7 Quick Takes (7/27/12)

— 1 —

Some long time ago, at some point after I’d discovered Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I found LessWrong.  I liked the articles I stumbled on and occasionally went on link safari the way I do on TV Tropes, but I didn’t start reading the Sequences in any organized way until Luke Muehlhauser (then of Common Sense Atheism, now of the Singularity Institute) started blogging through all of Yudkowsky’s posts in chronological order. I flagged some of the posts as particularly interesting as I went through, but I haven’t done much with that document, so today you get a sampling of things on LessWrong that caught my eye.

And in case this post and all the other ones this week on my time at the LessWrong retreat aren’t whetting your appetite to read through the Sequences yourself, I’ll have a very “now for something completely different” post later today.

— 2 —

As a solution to the “but won’t debating Group X legitimize them?” problem, the following suggestion: Let them Debate College Students!

It’s this notion of shutting down debate that I fear as dangerous; and it seems to me that you can get just the same strategic conservation of prestige, by endorsing the principle of debate, but sending out some bright college students to present the standard position. If the “controversy” as shown on CNN consists of some ID-er with a sober-looking business suit and an impressive-sounding title, versus a TA in jeans to represent the scientific community – but with accurate science, mind! – then I think this would viscerally answer what the scientific community thinks of creationism, and not create the false impression of an ongoing debate, while still giving airtime to the standard scientific replies. If CNN isn’t interested in showing that “controversy” – well then, that tells us what CNN really wanted, doesn’t it.

I like the style of this solution, but I just don’t expect that most public debates are decided on the merits.

— 3 —

Bach when I was debating college students on a weekly basis, I probably should have shared “The Correct Contrarian Cluster” with more people.  It’s a way you might be able to recognize that you’re rebelling against the conventional wisdom in error.  Do the people who share your belief tend to be well calibrated on other things that are little understood that you can use as a gold standard.

The more of your unusual beliefs are false, the harder it will be to notice, but if you’ve only got a few incorrect gonzo ideas, this approach may help you notice them.

— 4 —

You all must know by now that I’m a sucker for argument by wacky, detailed hypothetical, so you won’t be surprised I liked the New Improved Lotterypost a lot.  If rational actors play the lottery to purchase a bit of fantasizing, there’s a way to amp it up:

Anyway: If we pretend that the lottery sells epsilon hope, this suggests a design for a New Improved Lottery. The New Improved Lottery pays out every five years on average, at a random time—determined, say, by the decay of a not-very-radioactive element. You buy in once, for a single dollar, and get not just a few days of epsilon chance of becoming rich, but a few years of epsilon. Not only that, your wealth could strike at any time! At any minute, the phone could ring to inform you that you, yes, you are a millionaire! …Maybe the New Improved Lottery could even show a constantly fluctuating probability distribution over the likelihood of a win occurring, and the likelihood of particular numbers being selected, with the overall expectation working out to the aforesaid Poisson distribution. Think of how much fun that would be! Oh, goodness, right this minute the chance of a win occurring is nearly ten times higher than usual! And look, the number 42 that I selected for the Mega Ball has nearly twice the usual chance of winning! You could feed it to a display on people’s cellphones, so they could just flip open the cellphone and see their chances of winning. Think of how exciting that would be! Much more exciting than trying to balance your checkbook! Much more exciting than doing your homework! This new dream would be so much tastier that it would compete with, not only hopes of going to technical school, but even hopes of getting home from work early. People could just stay glued to the screen all day long, why, they wouldn’t need to dream about anything else!

— 5 —

One post that’s a particularly useful check on an unfortunate tendency of mine is Guessing the Teacher’s Password.

In the school system, it’s all about verbal behavior, whether written on paper or spoken aloud.  Verbal behavior gets you a gold star or a failing grade.  Part of unlearning this bad habit is becoming consciously aware of the difference between an explanation and a password.

It can be a lot easier to model a person than a problem.  I can think about how a person talks and try to match their language and tone. I get rewarded without actually having done any heavy lifting on the problem.  I spent less time doing this in school, but a lot of time training this to sound less weird in social contexts, so I have this problem less in academic settings, but I think I’m in danger of defaulting to this cognitively lazy strategy in more informal situations.

— 6 —

I’ll confess, although I did read the Quantum Physics sequence, I didn’t get much out of it.  But you shouldn’t be frightened off because if you go to that page and scroll down, you’ll hit the “Rationality and Science” subsequence which does not require you to have understood the physics that precedes it and is one of my favorite subsequences since it’s looking at how science works and when we get worried about this mechanism.  From “When Science Can’t Help”:

Evolutionary psychology is another example of a case where rationality has to take over from science. While theories of evolutionary psychology form a connected whole, only some of those theories are readily testable experimentally. But you still need the other parts of the theory, because they form a connected web that helps you to form the hypotheses that are actually testable—and then the helper hypotheses are supported in a Bayesian sense, but not supported experimentally. Science would render a verdict of “not proven” on individual parts of a connected theoretical mesh that is experimentally productive as a whole. We’d need a new kind of verdict for that, something like “indirectly supported”.

Or what about cryonics?

Cryonics is an archetypal example of an extremely important issue (150,000 people die per day) that will have huge consequences in the foreseeable future, but doesn’t offer definite unmistakable experimental evidence that we can get right now.

So do you say, “I don’t believe in cryonics because it hasn’t been experimentally proven, and you shouldn’t believe in things that haven’t been experimentally proven?”

— 7 —

Finally, after I announced I was converting, a friend of mine turned to LessWrong to crowdsource a way to pull me back from the brink.  This was definitely the most interesting comment section I read on the topic.  I’m linking to the discussion on the condition that my readers do not comment on this thread unless you’ve commented on LessWrong before.

This has been a problem linking to some atheist comments on my conversion before. If you want to start an argument, do it in my comment thread here.  If you think you need to comment to “come to my defense,” take me literally when I say I don’t want you to.  In the first place, aggressive questioning is not attack.  I don’t need to be defended from interesting, difficult questions.

In the second place, LessWrong manages to have more streamlined arguments because people have a useful, precise vernacular.  If you’re not fluent in it (i.e. if you haven’t read the Sequences) you may be misinterpreting people and you’ll have trouble making your point clearly.  You wouldn’t try and pick an emotionally intense fight in French if your vocab was as bad as mine, so forbear and study the way people talk over there if you want to participate in the future.

Don’t be the reason we can’t have nice things!  Here’s the link: Thwarting a Catholic Conversion.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

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  • Nick

    This is interesting. A bit of an off topic question regarding LessWrong: do you think we need to read all of the Sequences in order? Because I’ve been reading them a bit sporadically. Eliezer is a good writer and it’s easy to sit there and read his stuff forever sometimes (hence why I got through HPMoR in like a week), but many times I get distracted by some tangentially related article he’s written and don’t continue with the sequences as I planned to from the beginning.

