LARP Your Way to Truth

“It’s an unorthodox epistemological approach, but it just might work!”

Over in the Atheist channel, Bob Seidensticker of Cross Examined is experimenting with prayer.  He’s signed up for an experiment run by Justin Brierley of the Unbelievable radio show (which you may remember from the time Hemant and I tangled on air).  The program is asking for atheists to try praying for at least two to three minutes a day for God to reveal Himself to them (if he exists).  After 40 days, the atheists are going to share their experiences and, if applicable, conversions.

Bob’s a Patheos blogger, and he’s been blogging about his approach.  It’s hard going, which doesn’t surprise me.  When I was an atheist, I didn’t find suggestions to pray particularly helpful (though the results of experimentation were sometimes farcical).  I was curious what Bob would do with such an intractable problem, but I was given pause by this comment of his:

Okay—I’m in. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to be all that earnest—frankly, I don’t have much expectation of anything supernatural happening or even much desire for God to exist—but I’ll have a go. To any Christian who says that I’m not approaching this with much sincerity, you’re right. As I read it, none is required—as it should be. Sincerity comes after the fact; sincerity is earned.

It’s hard to get much out of something you can’t approach with sincerity.   It’s not helpful to pretend you believe something you don’t believe, but it’s also not that helpful to just go through the motions of a religious ritual if you’re heart’s not in it.  So I started trying to think about what, if anything, Bob or anyone else could do honestly.  And I think the key is curiosity.

The only prayer I was ever really able to offer as an atheist was adaptations of the Litanies of Tarski and Gendlin.  I might say:

If there is a god, I desire to believe there is a god.
If there is not a god, I desire to believe there is not a god.
Let me not become attached to belief I do not want.

Or, slightly less formally, “If there’s a god, I’d like to be able to notice that, insofar as I want true beliefs.”  (Huh, I guess I never get that informal).  The Litanies were something I could say totally honestly and did still represent some kind of petition if there was anything listening

But they’d probably get a little dull after 40 days, so the LessWrong post I really want to recommend to Bob and anyone else flirting with religion is “Leave a Line of Retreat.”  The post takes Sun Tzu’s advice to always leave the enemy a line of retreat so they can see an alternative to death and applies it to crises (or pending crises) of faith.

“Make sure,” I suggested to her, “that you visualize what the world would be like if there are no souls, and what you would do about that. Don’t think about all the reasons that it can’t be that way, just accept it as a premise and then visualize the consequences. So that you’ll think, ‘Well, if there are no souls, I can just sign up for cryonics’, or ‘If there is no God, I can just go on being moral anyway,’ rather than it being too horrifying to face. As a matter of self-respect you should try to believe the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is, like I said before; but as a matter of human nature, it helps to make a belief less uncomfortable, before you try to evaluate the evidence for it.”

It can be a bit hard to figure out if you’re accurately imagining what the world would be like if a claim were true.  It’s hard to figure out how good you are at thinking about the counterfactual honestly.  So I’d like to give you a cheat code.  Imagine Christianity (or whatever religion you’re thinking about) is a theological system in a work of fiction and you’re planning to LARP in that setting.

How would you live in that world?  If God did exist, what would follow? What would be the worst knock on effect? What would be the best?  What would you start or stop doing?  What new constraints or freedoms would you operate under?

The stakes are low, you’re just role-playing.  But now you’re in a position to think curiously.  You’re not having a debate (with all the defensiveness that triggers), you’re getting to build something!  You’re free to tweak and experiment to try to figure out the mechanics of this fictional world.

And, as you run into open questions or need more information, you should feel free to consult a manual (here, a religious friend, a priest, etc) and as your questions mount, ask the DM (which is to say God).  I’m offering this as open advice to Bob, but if anyone’s experimenting with prayer or working through agnosticism, let me know if this is helpful.


About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Aaron

    This is the best answer I’ve encountered to this question. I’d love to see a “Dungeons and Discourse” version of this (“Tunnels and Telos”?). I’m rolling my Kierkegarrdian Paladin now…he just trembles at the approach of everything.

    • leahlibresco

      Yay! I hope you’re aware of the Dungeons and Discourse musical.

      • Aaron

        Oh. My.

      • Christian H


  • Paul Wright

    > It’s hard to get much out of something you can’t approach with sincerity.

    I’m not seeing why that’s true in this case: do you have an unstated belief that God will only reveal himself to people who want it badly enough? It looks like Bob has signed up with Mawson’s wording, which is “praying there for two to three minutes each day as earnestly as they can for any God that there might be to reveal himself/herself/itself ” (my emphasis). Is that not a fair test?

    • leahlibresco

      I think the problem isn’t just sincerity but curiosity. You’re trying to check if you’ve got a wrong picture about the world, so you need energy and inventiveness to suss out errors you may have built into your worldview. If you’re just plodding through a list of exercises someone gave you, even in good faith, you’re not in a good mindset to think new thoughts.

      Whether or not you change your mind, you’ll probably notice new weak points in your worldview you want to work on, or interesting implications you hadn’t seen before if you approach the project with an active, curious mind. I’m trying to come up with a way to kickstart curiosity if it doesn’t come naturally at the beginning of the inquiry.

      • Adam G.

        You seem to be approaching this as a set of propositions to be tested and given a truth value, whereas this atheist is approaching it as a potential relationship. Which I think is more accurate to the Christian worldview.

      • keddaw

        It works or it doesn’t. Reality isn’t subject to the “Red Shoes Test” where you only get sent home if you really, really want to go. Magic works, or doesn’t, regardless of how much you want it to, same with homoeopathy, agriculture, physics, astrology and everything else. Why do you posit that god is somehow different?

        • JohnH

          God is a being not a law of physics.

          Also, technically astrology and homeopathy would “work” better depending on your state of belief in them (placebo effect).

          • Paul Wright

            > God is a being not a law of physics.

            Well quite, hence my question to Leah about what she’s assuming God would or wouldn’t do. As an active agent, God can do stuff to overcome doubts: the situation isn’t analogous to someone being asked to spend two minutes a day imagining that homeopathy works better than a placebo. But puzzlingly, we’ve got a whole blog posting which seems to only make sense if Leah thinks that these situations are analogous.

    • deiseach

      Reading his post, I think he’s a bit more sincere (or at least that’s how he comes across in his responses to various comments) than that bit makes out. He’s willing to try, and he’s not doing it with a complete attitude of “This is nonsense so I’ll just giggle in a corner for the two minutes and at the end of the forty days, we all know it won’t make a scrap of difference”.

      If he’s giving it a go – and I too wonder what exactly he’ll do for those two minutes, or what his notion of prayer might be – then that’s at least more willingness to try than a lot of atheists demonstrate. I’m not expecting a conversion, but he might find some non-religious benefit that will appeal to him. Who knows?

    • Ted Seeber

      It isn’t entirely unstated- seems to be a given in the Catholic Doctrine of “Seek and ye shall find”.

  • Alex Godofsky

    I don’t even really understand what prayer is supposed to be. It seems that most people take prayer to mean an internal monologue* combined with a particular emotional state (hope, desire, gratitude, love). From what I understand of Christian metaphysics, it seems like the first part is kind of superfluous, and the “active ingredient” is getting yourself into an emotional state similar to what Heaven is supposed to be like.

    Actually, now that I write it out that it makes a certain amount of sense to ask nonbelievers to pray – if it is at all possible for them to reach that emotional state (or at least approach it) then maybe there would be revelatory insight.

    *well, I suppose ideally it’s a dialogue

    • Peony Moss

      In the Catholic tradition, the classic definition of prayer is that it’s “the lifting of the mind and heart to God” – without reference to a particular emotional state. So if someone were to sincerely ask, God, are you there? That’s prayer. The act, however tentative or incoherent, of reaching out to God — that’s the active ingredient.

      Most spiritual writers in the Catholic tradition warn *against* expecting or attempting to attain a particular emotional state.

      • Alex Godofsky

        I’m trying to describe prayer in terms of actual experiences. The best I can come up with for “asking God if he’s there” is carrying on an internal monologue. Attaching ‘sincerity’ to that monologue is, as far as I can tell, assuming a particular emotional state.

