Link blog: nearest, work, nhs, politics

Imaginary Positions – Less Wrong
One I’d missed: Yudkowsky’s post on rounding to the “nearest cliche”.
(tags: cliche nearest eliezer-yudkowsky rationality)
The world is not falling apart: The trend lines reveal an increasingly peaceful period in history.
Steven Pinker argues we should look at trend lines rather than headlines.
(tags: statistics war politics violence world steven-pinker)
A Pasta Sea: Elijah and the Apologist of Baal
1 Kings 18 re-imagined as if Baal had a William Lane Craig on his side. Fun times. “A Pasta Sea” is a good name for an ex-Christian blog, too.
(tags: bible apologetics ahab baal elijah funny parody)
A&E in crisis: a special report – Telegraph
“As the NHS faces its worst winter in years, Robert Colvile provides an in-depth, first-hand account of the pressures facing the health service.” Interesting: combination of people unable to see a GP quickly enough and hospitals unable to turf old people to social care quickly enough. Targets sometimes provide perverse incentives.
(tags: nhs health healthcare medicine hospital)
Free exchange: Nice work if you can get out | The Economist
Why the rich now have less leisure than the poor. Via WMC on FB.
(tags: leisure work economist)
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Elsewhere: Atheism and objective rights

Back in August, Clark at Popehat did a slightly confusing posting on how some atheists are confused about rights because they speak as if rights exist while also saying that nothing but matter exists. Clark seems to be one of those theists who thinks that gods are be required to exist for objective rights to exist, but he doesn’t really say why he thinks that. (The real trick in all these arguments is specifying quite what you mean by “objective”. I enjoyed John D’s quote from Richard Joyce: “So many debates in philosophy revolve around the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity that one may be forgiven for assuming that someone somewhere understands this distinction.”)

I argued that Clark had got materialism wrong. Someone asked how any atheist can avoid the conclusions of Alex Rosenberg. I slightly facetiously replied “by not being an eliminative materialist”, but I can do better than that, I think. Rosenberg gets a lot of counterargument from people who are avowed naturalists and philosophically respectable. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for an atheist, especially one who isn’t an expert on philosophy, not to share Rosenberg’s conclusions.

Typically, Christian apologists ignore any distinction between varieties of naturalistic worldview (see Luke M’s interview with John Shook) and go with something like “if atheism is true, we’re nothing but matter in motion, chemical fizzes like soda spilled on the ground”. They then make an argument which uses the fallacy of composition to “show” that properties which matter and energy don’t have can’t be real on atheism (by which they mean some kind of materialism). This is all bunk, but pretty popular bunk, at least in the blogosphere, if not in philosophy journals.

Finally, I got into Yudkowsky’s belief in moral absolutes, which is interesting as Yudkowsky’s an atheist. Massimo P had a post about that back in January, where he sort of disagreed with Yudkowsky but then actually seemed to agree with him if you stripped away the layers of words a bit. My most significant comment on that is here. Yudkowsky’s transition from what looks like mathematical Platonism to the claim that morality is absolute deserves a post of its own, which I might get around to at some point. There’s a lesson for atheists, though: atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused. Evolution might be a (partial) answer to “why do I care about X?” but not “why should I care about X?”

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The New Testament | I. G. Mansfield

Friend Iain recently read the New Testament and reviewed it. He made some comments on it, including the observation that the early Church members thought that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. This prompted some comments giving the standard evangelical gloss on these passages (see also), to avoid the conclusion that the Bible contains errors. I wrote a comment:

http://de-conversion.com/2008/11/09/the-psychology-of-apologetics-biblical-inerrancy/ is worth a read to understand what’s going on in the comments here 🙂 Short version: Quine says evidence alone doesn’t compel us to change a particular belief, because we can modify another one instead. Quine was writing in the context of scientific theories: if you don’t measure a difference in the speed of light in two directions, say, maybe there’s no luminiferous aether, but if you really think there must be one, maybe the Earth sort of drags the aether with it, or your instruments were faulty, or something. Paul thought Jesus was coming back within his life time, but if you really want Paul’s writings to be without error, what Paul actually meant is that you should live with a sort of Buddhist detachment to the things of this world.

Quine has clearly got something over the sort of naive falsificationism (i.e. if your theory is disprovedcontradicted by a single experiment, it’s curtains for that theory) which is supposed by some to be how science works. Nobody discards a trusted hypothesis so easily.

Still, something seems to have gone wrong with a theory when it allows anything: if you started from the position that the Bible contains no factual errors (call this innerancy1), you probably would not have predicted what Paul wrote in 1 Thess or 1 Cor 7:29ff, 1 Cor 15:51 (“sleep” = “die” here) etc; yet there they are, and what-evangelicals-call-inerrancy (call this inerrancy2) is somehow compatible with them. I think this means that inerrancy2 doesn’t compress anything: it’s just a list of what happens (the Bible) with a cherry on the top (“this list contains no errors or contradictions”). I’m using Eliezer’s ideas about http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/ here.