    • leahlibresco

      I TvTropes’d my way through them some of the time. If you’re getting something out of them that way, don’t make the great the enemy of the good, but you might consider setting aside an hour every now and then to read in a more systematic way. That way you can make sure you’re seeing and thinking about the bits you disagree with or that don’t feel immediately applicable.

  • dogger807

    Curse you and your link to that Harry Potter story. Tommorrow is a work day…..errr that is later today is a work day.

    • leahlibresco

      Mission accomplished.

  • If the “controversy” as shown on CNN consists of some ID-er with a sober-looking business suit and an impressive-sounding title, versus a TA in jeans to represent the scientific community – but with accurate science, mind! – then I think this would viscerally answer what the scientific community thinks of creationism, and not create the false impression of an ongoing debate, while still giving airtime to the standard scientific replies.

    ID isn’t creationism.

    And is the goal of the suggestion to make it clear that the dissenting view in question shouldn’t be taken seriously to begin with? Because if so, that’s just stifling dissent by another means.

    Really, I don’t think the problems with shutting down debate are sidestepped with the masterstroke of “What if we allow debate, but we make sure to orchestrate things so one side is sapped of respect and credibility from the get-go?”

    • leahlibresco

      How do you feel about this strategy as applied to a view you respect less that keeps agitating for a forum. Say, holocaust denial or the physical superiority of whites over blacks. What alternate strategy would you prefer?

      • Leah,

        How do you feel about this strategy as applied to a view you respect less that keeps agitating for a forum.

        Hold on. Whatever respect I have for ID is complicated and heavily qualified. I don’t think ID is science, and I think a number of the views and positions of various ID proponents are wrong. The one thing I said is that ID isn’t creationism, and I stand by that. At least, if it’s creationism, it is so in the way that Nick Bostrom offered a popular creationist argument.

        By the way, the “impressive sounding title” some ID proponents have would be “biologist” or “geneticist” or “chemist”. Why do I get the impression that some people think being a scientist is logically incompatible with being an ID proponent or even being, yes, a creationist? Have we hit the point where we can’t even recognize an individual scientist as holding what we think is an incorrect view, and we have to deny they’re even a scientist at that point?

        Say, holocaust denial or the physical superiority of whites over blacks. What alternate strategy would you prefer?

        Before I answer this, let’s take a step back and really size up what’s being said, or at least strongly implied, here.

        First, you ask what I think the strategy should be when it comes to dealing with views I don’t respect and whose members want to be heard. Are you really saying that whether or not I, or most people, like or respect the arguments some person or group is presenting plays a major role in determining whether they should be allowed a forum? Because if so, let’s be blunt about that.

        Let’s also be honest about what idea we’re playing with: trying to deny some views a forum. We’re shutting down debate. Maybe it’s because we think it’s best, maybe it’s because we’re so sure we’re correct, maybe it’s because we think that certain ideas are too dangerous or distasteful to allow a chance to gain a foothold. But we’re still shutting down debate. And we’re not doing so by entering into debate and showing where our opponents have gone wrong: we’re looking for ways to shut them down while regarding their views as not even worthy of consideration.

        Maybe this can be justified. I remember Anscombe supposedly thought that certain ideas should not be debated precisely because of those reasons. (What she thought didn’t deserve debate would probably be a laundry list of things Less Wrong regulars think not only deserve debate, but are the proper positions to hold.) But at least Anscombe was pretty explicit in what she was advocating and why she was advocating it.

        This goes right back to the problem I had with the quoted section, where some lip service is paid to the dangers of “shutting down debate”, immediately followed by an idea crafted to… shut down debate. Except in a more roundabout, nicer way. It’s like talking to a self-described vegetarian, who’s mentioned that he considers chicken to be a kind of vegetable.

        Say, holocaust denial or the physical superiority of whites over blacks. What alternate strategy would you prefer?

        I’m not sure I have one. But I do know that if the answer is “shut down debate”, I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t exactly what I did. Or do I have to? Is being honest about the shutdown now also a liability that must be masked?

        Wasn’t one (not the only one, but one) of the merits of open debate the fact that good and true/truer ideas would emerge, while bad and wrong(er) ideas would be discarded? Has this been given up in exchange for a recognition that no, this doesn’t work? Or does it only not work for the Wrong Kind of People?

        Because I admit, instinctively, my response is “give these guys a fair forum – show where their arguments are wrong, do your best to make sure people understand how and why they’re wrong”. If this doesn’t work, I’d like to know why.

        But most of all, if we’re going to start advocating that dissent be squelched, I’d like for it to be done openly. Is this a bad idea?

    • Ted Seeber

      ID isn’t creationism, but it’s closer to creationism than TE is, and more willing to deny scientific evidence.

      • ID isn’t creationism, but it’s closer to creationism than TE is, and more willing to deny scientific evidence.

        First, how is it closer to creationism? Because ID proponents are skeptical of the claims of some scientific theories? The bar can’t possibly be that low.

        Second, let’s not personify ID. What would reasonably be called the core ID concepts is pretty tame and meager stuff – the idea that we can infer the involvement of intelligence in nature, given certain signs and assumptions. They are explicit that this inference is extremely broad in scope (as in, they realize their inference gets them to ‘an intelligent agent’, not ‘God’, certainly not ‘The God of the Bible’.)

        For the record, right now, Dawkins and EO Wilson are currently in a public dust-up over evolutionary theory. Is that a case of one or the other denying scientific evidence? Or is it that they have a dispute on how to interpret evidence?

        • I said not to personify, and yet I did it myself.

          Scientific theories make no claims. People interpreting data and theories, do.

          • Ted Seeber

            It took your explanation for me to see what your problem was.

            To me, a theory *IS* a testable claim. Whether it is true or false is whether or not it passes the test.

  • deiseach

    The cryonics quote fascinates me, because frankly, of all the problems occupying my attention, I would have put “the urgency to develop functional suspended animation” waaaay down the list.

    Let us imagine that three hundred years’ ago functional cryonics had come into being, and today (2012) we have the technology, we can defrost and cure these people and integrate them into society. Would we do it? It may sound great to imagine Shakespeare and Newton and other luminaries walking amongst us today, but being practical, it will be those who can afford it (which means rich people) or, if it becomes available to the masses, then potentially millions of ordinary people waiting to be thawed.

    Given that we’re currently in the middle of an economic downturn, and we can’t even provide enough jobs for the living of today, are we going to thaw out a few million extra bodies that will have to be re-educated and brought up to speed on modern life? How many obsolete trades do we have openings for?

    I imagine that future generations will be the same, and the only people making money will be the freezer farms keeping Grandpa on ice as long as the family can, or is willing to pay, the service charges. The real possibility of Grandpa being thawed out – very slim.

    Regarding the “Thwarting a Catholic Conversion” post, I am sitting here with a healthy glow of self-esteem, having been affirmed in my absolute evilness 🙂

    I appreciate the concern of your friend for your emotional and personal well-being, but the absolute horror of very many of the comments about how bad, wicked, evil and just plain not nice the Catholic Church is makes me smile. Yes! We’re still No. 1 for Worst Thing In The World!