        • Christian H

          Is sincerity an emotional state? It’s a cognitive state, so it’s maybe a “feeling,” to use a completely definition-free word, but I don’t think it’s emotional. It refers to an attitude toward a particular activity, speech act, or thought (right?). And as far as “actual experiences” go, for me prayer is often accompanied by the emotional states of dissatisfaction, wretchedness, listlessness, distraction, maybe sorrow, along with gratitude, calm, and love (if I’m lucky, and not all at the same time, of course). Does just any old emotional state count? Because everyone is always feeling some kind of emotional state, however unremarkable. (I mean, I exaggerate a little. But I wouldn’t say that there is a consistent emotional state to my prayer life, and I would be kind of horrified if anyone said that they always had happy feelings when they prayed.)

          • Alex Godofsky

            Sorry, I probably should have described it as a “mental state” or something instead. Anyway, the point is that – as an atheist – if someone tells me to “ask God” something I don’t know what that means. I cannot imagine what action it is. So I’m taking the thought experiment “assume Christianity; have someone start praying; suddenly make Christianity stop being true; what is it that the person is doing?”

          • Christian H

            It would probably vary from person to person (or prayer to prayer), but some traits/actions that might recur frequently would be as follows:
            1. An internalized equivalence of a speech act (soliloquy or apostrophe, maybe, but it’s hard to define in this case, since the word for a speech from a person to a god who is ambiguously present or absent is “prayer”) that is intended to be received by a deity, though the certainty that that deity exists is not a necessary component. The intention could be conditional. This act is /probably/ formalized into specific language, either spontaneously or scripted, but not necessarily.
            2. Some form of concentration upon a feature or aspect of the deity, or, if you prefer, the person’s mental construct of the deity. Usually this is combined with the directionality of the internalized speech act.
            3. Some form of contemplation, like any other form of thought process, but usually on theological or otherwise religious topics, and with the awareness that the same deity mentioned above might be listening to this contemplation.
            4. In fact, all throughout we can assume some awareness that that same deity might be listening.
            5. Perhaps a petition for something, even if only that the deity receive the prayer. (This is not as necessary a component as the things I’ve listed so far.)
            6. Perhaps a a desire for something, which is distinct from a petition.
            7. Perhaps an attitude of receptiveness to a response, though this would be hardest to define clearly. It might involve a moment of waiting, attempted mind-clearing, and surveillance of one’s own thoughts to see if an answer arrives. (An answer, of course, may not arrive, and if it does it might come from some part of the mind not activated by a deity.)
            8. Some emotional states generated by this activity could be associated with the activity itself, but I’m not sure that they are really part of prayer by definition.

            All of this could be deliberately conditional on the part of the praying person, right? In an attitude of, “God, if you’re there…” That doesn’t exclude sincerity, either, so long as the conditional is sincere. (So, you don’t believe in a god, but if you are wrong and there actually is a god, you would want that god to hear, respond, etc. This sincerity would mean that you can entertain the possibility, however remote, that you could be wrong. Is that fair?) But does this help explain what prayer is? Even from an atheist viewpoint? “Deity,” to you, could be “mental construct of a deity,” right? The question marks are earnest; if there’s something I’m missing, let me know.

          • Christian H

            I re-read your question, and I don’t think I quite got at your concerns. A new (shorter) attempt follows.

            I think the point of prayer differs for different people. Ideally it should be to develop a relationship with a deity (I hear). Sometimes the petition part takes precedence. Either way it is intended to be communicative–which requires that the person praying acknowledge that a recipient might exist, but not that the recipient necessarily exists. It could also be used to change one’s own attitude, to become calmer, or more receptive, or to better know oneself. These do not necessarily require the existence of a deity, I suppose; prayer would then act as kin to meditation, if not quite the same thing (though there is such a thing as meditative prayer). So this last purpose is about the management of a cognitive state, though the goal is not necessarily an emotion. I would imagine an atheist could make use of the last component, and not even as part of the sort of practice discussed by the Catholic radio hosts of the world, but it would not constitute proof of God or an incentive to convert, and it may prove less effective for this goal than meditation or therapy. However, I would guess–and this is speculation–that communicative goals are as common as cognitive management goals, or are at least the reason a person chooses prayer over meditation.

        • Michael

          You could describe it as an inner monologue, except that you are addressing someone who is separate from you, and whose aims are different from yours. It’s not like you don’t have things in your head which are alive enough to produce creative content and yet are not at all *you*: I am referring here to the production of dreams.

          So it’s really not that far-fetched. You just have to realize that *you* are not the only thing in your head, and therefore *you* can address something that is *not you* in an inner monologue: demons, angels, God, whatever. Call them autonomous neural circuits if it suits you. But you can still address them. You’ll be surprised when they answer.

      • Gordon

        This sounds like a pre-emptive defense of why prayer does not work. Of course I would agree that prayer (as described by the Jesus character in the bible -Luke 11:11-13) does not work.

    • Dan F.

      I’m going to be a bit lazy and simply link to a post I wrote about this topic:

      which I think addresses your metaphysical question a bit. Fair warning, the post is part of a bible study on Listening to God aimed at (rather bright) Catholic teenagers so it’s not an exhaustive apologetic on the subject.

  • joannemcportland

    This is slightly askew from the specific post, but I’m wondering (based on the language of the experiment) whether an atheist’s having an experience of the presence of God would necessarily result in a conversion to theism. After all, theists frequently experience the absence of God without having a change of belief. I prefer to look at this, as you suggest, as an experiment in curiosity, and not an exercise weighted with loaded words like conversion. It’s quite possible that Bob or any of those participating in the experiment could experience theophany, and still not choose to believe.

    • Delphi Psmith

      but I’m wondering (based on the language of the experiment) whether an atheist’s having an experience of the presence of God would necessarily result in a conversion to theism. After all, theists frequently experience the absence of God without having a change of belief.

      I’d think it would pretty much have to result in conversion, wouldn’t it? Absence of proof is not proof of absence, but presence of proof is pretty definitive proof of presence. In other words, once you’ve experienced the presence of god, the fact that you don’t experience it all the time doesn’t mean he’s suddenly ceased to exist, right? So if you experience his presence but decline to convert, there are only two explanations: (1) I hallucinated and it didn’t really happen, or (2) I lie to myself and pretend it never happened.

      • Alan

        Or it could be that what was experienced wasn’t the presence of god but the neurochemical reaction that theists mistake for the presence of god.

        • deiseach

          Alan, can you demonstrate to me that you are not a neurochemical reaction that I am currently experiencing? I’ve had some very vivid dreams where, when I awoke, I was convinced of their reality – how do I know I’m not imagining you, this blog, and all the other comments?

          • Alan

            I’m fairly certain there is nothing I can do to demonstrate that when (if) you are reading this it is not a neurochemical reaction – in fact, I’m quite certain it is a neurochemical reaction. Neurochemical reactions are part of how you experience the physical world, not just hallucinations and dreams.

            As for how you know you are not imagining me (or I suppose more accurately the words on a screen that are attributed to ‘Alan’) – I’m not sure you truly do, but it doesn’t really serve any purpose to act under the assumption that you are imagining the blog so why make that assumption?

  • Brad Kurtz

    It’s funny that you recommend this approach. When I was a Catholic kid I always pretended that God was constantly watching me. I ended up being a very well-behaved (if slightly boring) kid. Later, when belief dissolved away, I consciously replaced God with “a security camera,” and the effect was pretty much the same. But the other day I was thinking about belief and faith, as I often do, and thought “well why don’t I just pretend that God exists anyway and see what happens?” So I will try the prayer experiment. Question: Do I have to pray out loud? Can I just read the prayer silently and honestly to myself? I’m incredibly shy, even when I think I might be by myself. I guess that’s more a matter of embarrasment over the perceived ridiculousness of the proceedings. Thanks.

    • leahlibresco

      Do whatever you’re most comfortable with. I like prayers set to music, so the melody can inform my inflections without me getting all self conscious about delivery.

  • anodognosic

    It also bears being wary of the possibility of a false positive. As an atheist, I can’t deny that people have spiritual experiences through prayer, and I would guess that prayers have been either deliberately written and/or undergone some sort of natural selection process in order to induce spiritual states of mind. Is it possible to distinguish such a state that includes the presence of God from one that does not?

    • Erick

      I could be wrong, but I believe the Catholic Church teaches that peace is the discerning state for spiritual experiences. If you experience complete peace of mind, body, emotion, and soul during your experience, then your experience includes the presence of God.

      • anonymous

        Buddhists certainly offer a competing explanation for that peace of mind, body, emotion and soul. A test of Catholicism that requires the subject to presuppose a Catholic interpretation of an ambiguous event is not a proper test.

