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December 01, 2007

Comments

While I very much respect you, the authors, and understand that this is your bully-pulpit - the propaganda is getting fairly tiresome. Is there anyway we can steer the conversation back to pragmatic rationalism rather than the same tired faith/non-faith debate?

I (mistakenly?)read this blog for something more than reddit and digg.

1: The Bottom Line.
since Yeishu probably genuinely believed he would go to Heaven, he doesn't deserve more honor than John Perry

2: Eliezer, whose bias will this article help overcome? Seriously?

Christians won't accept your premise that Jesus died forever. Atheists presumably don't honor him. Muslims honor him as a prophet, and presumably (many islamic 'fundamentalists') don't honor atheist victims of 'jihad*'. 'The church of Judea[sic]' never had much affinity with Jesus to begin with, & Everyone else who uses the 'Jesus was a great moral teacher' schtick can be beaten into submission with Christianity's so-called unintended consequences. Who is left to persuade?

3: I 2nd Nigel, & I had thought the post had made the point with the John Perry anecdote. Much of the rest feels gratuitous. (& will tend to fill the comments w/ content-lite responses.)

The most interesting take on the actual historical Jesus is in Psychology of Prophetism by Koenraad Elst, which claims that Jesus was a schizophrenic narcissist who personally authored Revelations, was a near-anarchist who denounced the Romans and that all the peaceful sayings attributed to him were later additions intended to pacify the Romans.

Well, I'm sorry if it seems like I'm beating on Christianity, but come on - it makes such a beautiful case study! The point isn't to deconvert people from Christianity, it's to point out how the same flaw that appears in Christianity powers the Superman comics and celebrity cults, and prevents us from thinking that we can do better ourselves. If I were doing a series on cognitive biases contributing to the horror of the Soviet Union, would you accuse me of beating too hard on Communism?

TGGP, Hyam Maccoby makes an interesting case that Yeishu tried to follow the Judaic apocalyptic tradition in detail, but never claimed to be the Son of God and would probably have been quite horrified at the paganism of the concept (like any educated Jew of that era). That part was added later, by an adventurer ignorant of Judaism, namely Paul, who successfully took over and wiped out the actual inheritors of Yeishu's movement, the Ebionites.

Excellent post.
I am a little confused on the notion of transhumanism. Once immortality is achieved, where does everyone fit? Do we quit breeding? Do only a chosen few make the immortality cut? Do we upload on to a matrix?
And as to AI, if it is to be our descendant, why does it have a moral obligation to keep us around? What purpose would homo erectus serve in our world?

It's curious to me that you would malign Superman, yet strive to be him, laud the hero who accepts his mortal fate, and pity him for it.

I tip my hat to you. Were I laying money in a futures market, I'd bet on you over some cloistered monk to change the world. But I'd cut you both about the same odds for life everlasting.

It's curious to me that you would malign Superman, yet strive to be him

Me? Strive to be Superman? Pffft. The human species did not become what it is by lifting heavier weights than other species. There is only one superpower that exists in this universe, and those who seek to master it are called Bayesians.

laud the hero who accepts his mortal fate, and pity him for it.

I don't understand why you think this is a contradiction. If someone accepted having both legs cut off to save others' lives, wouldn't you laud them for that, and yet rail against the fate they accepted - try to cure them if you could?

In your "as Christians tell the story", you're missing quite a bit.

Christ's level of suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross was such that he atoned for all of the sins of everyone who ever lived and ever would live. Atoned, as in "to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God".

It's the method by which God is able to temper justice with mercy, through the mechanism of having someone else voluntarily pay a legitimate debt on our behalf.

This level of suffering by definition exceeds any suffering that ever has or ever will be suffered by anyone else, since it essentially includes it all.

Christ suffered willingly and voluntarily, knowing ahead of time what he was getting himself into, in order to save everyone else from being forced to suffer for their own sins. That payment in our place is what provides the opportunity for us to be saved from our spiritual death.

Christ's death on the cross and subsequent resurrection in order to solve physical death is very important, but minor suffering by comparison.

Christ's two part atonement is so beyond the sacrifice made by John Perry that you'd have to start referring to humanly incomprehensible numbers in order to fairly compare them.

