would amount to being uncertain but not dismissive about spiritual matters, say being an agnostic who tends to believe that some existing religion is probably right, but not sure which one although more likely one of the big ones than some minor cult.

Of course, you might find that almost everybody would agree that such agnosticism is wrong, and you would find yourself in disagreement with this overwhelming majority. But it would nevertheless seem to be the position that would minimize disagreement.

A separate problem is what you should do if you end up with this belief. Suppose each religion claims that you will go to hell unless you believe that particular religion with all your heart. In that case, your rational course of action might be to pick the most likely religion and then do what you can to try to become a full convert to it.

The existence of such extreme disagreements as in the religious case, however, strongly suggests that not everybody involved is unbiased an in honest pursuit of objective truth. Some other factors must play a huge role in determining religious belief. So you might also think that by carefully examining what those non-rational factors are, you may be able to do better than minimizing disagreement; you might reach some insights that would make it rational for you to take sides. Of course, it is easy to delude oneself into thinking that one has such special insights, so one should be cautious. 

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I do think that there is something to Hal’s intuition – the fact of so much confident disagreement suggests they are all wrong, and the simplest way they could all be wrong is if there were no God. But I also agree that this link of argument needs a lot more elaboration.

  • Dagon

    Wouldn’t this apply equally in situations where there are substantially only 2 positions, one of which is dominant? You’d take a superposition of the two, weighted by their popularity.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    You could go for a belief-package, such as Bahai which claims to integrate nine previously-separate religious faiths, or Unitarianism, which is so wishy-washy that it covers a good probability distribution of possible gods.

    Or, you could take a less reductive view of religion. Religious belief is quite obviously not a matter of accurate fit to a verifiable reality. In fact, some religions make a virtue of requiring faith in things not seen.

    There’s been some interesting work on the economics of religion, like Rodney Stark’s.

  • michael vassar

    Hmm… reminds me of suicide rock. I wonder if I should actually be exceptionally cautious in this situation. It seems to me that there is no more need to do so than there is to examine carefully whether I actually have, at any level, the desire to overcome bias.

    If something that appears to me to be known with the certainty of the proposition “1+1=2” or “I currently believe myself to be inputting information to a computer” or “In at least some respects I would like to reach accurate beliefs” is incorrect, then I am simply irreversibly screwed with respect to my beliefs on these matters, and effort to correct my possible errors is misguided. The same might be said regarding my considered opinion regarding the logical validity of any simple argument, and many religious propositions do in fact seem to me to be simple arguments in the relevant sense.

    Taking the logic of this article further, I wonder whether I should consider only the positions of living proponents or religions, or the positions of dead proponents as well. What of probablistically existant future proponents weighed by their probability of existance? This seems problematic, given that their probabilities of existance probably depend upon the veracities of the religions which are in question. When people change religious beliefs, should I integrate over the time and intensity with which they held their beliefs prior to and subsequent to their changing of their minds? With respect to a religion’s adherents, how should I assess the probability that they exist? Should I be certain of the validity of any religion that claims that the universe is infinite and that it is filled with an infinite number of earth-like worlds populated by humans, all of the inhabitants of which accept the religion in question with the sole exception of a few billion Earthling humans?

  • http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com JewishAtheist

    A separate problem is what you should do if you end up with this belief. Suppose each religion claims that you will go to hell unless you believe that particular religion with all your heart. In that case, your rational course of action might be to pick the most likely religion and then do what you can to try to become a full convert to it.

    I thought about this problem a while back and decided that you have to take into account how bad a religion’s hell is in addition to how likely it is to be true. For example, six months of purgatory or an eternity of nothingness would clearly be better than everlasting torture. Therefore it’s smart to ignore religions with insufficiently scary hells. All other things being equal, one might go for one with an exceptional heaven as well. I concluded that some form of right-wing Christianity is probably the optimal bet.

    That said, I remain an atheist. 🙂

  • http://emirateseconomist.blogspot.com John B. Chilton

    Speaking of overcoming bias, Americans do not believe that atheists can be trusted. Since being trusted is an asset, I suggest the solution to Hal’s problem is to adopt a religion. See my entry here:
    http://churchman.blogspot.com/2006/04/americans-do-not-believe-atheists-can.html

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Dagon, yes the idea would be that the multipolar case is essentially the same as the case of bipolar disagreement. Suppose there are two schools of thought on some issue, A and B. Of independent experts, 70% strongly believe A, and 30% strongly believe B. *All* experts agree that it would be a mistake to have a belief state of uncertainty regarding A and B (such as assigning 70% probability to A and 30% to B). So if you enter such a mixed state, in one sense you will now be disagreeing with everyone. Nevertheless, I think this is the stance that minimizes disagreement, so ceteris paribus this is the state you should choose, rather than e.g. going with position A thereby completely agreeing with the majority. In the religious case, the mixed position seems to correspond to agnostisism.