        • anodognosic

          Sorry, comment above is mine.

        • Erick

          Sorry for the lack of clarity. I did not mean to say that peace entails the presence of God. Only that the presence of God will entail peace. There is a difference. I only mention peace as a tool for discernment, not a definition of what an experience of God is.

    • Quine

      Yes, the simplest answer is that prayer acts through self-hypnosis. See:

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Yes. Many of us who are atheist have those experiences as well. Because the nature and interpretation of them can vary, they don’t necessarily mandate adoption of a particular religion. Some people get saints, some get satori, I get systems theory, (except for that one time I got the Great Rite in all its non-metaphorical glory.)

    • Robert King

      I wonder if commenters here aren’t confusing “prayer” with “meditation” or “contemplation”?

      In the Christian tradition, at least, there are various activities that fall under the umbrella term, “prayer.” Meditation uses words or images (or the lack thereof) to focus the mind and open it to communication with God. This could be vulnerable to accusations of “self-hypnosis” or “inducing a spiritual state of mind,” though I don’t think this is reason to dismiss them entirely, any more than one would dismiss social conversation because alcohol can induce a social state of mind.

      Contemplation is often confused with meditation. The difference is that, while meditation is an activity, contemplation is a gift that one receives. Not having experienced it myself, I don’t know how or whether it can be distinguished from other mental/emotional states.

      However, neither of these appear to be the kind of prayer at work in this experiment. The experiment seems to propose a straightforward petition: “God, please reveal yourself to me.” Leah’s suggestion of modified litanies lends itself to meditation more than petition; but it could easily be concluded by something like: “God, if you exist, help me find the truth. If there is no God, let this exercise lead me to truth.”

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  • Bob Seidensticker

    Great ideas! Thanks.

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  • Niemand

    If God did exist, what would follow? What would be the worst knock on effect? What would be the best? What would you start or stop doing? What new constraints or freedoms would you operate under?

    The problem for me at least is that the answers to all of the above questions are things like “I don’t know…none…hard to say.” So there is a God. Great. That tells me…next to nothing. Which God are we talking about? Yaweh? Zeus? Quetzelcoatl? Perhaps a “universal force” that has no interest in humans at all (or no more in humans than in any other part of the universe…humans, neutrinos, dark matter, it’s all the same to the creator-maybe.)

    Ok, I can probably answer two of the questions: The best effect: It means that the universe is even more complicated and interesting than I previously thought. The worst: The only information I’ve been given is a tease that doesn’t really tell me much of anything-not even where to seek more data.

  • Mike

    Honest question: does LARPing in this way involve making a genuine effort to follow the rules of the target religion? I ask because I imagine Alicorn would be a bit put out if I tried to follow *all* the rules of Catholicism for 40 days…

    • leahlibresco

      I think there are two styles (one of which will be much more acceptable to Alicorn!).

      LARPing for data: This is like doing the background research and filling out the character sheet. You don’t need to change your day-to-day life, but you should ask yourself, as you make choices, “What would my Catholic!character do in this circumstance?” And, if you fancy it, you can make that choice instead.

      Actually LARPing: Live the way your character would and see what happens. (You’ll probably need to return to the character building step as you notice new gaps in your model of the character/world).

    • Ted Seeber

      I don’t know the people involved, but I’m willing to bet that if this is what I think it is about, you’d have to LARP it a lot longer than 40 days to be acceptable. 40 years, maybe.

  • Gordon

    I am in the experiment with Bob. These are great ideas and suggestions for action. Thanks

  • ajollynerd

    >It’s hard to figure out how good you are at thinking about the counterfactual honestly.

    That’s a key point here. The request for atheists to embrace the counterfactual, given that most (if not all) atheists tend to be very empirical in their worldview is, I think, the largest barrier to approaching this “experiment” with sincerity.

  • JonMarc Grodi

    Ah, excellent point Leah. I have noted before that on every side of most arguments these days there seems to be an inability or unwillingness to at least allow for the possibility of the correctness of the opposing side. Christians rarely empathize with Atheists because they are not willing to even experiment with the contrary thought and vice versa. We need to have a loose grip not on our belief in Truth as it is but of our conception and expression of it. Great, practical suggestions for those who are dabbling. Pax.

    • Sylvie D. Rousseau

      “Christians rarely empathize with Atheists because they are not willing to even experiment with the contrary thought and vice versa.”
      It is not for lack of empathy toward atheists that Christians are not interested to put on atheist shoes or accept as true what we know is false, it is because we can’t. Most serious Christians and many saints have experienced either real unbelief, or indifference (practical atheism: my case), or serious doubt. Once you believe, by the grace of God, in the spiritual light, it is exactly like sunlight: you know the sun is out there during the night, prolonged bad weather or when you are underground. It is just impossible for us to not believe, or to not see the truth as revealed by God and expressed through His creation and through His Church, except if we fall in mortal sin and despair. In that case we might not be very good apologists for atheism anyway.

      • Bernadette

        But surely that wouldn’t exclude the type of LARP-esque identification that Leah is suggesting? Surely you can still engage in the “what if” game: What if there was no God? How would my actions, perceptions, etc. change . . . or would they? One need not believe the supposition to be true for the thought experiment to be valid anymore than D&Ders need believe in magic to have a successful game. And you still might be able to build some empathy with an atheist even if you couldn’t ever grant the possibility of his or her worldview actually being true.

        • Erick

          LARPing religion is possible, because religion has tenets, doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and the like that require following. The clothes are easy to put on, and the changes in behavior easy to track.

          LARPing atheism is not possible for a serious religionist, because atheism has no such things. In essence, if we followed the same values we did as religionists, we could never figure out if its simply attachment to our religious obligations. The only way to know would be to act entirely different from our religious values, and that likely entails doing things that are unacceptable by societal standards.

          • leahlibresco

            You’d need to LARP a specific atheist philosophy.

      • Gilbert

        No, that’s quite simply not true.

  • Ron K

    I really don’t get the point of this experiment.

    Let’s say that I honestly pray for God to reveal his existance to me (like I have). Let’s say that I subsequently experience the presence of God, and even hear his voice (like I have, and still do on occasion). How does that show God’s existance exactly? I mean, outside of my neurons misfiring?

    • Jake

      If your neurons are consistently and repeatably misfiring, aren’t you in trouble already? Certainly we should bring a grain of skepticism towards any event that can be equally well explained by psychology as by the existence of God, but if we’re no longer counting our experiences as evidence, then we’ve lost the lable of “empiricist”.

      • Ron K

        I never said I was an empiricist ;-)

        Even if we accept empericism as true, that only means that our senses are the only valid source of evidence about the world. That does NOT mean, that our senses are always right — as a matter of fact, our senses can be more accurately said to be always wrong — but less wrong than the alternative, namely idle speculation and philosophising. By limiting our discourse to repeatable, verifiable, testable facts, that are therefore confirmable by others we further reduce measurment error. But we should always remember that we are most probably wrong about all of our experiences, and therefore an experience limited in scope to a single person, even if it is consistent, is untestable, unverifiable, unrepeatable and therefore meaningless.

  • thule222

    When I started I was so anti religious, that I couldn’t even pray to God. The name stuck in my throat. I wound up praying to the collective unconscious, or the spirit of humanity or my higher self. That acted like a bridge until I could pray to God.

  • Mitchell Porter

    So it’s a hypothetical world the same as the real one, except that there’s an invisible monster who *lets* all the bad things happen. Then I might be headed for Hell in the Catholic sense – eternal estrangement from God – rather than accept that all of this was in any way necessary or justified.

    • Ted Seeber

      But, if you hate the concept of God so much that you can’t see the necessity of evil, why would you want heaven? If there is one thing worse that believing God to be an “invisible monster who *lets* all the bad things happen”, wouldn’t it be being *chained to that invisible monster for all of eternity*?

      • Mitchell Porter

        Hi Ted. I was just thinking about you. But first let me try to respond to your question.

        For billions of creatures across time, life has ended in physical agony. Existence for them became a torture device. Do I need to list vivid examples? You have lived for several decades of the information age, you live in a society with a lot of historical knowledge for those who care to pursue it, it should be the easiest thing in the world for you to dredge from your memory hundreds of specific examples of disgusting and cruel fates that have befallen people.

