On Getting Out of the Religion Game

A week or so ago, Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism surprised the atheist blogosphere when he announced he was done with atheism vs theism arguments. He explained:

The reason I’m an atheist isn’t because of the argument from evil or from unbelief or from inconsistent revelations or anything. No, the reason I’m an atheist is because theism drastically fails Solomonoff induction.

If I want to pull somebody away from magical thinking, I don’t need to mention atheism. Instead, I teach them Kolmogorov complexity and Bayesian updating. I show them the many ways our minds trick us. I show them the detailed neuroscience of human decision-making. I show them that we can see (in the brain) a behavior being selected up to 10 seconds before a person is consciously aware of ‘making’ that decision. I explain timelessness.

And if they have time to consume enough math and science, then The God Question just fades away as not even a question worth talking about.

I agree with Luke to a point.  Ultimately, atheism and deconversion should be a side-effect, not the goal.  Anything else is like focusing solely on trying to get people to stop buying lottery tickets, instead of trying to give a practical introduction to probability (about which, particularly as it relates to rhetorical tone, more later).  And I’m certainly excited for Luke’s likely next steps, but I don’t think his approach is a particularly good model for most atheists interested in talking to theists.

For one thing, although I’ve been reading his blog and keeping up with the read-through-all-of-Yudkowsky project, I haven’t the foggiest idea what Luke meant by “theism drastically fails Solomonoff induction.  And by the looks of the comment thread attached to the post, neither did most of his readers.  When you’re immersed in rationality readings, it’s hard to speak in layperson-accessible ways.

Yudkowsky’s “Intuitive Explanation of Bayesian Reasoning” is quite readable (and well worth reading) but, although he meant for it to be accessible to anyone with a grade school background, he admits it landed at the undergrad level.  That’s not to say these discussions are too highfalutin’ to be accessible or relevant, but it does mean that, if we want religious people to put the time and effort in with these texts, we atheists/rationalists/statistics geeks need to come up with a darn good elevator pitch to get them to follow us into the weeds.

That’s where I’ve always had a bit of a problem with some of Luke’s metaphysical writings.  Despite reading the transcripts of all his desirism podcasts and accompanying posts, I still don’t really understand how desirism works, but, more importantly, I don’t know what I would need to give up and what I would gain if I were convinced these metaphysics were correct.  So when I read the umpteenth post on the simplified world  he used to explain his theory, the stakes were nonexistent.

Making the debate entirely about atheism vs theism can have the opposite problem, where both groups treat the stakes as so high that it would be treasonous to give ground or admit confusion, but at least both sides agree it’s an important fight.  When atheists retreat into a fog of grad-level metaphysics or high energy theoretical ethics, there’s no reason to assume theists are going to be hooked.  No one has time to spend running every new theory to ground.

It’s essential to spend some time on accessible arguments, even if they aren’t your strongest arguments.  That’s not to say Luke needs to be the one working on them, but he, and everyone else in his next project, need to make sure they keep some on-ramps accessible and alluring.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10812718496568711240 Garren

    Agreed, Luke's approach is similar to apologists who claim information theory points us to intelligent design. It takes a bunch of work to learn what information theory is about to even try to evaluate this claim.Someone could argue that scientific claims can require a lot of study, but the difference is that experts with this background knowledge largely agree. When used in support of a religious conclusion, we should immediately suspect there are critical flaws in such claims. When has learning about Sol. Induction or information theory in another context caused changes in religious positions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Perhaps the most sensical "bottom level" approach I've seen thus far was THIS comment from THIS LW post:,—| You need reasons to include the supernatural. | Do you have any?`—Or see Luke's comment in the same post HERE, which is further explained by the comment directly below by XiXiDu quite nicely, and has the benefit of including some discussion of the infamous Kolmogorov Complexity being referenced here.As someone who has deconverted, I find myself feeling in the position to disprove. The bottom line is that theism became far more predominant first… but that doesn't mean it should be the de facto starting position. I realize that this isn't what's being said here, but I at least wanted to illustrate how the quoted comment above struck me: "Oh, right. I need reasons for theism, not just reasons against it."Lastly, I realize that there's still others to convince, and thus my statement means little in the way of [a]theism evangelization. If it offers anything, take it; discard the rest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07986833157160434927 David Wagner

    I wouldn't want to argue that Thomistic metaphysics are simple, or that they should be. Nonetheless. When the supposed buidling blocks of rationality are based on propositions that "land at the undergraduate level" when aimed at a grade-school level, one may suspect that what is going on is not (merely) rationality but a type of gnosticism, where enlightenment – sorry, I mean true rationality – is available only to those wno, as Leah puts it, can spend time running every new theory to ground; and then, only to the elite-within-the-elite that gets it right.I had already developed this "gnostic" suspicion when I clicked on the Yudkowsky link and found – behold! – "Soon you will be one of us." "The Bayesian Conspiracy." Jokes, of course: but jokes sometimes tell stories.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ Benjamin Baxter

    We are capable of reason. If not, why bother?