GCU Dancer on the Midway
Paul Wright's blog
 
19th May 2008, 01:38 am
giles
Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker's del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:
"We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever," says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. "You're trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You're trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That's hard work." In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, "growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world."
That sounds sort of familiar. I'm not sure I'd consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it's clear that cleanness (in the Bible's sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There's possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It's the origin of one of his statements on whether he's an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:
Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.
This isn't really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill's discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren't ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there's no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I'm not sure why you'd bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God's inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who's reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling's response to Terry Eagleton's review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

"Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice"

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to "not". Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.
Comments 
19th May 2008, 07:32 am (UTC)
Not me. But I do love that quote.
19th May 2008, 08:42 am (UTC)
When I stopped being a Christian I felt relief because I no longer had to view myself as a very naughty sinner (in fact I've probably swung too far the other way now), and not having to believe that the scientific community was wrong about the age of the earth and how man came about were a bit of a relief.

On the other hand secular / atheistic explanations for things aren't terribly easy to accept either. Atheism is nice in that you can sail which ever course you want to avoid the rocks you see in your path (rather than feeling you really have to sign the DB or something), but I don't want an easy life - I'm more interested in a worldview that makes sense and explains things. I find it terribly hard to believe that me, the self, consciousness, is a property of the material world, for reasons I find hard to explain (perhaps I should write a post about it). People like Chalmers who suggest that maybe we don't have consciousness at all solve the problem in a way that is totally unsatisfactory to me.

There are many examples of things like that which I find unsatisfactory, like the fine tuning issues with the universe. As with the fine tuning argument many of them seem to boil down to "well we don't know, but hopefully we'll have better answers in the future", which is fine I suppose - science has a habit of coming up with the answers, so I'm reticent to start betting on another horse. That doesn't mean it's satisfying or easy to think about all these things and hold on to that worldview though.

It's a shame toothycat doesn't post about his beliefs more often (or in more detail), not just because toothypocalypses are amusing - but because it is surprising how close his beliefs are to mine (and those of many atheists) but he remains a (Evangelical?) Christian. I suspect that many of the things atheists think are knock down arguments against Christianity (I'm thinking of arguments referring to science and such rather than 'where is the evidence for God type arguments) really only seem like that because Christians at the moment think the opposite position is required for Christian belief. In the future when they change their minds it may not be (just) that they need to evolve to keep their religion alive, but because it was never really required that they held such a position (e.g. the universe doesn't have to be finely tuned, maybe God created a 'multiverse' in the same way and for the same reasons that Christians tend to accept that God created a universe that is hostile to life with one corner that resulted in the evolution of human life - why not extend the idea to universes themselves?)
19th May 2008, 11:50 am (UTC)
I find faith-based versions of "how human minds work" extremely limiting to exploration of the mind - largely because even otherwise largely secular people seem to bash their heads against a brick wall when it comes to the idea of machine intelligence. I've had many a fruitless argument with people all over the religious spectrum where they basically say "machines can't think because humans have some special thing that makes thinking possible" (souls, but not everyone says that) or variations.

It seems to be one of the hardest ideas to give up from religion - the idea that we have 'souls' that make our thought processes special. Possibly because it seriously questions free will. Possibly because it makes us want the brain bleach (thinking about thinking is tough).
19th May 2008, 12:02 pm (UTC)
I'm not saying that I think that religion has a very good explanation of what consciousness / qualia are - I'm saying that purely material explanations seem to me to be insufficient.

It seems to me that we could create sufficiently complicated neural networks that would behave in exactly the same way as (say) a human mind - but that's not the same as saying they are consciousness in the way that we are (or more accurately the way I think I am). This path leads me to a place of Chalmersian zombies, which while it might explain all how all of you guys say you're conscious - it doesn't explain my qualia in a way that is very convincing.

edited to add penrose icon

Edited at 2008-05-19 12:02 pm (UTC)
19th May 2008, 12:21 pm (UTC)
I feel myself to be concious - however the only way I know that *you* feel yourself to be concious is that you say you are, and that you act in ways I understand as ways that concious-humans act. I think an AI that talked like a concious being would be in all the ways that matter a concious being.

Also I think Penrose is insane; especially his thoughts on how the brain works. Especially his thoughts on how quantum gravity works on the brain. No, really, I had to study this (Josephson was marking it; he is also insane, especially on the brain, and he disagrees entirely with Penrose aiui so insanity is not providing useful information here).
19th May 2008, 12:27 pm (UTC)
I feel myself to be concious - however the only way I know that *you* feel yourself to be concious is that you say you are, and that you act in ways I understand as ways that concious-humans act
Exactly. That's what I said.