        I don’t hate the concept of God in its most general sense, the idea of a first cause or a ‘reason why reality exists’. I can’t even say that I hate the concept of a benevolent God. But what I could hate is the attempt to rationalize the world that we see as the work of a benevolent God. I only just wrote about this at another blog:

        The idea of a benevolent God is simply wishful thinking. If one is going to consider hypotheses of God as a person, then *benevolence* is not a plausible character trait of that divine person, it is way down the list of possibilities. To consider it remotely plausible, I would have to regard the world that I see, and the people in it, as unreal; it’s all been a long movie-dream, and the real reality is somewhere outside it, that’s where the alleged benevolence is manifested, and the “problem of evil”, or just of extreme, arbitrary, and not remotely merited suffering, is annulled because none of that evil and suffering actually happened.

        Leah in this post asked us to consider how we would act if we were in a reality where some human religion is 100% true. Human religion is not generally solipsistic, and the religions discussed on this blog posit some sort of divine benevolence. So we are positing a world where a million horrible things, and I mean truly horrible, actually happened, and where that world was the product of an all-powerful divine intention whose apologists present it as benevolent, and where one has the choice of morally siding with it or siding against it.

        (continued below)

        • Sylvie D. Rousseau

          “…hundreds of specific examples of disgusting and cruel fates that have befallen people…”
          Don’t you think each one of them had a spark of love, if only once in their life? If so, and if the poets have been right all the time, each life has an infinite value and the most gruesome torture is nothing in regard of one spark of human love. What then of the value of God’s love for each one of His poor creatures? He came himself to suffer a cruel death so that we could fathom just a little the weight of love against suffering and death — negatives weigh nothing.

          • Alan

            Yeah, nothing sadistic about that story at all – well I tortured myself too so my torture of you is loving.

          • Sylvie D. Rousseau

            Sorry for that post, Alan. Too many things in too few words and badly stated. I often do that.

        • Sylvie D. Rousseau

          “Leah in this post asked us to consider how we would act if we were in a reality where some human religion is 100% true.”
          If there is a God, it is logical that men always had some idea of him without external revelation: hence all religions of all times and places, and also God seen by philosophers as the First Cause and the ultimate explanation of the world. Philosophers were able without Revelation to answer the question of final cause, one of the two possible objections to God’s existence. But only God himself can reveal the answer to the second objection: evil and suffering. If God exists, he should reveal himself at some point and his answer to this mighty problem is the only one that makes complete sense as he also provides the remedy.

          The openness necessary to grasp the truth is gained through humility.

      • Mitchell Porter

        Now here’s why I was thinking of you. I’ve read in these comments that you were raised Catholic, became Buddhist and atheist at different times, and returned to Catholicism later. You espouse social positions that are reactionary – and I mean that as a neutrally descriptive term, not as a term of opprobrium – on the grounds that this is for the greater good. So possibly you’re advocating religion for the sake of its social consequences rather than because it’s true.

        But assuming that you really do believe in Catholicism… when I remind myself of the spectrum of possibilities, I have to ask myself, why? Even if one is going to posit a divine intention and a life beyond this one, why would you posit a *benevolent* God, given that this is in such contradiction with the data we have about *this* world? I have to regard it as resulting from a will to personal happiness, making a choice between a limited range of readymade metaphysical possibilities offered by a particular culture.

        Having explicitly formed the idea that God might be indifferent or even evil, I find it much easier to imagine scenarios where one still has the consolation of a possible happiness that never existed here, finally being realized in some other world, but in which one doesn’t engage in the logical violence required to say that *this* world is the product of a benevolent and omniscient intent.

        For example, perhaps this world was made with good intentions, but it went badly wrong, and the creator is trying to rescue us from its own mistake. Or, perhaps the ultimate God is a blind productive force, and among its creations were a good spirit and an evil spirit, who are powerful, but not *all*-powerful; but we can suppose – if we are seeking happiness – that the good spirit is powerful enough to one day retrieve us from the interzone where we find ourselves, and take us to that portion of reality where it *is* all-powerful.

        This sort of DIY theology is childish but amusing. But it seems to have more going for it than any of the received theologies, which seem to be speculations based on wishful thinking, and a projection of features of human psychology, arising from the *limited* power that humans have, onto the psychology of a being of *unlimited* power. A human ruler may need to punish or instil fear so as to produce order, but a being of unlimited power doesn’t *need* to do that. That is why a hell of punishment would indicate a sadistic rather than a just temperament, in a being of unlimited power; and it’s also why human beings might nonetheless *imagine* a god that is just but which nonetheless punishes – because their imagination is shaped by human experience of the constraints on the power of a finite being.

        Modern theology (outside of the Muslim world) has backed away from the idea of a hell of punishment, but it still has to deal with the existence of arbitrary suffering in *this* world. Thus we get complicated apologetics according to which it’s a test, or a filter, or it’s about free will, or the bad helps you appreciate the good, and so on. But we would never call a human ruler good, if they acted like this sort of God. To bury thousands of people alive, so that the rest may appreciate the goodness of being alive? It would be a horror. Yet nature routinely buries thousands of people alive.

        So the idea of a creator who is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and all-good, has to go. Choose any two, perhaps.

        • Argus

          God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everything he created is good. What we call evil is simply the degree of the absence of good. Just as we experience different intensities of light.
          And in the same way that light cannot create darkness, God did not create evil as evil is simply just another state of nothingness.
          So the question is not why did God create evil but rather, why does God allow evil to be experienced?
          Simply because, free-will cannot be fully exercised in a perfect world. And God would not want robots.
          Some would then say, if there is a heaven then, and it is perfect, does it mean we won’t have free will there? No. We will still have free will, but with the full knowledge of what the consequences of what our choices will be, having experienced the absence of good, our choices are bound to be one into choosing the absolute good.

          • Mitchell Porter

            So Argus, tell all this to the Syrian boy who gets his jaw blown off. Or the man who gets his arms ripped off in an industrial accident. Or to anyone buried alive in an earthquake, or, really, I could go on all day.

            The more serious question is why the human race continues to reproduce itself, when it knows that such things happen. The question about why God allows it to happen is about a hypothetical divine intention, but it’s all-too-real human choices which keep the whole thing going.

          • Argus

            Exactly why Christians can’t stop harping about the Good News. The big difference though between the early Christians’ zeal to those of today is that the early Christians were driven not because of what they believed in. Unlike us who now require proof, they were not believers – they were witnesses, and they couldn’t stop talking about what they have seen.

            You have deep empathy for those who suffer. I hope this feeling we have inside does not remain just a feeling but guides all of us into action. It’s all-too-real human choices which keep the whole thing going.

      • Taosquirrel

        Ted, the Gospels declare that evil is *not* in any way necessary or justified.

        The horror and pointlessness of death are emphasized constantly. Paul writes that all creation groans in expectation of its deliverance from corruption, and the glory of a new heaven and earth. The proof of this hope is the resurrection, in which Christ reveals that, in God, sin and death are entirely meaningless and powerless. This can only be understood radically, and most critics of Christianity (and possibly many Christians) do not realize just how radical it is. Pop culture depictions of heaven certainly don’t help. So yeah, the suffering of innocents is a powerful argument against Deism, but it is not a convincing one against Christianity.

        And Mitchell, I used to be a moral critic of Hell too, until during a long period of despondency I found myself lamenting not the harsh justice of Hell, but it’s insufferable mercy. The damned fully commit themselves to error, and when confronted with reality respond with rebellion and self-loathing rather than admit the truth. There are plenty of parenting analogies that could be made, but people tend to take those far too literally.

  • Joe

    I’ll be praying to St. Nathaniel as our atheist friends set under the metaphorical fig tree.

  • Delphi Psmith

    If God did exist, what would follow? What would be the worst knock on effect? What would be the best? What would you start or stop doing? What new constraints or freedoms would you operate under?

    Well, that gets into the sort of god you believe in. Marcus Aurelius (or at least it’s attributed to him) said, “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” That’s the sort of god I’d believe in, which means that it makes no difference at all to me whether or not he exists. I live the exact same life in either of the three cases.

    Assuming we’re limiting the LARPing to the Christian God, then the question arises, “Is he just?” If so, then finding out he exists wouldn’t change a thing about my life. (Of course, then we get into the whole question of what one means by “just”…)

    • Iota

      ” (Of course, then we get into the whole question of what one means by “just”…)”

      Which, incidentally, I’d like to ask you about, if you don’t mind. I promise I’m not asking to pull a Catholic apologetics gambit afterwards.

