Sunday, August 05, 2007

Eliezer Yudkowsky on Religion and Separate Magesteria

Great post. Excerpts:

The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it - quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah's bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah - the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar - ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days - to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah's altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout "The Lord is God!" - peer review.

And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but necessary. You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself. If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah's Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence - and finding disconfirming evidence in its place - did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, "I believe because I believe."

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud and grasshoppers having four legs. (Which is a metaphor for...)

Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.


The Roman Empire inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks; imposed law and order within its provinces; kept bureaucratic records; and enforced religious tolerance. The New Testament, created during the time of the Roman Empire, bears some traces of modernity as a result. You couldn't invent a story about God completely obliterating the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), because the Roman historians would call you on it, and you couldn't just stone them.

In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked. Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Jewish tribes having ever been in Egypt - they weren't expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something. They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination. That's one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.

The Roman Empire did have libraries. Thus, the New Testament doesn't claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did. Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles which nonetheless fit into the same framework of evidence. A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an unclean spirit; an unclean spirit could reasonably be expected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a charlatan; Jesus casts out the unclean spirit; therefore Jesus is a true prophet and not a charlatan. This is perfectly ordinary Bayesian reasoning, if you grant the basic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epileptic fit proves the demon fled).

...

The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie - a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says: "But you can't disprove my innocence by mere evidence - it's a separate magisterium!"

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find it really hard to take Yudkowsky's rants regarding belief seriously when he himself believes in the Singularity.

Mark said...

JA,

Do you have corroboration on the historical claims:

In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked. Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Jewish tribes having ever been in Egypt - they weren't expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something. They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination. That's one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.

I'm going to ask about that claim.

bedlymite said...

to anonymous (:

I agree with yudkowsky except for the timescale. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime - same thing for advanced nano and sens too. Eventually? Maybe.

The difference between 50 yrs and 100 years is insignificant in my opinion. Human timescales are irrelevant to the matter. Can it happen or not?

Anonymous said...

JA, are you a regular Overcoming Bias reader?

Jewish Atheist said...

Anonymous:

I find it really hard to take Yudkowsky's rants regarding belief seriously when he himself believes in the Singularity.

I'm with bedlymite, I think. I doubt it will happen any time soon, but I don't see why it couldn't happen eventually.


Mark:

The Egypt ruling Canaan part was new to me (and I am of course skeptical of it until I get corroborating info) but I don't know anything about that era. I'd be interested to find out the truth.


(Different?) Anon:

JA, are you a regular Overcoming Bias reader?

Lately I am.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mark:
I'm not certain, but I think the author may be referring to the original dating of the Exodus in the fifteenth century BCE. My evangelical profs still defended that date not very long ago, but scholars date the arrival of Hebrews in Canaan a full two centuries later. I don't know this, but I'm supposing that Egypt might have ruled Canaan in the fifteenth century, constituting a conflict with the traditional date.

• JA:
As often, a very interesting post. Your blog is a kind of clearing house for these provocative assertions.

But I disagree with the author's premise. I am of the opinion that ancient readers were more sophisticated than we give them credit for. Modernists (us) have serious difficulty wrapping our heads around the whole category, myth as a literary genre. We try to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis like a modern scientific or historical text, when it was never intended as such.

Part of the evidence for this is that ancient cultures ("primitive" societies)often told stories where one narrative was inconsistent with another. I don't think the people were stupid; they were vaguely aware of the inconsistencies. But they didn't sweat them, because they didn't take the texts literally. Everyone (well, not everyone — popular religion always tends to be gullible) understood that the stories were intended to convey a worldview. They depict certain core beliefs about the cosmic order; but the details are more like metaphor — illistrative material — not cold hard scientific fact.

As for errors like the number of legs of a grasshopper — that should only trouble a fundamentalist, whose faith depends on an inerrant text. And this is the great irony: fundamentalists (like atheists) are thoroughly modernist in their mindset. They don't "get" myth as a genre, either.

Jewish Atheist said...

Everyone (well, not everyone — popular religion always tends to be gullible) understood that the stories were intended to convey a worldview.