I think an AI that talked like a concious being would be in all the ways that matter a concious being.
"All the ways that matter" is the classic strong AI dodge. As I said - it makes sense to me that materialism can lead to human level (or greater) 'intelligent behaviour' zombies, but that doesn't really explain the sense of consciousness that I have of myself, which is ISTM a weakness of materialism.
19th May 2008, 12:32 pm (UTC)
Your self-conciousness (and mine) is IMO simply an emergent property of a complex system.

Without wandering into the supernatural (souls) or the insane (quantum micro gravity tubule things) I don't see what else it *could* be really. I don't have anything against the zombie idea really, what's wrong with it? Why is it so hard to accept that as a description of reality?
20th May 2008, 11:34 am (UTC)
Yeah, materialism fails to explain consciousness. However, I'd feel that this was more of a blow for it if there was some other proposal floating around that does explain consciousness.
19th May 2008, 12:38 pm (UTC)
I don't think Penrose is insane, merely mistaken. If making mistakes in areas outside your field of expertise requires a diagnosis of insanity, then who among is sane enough to make that diagnosis?

His argument in The Emperor's New Mind seems very weak to me. As far as I can tell, it goes like this:
  1. Premise: we don't understand quantum gravity.
  2. Premise: we don't understand consciousness.
  3. Conclusion: they might be related.
Josephson on the other hand has a bit of a persecution complex. I went to a talk by him a few years ago and when someone in the audience asked him (very mildly, in my opinion, given the nonsense he had subjected us to for the last hour) whether he had any evidence for the paranormal phenomena he was talking about he complained that we were all closed-minded bigots.
19th May 2008, 12:40 pm (UTC)
Not knowing/being wrong are non-insane. Writing books about things that you know squat about so as to look like a confident expert... somewhat more insane.
19th May 2008, 12:30 pm (UTC)
purely material explanations [of consciousness] seem to me to be insufficient

Purely material explanations of dark matter are insufficient too.

That's because all explanations of dark matter, material or otherwise, are insufficient. As yet.

But it's a big leap from "I don't understand how something works" to "materialism must be wrong".
19th May 2008, 12:36 pm (UTC)
I didn't say "materialism must be wrong", so please don't put words in my mouth.

Consciousness seems to be in quite a different category to dark matter. There are various potentially testable theories with respect to dark matter, the same is not true with consciousness.

Also, I have a lot more confidence in astrophysicists (who have a good track record with similar problems) that than the pseudo-science pseudo-philosophy of the materialistic models of the mind.
19th May 2008, 12:46 pm (UTC)
I didn't say you said "materialism must be wrong", so please don't put words in my mouth.
27th May 2008, 12:44 am (UTC)
If I've understood it correctly, Chalmers' Zombie argument is not that because science cannot explain our own subjective consciousness, physicalism is wrong. Rather, he argues that because it would be possible to have a world physically identical to our own where everyone is an unconscious zombie, consciousness does not supervene on the physical. Accepting physicalism cannot force you to accept that you are a zombie, because you already know that you're not.

Interestingly, Chalmers argues that, in our world, consciousness arises from certain functional configurations in things like brains, but also possibly in things like silicon chips. I think this means that he thinks a suitable AI would be conscious. If I've understood how he'd relate this to the zombie argument correctly, what he means is that these physical structures generate consciousness but only because of the bridging laws that apply to our world, which generate non-physical consciousness from matter. I'd be grateful if any real philosophers reading this could tell me whether I've understood Chalmers correctly.

I'm puzzled by this because I don't see in what way he thinks consciousness is non-physical. If bridging laws exist, how do they differ from physical laws (assuming those exist), except that, by construction, they don't apply in zombie world.
19th May 2008, 05:06 pm (UTC)
That Voyou blog post was quite horrific. I've never seen so many people (well, since I last read Fundies Say The Darndest Things) completely fail to grasp the point of comparing one's opinions with observable reality.

Said Voyou:

if the difference between theists and atheists is explained by their stupidity and our cleverness, we’re left without a way of analyzing how our own sets of beliefs might be plausible but ultimately false.


Hey look, if we posit straw men we can knock them down really easily!
20th May 2008, 09:45 pm (UTC)
I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure

You, and C.S. Lewis:

"The whole thing [Christianity] became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) 'altering "I believe" to "one does feel"'. And oh, the relief of it! [...]

"And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief." (Surprised by Joy, chapter 4)

Although, of course, that was not the end of the matter, and he has a different analysis of the experience.