    Robin, yes the fact that there is so much confident disagreement implies that most people are wrong, and suggests that perhaps nobody or very few are honestly seeking after objective truth in this matter. It is not obvious how how this in itself would favor atheism.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Michael, I don’t think that learning that you were wrong about some theological issue would give you reason for doubting your own sanity or for concluding that all your thinking efforts are futile in the same way as learning you were wrong about “1+1=2” or your inputing information into a computer. There seems a big difference in degree.

    Dead proponents: these should be taken into account, but with reduced weight to the extent that they lacked access to relevant data or arguments that your contemporaries can include in their reasoning. So for example, belief in intelligent design by people living prior to Darwin might count for less.

    Future proponents: in priniciple they should be taken into account and given lots of weight, but in practise thinking about future proponents will not help at all. What future people will might be determined by some combination of the pull of the truth and other influences that are independent of the truth. To the extent that their beliefs are determined by the latter, they are not relevant. To the extent that they are determined by the truth, they are relevant, but your only way of estimating how the truth will shape future opinion is via your first estimating what the truth is. So when thinking about what future people will believe, you get nothing more out than you put in. (It is like trying to solve a mathematical puzzle by figuring out what you will believe the solution is after you’ve solved it.)

    On positions postulating that they have many hidden supporters: intuitively, this seems like the future proponents case, but it might merit somebody working through a formal example.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    JewishAtheist, yes the other factors you mention would also have to be taken into account on that line of reasoning.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    It seems to me that “[believing] a superposition of the views” doesn’t really result in a *religious* belief but rather a “meta”-belief (about other, in this case religious, beliefs). Whether such a belief would address “Hal’s religious quandary” would depend upon which of the following questions he is trying to answer:

    1. What should I believe about religion?
    2. What religion should I believe?

    The kind of meta-belief you’re proposing provides some kind of answer to the first question, but since this belief assigns some probability to multiple, conflicting religious beliefs (and since there’s no majority), the implicit answer seems to be, “believe none of them.” That’s all an unclear way of saying that believing that, e.g., there’s a HUGE difference between believing (a) that there’s a 70% probability that Christianity is the “one true faith” and (b) that I believe in Christianity with 70% of full certainty. (I’m not entirely sure whether (b) even makes sense as a belief, once you tease out what sorts of claims you would be 70% committed to…)

    And also, what justifying work are majorities doing here? (How much work can they do???)

  • http://rationallongevity.blogspot.com/ Anne Corwin

    Suppose each religion claims that you will go to hell unless you believe that particular religion with all your heart. In that case, your rational course of action might be to pick the most likely religion and then do what you can to try to become a full convert to it.

    I don’t see how this is rational, unless you are thinking only in terms of avoiding hell. What if you don’t care if you end up in “hell” (never mind that different religions have different notions of what eternal torment might consist of)? And what about the idea that if there truly were omniscient supernatural beings out there, they’d probably be able to tell that you were only following their edicts for the sake of self-preservation, and that you might not even actually believe what you claim to? Is it even possible to “believe something with all your heart” if the evidence doesn’t convince you?

  • michael vassar

    Nick: It seems to me that we disagree fairly strongly here. Finding out that an interventionist god, Santa, or Flying Spaghetti Monster existed would give me plenty of reason to doubt my sanity. Not doubt really, but rather discard as a plausible hypothesis.

    Much confident disagreement strongly suggests that few are honestly seeking truth, which means that you have little reason to treat their opinions as evidence. If religious claims aren’t evidence, one must reach one’s own conclusions, but without the evidentiary value of the fact that the claims are made very little evidentiary strength remains favoring theism.