Does that apply to a question as basic as whether the Exodus even happened, though? I have no problem believing that the plagues were recognized as metaphorical, but the entire Exodus?

As for errors like the number of legs of a grasshopper — that should only trouble a fundamentalist, whose faith depends on an inerrant text.

I'm usually thinking of and at least in part addressing my Orthodox Jewish readers, since that's where I come from. Orthodox Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses word for word (possibly without the last 8 verses after Moses's death, etc.) To Orthodox Judaism, errors like the number of legs on a grasshopper should therefore be a very big deal.

I find your brand of non-fundamentalist religion very interesting, but I'm not exactly fluent in it as I am with Orthodox Judaism. :-)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I have no problem believing that the plagues were recognized as metaphorical, but the entire Exodus?

That's a reasonable question, and I don't have anything like a definitive answer.

At least some scholars regard the account of Israel's origins as a myth intended to generate social solidarity. Imagine twelve tribes, not all descended from the same ancestor, who enter into a treaty with one another. They form a military alliance. They want to make the point, "We're all brothers now — we don't fight against each other, we fight for each other.". And so they generate a myth of common ancestry and perhaps deliverance from a common foe.

Or perhaps there was a miraculous deliverance which the twelve tribes ascribed to the intervention of a specific deity, YHWH, who then delivered Canaan into their hands as well. YHWH is fundamentally warlike in the Penteteuch.

I'm not convinced we're in a completely non-historical realm in those books. I think there were core stories that were polished as they were handed down over many generations. At most, we have a very idealized account of history.

My own position is pretty much agnosticism: we can't know whether the events are historical or not; we don't have enough data. It isn't until much later, in the time of the divided kingdom, that we have extra-biblical accounts that corroborate certain details of the biblical account.

I think some of the New Testament narratives are the same sort of thing. The story of Jesus' virgin birth is actually peripheral to the New Testament (though central to orthodox Christian theology), and I regard it as a myth of purely theological import.

On the other hand, I think it is well established that Jesus was a healer / exorcist. His reputation as such is what drew crowds to him and persuaded his followers that he might be the Messiah.

But in the end, we're left with uncorroborated narratives that present a particular view of the cosmos and of human society. We can accept the worldview or reject it, making a decision for or against faith.

Other sorts of evidence are relevant considerations, of course. I don't mean to imply that there are no reasonable grounds on which one might make a decision.

If you're interested, I would consider writing a guest post in the next couple of weeks expanding on my earlier comment about myth as a literary genre.

Jewish Atheist said...

At least some scholars regard the account of Israel's origins as a myth intended to generate social solidarity. Imagine twelve tribes, not all descended from the same ancestor, who enter into a treaty with one another. They form a military alliance. They want to make the point, "We're all brothers now — we don't fight against each other, we fight for each other.". And so they generate a myth of common ancestry and perhaps deliverance from a common foe

That's pretty much what I've been assuming.

On the other hand, I think it is well established that Jesus was a healer / exorcist. His reputation as such is what drew crowds to him and persuaded his followers that he might be the Messiah.

Jesus as carnie. Interesting. ;-)

If you're interested, I would consider writing a guest post in the next couple of weeks expanding on my earlier comment about myth as a literary genre.

Absolutely.

Anonymous said...

I'm with bedlymite, I think. I doubt it will happen any time soon, but I don't see why it couldn't happen eventually.

JA, regarding the possible, yet perhaps (at least currently) far-fetched idea of the Singularity, you're willing to give the benefit of the doubt; but the possibility of a creator god, absolutely not?

Jewish Atheist said...

One of these things is possible in a materialist universe. So are intelligent aliens, to take another example. And I'm not "absolutely not" regarding the possibility of a creator God. I simply don't believe in one. If evidence to the contrary arises, I will be happy to reconsider my position.

Shibush Deyos said...

One can't "absolutely" deny the existence of elves either. There is some evidence: some psychic healers claim they had seen them.

David said...

Yudkowsky's certainly wrong on one point: there are, in fact, references in the O.T. to transcendent wonder -- in the Psalms. See, for example, Psalm 104:24-: "How wondrous are your works, O God,/In wisdom You have made them all..."