    • evetushnet

      You might enjoy my tangentially-related short story about medical quasi-immortality (there’s probably a better term for this but I am uncaffeinated), marriage, and other obsessions of mine.

      • leahlibresco

        This link isn’t working for me.

        • evetushnet

          Oh, man, they may have taken it offline. I’ll poke around and see if I can find it….

    • leahlibresco

      I think if you manage to make yourself God of the Geeks, they’re more likely to thaw you.

      Oh, no. I just realized HPMOR may be a Scheherazade stratagem.

    • a

      You do know why Catholism is disliked, right? It’s because lots of young children have been raped by priests and the hierarchy of the church was heavily involved in covering it up. Really not something to be proud of.
      I don’t know how anyone could stay Catholic after that. Why didn’t god smite the priests or turn the hosts they’d blessed to ash? Why would he allow a bunch of child abusers in ‘his’ church?

      • It’s because lots of young children have been raped by priests and the hierarchy of the church was heavily involved in covering it up.

        Not really, regarding the hierarchy. Some of the hierarchy was. When there are coverups and very, very similar things going on in public school, no one talks about how “the United States public school system covered it up”. Instead they say “the officials at (this district) covered it up.”

        And let’s be dead freaking honest here: a lot of people despise the Church for reasons that have nothing to do with anything related to molestation. They despise the teachings on gay marriage, homosexual acts, abortion, and other issues. To give a good example, there’s a guy named Peter Singer who defends flat out infanticide. Many of the same people who rage at the church love that guy.

        Protecting the children, indeed.

        I don’t know how anyone could stay Catholic after that.

        Easily – by knowing exactly what to expect of the Church, even given the truth of the Catholic faith.

        Why didn’t god smite the priests or turn the hosts they’d blessed to ash?

        Because He’s God, not Clive Barker’s special effects guy.

        You realize that full-blown schismatic priests still are considered to give valid sacraments, rather than illicit, right? The point should be crystal clear – from the Church’s teaching, you could be a full-blown serial killer as a priest. If you were validly ordained, you can administer the sacraments. It’s not something the Church can turn on or off like a faucet. Priests and bishops and even popes are not immune from sin.

        • a

          So it’s okay to have a serial killer as a priest, but not a woman?
          What a shitty religion.
          And the American school system doesn’t pretend to have any moral authority. The church does. To claim to be the greatest moral authority on earth and then shelter child abusers is rank hypocrisy.
          The actual Pope knew about the child abusers and sheltered them. Since he’s the head of the orginisation, it’s fair to say ‘the catholic church covered up child abuse’.
          God was quite happy to smite people in the old testament. He still ‘works in mysterious ways’ to make statues bleed or Jesus’s face appear on pieces of toast, but he can’t spare a minute to blast a child-abusing priest or even have a quiet word with the Pope and say ‘maybe you should stop these guys from fucking children’?
          Some god.

          • So it’s okay to have a serial killer as a priest, but not a woman?
            What a shitty religion.

            No, it’s not “okay”. I stated a fact about their validity of the sacraments they administer, even in cases of full on schism. But they can be suspended, and their sacraments not licit.

            And the American school system doesn’t pretend to have any moral authority. The church does.

            First, you clearly haven’t seen how many teachers describe themselves or their role. They do believe they have moral authority – many people do.

            Second, the church doesn’t claim “Our members don’t sin. Our sinlessness is where our moral authority comes from.” You only have to read the New Testament to see apostles sinning, and I’m not just talking about Judas.

            You have a pretty meager understanding of this topic if you believe the Church’s moral authority is claimed to derive from personal saintliness.

            The actual Pope knew about the child abusers and sheltered them. Since he’s the head of the orginisation, it’s fair to say ‘the catholic church covered up child abuse’.

            Even your own biased, blog-entry-level “news source” doesn’t back you up on this. Let’s ignore for a moment that the charge is laughable – the charge is also against Ratzinger *decades* before he became Pope. By your logic, the Government of the United States condones cocaine use, because Obama used cocaine in the past, and now he’s president.

            God was quite happy to smite people in the old testament.

            In the Old Testament, sinners were in absolute abundance, and “smiting” was extremely rare. Have you actually read the thing at all? I don’t mean “watched a cartoon once a few years ago, when you were 10”.

            Some god.

            I’m sure His existence irritates you greatly. Deal with it. 😉

          • Ted Seeber

            “And the American school system doesn’t pretend to have any moral authority. ”

            If the American School System doesn’t pretend to have any moral authority, then why does the Freedom From Religion Foundation sue public schools that allow the ten commandments on their wall, while covering up for the child molesting teachers and the school boards that let them molest children?

      • Ted Seeber

        It was disliked long before the priests, and raping children has been officially against Canon Law since the 500s or so, so I’d say that the raping priests is a reason to *encourage more orthodox clergy* as opposed to *run away from the church*.

        And gasp, that’s exactly what the Vatican’s response has officially been- to do background checks, to start reporting canon law crimes to civil authorities, and gasp, to start eliminating homosexual pedophiles from seminary.

    • Dianne

      How many obsolete trades do we have openings for?

      Ha. When the Y10K bug hits you’re going to be glad to have all those frozen cobol programmers lying about.

    • Dianne

      I also notice that you’re not objecting to cryogenics on the grounds that it would be rude to force dead people back into life, thus depriving them of Heaven. In fact, there’s no mention of the theological implications of having people raised from the dead at all in your comment. Are you sure you’re a believer?

      • Skittle

        Why would you assume it was Heaven they were deprived of?

        • Dianne

          Well, fine, then. Fair enough point. But then why no concern that the devil will get pissed about losing souls meant for hell? No worry that justice won’t be done?

          • Skittle

            Why would Catholics think depriving the devil of souls for Hell was a bad thing? Justice will always be done, and mercy will always be shown: that’s in the nature of God. We can hope that a longer life gives people more of a chance to turn to God, as I don’t imagine that the most sanctified of people are going to be that interested in cryogenics for themselves.

            Cryogenics is the least disturbing of the proposals raised for not dying. I do find it disturbing when people, with no belief in a soul or anything similar, and terrified of death, propose that copying your mind onto a computer or effectively cloning yourself would make you immortal. Why would the existence of someone else who thinks the same thoughts as you make death any less terrifying? You’d still die. It seems to subconsciously assume a sort of ‘sticky’ soul. Cryogenics, if it froze you before death and didn’t actually kill you, would seem the only decent solution until proper life-prolonging advances in medicine, but I still don’t see why anyone in the future would want to defrost you and treat you.

            But anyway, yours was a very strange question.

          • Dianne

            Justice will always be done, and mercy will always be shown: that’s in the nature of God.

            Then why does God bother allowing a hell to exist at all? For that matter, is sentencing someone to a hell where punishment is eternal ever an act of justice? What sin can be that bad? Especially in the context of a universe with an afterlife where killing someone simply means sending them to a different plane, not snuffing out their existence.

            Cryogenics is the least disturbing of the proposals raised for not dying.

