Category Archives: Religion

Excluding the Supernatural

Followup toReductionism, Anthropomorphic Optimism

Occasionally, you hear someone claiming that creationism should not be taught in schools, especially not as a competing hypothesis to evolution, because creationism is a priori and automatically excluded from scientific consideration, in that it invokes the "supernatural".

So… is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn’t be allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

It seems clear enough that this notion stems from the desire to avoid a confrontation between science and religion.  You don’t want to come right out and say that science doesn’t teach Religious Claim X because X has been tested by the scientific method and found false.  So instead, you can… um… claim that science is excluding hypothesis X a priori.  That way you don’t have to discuss how experiment has falsified X a posteriori.

Of course this plays right into the creationist claim that Intelligent Design isn’t getting a fair shake from science – that science has prejudged the issue in favor of atheism, regardless of the evidence.  If science excluded Intelligent Design a priori, this would be a justified complaint!

But let’s back up a moment.  The one comes to you and says:  "Intelligent Design is excluded from being science a priori, because it is ‘supernatural’, and science only deals in ‘natural’ explanations."

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?  Is any explanation invented by someone with the last name "Cohen" a supernatural one?  If we’re going to summarily kick a set of hypotheses out of science, what is it that we’re supposed to exclude?

By far the best definition I’ve ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier’s:  A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

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Intelligent Design Honesty

The excellent and famous philosopher Thomas Nagel on teaching intelligent design:

When … in response to the finding that the teaching of creationism in public schools was unconstitutional, the producers of creation science tried to argue that young earth creationism was consistent with the geological and paleontological evidence, … their arguments were easily refuted. … That is a good enough reason not to teach it to schoolchildren. ..

I agree with Philip Kitcher that the response of evolutionists to creation science and intelligent design should not be to rule them out as "not science." He argues that the objection should rather be that they are bad science, or dead science: scientific claims that have been decisively refuted by the evidence. … However, the claim that ID is bad science or dead science may depend … on the assumption that divine intervention in the natural order is not a serious possibility. …

So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause. …

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Disagreement is Disrespect

Consider these dueling bumper stickers:



Here religious conservatives do seem unfairly maligned: seeing a behavior as immoral is not at all the same as “hating.”  These folks also rightly seethe at how they are usually portrayed in popular film and TV, and at seeing their democratic ideals violated when even local voting majorities can’t prevent their kids from being taught evolution in public schools.  You can feel this resentment in the enthusiasm for Palin.  (Of course since I’m not religious about God, sexual preference, or democracy, this all bothers me lots less.)

But this does seem a handy opportunity to repeat that while disagreement isn’t hate, it is disrespect.  When you knowingly disagree with someone you are judging them to be less rational than you, at least on that topic.  (Judging them less informed or experienced by itself can’t create disagreement.)  It might be only a minor disrespect, if you think this disagreement suggests little about whether you’d disagree with them elsewhere.  But disagreement is disrespect, nonetheless.

Added: Wikipedia says hate speech is:

Speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, moral or political views, socioeconomic class, occupation or appearance (such as height, weight, and hair color), mental capacity and any other distinction-liability. [emphasis added]

How exactly do you disagree with someone’s moral views without degrading them?  Can you really say pedophelia is disgusting without degrading pedophiles?

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Suspiciously Vague LHC Forecasts

Me in ’06:

You can get 80% of the improvement that prediction markets offer by using a much simpler solution: collect track records.  … When people make forecast-like-statements, write them down in a clear standardized form, and then check back later to see who was more accurate.

I’m at scifoo (Nature/O’Reilly/Google Science Foo Camp) and yesterday heard a talk about the Large Hadron Collider that will go live in a few weeks – and had a disturbing thought.  Odds are very good that within the next few years we will see news articles where bigshot physicists say a new LHC result vindicates a theory they’ve been pushing.  But today there are no public predictions by high-profile physicists stated precisely enough to be clearly scored for accuracy!  While weather, business, and sport forecasters commonly make scoreable probability forecasts, here are the sorts of forecasts bigshot physicists make:

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The Problem at the Heart of Pascal’s Wager

It is a most painful position to a conscientious and cultivated mind to be drawn in contrary directions by the two noblest of all objects of pursuit — truth and the general good.  Such a conflict must inevitably produce a growing indifference to one or other of these objects, most probably to both.

– John Stuart Mill, from Utility of Religion

Much electronic ink has been spilled on this blog about Pascal’s wager.  Yet, I don’t think that the central issue, and one that relates directly to the mission of this blog, has been covered.  That issue is this: there’s a difference between the requirements for good (rational, justified) belief and the requirements for good (rational, prudent — not necessarily moral) action.