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Link blog: eliezer-yudkowsky, razor, ockham, occam

julies blog: My Star Trek Quiet Book

I wasn’t familiar with the term “quiet book” before, but this is excellent.
(tags: startrek craft book)

Ockham chooses a razor

Tee hee.
(tags: ockham occam razor philosophy cartoon funny)

Eliezer Yudkowsky offers odds of 99 to 1 against faster than light information propagation

“I’ll take bets at 99-to-1 odds against any information propagating faster than c… I will not accept more than $20,000 total of such bets.” Yudkowsky taking that xkcd cartoon literally.
(tags: physics eliezer-yudkowsky light ftl neutrino cern)
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Bad arguments about religion: faith and evidence

There’s an atheist bad argument which runs something like this: “Faith is believing stuff without evidence, believing stuff without evidence is always bad, therefore faith is bad”.

This seems reasonable at first, but sooner or later you meet a William Lane Craig or similar apologist type, as Jerry Coyne did recently:

Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith.

According to Coyne, as well as the problem of induction, Craig mentions last-Thursday-ism and the idea that we’re all in the Matrix as beliefs that we reject on faith. Some of commenters on Coyne’s blog react as if Craig is advocating these ideas that we all reject, that is, as if he really thinks that the Sun might not rise tomorrow or that we’re in the clutches of a cartesiandaemon. But that’s not Craig’s point. Nor is Craig being inconsistent if he gets on an aeroplane assuming that the laws of physics will carry on working as they always have to keep it flying. After all, he’s not the one claiming that it’s always wrong to believe things without evidence.

The problem here, which makes the atheist’s argument a bad one, is that the atheist has cast their net too broadly. Craig is right to say that there are things that atheists (and everyone else) believe “on faith”. To say that these beliefs are always unwarranted leaves the atheist open to Craig’s counter-argument that, to be consistent, the atheist should then discard those beliefs or admit that it’s not always wrong to believe things without evidence.

Doing better

Nevertheless, something has gone wrong with Craig’s argument if it’s supposed to be a defence of religious faith (as all Craig’s arguments ultimately are). Religious faith is different from belief in induction or the existence of an external world. The atheist should abandon the claim that unevidenced beliefs are always bad, and concentrate on the distinction between religious beliefs and, say, the belief that the external world is real.

One way of doing that would be to turn Craig’s allegation of inconsistency back on him. As Chris Hallquist puts it

belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence – namely, the beliefs of other religions.

The atheist’s discomfort is now the apologist’s: either he must accept that, say, Muslims or Scientologists are right to take things on faith (in which case, why not join up with them instead?); or further distinguish his religion from theirs (probably by making arguments about the resurrection of Jesus). The atheist’s acceptance of the real world doesn’t come into it.

Hume’s own solution to radical scepticism was to note that he couldn’t entertain that sort of thing for long. Creatures like us soon fall unavoidably back on treating other people as if they were conscious, the world as if it were real, and so on. The great man tells us:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Among educated folk, thoughts of gods rely on meetings with other believers to keep them going: believers are chronic sinus sufferers. They rarely anticipate the world being any different from a godless one, and those who act as if God is real are called crazy even by their fellow believers. To be sure, that doesn’t mean their avowed beliefs are false. But again, they are not like the commonplace beliefs that everyone takes on faith. In my experience, they fly forgotten, as the dream dies with the dawning day. How about a nice game of backgammon?

Edit: gjm11 suggests another reasonable response in this comment: admit that believing stuff without evidence is bad, and try to minimise it, and say that the problem with religious faith (in so far as that means holding unevidenced beliefs) is that it means having way more unevidenced beliefs than necessary.

Edit again: I’ve also commented with a shorter version of this on Coyne’s original posting, so there’s some discussion there too.

See also

Link blog: ai, chatroulette, sex, pornography

YouTube – Simon Blackburn – The Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right From Wrong? (6)

I'm reading Blackburn's "Truth" at the moment, and "Being Good" is next on the queue (clearly I should get "Lust" to complete the set). Here he is arguing that Sam Harris is wrong to claim that science can answer all moral questions.
(tags: sam-harris morality ethics simon-blackburn blackburn harris philosophy)

Chatroulette Founder Andrey Ternovskiy Raises New Funding: “50,000 Naked Men” | Fast Company

Chatroulette makes money of naked guys. Neat hack.
(tags: internet funny pornography chatroulette)

LessWrong – RationalWiki

What's wrong with Less Wrong, from RationalWiki. I didn't know about the Roko stuff, for example, which seems pretty bizarre. Always useful to see criticism to counteract my fanboy tendencies.
(tags: lesswrong eliezer-yudkowsky rationality bayesian bayes artificial-intelligence ai)

Double agent | World news | The Guardian

"Norah Vincent spent 18 months disguised as a man. She relives the boys nights out, the bad dates – and what happened when she ended up in bed with another woman." Women don't quite know what dating is like as a guy, it turns out. Or at least, Norah didn't, and ended up being quite sympathetic when she'd tried it 🙂
(tags: equality gender women men dating sex relationships)
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Link blog: culture, islam, rationality, development