            Nonsense. Appendectomy and antibiotics are much less disturbing ways of not dying. Cloning only gives you an X years younger than you identical twin and not a true copy of yourself, much less a continuation of yourself.

            Actually, cryogenics doesn’t look all that promising either. Freezing a cell without killing it is tricky. You kind of have to have instant freezing to -70 in DMSO everywhere at once for it to work. This is easy enough with cell culture where the cells are individually suspended, but would be hard for a whole organism. Plus, quite a lot of cells die in the process anyway. This is fine if we’re talking about cell culture, but with a brain where you want every cell or nearly every cell to function again…not so much.

            But theoretically, assuming better technology makes it work somehow, would you go for it or die a “natural” death?

          • Skittle

            For the first, a full answer would be very long and I don’t think you’re really that interested. A full account of what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Hell and the afterlife in general can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: summaries of various Catholic approaches to where the Catechism is silent can be found on many websites. The old Catholic Encyclopedia is an alright jumping-off point, as (like the Catechism) it tends to indicate places in the literature where you can read much more detail.

            To your second and third paragraphs, I see you agree with me. Excellent.

            To your last, I don’t know. Assuming I had an imminently terninal disease, it would definitely work without any cell death, and someone would definitely defrost me when a cure was found, I’d probably be tempted (although I’d set a time limit of a few years beyond which I should be defrosted even if there were no cure). Based on what I know of how my priorities and thinking have changed as I make use of the Sacraments and prayer, I suspect that a more sanctified version of myself wouldn’t really find it a tempting prospect. I don’t think I’d find the prospect of being frozen in the hopes that when I was defrosted I could be made immortal on Earth tempting, even as I am now.

  • Alex Godofsky

    Is #4 supposed to be a snarky reference to the stock market? 😉

    • deiseach

      It may be a snarky reference to earnest chin-stroking dissections of why poor people play the lottery/buy tickets when surely they know they haven’t a snowball in hell’s chance, and that it’s a tax on the poor – they will spend more as a proportion of their income and more frequently on a system that will not pay out.

      Why, oh why, do poor people gamble? It’s a mystery – maybe they’re too stupid to know how bad it is, so let us inform them!

      Well, why does anyone gamble – and as you say, the stock market is, in essence, nothing more than a giant betting pool, yet you can get expensive degrees from quality universities to train you in how to gamble on that system, while at the same time the sociology departments of those same universities are writing reports and recommendations on how to stop poor people gambling.

      • Alex Godofsky

        Please don’t interpret my comment as supporting the notion that the stock market is “gambling”. The stock market is a mechanism for deferring consumption directly through intertemporal exchange and indirectly through the purchase of capital goods. Professional trading on the stock market is generally not risk-seeking behavior* but instead rationally expects to earn compensation for services rendered (prediction).

        I was just observing that #4 sounds an awful lot like the people who do assert that the stock market is just high-status gambling.

        *this really shouldn’t be a surprise, but stock traders tend to display abnormal risk-neutrality in financial decisions (most people are risk-averse). This is part of the origin of the meme that they are disproportionately sociopaths; in the study that concluded that, risk-neutrality was interpreted as a sociopathic trait.

        • Mike

          #4 was a straightforward argument against lotteries, or rather, against certain “clever” defenses of lotteries.

        • deiseach

          And if I had a hundred euro to spare, I’d stick it on an each-way bet on the favourite at the Curragh before I’d buy shares. because I’d have a better chance of a return 🙂

          Once upon a time, people made money by investing in shares by dividend payments. Now you make money by selling the shares. I think the change from ‘ production of goods/services = profit = incentive to invest’ to ‘bumping up share price = profit = incentive to invest’ is indicative of something, but I have no idea what.

          • Oregon Catholic

            What = Greed plus smoke and mirrors.
            A person might have been able to invest intelligently at one time (sort of like learning to study racing forms) but ‘creative’ accounting, ‘creative’ investments, sleepy ratings agencies, and out and out fraud and a good old boys SEC and congress have ended all that. Anyone who thinks they can actually make smart investments in anything but the most traditional of stocks has just been lucky – so far.

      • Ted Seeber

        UNLV offers a course on game theory that includes field trips down the street to the casinos.

  • I guess my mental age never progressed much beyond four, because I knew about that Less Wrong thread and never had any desire to comment on it … until now. But of course I’ll be a good boy and restrain myself.

    • I had the exact same impulse! Damn psychology of suggestion. Don’t think about commenting! No, bad!

      In other news I would really like to organize some of my Dominican friends to get in a rationalist smack-down with the LessWrong folk. They’re in the same metro area. They both might like a “fight.” They would fight with different techniques (Disputation vs. Bayesianism! Crane vs. Dragon!*) and it might be very interesting. 🙂

      * I don’t actually know enough about styles of kung fu to properly analogize them with methods of rationalist argumentation. If anyone else does, say it.

  • I thought Less Wrong was supposed to be rationalist but not explicitly atheist. It seems that thwarting a Catholic conversion is not consistent with that. I would expect them to want you to be a rational Catholic. They might ask you about Catholic things they see as irrational. But thwarting a conversion? Just admit you are an Atheists Only club.

    • Less Wrongians are generally atheistic, though it’s kind of a consequence of wanting to be more rational, not a “you must have these beliefs to join this site” thing, I’d hope. They’ll certainly downvote thoughtless evangelism based on assertion. As Leah says, they also won’t like people saying silly things like “there’s no basis for morality without God” if you don’t show signs of having read the local attempts to construct a godless morality.

      That said, there was some debate about theism and Less Wrong-style rationality in The Uniquely Awful Example of Theism, in which my friend and fellow deconvert Gareth McCaughan argued that perhaps using theism as the go-to example of irrationality isn’t such a good idea because it might drive away theists.

      There was a contribution from ciphergoth which got turned into a top level post, How Theism Works, arguing that theism is in fact uniquely awful. Enjoy 🙂

      • Jay

        I posted my response before I saw yours, so I apologize for the substantial redundancy. Clearly we had the same basic response here.

      • The “How Theism Works” post simply shows he does not understand how theism works. It reminds me of exactly zero theists I know. Theism is an acceptance of some revelation of God. One typically bases that acceptance at least partly on evidence. There may be some personal connection with God the person has felt. Still that feeling is evidence of a sort. Even the assertion of a preacher is evidence. It makes it more likely to be true than if no preacher had said it.

        So I wonder what evidence he has for his assertions about theists. He talks about “the freedom that religion has to make up whatever will make people most likely to spread the word.” Does he really believe that? Catholicism is 2000 years of making stuff up?

        • As Less Wrongistswould tell you, evidence is that which you’ll be more likely to see if the hypothesis is true than if it isn’t. If religious feelings and preaching are supposed to be good evidence, I’d have to accept that there would, most likely, not be religious feelings or preaching if the religion which claimed them was untrue. But this isn’t what we find: after all, various religions make contradictory claims yet all have people who feel they are true, and preachers who preach them.