Jeff: On your first question, see the transhumanist FAQ. On the second, we would have to build an AI to want to keep us around, but if we succeeded there's no reason it would suddenly decide to do away with us. Purpose is subjective, and we don't need any objective reason to continue existing.

"the tortures the Inquisition visited upon suspected witches"

IIRC, the Inquisition, at least the Spanish Inquisition, wasn't very concerned with witches.

In Spain there simply wasn't a witch-craze comparable to the one raging in other parts of Europe, thanks in no small part to the indifference of the Inquisition. It was when the "punishment" of witches fell on the hands secular authorities that lots of women were killed.

Isn't Jesus' real name Yeshua?

Christ's two part atonement is so beyond the sacrifice made by John Perry that you'd have to start referring to humanly incomprehensible numbers in order to fairly compare them.

Or to put this in terms that Eliezer is likely to at least recognize:

When confronted with the dilemma, Christians claim God chose to torture one man rather than inflict 3^^^3 dust specks on 3^^^3 people. Except that God let the man choose, and the man chose to suffer himself rather than let others go on suffering.

This is of course a deeply silly story once you actually begin to analyze it - just as the dust speck problem is deeply silly. It's just that one story came as part of a religious tradition that Eliezer rejects, and one story was made up by Eliezer. They're equally ridiculous because they're equivalent (or very, very close to being so), but one is seen as absurd and one as proof of our hard-nosed rationalism.

I do not believe this myself, but in the interest of fairness:

There are some Christians who believe that the crucifixion was only the most visible outward agony that Jesus suffered. The more significant agony was that he experienced being cut off from God the father. (Hence the famous Aramaic exclamation.) Some Christians have hypotheses that this agony was equivalent to all the weight of all the misery caused by all the sin and guilt ever.

I do not believe you will find direct textual support for this in the Bible, but it is an extant item of faith for some Christians, and it changes the equation somewhat, no?

An important point in this is that God chose to inflict on himself (or his son, or another part of himself) exactly as much anguish as human beings have ever inflicted on themselves and each other. This makes an interesting retort to the theodicy problem: Why does God allow such suffering? We don't know, but he must have a good reason, in that he was willing to experience exactly that much suffering himself.

Other Christians, by the way, differ in saying that Jesus suffered only enough anguish, guilt and misery to equal the harm done by those who will eventually be saved, so his sacrifice was only sufficient to atone for them. This is a point of contention among different Christian sects.

And of course some Christian sects do not believe either of these two alternatives.

In either case, it goes way beyond the physical suffering, and it greatly changes the "facts" in your
"case study".

@"different Jeff":

Even with full-blown space colonization, however, population growth can continue to be a problem, and this is so even if we assume that an unlimited number of people could be transported from Earth into space. If the speed of light provides an upper bound on the expansion speed then the amount of resources under human control will grow only polynomially (~ t3). Population, on the other hand, can easily grow exponentially (~ et). If that happens, then, since a factor that grows exponentially will eventually overtake any factor that grows polynomially, average income will ultimately drop to subsistence levels, forcing population growth to slow. How soon this would happen depends primarily on reproduction rates. A change in average life span would not have a big effect. Even vastly improved technology can only postpone this inevitability for a relatively brief time. The only long-term method of assuring continued growth of average income is some form of population control, whether spontaneous or imposed, limiting the number of new persons created per year. This does not mean that population could not grow, only that the growth would have to be polynomial rather than exponential.

[from the WTA FAQ]

OMG, LOL: trying to convince the most extemely bigoted people--religionists--of the stupidity of their bigotry. You fall victim to the usual intellectual Catch 22: no one sufficiently open-minded as to follow your argument IS a religionist; no religionist is sufficiently open-minded to follow your argument. You can't convince a Klansmen of the stupidity of his bigotry. Why think you can convince a religionist?

It's an interesting hypothetical though to ask what fraction of the population (and what from different demographics and cultures) would even make the sort of minor sacrifice attributed by Eliezer to the Christian story version of Jesus. My guess is still not high. The Christian version of Jesus, after all, sees himself, rightly, as vastly more important than us, and may tend to see his pain as more important for reasons somewhat independent of simple indexicality/selfishness. Maybe this makes his sacrifice comparable to avoiding eating factory farmed meat out of concern for animal suffering?

rukidding, Eliezer has already said -- in this very comments thread -- that he isn't aiming to deconvert Christians but to use some features of Christianity as a case study.