    Also, most religious positions, and in fact positions of any sort, posit many hidden supporters. A biologist can tell me that almost all scientists believe in evolution, but I shouldn’t believe them without investigating that fact by examining the actual beliefs of supposed believers (which first requires finding them). In practice, with respect to biological evolution, or most theological claims, I will discover that few supposed adherents can coherently express their supposed beliefs, indicating the presence of, at best, an informational cascade with low evidentiary value.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Michael, does this mean that you think everyone who strongly believes in an interventionist god is insane? (Maybe we are just talking about different things when we use the word “sanity”?)

    I’m not sure what you are driving at in the third paragraph. Are you saying that in general there is little point in trying to use popularity of an opinion as an index of its truth, unless we restrict ourselves to looking at a small subset of agents who are independent, rational, and honest? That seems at least partially correct, but we are then back to the problem of selecting “authorities”, and the concomitant opportunities for self-deception and bias.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Michael, does this mean that you think everyone who strongly believes in an interventionist god is insane? (Maybe we are just talking about different things when we use the word “sanity”?)

    I wouldn’t call them sane with respect to that particular issue. If you unhesitatingly repeat back memes composed by authors some of whom suffered from organic brain disorders, you can’t exactly be called “sane” even if you don’t suffer from the same organic brain disorder yourself.

  • michael vassar

    In the third paragraph, I am focusing my attention on independence. With respect to many beliefs the vast majority of adherents are not claiming to be independent. Furthermore, with respect to many beliefs, most adherents don’t actually know much or anything about the structure of the belief that they nominally hold. In practice, the “hidden supporters” issue isn’t easily dismissed. Almost all supposed supporters are almost always actually “hidden”. Claims of consensus and of support are almost always practically subject to reasonable doubt. As I mentioned, with respect to many propositions, very few alleged supporters actually know what the proposition under dispute says.

  • Ovid

    Don’t look at how religions differ, look at what they have in common. They are all right and none of them is right. See? It’s easy!

  • TGGP

    Anne, you appear to believe that the omniscient divine beings do not find acceptable our behavior if we are doing it for selfish reasons (I think Kant might have thought the same thing). From what I know of pre-modern religion, the good results from good behavior was sort of the point. Just as a king would care less about his people loving him than obeying him, so too do the Gods we are supposed to believe in. It is true that Hell is not described much in the Hebrew Bible, but Dante was not being completely original in his Inferno as the Greeks and Egyptians laid out specific horrors of the underworld long before.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I wouldn’t call them sane with respect to that particular issue. If you unhesitatingly repeat back memes composed by authors some of whom suffered from organic brain disorders, you can’t exactly be called “sane” even if you don’t suffer from the same organic brain disorder yourself.

    Since the vast majority of humanity is religious, more so if you consider the issue historically, then you’ve got a problematic defintion of sanity. If religions are infectious memes, then they are more like symbiotic gut bacteria than they are like diseases. Religion has been a key ingredient of human culture since the beginning, and it’s part of what made us human.

    That’s not to say that we necessarily still need it. Perhaps we’ve arrived at a historical point where we can rid ourselves of religious memes, maybe they do more harm than good. But it’s hard to evaluate that if you don’t have any concept of what the good might be, and a lot of the proudly atheist don’t seem to have any sense of the real role of religion in society.

    I presume that the people here must have given some thought to situations where it might be beneficial (in the evolutionary or economic sense) to believe in things that aren’t true, or at least aren’t provable. If your goal is to eliminate false beliefs then you need to have a theory of why people might want to hold onto those false beliefs.

    Religion is a really interesting case because it involves deeply-held beliefs that are deeply counterintutive and often completely unprovable, with the latter trait somehow reinforcing the former.

  • fork1

    Since the vast majority of humanity is religious, more so if you consider the issue historically, then you’ve got a problematic defintion of sanity. If religions are infectious memes, then they are more like symbiotic gut bacteria than they are like diseases.

    The definition of sanity, along with other psychological parameters, evolves over time. What could be considered sane behavior for lesser primates or children would probably be considered insane, or at least not fully sane or retarded, by adult homo sapiens standards.

    If the vast majority of humanity carries gut bacteria that makes them behave irrationally, it doesn’t make the gut bacteria carrying population sane, compared to those who don’t carry the bacteria and don’t act irrationally. The definition of sanity doesn’t appear to be linked to the behavior of the vast majority of humanity, whether they are sane or not.

    Can one be sane without being rational? Can one be rational without being logical? Does intelligence play a part? To be able to help people who suffer from lack of “straight thinking” one needs to know what it takes to be rational and logical.