          I’ve no idea what ciphergoth thinks of Catholicism specifically, but as he’s an atheist, he’s going to say that it’s made up, right? Which is not to say that people haven’t spent a long time fleshing it out, but then people spend a lot of time thinking about world-building in fiction. Personally I think of it as Bible/Aristotle crossover fanfiction.

          • OK. People come to false conclusions. But that does not prove they didn’t use ANY evidence. Sure their analysis of the evidence may have been suspect. Many people convert when they are at an emotional low point. Then again many people become atheists at those kinds of points as well. The point is evidence is analyzed somehow. It is just not true that people just decide something is true with no evidence.

            Contradictory claims don’t prove all claims are false. They make it harder to find the truth for sure. But harder does not mean impossible. they are not completely contradictory. There is a lot of overlap. You could do one of your graphs. To me it fits with the hypothesis that of many imperfect attempts to approximate one truth rather than many people just making stuff up.

          • I’m not talking about conclusions here so much as about what counts as evidence. Play the Monday Tuesday game Leah invented: on Monday, God sometimes gives people feelings and inspires preachers, and on Tuesday, God does not (for whatever reason: I’m not differentiating deism from atheism here). What’s different about the world on Tuesday? I suspect that on Tuesday people will still have religious feelings they attribute to God, and preachers will still feel inspired.

      • Ted Seeber

        The problem with that to me- and why I don’t post at Less Wrong- is that atheism isn’t rational.

        • As a theist, I agree with your conclusion regarding the existence of the purely actualized God, but I’m not sure I agree with your reasoning that atheism is irrational. Can you explain why you think this?

          • Ted Seeber

            Comes down to the definition of evidence. I find the standard atheist reductionist definition of evidence to be highly subjective and arbitrary- to the point that if some scientific fact *might* be evidence of a God, they will completely throw out ALL data surrounding that evidence. Normally done with mere anecdotal data, but let’s face facts- what is data collected in a laboratory experiment if not an anecdote?

    • Jay

      Less Wrong isn’t explicitly atheist, but the vast majority (~95%) of its members are, and most tend to see non-theism as trivially obvious, with theism probably roughly on par with astrology or homeopathy or something. So it’s incidentally atheist, and theism/non-theism is often used as a baseline example for bridging into other areas. See, e.g., http://lesswrong.com/lw/it/semantic_stopsigns/. Moreover, most of its members think pretty strongly that having accurate beliefs about the universe is, well, important, especially on something as a major as whether God exists and wants you to live a certain way.

      Now, there are plenty of LW members who agree that non-theism is correct but who think we probably shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it. Better, perhaps, to have people who are generally more rational than most so they can at least do important work in some relevant field (the canonical example here is that Bayesian mathematician Robert Aumann is an Orthodox Jew). There’s also some risk that we’ll turn people off from rationality if they come in vaguely theist, or maybe the sense that if people don’t grok the obviousness of non-theism for themselves, they won’t be argued into that position. And if you read through people’s responses to that post (which, I might add, was only a post in the discussion forum, not the main page), you’ll see plenty of reactions to that effect — not that big a deal, most people partition, just make sure she’s happy, etc.

      • I guess if they all see atheism as trivially obvious then they must not have give it much thought. The “semantic stop sign” post shows a lack of thought. What created God? Please. Learn the first cause argument before you post on it and don’t clutter the world with crap. Take a look here


        • Jay

          I don’t want to get into a substantive discussion of the first cause argument, but I think it’s unfair to say that finding some conclusion trivially obvious shows a lack of thought. For most LW members, non-theism is just an incident of reductionism, Occam’s Razor, and Bayesian probability — subjects to which we have given quite a bit of serious thought. And there are pretty obvious (and seriously considered) cognitive explanations for why theism yet persists in the minds of so many people. The whole bit about the “classical arguments” for the existence of God is kind of beside the point; atheism is just an incidental conclusion, like ahomeopathy or acreationism. See http://lesswrong.com/lw/11m/atheism_untheism_antitheism/.

          Of course, I’m not expecting my assertion here that non-theism is obvious to be persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree. My point is just that you don’t have to immerse yourself in theological debates before coming up with a thoughtful justification for the obviousness of non-theism (anymore than you need to study leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns). When the very sort of entity we’re talking about is ruled out by our understanding of the universe in the first place, then that does most of the work.

          • I think we are talking about very different concepts of God. So different that I can agree with all your proofs and go on being Catholic because the God Catholics believe in is nothing like the god you are proving does not exists. God is not a being in the universe. He is the ground of all being. So searching for Him the way you would search for a being like a leprechaun would be just silly.


          • Ted Seeber

            Reductionism isn’t rational either. In fact, it’s anti-rational in the extreme.

          • “non-theism is just an incident of reductionism, Occam’s Razor, and Bayesian probability”
            It amuses me that two of the three ideas mentioned are named for Christian ministers, and the third, reductionism, is perfectly acceptable to theists in its methodological, but not ontological, form. What is really going on here is that the premise (atheism) becomes a conclusion. It never passes through rational inquiry.
            Questions of theism/atheism are trivial like existence itself is trivial.

          • For most LW members, non-theism is just an incident of reductionism, Occam’s Razor, and Bayesian probability — subjects to which we have given quite a bit of serious thought.

            To be dead honest, this doesn’t wash – meaning the part about the non-theism being “incidental”. The culture of LW is wildly anti-theistic from the very start, and it’s hard to shake the impression that this comes first for a lot of the members, not some incidental fallout. Especially given the frequency with which it’s brought up, and the emotion over it.

            Doubly so considering LW also shows some considerable sympathy to the simulation hypothesis, and – while not Christian in nature – that’s, no matter which way you slice it, old-school “Zeus and pals” theism.

      • Except that accurate beliefs about the universe would be even more important on political questions but there they have the politics is the mind-killer thing, so accurate beliefs are apparently not that important. And then there are things like this, like religion being their canonical example of idiocy, like their regular welcome thread message coming about as close to disinviting theists as it can get without doing so explicitly, like most of them seeming to believe that reading the sequences cures theism (didn’t work for me b.t.w.) , and like their social conventions expecting a lot less civility on religion than on any other topic.

        The plain and simple truth is that the community norm at Less Wrong is to be strongly bigoted against religion. The community is shaped by a charismatic leader for whom the question is personal and has experienced lots of clustering and evaporative cooling on that question. One might say they are not explicitly atheist because atheism is not really what they are about, but hardline atheism is clearly a core part of their communal identity.

        That being said, Less Wrong is an interesting repository of unconventional ideas, some of which are correct. It’s just that a Christian will need an iron stomach to reach them.

        • > their regular welcome thread message coming about as close to disinviting theists as it can get without doing so explicitly
          http://lesswrong.com/lw/do9/welcome_to_less_wrong_july_2012/ has “you will find the Less Wrong community to be predominantly atheist, though not completely so, and most of us are genuinely respectful of religious people who keep the usual community norms. [Don’t derail, don’t use silly arguments we’ve all heard before]. Anyhow, it’s absolutely OK to mention that you’re religious in your welcome post and to invite a discussion there.”
          I don’t claim that LW is immune to group think, but I have a good feeling when I see people getting massively upvoted for disagreeing with Yudkowsky. I certainly wouldn’t expect that reading him is efficacious in every case of theism, though.