RE: moral contagion, I don't think you have to be a Christian to believe that "bad company corrupts good character". And I simply didn't understand the argument at the end of the "unequally yoked" hyperlink.
20th May 2008, 10:32 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I've got a copy of Surprised by Joy around, although I have read it. What is his analysis?

It may not be the end of the matter for me, for all I know. robhu's recent reconversion reminds us that none of us can be lax about these things, lest we backslide into theism.

I think the theory of moral contagion isn't about bad company, it's about uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism (so I don't want to wear a shirt worn by a murderer, or whatever). With bad company, there's an obvious mechanism.

There isn't really an argument on that page, just a parallel between two things that modify their hosts' sexual behaviour for their own benefit.
20th May 2008, 10:33 pm (UTC)
:-)
21st May 2008, 10:26 pm (UTC)
Paul,

There's not really a quotable analysis of the relief as such, but I think the following passage gives a fair reflection:

"what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the centre what seemed then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If this picture were true then no sort of 'treaty with reality' could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one's soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, 'This is my business and mine only.'"

I think the theory of moral contagion isn't about bad company, it's about uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism

And I'm saying that IMHO the caution in Christianity at least about mixing with (and marrying) non-believers is much more about bad company than anything else. No offence.

There isn't really an argument on that page, just a parallel between two things that modify their hosts' sexual behaviour for their own benefit

Their hosts? Do you not think the implication that Christianity is a parasite ought to be accompanied by an argument?

Rob,

Hallelujah!
22nd May 2008, 01:21 am (UTC)
St Jack gave up his childhood Christianity because he wanted autonomy. The implication of the quotation you give above is that he later thought this autonomy was a bad thing, monstrous and lawless. Returning to our favourite topic of Derren Brown, I'm not sure where this leaves the free will defence, which seems to assume that autonomy is a good thing, good enough to allow all the evil of the world, even. If Jack, and hence God, objects to autonomy so much, why not use NLP to ensure we always make the right choices?

My relief at leaving Christianity was probably partly a relief at not being told what to do (although being told what to do is in some ways a relief in itself: too much choice tends to make people unhappy, psychologists say. De-converts often feel quite lost). None of us are pure and disinterested seekers of the truth (robhu has clearly re-converted to get girls, for example), and I don't want to exalt myself too much (just enough will be fine).

What I recall most, however, was a relief as at the resolution of the tension of trying to believe stuff that wasn't true. Evangelicalism (rightly) teaches you that truth is important. The quote from Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, which I've mentioned before, precisely describes my feeling of knowing the truth is important and realising that what I previously believed wasn't it.

Thinking on it some more, I think there's more to the moral contagion stuff than bad company, because, if we're honest, most unbelievers are not that bad and most believers are not that good (this is gjm11's Christian behaviour argument, as it happens). To take separatism to the sort of extremes that, say, the Johanine community seems to have (the church is light, the world is darkness), requires you to think that unbelievers are yucky (and therefore bad and contagiously so), regardless of whether we've actually done anything much other than fail to believe. You'd be forgiven for not wanting to hang out with Dawkins or marry me (although note that I only play the fire-breathing atheist on the Internet), I guess, but the average agnostic on the Clapham omnibus? Really?

We can call Christianity a symbiote instead if you like. Religions behave a bit like organisms (although there's no science to "memetics", so I'm not going to argue about that). The choice of organism for the analogy reflects the writer's prejudices about the religion, to some extent. Would you agree that evangelicalism is like a fluffy bunny?
22nd May 2008, 01:19 pm (UTC)
My relief at leaving Christianity was probably partly a relief at not being told what to do
What were you told to do that you didn't like?

I almost wrote "What were you told to think that you didn't like?", but you didn't say that...

Was it StAG telling you what to do that you didn't like, that you thought God was (or might be) telling you to do something, or just anyone telling you to do something?

If God (by which I suppose I'm interested in 'god' in the general sense as well as Yahweh) was real and wanted you to do (i.e. act) in a certain way how would you respond?

We can call Christianity a symbiote instead if you like. Religions behave a bit like organisms (although there's no science to "memetics", so I'm not going to argue about that). The choice of organism for the analogy reflects the writer's prejudices about the religion, to some extent.
I think memetics is helpful in the weaker sense. It's obviously pseudoscience if you try to push it to far.

So I'd agree that Christianity is a meme in the same way that atheism, science, Labour party political views, and so on are.

