Reading Yudkowsky, part 10

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 21, 2011 in Eliezer Yudkowsky,Resources,Reviews

AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky is something of an expert at human rationality, and at teaching it to others. His hundreds of posts at Overcoming Bias (now moved to Less Wrong) are a treasure trove for those who want to improve their own rationality. As such, I’m reading all of them, chronologically.

I suspect some of my readers want to improve their rationality, too. So I’m keeping a diary of my Yudkowsky reading. Feel free to follow along.

Yudkowsky’s 58th post is Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable:

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

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

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

…[In the Bible] you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud.  (Which is a metaphor for…)

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

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

The Roman Empire did have libraries.  Thus, the New Testament doesn’t claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did.

…The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie – a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false.

Moving on: The Importance of Saying “Oops.” The bosses at Enron couldn’t admit to making a huge mistake. And thus, a huge mistake turned into a catastrophic one.

There is a powerful advantage to admitting you have made a large mistake.  It’s painful.  It can also change your whole life.

Unfortunately, Yudkowsky does not, in that post, tell the story of the large mistake that switched him from what he calls “Traditional Rationalism” (Feynman) to what he calls “Bayescraft” (Laplace / Jaynes / Kahneman / Tversky). That comes later.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven R. January 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

More people who claim religious faith should read this article in particular. Good stuff. I still love that Blue and Green analogy.


BenSix January 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I get the feeling Yudkowsky’s not a cat-blogging man, amirite?


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