          • Oregon Catholic

            “[Don’t derail, don’t use silly arguments we’ve all heard before]”

            This isn’t basically telling theists not to bother posting about religion? You’ve already dismissed every theist argument as silly so what’s left to discuss? Why not just be honest. Not that I have any interest in Less Wrong but the hypocrisy is pretty glaring and especially evident on the Thwarting a Catholic Conversion thread. Leah’s decision to convert is largely dismissed as irrational, not because of her methods and rationale but because of her conclusion. Bigotry is also a word that comes to mind.

          • I did say exactly what I mean, it comes about as close to disinviting theists as it can get without doing so explicitly.

            If you look at how this version differs from the more honest original it’s now mainly more patronizing about getting the same message across. And the worst intermediate version seems to be no longer available, it actually explained the “most common arguments” with a reference to The God Delusion, which is a bit like if Christians recommended Chick Tracts. But lets look at the present version:

            The first obvious thing is that theism is the only opinion that gets singled out as a problem in the welcoming posts. It’s a bit like the two signs that used to be at Tokyo airport: One in Japanese, saying “After the long trip you are surely tired. Welcome home.” and one in English saying “Welcome to Japan. Please respect the rules.” It’s already making blatantly clear who they think the problem customers are.

            Now let’s fisk the actual wording:

            you will find the Less Wrong community to be predominantly atheist, though not completely so

            Fair enough, that’s a fact. It’s not really the thing that would bother most intelligent theists, but we can let that slide.

            and most of us are genuinely respectful of religious people

            Notice the qualifications here. The most and genuinely is obvious (i.e. some actually don’t respect theists and that’s fully within community norms) but the more interesting thing is the careful hate the sin love the sinner distinction of being respectful of religious people rather than religion. The interesting thing is that this standard part of atheist rhetoric (which, b.t.w. have never yet seen have any observable consequences) will be noticed only by theists familiar with the usual atheist rhetoric, thus putting the discomfort only on what would be the wrong segment if they were actually trying to protect rational argumentation.

            who keep the usual community norms.

            You know, I respect them negro people as long as they don’t go stealin’ stuff.

            It’s worth saying that we might think religion is off-topic in some places where you think it’s on-topic, so be thoughtful about where and how you start explicitly talking about it;

            In other words the theist better fit the compartmentalization stereotype, because all logically related questions must be treated under the assumption that it is false.

            some of us are happy to talk about religion, some of us aren’t interested.

            Note how in this context only “not interested” means “so don’t talk about it”, while in other contexts it would mean “so you might not get as many answers as you were hoping for”.

            Bear in mind that many of us really, truly have given full consideration to theistic claims and found them to be false, so starting with the most common arguments is pretty likely just to annoy people.

            Notice how this is a demand for an unilateral courtesy, because Less Wrongers are clearly not prepared to bare in mind that many people have given full consideration to theistic claims and found them to be true. And of course the “full consideration” thing clearly clashes with the not even promoting the hypothesis to attention thing…

            Anyhow, it’s absolutely OK to mention that you’re religious in your welcome post and to invite a discussion there.

            So if you can’t avoid talking about things so distasteful we have this sandbox where it will be quarantined from the discussions with people we actually take serious.

            So yeah, it’s phrased in a way that allows them to preserve a self-image of open-mindedness. But basically if a friend invited everyone in the room to some event and then singled me out to explain if I came I would need to keep a low profile so as not to annoy other guests, I would take the hint and not go. And I would be quite justified in assuming that friend didn’t want me to come but didn’t want to say so outright. And it’s very obviously the same thing with this notice to theists.

          • > This isn’t basically telling theists not to bother posting about religion?
            Well, only if posting about religion would always involve making silly arguments we’ve heard before. That would be a surprising argument for a theist to make, though (and I think I’d disagree with you).

            More seriously, I noticed that someone linked to Feser complaining about people who just don’t understand the Cosmological argument because they haven’t read the greats (or bought his book). Leah warns us that before venturing into LW to explain to them that God is the Maximally Capitalised Being rather than an bearded man in the sky, it’d be a good idea to lurk moar, or you run the risk of someone just telling you to “read the Sequences” (“sequences” would be capitalised, naturally).

            I guess there’s a question about how much you should know before commenting or writing a paper or whatever. It’s annoying to read the same tired stuff, but if you can’t summon the energy to reply yet again, I don’t think “read this large body of literature by Aqunias/Yudkowsky” (or Feser’s “buy my book”) is a useful response on its own: both sides gain an excuse to remain in their former positions (that the non-A/Y reader is ignorant, that the A/Y reader is just avoiding advancing any specific arguments because they don’t actually have any), no one learns anything. Perhaps a summary of the argument while noting where it comes from would be better.

            Also unhelpful is plain old assertion (“Catholicism is evil”, “Atheism is irrational”) and so on: see “Ted Seeber”‘s comments in this thread, for example. I’d expect those to disappear into downvote oblivion on LW.

  • JeseC

    The amount of time as a college TA I spend trying to break down the “guess the password” mentality! I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon – students become afraid (and often angry) if no password is provided. It’s very hard to get them to genuinely think and engage, in part because they worry that they’re just missing what the password is – and are thereby going to fail because they’ve missed it.

    • deiseach

      Some of that may be down to the experience which I would wager that many people have had: the teacher (at whatever level of education) who would say “Now, I’m not going to be angry if you get the answer wrong, I want you to think for yourselves” but if anyone dared proffer an opinion different to theirs, wham! failure!

      (Obligatory disclaimer of bias: why no, I am not at all still bitter some thirty-three years later about my secondary school history teacher who, when I tried to give an answer that was not reguritating the textbook word-for-word, promptly told me I was going to fail the national state exams at that level of school and that I was stupid, to boot. Cue me never again opening my mouth in class for the next three years.)

    • Skittle

      I most hated this in the non-academic areas, for example if you hadn’t done the homework. What is the point in the teacher asking why, and then saying “that’s just an excuse” when you say you forgot? What possible answer could you give that was honest and didn’t count as an “excuse”? Apologising didn’t help.

      That’s why my classroom always has a very clear policy:
      Homework takes x minutes. If you tried that long and couldn’t finish, get your parent or guardian to write that in your book.
      If it wasn’t possible for you to do it, get your parent or guardian to write that in your book.
      If you don’t bring completed homework or a signed space where it would be, that is a level 1 detention with no getting angry or requiring you to placate me.
      If you don’t bring your exercise book, but do bring the homework, that is a level 1 detention.
      If you don’t bring your exercise book or your homework, it is a level 2 detention, because that’s two things. Hence, if you haven’t done the homework, at least bring your book (because this makes learning easier) rather than pretending that you did it and forgot your book.