I think arguing that religion is a mind virus is a bit of a cheap shot tbh.
24th May 2008, 08:59 pm (UTC)
I don't really recall any specific thing that StAG wanted me to do that I didn't (erm, except at one stage they wanted me to consider helping with the youth group or something, and I didn't want to because I wasn't sure I'd get on with youth, because I was shy). I think rather that the idea of an absolute authority is worrying unless you absolutely trust that authority, and one of my major doubts was whether the God portrayed by StAG was trustworthy (partly because I took the OT record of God ordering genocide as historically accurate, partly because of concerns about hell).

Yahweh is, as you know, the most unpleasant character in all fiction. In general, my response to a god which wanted me to do something would depend on whether I thought that thing was good. My impression of most gods is that the people who've devoted their lives to them are better than the gods themselves (a point Terry Pratchett makes in Small Gods).

The characterisation of religion as a virus can apply if a religion is mostly about reproducing itself. Some of religions can be like that, to some extent (evangelical Christianity, Scientology, Mormonism, some kinds of Islam). A virus can be harmful to the host, too, which again, I'd say those religions can be.

I wouldn't characterise ideologies which aren't hard-nosed replicators in the same way, so I'd argue that atheism (in itself, not New Atheism, which is evangelistic) and science are not in the same class. Party politics might be, in the sense that people are encouraged to canvas.
22nd May 2008, 07:08 pm (UTC)
You're conflating two different senses of "autonomy":
(1) The ability to make free choices (as per the FWD)
(2) The fact of those choices being no-one's "business" but the chooser's (what CSL was so keen to have at one point)

If someone e.g. gets married, or joins the army, they sacrifice a large portion of their autonomy (2), without thereby ceasing to be a locus of free will. But actually it's the Christian claim that, in the final analysis, autonomy (2) (auto nomos, "self-law") doesn't exist, because "God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil".

We can all play the motivation game all day and get nowhere, as you point out in you comment about Rob (I assume that's what you meant). I didn't mean to imply that your reasons for relief were the same as CSL's, or Rob's, or anyone else's. I just wanted to show that there's no necessary connection between the emotion of release and "pressure to keep bailing".

Suppose I alter the saying to "un-Christian company corrupts Christian character". Now we have a statement to do with concern about taking on the values of those surrounding you (or "following their gods", as the OT warnings to Israel went). Again, this has nothing to do with "uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism".

And no, I don't think any belief is like an organism in any useful sense. You already have some idea of how dim a view I take of "memetics".
24th May 2008, 09:36 pm (UTC)
If, in the end, God's going to judge everyone, then what's the point of the ability to make free choices? Given how bad Hell is, it'd be better not to have been able to make those choices. "You have free choice, but I'll fry you if you chose something I don't like" limits my ability to chose, I think.

I just wanted to show that there's no necessary connection between the emotion of release and "pressure to keep bailing".

I agree that there's no necessary connection, but I certainly found that in my own case.

Suppose I alter the saying to "un-Christian company corrupts Christian character". Now we have a statement to do with concern about taking on the values of those surrounding you (or "following their gods", as the OT warnings to Israel went).

Then I'd agree (but you've removed the moral dimension which religions tend to add to that sort of statement).
29th May 2008, 10:33 am (UTC)
What I recall most, however, was a relief as at the resolution of the tension of trying to believe stuff that wasn't true.
That sounds familiar. I remember a huge sense of relief at my deconversion. I felt like I'd been trying to do a jigsaw with pieces that didn't fit together, or trying to hang wallpaper and every time I pressed down a bubble another one came up. Deciding that I simply didn't have to do that any more was an immense relief.

But then I started to find (but maybe you don't find this?) that there were similar jigsaws and wallpaper in atheism. Giving up believing in God didn't mean I was free to not believe anything at all - I had to have some kind of worldview, and that came with holes, tensions and contradictions of its own. I came to the (somewhat irritating) conclusion that intellectual peace, absence of tension, a sense of everything fitting together, were luxuries we're not entitled to have.

A few years ago I read an economics book - Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher. He talks about "convergent" and "divergent" truths. The former are neat and make sense, and the latter are messy and often apparently contradictory, but nonetheless true, and usually apply to the things that really matter in life. (He wasn't talking about religion - just economics and human relationships and stuff.) As a mathmo and a CICCU-ite I had been far more accustomed to dealing with convergent truths, and needed the validity of divergent truths to be explicitly pointed out to me.

(robhu has clearly re-converted to get girls, for example)
Bit of a cheap shot. And I don't think it's true - he says he thinks a relationship at this stage would be unhelpful for him and for the girl, so he's not looking.
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