      Marcus Aurelius’s conception of God/gods is a relatively good one for an agnostic, I’d think (I could go on a Catholic teaching tangent here, but won’t). The thing is a really big unstated problem is what is justice (for a God/gods to do) and what are virtues (I probably don’t have to spell that out but Marcus was a Roman, so he probably owned slaves, for example, and saw nothing wrong with that while you, as a – presumably – modern American, probably DO see some things wrong with that).

      So what things do you think of as being not virtuous, virtuous and necessary for a good life (so that if there existed a deity it would have to justly reward you if you fulfilled them and would be justified in punishing you if you fell short), and virtuous and above the call of duty (so that if a deity existed it would have to give you an extra big reward)? If you want practical examples: what, if any, is your obligation towards those less better of than yourself that is necessary for your life to be seen as virtuous afterwards?

      Bonus question if you want: do you think, at present, you are fulfilling all the conditions for a sufficiently virtuous life or are you falling short? If yes, are you doing something about it (some sort of practical virtue training)?

      Notice, this is not a variant of “Atheists are amoral or something. I am genuinely curious what you personal morals are in particular (I am curious about that whenever people tell me they just lead a self-described “good/virtuous life” or are trying to do so, without providing specifics)

      • Delphi Psmith

        So what things do you think of as being not virtuous, virtuous and necessary for a good life (so that if there existed a deity it would have to justly reward you if you fulfilled them and would be justified in punishing you if you fell short), and virtuous and above the call of duty (so that if a deity existed it would have to give you an extra big reward)?

        This is an EXCELLENT question. I suppose I would say that the baseline virtues for me are truth and fairness. Most of what I try to do in making decisions in my life boils down to those two things. Fairness is a principle that is both logical and utilitarian; applied evenly, it results in the greatest good for the greatest number. Many studies have demonstrated that very young children, and even some animals (monkeys, dogs), understand the concept. Truth, I think, is pretty much self-evidently a virtue, since without accurate information, one can’t make correct decisions/choices.

        Things that are NOT virtuous, then, would be things that violate these two principles, such as stealing (it’s unfair to take what isn’t yours) and lying (if I lie to you, I deprive you of correct information and therefore of the opportunity to make correct choices). Murder is the theft of a life; cheating on a test is fraud (a grade you didn’t earn and don’t deserve).

        Things that are EXTRA virtuous would be things that promote fairness or truth. So, for example, volunteering to teach adult illiterates how to read is extra virtuous, since you’re giving them the basic tools needed to evaluate whether they are being treated fairly (e.g., reading a contract) and evaluate the truth of what they are told (by being able to read other sources).

        Does that help? Thanks for making me think :)

        • Iota

          That was interesting. :)

          I have one more question related to “Things that are EXTRA virtuous would be things that promote fairness or truth.” Feel free to reply, if you have time and interest (assuming you even see this :-)).

          Marcus Aurelius was a Roman, and ancient Roman culture wasn’t really big on mercy, which I think is a big flaw. Personally I tend to see mercy as a necessary part of any system of virtue ethics that assumes you could ever be judged not for a single incident, but for your whole life, because I have a pretty well developed awareness that I sometimes [read: relatively often] screw up not because I literally couldn’t do the virtuous thing, but that I didn’t want to pay the required price (e.g. hypothetically, I wasn’t willing be fired for whistleblowing, but someone else was).

          How does your system handle that? Is there a point of self-interest beyond which you should not be justly expected to act fairly or truthfully (if yes, that has some interesting implications…)? If there isn’t, assuming that you’d fail, would that make it just for the deity to punish you? If yes, how do you get back to a position of having earned the basic reward?

          [Full disclosure: for me, since I hope to be judged mercifully (i.e. with my - possibly conquerable but not at present conquered - weaknesses being taken into account) it becomes necessary to promote virtues/show mercy. Both because I have to be willing to give what I want to receive, and because - on a human-interaction level (as a Catholic, I believe there are also other levels of this problem) promoting virtue helps dismantle structures that have exerted pressure against virtue in my case. If I expected to be given mercy but didn't work to dismantle the structures of pressure (which are often collective), that would be like trying to get a permanent out-of-jail-free card - please show me mercy because of X, which I shall then ignore, until it turns out I need mercy again because, surprise, surprise, X is still there.]

          One could also argue that, given the state of the world, mercy is also actually necessary for fairness, since if you don’t murder a person but agree to them being dirt-poor because that’s how the economy works, while you profit from that arrangement by NOT being dirt-poor, that’s not fairness.

  • Elliot

    I just want to say that I miss SML.

  • jose

    Here’s one of the trackbacks for the post. “Leah Libresco, the brilliant little Yalie who also used to blog in the Atheist channel before she reasoned her way into faith (which happens more than many realize), has taken an interest in Seidensticker’s adventure”

    That way the trackback mentions sounds more interesting than praying, which I already did for more than ten years with authentic faith and nothing ever happened (hard to bother now). Let’s go along that path instead.

  • HBanan

    I think this is like doing a 40 day novena. A novena (normally 9 days) involves saying a prayer that usually takes just 30 seconds to 10 minutes, usually for a specific intention. A Catholic saying a novena would not normally grind all other prayer to a halt, and no one would be too impressed at someone who prayed only 2 minutes a day, but we can cut our atheist friends a break. During the prayer, the thing is sometimes long or wordy enough that other thoughts than the main request come to mind. Sometimes I have disliked some sections of the often flowery prayers, but I say them anyway for the sake of the good things. Our prayer does not have to be perfect! The mind makes multiple connections, and even wanders, though it must be continuously brought back to the prayer. Sometimes the person DOESN’T feel sincere, and that is okay. It can be enough to want to make an effort. An atheist doing this experiment should also not be scared to let his mind wander, because that is a normal part of prayer. A 40 day novena is actually a very nice idea, and I suggest that if an atheist wants to make Catholics understand her experiment, she start calling it that. “I am making a 40 day novena for knowledge of God and faith,” is the kind of language that could make any little old church lady smile. I suggest doing the prayers from the traditional Novena to the Holy Spirit, myself. Each person could tailor the content of the prayer it to his or her style. I would encourage anyone doing this personal experiment to think ahead of time about the style of prayer to employ, perhaps changing it each week, and to be brave enough to do more than just saying “Hello, God, are you there?” over and over. Ignatian style reflection on the events of the day could be something anyone could find helpful. Catholic prayer, at least, includes multiple forms of prayer, and why should these not be employed? If someone is trying to dip into a strange new practice, she should feel free to adjust the variables as she goes. This is just preliminary work, after all. Good luck! I hope this gives good fruit in your lives.

  • Bob

    How about if some theists LARP as atheists for 40 days? Just totally pretend that there is no God. No praying, no church. No nothing.
    See how it affects you, if at all.
    If it doesn’t affect you, maybe the atheists are right?
    Just saying, not sure why its always the atheists who are expected to go through these experiments.

    • where’s the upvote button


    • Marina Lehman

      Can we do it in 2 minute segments every day? :)

      In all seriousness, I think that it’s right for you to point that out. I had taken Leah’s post to be addressing both sides here, but the discussion has been very much pointed in one direction. There is the added complication that, for Christian theists at least, our beliefs constrain some actions that we would consider to be harmful to our spiritual health (or eternally damning, depending on your perspective). I don’t think that we can engage in those actions for the sake of a game. Fortunately, I don’t think that this eliminates the possibility of a thought experiment, which seems to be one of the valid ways to approach this. I’m definitely game for that.

    • deiseach

      Did that when I was eleven and trying to figure out did I believe in God because I believed, or because that’s how I was brought up.

      Decided to adopt mindset that I did not believe in Jesus, God, nothing like that. No praying, no invocation, no thinking about God.

      Gave it up after a few days because I could not maintain it. Conviction of the existence of God (despite whatever I might think or desire or believe either pro or con) was too strong; it was like trying strenuously to believe that I was not breathing oxygen.

      No, this wasn’t because I was influenced by others into dropping it; this was a private thought-experiment and I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was thinking (I was a very introverted child). My parents, siblings, teachers, classmates – nobody knew about this.

      So there you go. Because of that experience, I could be argued (possibly) out of the belief that Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) is true, but I can’t be convinced that there is no God/god/higher being/some greater intelligence.

      • Owlmirror

          “Conviction of the existence of God (despite whatever I might think or desire or believe either pro or con) was too strong; it was like trying strenuously to believe that I was not breathing oxygen.”

        This is quite fascinating to me. Socrates was convinced that he had a daimon that was a manifestation of Apollo. Is this conviction something like what you feel?