      If there’s a password in there, I hope it’s that I want them to get on with the work and try their best.

  • Jamin Herold

    Having read your friends article, it strikes me that what conversion took place, happened because of a personal encounter with Love (God). It was not the I was knocked down by the site of God, or even I see God in friends, but God miraculously touched your soul. I am a firm believer that although Catholicism is reasonable, and can and should be reasoned too, reason can still only take you so far. There is a point where God must do the work, and show someone who He is, to encounter the person in a true and mystical sense. That is why we Catholics must always pray not only for God to encounter the person, but that the person become open to the encounter. Prayer and not argument is the final form of conversion, I will never argue someone into the faith, they must encounter it (which is also why we must argue with love, debate with grace, and pray without ceasing).

  • John

    The interesting thing for me in reading the LW site is how they assume same sex attraction, abortion, contraception, etc. are “obviously” good, but then struggle to understand why Leah would ask for a ground of objective morality. For starters, how does one conclude the above proclivities are “good” unless one first has a good grounding in what constitutes “health”? And does not the very question beg for a discussion on “does humanity have a nature”? Only if we do have a nature can we talk about health and sickness. But wait a second, don’t they also accept Darwinian evolution? I.e. that natures don’t exist but are contiuums such that every species is undergoing constant evolutionary change into something else? If that’s the case then there is no fixed human nature, no fixed definition of health, and no ground for calling any action ‘good or bad’ in reference to any fixed point. We would be stuck with arguments about taste not objective ethics would we not?

    • Ted Seeber

      I can’t see for the life of me how contraception, same sex attraction, and abortion can be considered good in a Darwinian system.

      At all.

      At best, under survival of the fittest, practicing these makes you unfit.

      • g

        I think you are confusing two very different propositions. (1) “Life on earth got to be the way it is through a long process of Darwinian evolution.” (2) “We should take the things that, according to Darwinian evolution, *do* happen, and treat them as things that *should* happen.”

        Accepting #1 does not, in the slightest, commit one to accepting #2. But it’s #2 that would be needed to conclude, e.g., that contraception and same-sex sex are bad. (Well, obviously there are other ways to conclude that! I mean according to the sort of reasoning you obviously have in mind.)

        If it isn’t obvious that #1 and #2 are completely different, you might like to contemplate the following (obviously ridiculous) claim: “I can’t see for the life of me how climbing mountains could be considered reasonable behaviour for a believer in gravity. All things seek to be nearer to other nearby massive objects, and climbing a mountain is the exact reverse of that.” Saying that believers in evolution should *value* reproductive success is exactly like saying that believers in gravity should value Massive Things Being Close To Other Massive Things.

      • Linky Mac Linkerson

        Animal mothers in nature will sometimes leave their children to die if they don’t have enough food to feed themselves and their families. This can be a good survival strategy if the mother was otherswise likely to starve along with her children- mothers that abandon their kids live to breed again.

        Abortion and contraception is a similar kind of resource management. Many women who have an abortion are poor and would struggle to raise a child.
        Here’s a good article with more examples:

        As for homosexuality, here are a couple of theories:

        • jenesaispas

          But higher fecundity won’t really be advantageous anymore because of abortion and contraception (people don’t want/need a lot of children).

          I don’t understand the second link?:(

        • Skittle

          So why is Marie Stopes so worked-up about a Catholic charity that sits quietly praying outside their clinics, and offers financial support to mothers who feel they cannot financially cope with the child in their womb? I gather they’re currently supporting roughly 25 women. If abortion is necessary because of poverty, and people offer to help with that poverty, isn’t that better than abortion?

          And, frankly, you wouldn’t accept that argument for any child who you believed was actually a human person. If mothers were exposing their newborns, or taking their toddlers to be euthanised, out of poverty, your reaction would surely be that the children must be provided for. It would not be “Oh, sad, but I guess a logical decision. I must support the provision of hillsides and euthanasia clinics”.

          I mean, under that logic, if a country has financial problems, does it still have a duty to care for the children in the care system? Does it have a duty to feed them, when food is expensive?

          In the words of Heinlein, “Men are not potatoes”: you don’t get to apply the same calculations with their lives.

        • Ted Seeber

          The problem with that being that there is no food shortage on the planet earth at the moment- just a massive amount of greed-based hoarding among 1/6th of the population against 1/2 of the population.

      • F

        Well, first of all, evolution is not a system of morals. It’s a description of what happens in nature. Evolution does not consider things good or evil. It has no point of view. If an organism fails to reproduce, that is not a moral failing, it simply means that organism’s genes will not be spread to the next generation.
        Secondly, harmful mutations occur all the time. Mutations that are selected against are constantly appearing. So, not everything we see around us is necessarily going to help organisms to survive and reproduce. Traits we see now may have died out in a few thousand years.
        Thirdly, evolution is a slow process. Reliable contraception and safe abortion hasn’t been around that long in evolutionary terms. Homosexuality has been around longer but in the past, homosexuals were more likely to have sex in secret and have hetersexual relationships and children to protect their image. It’s possible the three things you’ve mentioned will be selected against in the future.
        On the other hand, people who use contraception for most of their lives might still have children, in which case their genes will be passed on. A woman who has an abortion still might have children later in her life, or earlier. Homosexuals are having children through surrogacy, sperm donation and in vitro fertilisation. So, people can pass on their DNA despite all three behaviours you mention, in which case, the behaviours don’t need to be selected against.
        In nature it’s possible that homosexuality can be advantageous when there’s a shortage of one sex. Consider the Laysan albatross:
        “In the Laysan albatross, for example, previous research has shown that a third of all bonded pairs in a Hawaii colony are two females. This behavior helps the birds, whose colony has far more females than males, by allowing them to share parenting responsibilities. It also gives more stability to the offspring of males, already bonded to a female, who mate opportunistically with females in a same-sex couple.”

        ht tp://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gay-animals-and-evolution

        “Bailey and Zuk are also researching the Laysan albatross, a species in which females form same-sex pairs and rear young together. “Same-sex behavior in this species may not be aberrant, but instead can arise as an alternative reproductive strategy,” they said.

        Almost a third of Laysan albatross couples are female-female pairs and they are more successful than unpaired females when it comes to rearing chicks.”

        ht tp://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/jun/17/same-sex-relationships-gay-animals

        Homosexual male swans seem to be better parents than heterosexual swan couples:

        “An estimated one-quarter of all black swans pairings are of homosexual males. They steal nests, or form temporary threesomes with females to obtain eggs, driving away the female after she lays the eggs.[31][32] More of their cygnets survive to adulthood than those of different-sex pairs, possibly due to their superior ability to defend large portions of land. The same reasoning has been applied to male flamingo pairs raising chicks.”

        ht tp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_behavior_in_animals#Black_swans

        Bonobos are very closely related to us and they have a lot of bisexual sex. It seems to be a way of bonding the group and avoiding conflict. Plus, they enjoy it. Enjoying sex of any kind is evolutionarally selected for because generally, the more sex you have, the higher your likelihood of breeding sucessfully.