Aretae: Cognitive Antivirus

"Suppose that you are a bear of very little brain, or perhaps an average human on the street, of nearly average proportions, intellect, and character. What is the best thing you can do, belief-wise, in order to make your life better. I am beginning to believe that you should believe in your parents' God, and go to church on Sundays. God and tradition are perhaps the best and strongest way to avoid believing really stupid stuff that could actually mess up your life, or others' lives." Via the Less Wrong threads on undiscriminating scepticism.
(tags: religion epistemology rationality cognitive-bias)

FT.com / Reportage – Immigrant Muslims in Belleville

"Yet there are two main reasons the Belle­ville scenario looks more likely than the Eurabia one. The first is demographic: no serious demographer expects Muslims to become a majority in any western European country. The second is attitudes: only a tiny minority of French Muslims appears to want to establish a medieval caliphate in Europe. In surveys, most French Muslims say that they feel French… Many of them no longer observe Islam. And although here and there Muslims have made France a little more north African or Islamic, the influence seems to be more the other way: Muslim immigrants are being infected by Frenchness."
(tags: islam europe religion anthropology culture immigration demographics eurabia)

Johann Hari: The Pope, the Prophet, and the religious support for evil – Johann Hari, Commentators – The Independent

"What can make tens of millions of people – who are in their daily lives peaceful and compassionate and caring – suddenly want to physically dismember a man for drawing a cartoon, or make excuses for an international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists?" Anyone, Bueller, anyone?
(tags: atheism catholic christianity culture evil fundamentalism islam johann-hari pope religion mohammed cartoons)

Less Wrong: Undiscriminating Skepticism

"Since it can be cheap and easy to attack everything your tribe doesn't believe, you shouldn't trust the rationality of just anyone who slams astrology and creationism; these beliefs aren't just false, they're also non-tribal among educated audiences. Test what happens when a "skeptic" argues for a non-tribal belief, or argues against a tribal belief, before you decide they're good general rationalists."
(tags: culture rationality scepticism eliezer-yudkowsky)

WebSequenceDiagrams.com – Make Sequence Diagrams with one click

Nice tool for drawing message sequence charts: sort of the MSC equivalent of GraphViz.
(tags: design development programming software tools msc message sequence diagram)
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Argument, authority and batshittery

Following on from my link to The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy, londonkds wonders how legitimate it is to say “This person has previously shown themselves to be ignorant/misinformed/lying/batshit on this subject on several occasions, therefore I have better things to do with my time than to rigorously investigate all their arguments this time”. I’ve replied on the original thread, but I thought I’d create a new post with my reply in:

Reminds me of Yudkowsky’s stuff on reversed stupidity and the follow up, Argument Screens Off Authority.

If someone is reliably wrong (a well informed liar), you can learn something by listening to them: you just increase the weight you give to beliefs which contradict what they say on topics where you know they tend to lie. But this might not be useful, if you already strongly believe stuff which contradicts what they say.

In practice, the people are ignorant or batshit haven’t carefully studied how to be wrong. There are more ways to be wrong than right, so they probably are wrong, but you don’t learn anything by listening to them, because their statements aren’t tangled up with the truth at all. As Yudkowsky and brokenhut say, you can decide not to listen to such people because life is too short, but that decision shouldn’t influence your opinion on the truth of their argument (though it’s hard not to be influenced in practice). So I think your quoted statement is a justifiable one as long as you don’t append “and I’ll believe their argument less as a result”.

Suber’s stuff on logical rudeness covers the case where your belief that they’re batshit is because of some theory you hold which includes explanations of how all critics of the theory are batshit (examples exist in evangelical Christianity, atheism and feminism, that I’ve seen). ISTM that such a theory can’t be used to dismiss critical arguments, though it can be used to explain why so many people apparently don’t believe the theory.

(You can comment on the original post: I’ve disabled comments on this one to keep all the discussion in one place).

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Link blog: robin-hanson, anglicanism, roger-zelazny, life

Was our oldest ancestor a proton-powered rock? – life – 19 October 2009 – New Scientist

Of course not, God did it. Still, it's a fascinating theory, and a well written article from New Scientist.
(tags: evolution life science dna research biology ocean bacteria abiogenesis)

Zelazny, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”

Zelazny's classic short story.
(tags: roger-zelazny ecclesiastes SF scifi mars)

The death of death… « The Saint Barnabas’ Blog

The blog entry of the Anglican priest and goodwill diplomat who's been railing against secular funerals and Tina Turner songs at religious ones, who found himself reported on in the Torygraph and Daily Fail. Choice quote: "Whereas the best our secularist friends (and those they dupe) can hope for is a poem from nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection." Well, Christians certainly have the *hope* of resurrection, I suppose. And we can all agree that Tina Turner is a bad thing.
(tags: religion death funeral christianity anglicanism secularism)

Overcoming Bias as it Suits Us

When Eliezer met the feminists: an old thread on mswyrr's LJ which got started when Robin Hanson wondered why the Overcoming Bias community was so male. It's an interesting precursor to the Pickup Artist debates over on Less Wrong.
(tags: feminism cognitive-bias overcoming-bias eliezer-yudkowsky robin-hanson)
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