        Note that there’s a distinction between what you seem to feel, and empirical facts. You’re inhaling air, which is a mixture of gases, and one large part of that mixture was called oxygen based on how it affected chemical reactions. It was quickly discovered that oxygen was necessary for life. Later experiments showed exactly how oxygen worked in the metabolism of animals such as ourselves. Technically, you did not perform any of these experiments on yourself, but you accepted their results as being generalizations that were also applicable to yourself.

        Are there any experiments you would be willing to perform on your sensation of God?

          “I could be argued (possibly) out of the belief that Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) is true, but I can’t be convinced that there is no God/god/higher being/some greater intelligence.”

        What convinces you that whatever you’re feeling actually has or is a greater intelligence?

      • Alan

        But it is an equally plausible explanation that the influence of your upbringing was so strong and that was why you couldn’t do it – you don’t dispose of that possibility in your experiment at all.

        • Owlmirror

          Another possible explanation, though, is alternate neurology. For example, someone with synasthesia regularly perceives certain additional sensory phenomena along with some primary sense, so that words or numbers may have colors or sounds associated with them. There is no “influence of upbringing” involved; it simply happens in the brain.

          There’s a region of the brain that appears to be involved with perceiving a presence. It can be induced by stimulation (see reference below), and in some individuals, appears to be involved in hallucinations of presences.

          It may be that deiseach has some odd neurology in that portion of the brain, leading to mild hallucinations of a presence, which would thus be a constant experience interpreted as being that of God constantly around and “watching”. This is of course hardly certain, but is certainly worth keeping in mind as a hypothesis.

          Arzy S, Seeck M, Ortigue S, Spinelli L, Blanke O. Induction of an illusory shadow person. Nature 2006;443(7109):287.

          • keddaw

            Arguably this ‘presence’ is safely assimilated into a religious belief system rather than the perpetual paranoia that one would have if they thought it was a person (or persons) that was following them round everywhere.

    • Erick

      It could be argued that lots of people who nominally belong to a religion LARP as atheists.

      • Dan F.


  • Owlmirror

      “If God did exist, what would follow? What would be the worst knock on effect? What would be the best? What would you start or stop doing? What new constraints or freedoms would you operate under?”

    How are atheists supposed to answer these questions, when Christians of different sects have different answers to them? Even Catholics disagree on some of the answers.

    It’s interesting that you posit LARPing, since an idea that I’ve been toying with is that religion is basically a LARP whose first rule is to deny that it’s a LARP; that it’s all make-believe.
    The second rule is to come up with various post-hoc rationalizations for why the premises of the LARP can’t be empirically or rationally tested.

    Think about it: God will never, ever give any real information whatsoever. Occasionally, maybe, if you talk to yourself in just the right way at the right time, this supposed God will supposedly change people’s feelings. Is this supposed to be a real person, or a fake person that people pretend is real?

    I see above that there’s been the suggestion that Catholics/believers try a different experiment: Try living as though God didn’t exist. I have a few others:

    1) Pick a god from a pantheon, maybe one with some attributes diametrically opposite to those of the Christian God — a trickster god, or a sex goddess. Pray to that god, with sincerity and curiosity, for 40 days. Record “results”.

    2) Even more extreme: Pray to Satan, with sincerity and curiosity. Record “results”.

  • Owlmirror

    Bob: Hi Owlmirror. Did you know that Alice exists, loves me, and has complete access to all of your data?

    Owlmirror: What an extraordinary — and oddly specific — claim. Can I make an empirical test of this claim? I have a random string of 1024 numeric characters that I output to a file called “randnum2″. I’m willing to offer some information about the string, so I won’t be accused of denialism or lying about it, if Alice is correct.
    md5sum randnum2
    6aa60e2155a66e1117cee00c6cffc8a7 *randnum2
    sha1sum randnum2
    a888f87e4646c568e8f7d1bbd2794e7268161021 *randnum2
    The first digit is “9″.

    Bob: I’m sorry, you misunderstood something. Alice won’t tell me what any of your data is.

    Owlmirror: Why not? I give her permission to do so.

    Bob: It’s not a matter of your permission. I’m not allowed to ask her to empirically verify her claims to exist, love me, and have access to all of your data.

    Owlmirror: Wait, what? Haven’t you ever seen or communicated with Alice?

    Bob: Not exactly. Eve told me about Alice, and said I could verify the claim that Alice exists by initiating a silent conversation with Alice, and that Alice would make me feel peaceful as a confirmation.

    Owlmirror: Um, technically, that sounds to me like a one-bit signal channel. Couldn’t Alice provide more data by modulating your feelings? Peaceful equals a “1″, not-peaceful equals “0″?

    Bob: No! It doesn’t work like that! I’m not allowed to ask Alice for anything other than to confirm her existence via a peaceful feeling! No other data may be transmitted from Alice to me!

    Owlmirror: . . .

    Bob: Also, I’m supposed to tithe 10% of my income to Eve, and Alice thinks that gays are icky.

    Owlmirror: *facepalm*

    • ACN

      Have ’1′ internet-cookie, you’ve earned it.

    • JohnH

      So assuming that prayer involves receiving answers that are binary to specific yes-no questions and assuming that multiple such prayers would be needed for each numeric character in question perhaps say five, then to get the correct string of digits would require 46035 prayers. Assuming that each one takes 5 minutes then the project would take 3836.25 hours to complete. This would appear to be outside the realm of reasonable for one person to attempt. If one tried to crowd-source the operation there would be potential problems of different churches and religions praying in different ways and perhaps to differnt gods meaning that one would probably have to have multiple crowd source projects for each religious group in question. Also, one would again probably want perhaps five people on each digit so that what the majority determined the response to be would be the accepted response. Then there is the whole question of if doing this project aligns with what the religion in question holds as a valid subject of prayer or if their god(s) would choose to or feel obligated to answer the prayers.

      • Owlmirror

        When I originally came up with this idea (and the digits in randnum2), I had been challenged to ask for God to reveal himself for something like 35 days, which can be rounded up to 40 for the sake of similaritude with this prayer “experiment”. I wouldn’t need all 1024 digits to be convinced that Alice (or God) had access to all of my data. I would be satisfied with just 40, and would find even 10 to be strongly compelling.

          “Then there is the whole question of if doing this project aligns with what the religion in question holds as a valid subject of prayer or if their god(s) would choose to or feel obligated to answer the prayers.”

        Yes, that’s the standard sort of ad hoc excuse for not doing the experiment. “Alice doesn’t owe it to you or to anyone else to show that she has access to all of your data.”

        • leahlibresco

          Is there a reason this kind of evidence would lead you toward God, rather than aliens or omg! I’m living in a sim and the programmer talked to me? Thinking there’s something bigger than you isn’t evidence of a deity.

          • Owlmirror

            What sort of distinction do you think there actually is between a putative God and a putative programmer of a sim that I’m in?

            A demonstration that God (or Alice) has access to all of my data certainly isn’t proof of every claim about God (or Alice), but it’s certainly more evidence than undemonstrated claims, coming from other fallible humans, that appear to be suspiciously similar to those produced by various cognitive errors and biases.

            Or in other words, it’s at least a start.

              “Thinking there’s something bigger than you isn’t evidence of a deity.”

            deiseach, above, appears to be convinced otherwise. What makes deiseach wrong?

          • Owlmirror

            Also, I agree that aliens with sophisticated data snooping equipment, who are oddly willing to share data with people who make the “right” sort of request, can’t be entirely ruled out. But again — what’s the distinction between a putative God, and putative aliens that have everyone bugged, and communicate with humans by manipulating feelings?

          • leahlibresco

            The difference between power and authority.

          • Owlmirror

            Those with power usually claim to have authority. What makes them wrong?

          • Owlmirror

            @Leah – a thought experiment:

            Imagine, if you will, that a large white box appears (rather annoyingly) in the center of your field of view. Letters and words begin to appear in it, saying:

            “Hi Leah,
            This is the universe-programmer talking to you. I’m puzzled by your recent gnomic utterance that you typed in your blog. I could, of course, parse your system logs and definitional neural associations, but that would be work, so instead, I’ll just type in:
            sudo explain the the difference between power and authority

            What do you feel compelled to respond?

    • Elliot

      I enjoyed this a lot, Owlmirror.