        • Ted Seeber

          #1. None of your examples are human, and are thus simple not relevant to our species.
          #2- When it comes to the original sex act, every one of those species still requires the male to create the child in the first place.

      • jenesaispas

        There aren’t really many Social Darwinists are there?


      • Dianne

        Contraception and abortion are trivially easy to explain: People are K limited not r limited with respect to reproduction. Pregnancy is a huge investment of energy, resources and risk, child rearing likewise. Committing to a pregnancy that isn’t likely to result in an acceptably socialized adult is a waste of reproductive energy that could better be used raising the already born kids in whom one has already invested quite a lot, even at birth and much more so when they are five or so.

        Homosexuality is a more difficult issue on the surface, but I can think of 3 or 4 ways that it might be explained without really working at it.

        1. Anti-selective codominant genes: Some genes, such as many hemoglobinopathies, are pro-selective in their heterozygous form but anti-selective in the homozygous form. Maybe the genes which cause homosexuality in some cases increase fertility or attractiveness to the opposite sex in other combinations.
        2. Similarly, humans use sex for bonding as well as reproduction. Maybe the most selective case is bisexuality. A bisexual woman is likely to form a strong bond with her lovers and if she dies her lovers are more likely to care for her children than if they did not have this bond. A bisexual man may form closer bonds with men he hunts or fights along side and be more successful than one whose comrades don’t trust him as much.
        3. It’s been noted that male homosexuality is more common in younger sons, specifically men who have several older brothers. Perhaps genes for same sex attraction get upregulated-at least in men-in the presence of excess men. Fewer men competing for mates means lower risk of infanticide and increases the chances of survival for the offspring of gay and lesbian people’s siblings.
        4. All or none of the above. I don’t have any particular evidence that any of the above explanations is the correct one. But given that I thought of these in less than 5 minutes, without any particular expertise in evolutionary biology, I think one can reasonably say that it’s not an unsolvable mystery.

        Certainly homosexual behavior has been observed in numerous non-human animals. It’s a common behavior throughout animal life.

        I have a harder time explaining sexual variety theologically, at least in Christian theology. Did God make some people gay just to torture them or what?

    • “The interesting thing for me in reading the LW site is how they assume same sex attraction, abortion, contraception, etc. are “obviously” good”

      I don’t think they do, and that the extent that it seems like they do, it’s shorthand for “these things are good, given the values of most of the people on the site”. Values being subjective and a matter of taste is indeed a frequently discussed matter on the site. More specifically, questions such the subjectivity of terms such as “health” [1] and “human” [2] have been discussed on the site, as has the argument that socially conservative ethics are not essentially different from socially liberal ones [3]. All of those discussions have generally been well received.

      [1] http://lesswrong.com/lw/2as/diseased_thinking_dissolving_questions_about/
      [2] http://lesswrong.com/lw/tc/unnatural_categories/
      [3] http://lesswrong.com/lw/dc5/thoughts_on_moral_intuitions/

  • Oregon Catholic

    I love this quote from the Thwarting a Catholic Conversion post:
    “First, I want to state the rationality lesson I learned from this episode: atheists who spend a great deal of their time analyzing and even critiquing the views of a particular religion are at-risk atheists.”

    LOL. Sounds just like a Catholic parent warning their child n0t to hang out with an atheist school friend. Methinks this illustrates the author is not totally convinced in the rationality and truth of atheism if he thinks one can be so easily swayed by just thinking too much about Catholicism. Or that brainwashing goes both ways?

    • Jay

      As the author of that line, maybe I need to clarify what I meant, because it sounds like you’re not picking up on my intended message. The point isn’t that a firm atheist is likely to be converted because they spend a lot of time thinking about arguments for and against Catholicism. The point is that an atheist who chooses to spend a lot of time thinking about arguments for and against Catholicism probably isn’t a firm atheist in the first place. I doubt most LW members would give much more thought to Catholicism than to Islam, or Hinduism, or Norse Mythology, or — dare I say — the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So to spend so much time thinking about whether Catholicism in particular is true is to be more than halfway converted, even if you still don’t purport to believe in it.

      The statistical background here is the idea that most of the work needed to land on the right hypothesis goes into just locating that hypothesis as a possibility , rather than settling on it as the right answer. A related idea is the fallacy of “privileging the hypothesis,” which means that you’ve promoted one idea to your attention — even as a mere possibility — without having done the work needed to locate that hypothesis in the first place. That would be akin to a police chief saying “well, we have no idea who committed this crime, no evidence at all, but let’s just consider that it was Mortimer Q. Snodgrass — who by the way happens to be my personal enemy.” Even if he’s not saying that it definitely was Mortimer, he still didn’t have enough evidence to privilege that possibility over any other.

      So my point was that if an atheist spends so much time thinking about the truth of one specific religious tradition — i.e., they’ve located it as a possible hypothesis in answer space — then they must already be strongly inclined to think that tradition is correct. Otherwise why promote it to your attention at all? Now, whether someone like Leah had actually had sound evidentiary reasons to promote Catholicism to her attention is a separate question. But hopefully that explains what I meant by referring to her (retrospectively) as an “at-risk atheist.”

      • Doubter

        I’m not sure you’re right. What if they have family members or friends in that religion, or that religion is really culturally dominant?

      • You’re wandering straight into Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

        If I start with the premise “the universe is a contingent thing,” and the atheist starts with the premise “the universe is not a contingent thing,” we are both speaking of the nature of the universe – metaphysics – but neither position is provable. We are ascribing things to nature that we cannot prove from nature itself. Because I believe all contingent things have a cause, and the universe is a contingency, then I conclude the universe has a cause. For the sake of language, I call this thing “god.” The atheist also believes contingent things have causes, as demonstrated by the fact that he makes himself dinner – dinner is clearly a contingent thing – but he does not believe the universe is a contingency, so he ascribes no cause to it.

        We are both starting with the universe, and we make an assumption about the nature of that universe. This metanature cannot be proven on either side. The conclsuion of “god” can be challenged, but to do that, he’ll have to show his view of the universe is more reasonable than mine. I don’t see any particular reason why the universe should be contingent, nor do I see any reason why it should not be contingent. The universe IS, I will grant. But as to the nature of that universe?

        There is always a privileging of some given hypothesis. The atheist’s premise is in the limits of material perception. If I don’t accept this premise, what then? Put another way: what would stop an atheist from considering a given hypothesis if not a patent faith in their own inherently unreasonable premise? Metaphysics are, well, meta.

    • Skittle

      My favourite bit was the phrase “purported atheist” 😉 I guess if you didn’t persevere, you couldn’t have ever been Rational!

      Also, the wild mischaracterisation of what Catholicism actually teaches, and the confusion that a rational, educated person who fully understands atheist arguments might genuinely disagree with them. And the assumption that it was Catholics who gave you pressure to conform, rather than atheists!

  • Joe

    I love that you used the word “gonzo”. You’re such a yankee!!