Presented most directly: good belief is supposed to be truth and evidence-tracking.  It is not supposed to be consequence-tracking.  We call a belief rational to the extent it is (appropriately) influenced by the evidence available to the believer, and thus maximizes our shot at getting the truth.  We call a belief less rational to the extent it is influenced by other factors, including the consequences of holding that belief.  Thus, an atheist who changed his beliefs in response to the threat of torture from the Spanish Inquisition cannot be said to have followed a correct belief-formation process. 

On the other hand, good action is supposed (modulo deontological moral theories) to be consequence-tracking.  The atheist who professes changed beliefs in response to the threat of torture from the Spanish Inquisition can be said to be acting prudently by making such a profession.

A modern gloss on Pascal’s wager might be understood less as an argument for the belief in God than as a challenge to that separation.  If, Modern-Pascal might say, we’re in an epistemic situation such that our evidence is in equipoise (always keeping in mind Daniel Griffin’s apt point that this is the situation presumed by Pascal’s argument), then we ought to take consequences into account in choosing our beliefs. 

There seem to be arguments for and against that position… 

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Where Does Pascal’s Wager Fail?

The topic of Pascal’s wager has been mentioned several times before on Overcoming Bias, most notably in Eliezer’s post on Pascal’s mugging. I’m interested in discussing the question with specific reference to its original context: religion. My assumption is that almost all readers agree that the wager fails in this context — but where exactly?

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Fear, God, and State

A stunning hypothesis from the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

High levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived personal control. Three experiments demonstrated a causal relation between lowered perceptions of personal control and … increased beliefs in the existence of a controlling God and defense of the overarching socio-political system.  A 4th experiment showed … a challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control. … A cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control.

It seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect us when feel less able to protect ourselves.  I’d guess similar effects hold for medicine and media – we believe in doc effectiveness more when we fear out of control of our health, and we believe in media accuracy more when we rely more on their info to protect us.  Can we find data on which beliefs tend to be more biased: confidence in authorities when we feel out of control, or less confidence in authorities when we feel more in control?

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Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom

Followup toNo Universally Compelling Arguments, Passing the Recursive Buck, Wrong Questions, A Priori

Why do I believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow?

Because I’ve seen the Sun rise on thousands of previous days.

Ah… but why do I believe the future will be like the past?

Even if I go past the mere surface observation of the Sun rising, to the apparently universal and exceptionless laws of gravitation and nuclear physics, then I am still left with the question:  "Why do I believe this will also be true tomorrow?"

I could appeal to Occam’s Razor, the principle of using the simplest theory that fits the facts… but why believe in Occam’s Razor?  Because it’s been successful on past problems?  But who says that this means Occam’s Razor will work tomorrow?

And lo, the one said:

"Science also depends on unjustified assumptions.  Thus science is ultimately based on faith, so don’t you criticize me for believing in [silly-belief-#238721]."

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The Moral Void

Followup toWhat Would You Do Without Morality?, Something to Protect

Once, discussing "horrible job interview questions" to ask candidates for a Friendly AI project, I suggested the following:

Would you kill babies if it was inherently the right thing to do?  Yes [] No []

If "no", under what circumstances would you not do the right thing to do?   ___________

If "yes", how inherently right would it have to be, for how many babies?     ___________

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Happy Conservatives

At Freakonomics, Arthur Brooks on why conservatives seem happier:

In my last post I showed the large happiness differences between religious Americans and secularists, and argued that this is a big part of the reason conservatives are so much happier than liberals. But I also noted that religion and other lifestyle distinctions still only explain about half the gap. …

In my book I argue that conservatives are more optimistic about the future than liberals are, and believe in each individual’s ability to get ahead on the basis of achievement. Liberals are more likely to see themselves and others as victims of circumstance and oppression, and doubt whether individuals can climb without governmental help.

I wonder:

  • Would you or I be happier if we let ourselves think more conservatively, such as by attending church more and believing we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?
  • Would society be happier if we encouraged more conservative thoughts?
  • If so, who wants such outcomes?  (Or, are they good outcomes?)

Me, I want to believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy.  And with that attitude, I doubt attending church would make me happier.

Added 13May: Tyler suggests "Robin could play up the relatively conservative thoughts he already believes in."  But playing up particular beliefs will give them more weight in my mind, and move me more to similar beliefs. 

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