  • OzarkCatholic

    I just sent him this in his combox:

    I just thought I’d challenge you to, during your daily prayer these next few weeks, to consider singing. Singing is considered one of the highest forms of prayer. As you are doing short, 3 minute prayers involving a ‘release’ lets say from Atheism, an apt prayer would be the Kyrie Eleison. This prayer and hymn stems from the first century, and is found in the ancient liturgies of Rome, Antioch, and Constantinople. It consists of “Kyrie Eleison, Christi Eleison, Kyrie Eleison…” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, lord have mercy. It was most repeated by priests at laity during the worship service before approaching the altar, and before the beginning of the communion service, to highlight our unworthiness to be in God’s presence.

    It is a wonderful prayer. Below is a link to a youtube video of the Kyrie from Missa VIII, Missa de Angelis (mass of the angels). Its short, sweet, and easy to learn/listen to. I highly recommend focusing on those words, “lord, have mercy”.

    No matter the outcome, I hope you find this experiment with prayer fruitful in some way. I look forward to reading your thoughts on all this at the end.

    Pax Christi.

    Here’s the video:

  • Randy

    Another form of prayer that can be powerful for connecting with the reality of God is meditating on the cross. Look at a crucifix or perhaps a painting of the crucifixion. Maybe read one of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Three minutes a day might be a little short for this but the cross is powerful no matter where you are in you intellectual relationship with God.

  • Arkenaten

    I cannot honestly see the point. If one is atheist then it is up to god -ANY god to reveal himself/herself/itself. And if one does not believe what is the point in the first place?
    Besides, if an omnipotent deity requires worship from squishy little life forms like humans to bolster his/her/its ego then he isn’t much of a god.
    Anyhow, religiously inclined folk have been praying for millennia and there is not a single verifiable case of any prayer being answered or any god tuning in and taking notice.
    All a bit silly really.

  • Erick

    @ Leah

    I guess my question was what would religionists find curious about atheism through the LARPing?

    The reason LARPing religion would be possible is because, regardless of belief, there are outward signs of the religion you could practice, i.e prayer, going to church, etc. There are usually a list of actions prescribed and proscribed. In other words, religion inherently has experimental controls against which you test your curiosity against.

    Atheism has no such controls (or more clearly, has much less controls than any religion) regardless of which specific philosophy you go by. For religionists, atheism of any kind actually entails an expansion of available behaviors. Since virtuous actions in an atheism LARP could not be differentiated from previously religious ones, only non-virtuous or dubiously moral actions could be tested against one’s curiosity.

  • Gordon

    He is already going further than I could/would. I have no intention of ever praying again, not even as a joke.

    But also, as he points out, this “prayer experiment” is targeted at atheists. So, by definition, the participants are people who would not expect the prayers to work. Presumably the organisation behind this expects the testimony of the convinced to be all the more compelling for their ability to start with “I was sure nothing would happen but…”

    Look how excited they got by your conversion Leah!

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think a key question here is whether I’m supposed to suspend factual belief, or factual and moral disbelief. If I suspend factual belief only, then I’m trapped in a system with a Jehovah who is certainly going to send me to hell when I die for the “crime” of having passed negative moral judgment on him for having, among other things, created hell; but the Testaments reveal that this god has many psychological vulnerabilities (e.g. need for praise) and has executed spectacularly bad plans (such as putting the Apple in the garden). There are very strong indications that I might be dealing with an upload using a superpowers defined by some other entity; but again, if I’m to suspend factual belief and accept God-qua-God at face value, then this is the actual Creator of Reality and it seems to have emerged by some process which resulted in limited intelligence. It takes time to do things, e.g. six days to create a world using a set of discrete interventions; it didn’t create life out of whole cloth, since evolutionary biology is still clearly true. In short, God is stupid, and I can either try to come up with a plan to directly take over or reprogram the Jehovah revealed in the Bible, or, if I don’t see anything good directly, try to program an FAI such that God would not intervene upon it (for reasons consistent with its other observed failures-to-intervene) until that FAI was smart enough to cause a reprogramming of God more directly.

    If you ask me to suspend moral disbelief… things become much more complicated. Basically, I don’t see how I can do that. It’s a matter of who I am, and the logic – not physics – of morality. There would have to be an argument which convinced me that hell was not evil; and in the absence of actually seeing that argument, then hell is something I would oppose for as long as I drew breath, no matter what.

    I can imagine being in the world of Lord of the Rings. If you ask me to be in the world of Lord of the Rings and imagine that, moreover, it is actually right and proper for Aragorn to rule because he’s hereditary king… I can’t imagine that any more than I can imagine that God sacrificing its son could actually change any ethical calculation about who was responsible for what, or who deserved what sort of punishment, or that infinite pain was not evil.

    You have to present me with that moral argument, or I can’t LARP it. I can run Professor Quirrell as an emulation inside my mind; I can pretend to be evil, in a LARP. I can pretend to be a servant of an evil Jehovah, just like I can pretend to be a Green Sun Prince working to free the Yozi and reinstate them as the rightful rulers of Creation. I can pretend to be brainwashed from birth, or fearful of punishment, or worshipping power; or having thrown myself into ethical self-deception knowing that failure means hell, while lacking my current guards against self-deception. What I can’t do is LARP as “Eliezer Yudkowsky, being the sort of person that he is, thinking that hell is justice. I can LARP myself in alternate universes – I can LARP alternate people – but I can’t LARP a universe where Jehovah is God, and God is good.

    • Gilbert

      I think you would be very unimpressed with a Christian putting the same amount of effort into designing their atheist character and then declaring it impossible.

      Lets look at the “factual” side first. (I don’t except the implicitly alleged non-factuality of morals, but I know what you mean extensionally, so whatever.)

      So your character would believe in a literal six calendar days of creation and in a literal apple-eating fall while simultaneously believing in evolution. A rather idiosyncratic combination of beliefs and if anyone actually holds it I’ve never heard of them. And then your character would assume that universe’s god to have “emerged by some process”, to not foresee the consequences of his actions, to lie to his creation, and to be stupid and reprogrammable, all of which are things Christians notably don’t believe about God.

      Now suppose you had built a FAI, it had foomed for a while so you could no longer trace its thought processes, then told you some version of Christianity was more or less true on the factual level and then melted before telling any details. Perhaps you built a few dozen FAIs on slightly different models and this is what happened every single time. And while you wouldn’t know what else might have gone wrong, you would have a static proof that none of those AI’s could have lied to you. Do you seriously think you would assume this to be the version of Christianity the AIs were most likely entertaining and be done with it? I think it’s much more likely you would be looking for less obviously stupid versions of Christianity. You would, for example, do a few minutes of googling and find out that a solid majority of Christians interpreted the creation accounts mostly allegorically long before any idea of evolution was around. You would also note lots of internal evidence of Genesis never having been meant the way modern fundies read it even by its original human authors. You would also note that basing all of Christianity on the bible is an idea less than 500 years old. And probably you would want to examine some philosophical systems you now dismiss for being based on going wrong early. Basically your character is optimized for annoyingness to Christians, not for similarity to yourself in a different world. That’s just missing the point.

      Now to the moral part.

      There is a factual question here too, in that you assume the alternative to sending someone to hell is just not sending someone to hell, where most Christians believe that alternative is actually mindrape. But, more importantly, you’re making an argument from selective moral incredulity when you are actually much more willing to overrule moral intuitions within your own system.

      Since we know our minds predictably fail on actual infinities (what you would call infinities not obtained as limits of final calculations) lets start out with a finite analogy. So your shiny new friendly AI has just shut down on an ethical injunction because it was about to torture all humans until the sun burns out. Basically a finite analogon of hell. At first you would probably suspect that the “F” part of that particular FAI hadn’t worked out so well. Thing is, upon inspecting the logfiles you find out why it had decided to do so: There are actually 3^^^3 sentients ins some far-away part of the universe each of whom will avoid a dust-spec in the eye for every year a human is tortured. What you would actually do is hopefully a separate question, but your professed morality requires you to shut up and multiply, which in this case means restarting the AI without the injunction. Ah, you might say, but that’s still finite suffering. Only because the universe has a finite life time. If the AI figures out a way to make it last eternally, the calculation will be identical a billion years from now and a billion years from then and so on by induction to all eternity. So there you have it, with the right set of (admittedly very improbable) facts your present morality requires you to accept infinite suffering as good.

      Next step: The AI tells you it has a reason to torture us infinitely that you wouldn’t understand, but it’s actually better than the 3^^^3 dust specs. You built it precisely to figure out stuff you’re too stupid to understand, so I don’t think you can simply decide you’re smarter than it is.