Excellent post, Eliezer. Thank you.

Mr. Yudkowsky,
Why throughout all of your posts do you continue to speak of altruistic action as good or praiseworthy? Evolutionary psychology disproves ethical cognitivism (the position that moral or value propositions such as "X is right" or "One ought to do X" admit of truth or falsehood) as much as it disproves religion. Just as there's no invisible dragon in my garage, there's also no such as thing as a value or a moral obligation. To be sure, the implausibility of ethical cognitivism doesn't give you reason to turn into a selfish, raging nihilist. At the same time, it doesn't give you any reason NOT to. So, I ask, why do you still speak of altruistic actions as somehow better than selfish actions? I submit that this is a bias affecting your own ethical thinking and that its source is either cultural habituation or an innate disposition.

Why throughout all of your posts do you continue to speak of altruistic action as good or praiseworthy? Evolutionary psychology disproves ethical cognitivism... Just as there's no invisible dragon in my garage, there's also no such as thing as a value or a moral obligation.

Really? I know what a garage would behave like if it contained an invisible dragon - we'd be able to measure the exhaled carbon dioxide, see footprints appearing in the ground, outline it by throwing flour into the air, etc. I know what a garage would behave like if it contained a benevolent God; it would cure the cancer of people placed inside, etc. Can you tell me what a garage would look like if it contains a moral obligation?

It's not that we looked in the morality garage and found that it was empty, but that, rather, morality isn't the sort of thing you find in a garage in the first place.

Mr. Yudkowsky,
It is the fact that purported moral facts add nothing to a description of a state of affairs and have no explanatory or predictive power that they are not facts at all.
Statements of moral proposition such as "X-actions are wrong" or "One ought to do X-actions" are rather simply expressions of preferences or pro attitudes for X actions. If one has these preferences, then, those preference combined with a belief that a particular action A is an X-action gives you a reason to perform action A. However, if an agent does not have a pro attitude for X-actions, then the belief that A is an X-action does not give the agent a reason to perform A.
So, the fact that an action is altruistic gives me no reason to perform the action unless I already have a pro attitude for altruistic actions.
What I can't conceive of is a reason for adopting one set of pro attitudes (such as pro attitudes for altruistic actions) over another set of pro attitudes (such as pro attitudes for selfish actions) since sets of pro attitudes can only be judged good or bad in light of another, higher set of pro attitudes.
So, I can't conceive of an agent-independent reason for acting altruistically; all reasons are necessarily agent-relative since a reason for performing a particular action can only be explicated in terms of an agent's already existing preferences. Yet most ethical theories claim to provide people with just such an agent-independent reason for being altruistic. And I think this position is latent in your argument: you seem to think that there are good, agent-independent, rationally derivable reasons for being altruistic, and I want to know what those purported reasons are.

So, I can't conceive of an agent-independent reason for acting altruistically

If by that you mean an agent-independent cause of altruistic actions, then I agree. My life would be a lot simpler if Friendly AIs automatically emerged from fully arbitrary Bayesian decision systems.

But I fear that you misinterpret me. I'm simply (a) speaking from within my own moral frame of reference and (b) assuming that my audience is composed of human beings rather than fully arbitrary Bayesian decision systems.

I know what a garage would behave like if it contained a benevolent God; it would cure the cancer of people placed inside, etc.

You have NO IDEA what a benevolent god would do. At best, you can guess at what a benevolent human being with godlike powers would do. But gods are by definition beyond your comprehension, and you desperately need to learn the difference between the things you've convinced yourself of and the things you know.

Caledonian, I think the clear subtext is "A benevolent god as defined by those who believe in it". It's important to realise that a benevolent, omnipotent god doesn't make sense *as far as we can tell*. Sure you can propose the existence of something that cannot even in principle be understood - but what would be the point of that? Interesting when down the pub I suppose. Such things may or may not exist, but they are of no practical importance.

ECL, I'm another emotivist/non-cognitivist but I'm puzzled by your reaction. Isn't Eliezer's preferences for other-regarding norms sufficient for him to praise them?