      Ah, but in this particular case you think you have proof it went wrong: if noone benefits from it, suffering is bad by definition. Well, I once read some sage talking of “by definition” as a warning sign of motivated stopping, but lets get more specific: If you take that route you basically (by definition :-) ) commit to undeconvincability on consequentialism. But would that actually be true or ethical? One final thought experiment: Your FAI shut down on an ethical injunction because it was about to fire the nukes. It figured out that the most coherent goal extrapolateable from human preferences is a death wish. Now you could just say “If the consequence of consequentialism is universal death / I desire everyone to die”. But I suspect you would actually be more likely to look for a non-consequentialist morality.

      So basically I don’t see how you can be sure you would never endorse infinite torture. You can rightly point out that all these scenarios are spectacularly unlikely so it’s still spectacularly unlikely that you would ever endorse it. You might even say the probability is too small to be worth keeping track of. In other words you could coherently say that you don’t want to play. But here you have made the much stronger claim that you can’t play, because a version of you endorsing infinite suffering is literally inconceivable. Given that the whole purpose of the exercise is to think about very unlikely versions of yourself, that looks like a very obvious motivated stopping.

      So, coming back to my intro sentence, here’s a kitty.

  • Owlmirror

      “Now suppose you had built a FAI, it had foomed for a while so you could no longer trace its thought processes, then told you some version of Christianity was more or less true on the factual level and then melted before telling any details. ”

    How . . . convenient.

    If an FAI that I’ve built completely implodes after blathering that some bloody stupid myth is “true on the factual level” — with no rational or evidential support, of course — then the most reasonable inference is that (a) some hostile agent has infected my source code and/or hardware or (b) I’ve made a terrible mistake somewhere, and the FAI has gone insane in some way.

      “Next step: The AI tells you it has a reason to torture us infinitely that you wouldn’t understand, but it’s actually better than the 3^^^3 dust specs. You built it precisely to figure out stuff you’re too stupid to understand, so I don’t think you can simply decide you’re smarter than it is.”

    If it’s smarter than I am, it should be smart enough to break down the explanation to where I can understand it. What does “You wouldn’t understand” usually mean? “I have completly different values than you do”?”You have a fundamental misconception that you need to correct”? Sometimes it means “I’m in too much emotional distress to explain” or “I lack the time to explain” or “I don’t know how to put it into words”, but that’s not on the table here.

    Anyway, any character I might come up with that would believe in Christianity, would have to have a flawed and inconsistent epistemology, because I can see the failings of all Christians in explaining why they believe. They might just be bad at self-analysis, or unaware of their own inconsistency, or dishonest in some way, or otherwise flawed, but making believe I’m flawed in the same way wouldn’t make me more likely to believe that Christianity is “true”.

    Look at the kitty, and look in a mirror.

    • Gilbert

      Yup, of course all these scenarios are highly convenient for me. That’s pretty much the point, I’m suggesting a least convenient possible world for Eliezer Yudkowsky, which is of course highly convenient for me.

      then the most reasonable inference is that (a) some hostile agent has infected my source code and/or hardware or (b) I’ve made a terrible mistake somewhere, and the FAI has gone insane in some way

      If you reread my comment above, you will note that I did assume he would look for what might have gone wrong without assuming Christianity true. He still would still need to find out what exactly the AI had fallen victim to. And my point was that he would not expect it to be the parody he offered above. Or in other words, there are graduations of absurdity and even if all versions of Christianity are absurd he clearly didn’t bother to think of the least absurd one. Or, again in other words, he didn’t actually try the LARPing before declaring it impossible.

      If it’s smarter than I am, it should be smart enough to break down the explanation to where I can understand it.

      No, that’s simply not the standard Yudkowskyan account of a Bayesian superintelligence. Those are supposed to have an intellect that relates to ours like ours relates to that of a dog. And you wouldn’t expect to explain quantum mechanics to a dog. Supposedly such superintelligences may have inferential distances from us that simply can’t be bridged in a natural lifetime.

      Now you may not believe such a thing will ever be created. Great, neither do I. But Eliezer Yudkowsky does, so I get to use the assumption when arguing about what he should think imaginable.

      Look at the kitty, and look in a mirror.

      Oh, I’m sure I’m as irrational as everyone else. But can you be a little more specific? I accused Mr. Yudkowsky of a motivated stopping on imagining his own Christian version. You may debate whether that is a fair accusation, but at least it is perfectly clear what the accusation is. Can you tell me which cognitive mistake precisely you are accusing me of, or is it just general dumbness?

      • Owlmirror

        OK, I think I have a better understanding of what you were trying to say. Maybe.

        But I don’t think you’ve made a good case that Yudowsky’s implicit concept of the God of Christianity (in the part about moral argument) is wrong. You call it a “parody”, but as far as I can tell, it’s based on Catholic dogma. Sophistimacated theololgians may argue that well, hell isn’t really a place of eternal torture, but if it isn’t, then what, exactly, is the putative salvation that a putative Jesus provides? And even the most sophistimacated Christian theololgian — so far as I understand — still argues that the suffering and “death” of Jesus was “for” some thing, which is the other concept that Yudkowsky argues is morally incoherent.

        Going back a bit, and responding to some points: “And while you wouldn’t know what else might have gone wrong, you would have a static proof that none of those AI’s could have lied to you.” What static proof are you referring to? Christianity and melting down are both unexpected results; how can lying be ruled out as an unexpected result?

          “You would, for example, do a few minutes of googling and find out that a solid majority of Christians interpreted the creation accounts mostly allegorically long before any idea of evolution was around.”

        I seem to recall ideas about multiple creations being mooted around, but nothing suggesting that God didn’t create grass before creating the sun, moon, and stars.

        “Allegory” covers a lot of handwaving.

          “You would also note lots of internal evidence of Genesis never having been meant the way modern fundies read it even by its original human authors.”

        Are you referring to the Documentary Hypothesis, here?

          “There is a factual question here too, in that you assume the alternative to sending someone to hell is just not sending someone to hell, where most Christians believe that alternative is actually mindrape.”

        I suspect that “most Christians” bit is a generalization from a rather small minority who have read and accepted the writings of a particular small subset of sophistimacated theololgians. Who posits what you write?

          “There are actually 3^^^3 sentients ins some far-away part of the universe each of whom will avoid a dust-spec in the eye for every year a human is tortured.”

        By what mechanism is this supposed to even happen? Magic?


          “Or in other words, there are graduations of absurdity and even if all versions of Christianity are absurd he clearly didn’t bother to think of the least absurd one.”

        Seems to me that all versions of Christianity are based on believing, at the very least, the absurdity that there is an invisible person with magical superpowers that demonstrates neither power nor personhood.

        Is there a less absurd version than that?

          “No, that’s simply not the standard Yudkowskyan account of a Bayesian superintelligence. Those are supposed to have an intellect that relates to ours like ours relates to that of a dog. And you wouldn’t expect to explain quantum mechanics to a dog.”


          “Supposedly such superintelligences may have inferential distances from us that simply can’t be bridged in a natural lifetime.”

        Whereas one might say that if someone can’t even begin to explain something, they don’t really understand it.

        Hm. “Indeed, words themselves are paradigms or stable “species” of sorts that evolve gradually with progressively accumulating penumbras of meaning, or sometimes mutate into new words to denote new concepts. These can then consolidate into chunks with “handles” (names) for juggling ideas around generating novel combinations.” — V. S. Ramachandran

          “Now you may not believe such a thing will ever be created. ”

        I don’t think it would be consistent to believe that such a thing can exist — something so smart that it cannot explain any part of its reasoning “in a natural lifetime”. There’s a subtle inconsistency in positing that it would not be able to offer simplified explanations to a chain of slightly dumber versions of itself, for example, until the chain reached human-level intelligence. And if it can’t talk down to unmodified humans, how about to humans with augmentation?

        Of course, that’s also one of the reasons I don’t believe in God. The concept is incoherent when examined carefully, even the more subtle versions of the concept.

          “Can you tell me which cognitive mistake precisely you are accusing me of, or is it just general dumbness?”

        I think every Christian I’ve argued with has suffered from cognitive failures about basic concepts when discussing religions versions of those concepts, and/or has failed to recognize or acknowledge logical fallacies in their own arguments, and/or has failed to noticed huge problems with their epistemology. If you want, we can continue the conversation, and see if you notice that you’re not making sense, and if you care that you’re not making sense.

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