I'd also say attributing the proof of non-cognitivism to evolutionary psychology is a bit much. To me, Hume's is-ought is what does it. Evolutionary psychology indicates in general that we will believe kooky things, which might make for a more general solipsistic skepticism rather than mere ethical skepticism.

I just discovered this blog today; looks thought-provoking.

Eliezer,

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

We then seem run into the question "Would a good God allow someone to go to Hell as a result of a supreme act of virtue?"

But that question is missing the point, unless we are trying imagine its manifestation and effect inside the mind of the would-be martyr. All that matters is that the would-be martyr *thinks* he is condemning himself to Hell, just as he thinks there will be beneficial consequences to others of his damnation. These beliefs could be right or wrong, but it would be unfair to judge virtue on the basis of knowledge. (We might judge it on the basis of rationality, but there might well be circumstances under which it is rational to believe in damnation resulting from a virtuous act.)

Satan as martyr is a well-explored theme, though you could say (depending on the story/interpretation) that Satan expects to benefit personally from his defiance of God, even if he knows he's going to be defeated (in the form of getting to rule Hell, retaining his free will and/or simply the warm fuzzy feeling of having done good), and has principally selfish motives, so diminishing the virtue. A more clear-cut fictional example of 'expected damnation arising from a virtuous act' is given in the film 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', but I'm sure it's been done plenty of times before that.

Does anyone know of a real-life analogue of Kenny McCormick in this context? (Not in terms of whether they actually went to Hell, but in terms of what they thought the consequences of their actions would be, and the resulting choices they made.)

A more clear-cut fictional example of 'expected damnation arising from a virtuous act'

See: Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist believes he'll go to Hell for helping a slave escape.

In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

You know, you're right. I suppose it's debatable that both a transhumanist sacrificing indefinitely large positive utilities of continued existence, and a religionist e.g. rescuing ten slaves at what they sincerely anticipate to be the price of eternal damnation, are both facing "indefinitely large" personal utility differentials. But it would certainly take more courage for a Christian to defy God and go to hell!

I don't know of a good real-world case, but it seems probable that at least once in history, someone did something they were sincerely convinced would condemn themselves to hell, to save the soul (not just life) of one or more people they loved more. If so, that says more about the human spirit than even John Perry's sacrifice.

Wow. Didn't think of that at all. Defying God for the sake of what you know deep down is right, has Gandhi beat cold.

Sorry, that's 1000 years before science. Cf. Ibn al Haytham.

Is that vitriol I can smell? Tough to say. However, I definitely enjoyed this:

"There is only one superpower that exists in this universe, and those who seek to master it are called Bayesians."

I would *love* to read a thousand words on this Eliezer, and I say that with no hint of sarcasm or challenge. I understand Bayes, I'd just like to get my head around your "religion".

Regarding your most recent response above, Eliezer, I can assure you (as one who had his Catechism drummed in from an early age) that nothing so theoretically *interesting* could be allowed in Christianity. The virtue displayed by defying God's will to do what you know is, by God's own terms, the *right* thing would be tantamount to a one way ticket to heaven. If you refused to kill your firstborn, you wouldn't be smitten with a thunderbolt, you'd be told you had passed the test, and were truly worthy. This isn't an inconsistency in the nature of God, it's the nature of human-written scripture.

For the most part, the major religions had the obvious moral dilemmas tied up centuries ago. If they were anything but self-contained, they'd either have changed their dogma or been taken to bits by rationality. The only rational weapon we have against them is the fact that they are all almost certainly superstitious hogwash.

Eliezer, I dunno about Christianity, and it wouldn't, in this case, be eternal, but isn't there something about some Buddhists who've tried to get into/be reborn into some hell plane when they die to help those trapped there?

At least I seem to have this memory of reading stuff along those lines.

Also, actually, I know I've heard Jewish stories about various Rabbis supposedly making contracts and shuffling stuff around to give up their share in The-World-To-Come for the sake of another. Perhaps not identical, but the theme does show up here and there.

Hi Psy Kosh,

The souls you refer to in Buddhism are called Bodhisatvas. They are compassionate souls who instead of attaining Nirvana and ceasing their birth and death cycles choose to remain within those cycles to liberate others.

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