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Jun. 21st, 2009 @ 08:46 am life's little mysteries
(As opposed to life's big mysteries, which were all solved a couple thousand years ago.)

If you swore to someone that you just moments ago had witnessed several impossible things, culminating in oh say someone being slain and then rising from the dead, almost anyone would deem you to be crazy - the exceptions mostly to be found in institutions.

And yet if your beliefs are identical, held with the same certainty as if you had just witnessed them (in fact higher certainty than if you had witnessed them, as presumably even if you are religious you have been conditioned by reality to doubt the impossible in your actual day-to-day life) but instead of being a witness, you read about them in a book or someone told you about them - then, your beliefs are unremarkable.

I'm sure it sounds like I'm ragging on religious people here (and things being as they are it's hard not to sound like that at all times, even if I'm just reading a shopping list) but I say this to ask a specific question about the epistemology of the rapturous: what is the calculus by which the second version is LESS crazy than the first? Shouldn't believing something impossible happened because you were there and saw it be LESS crazy than believing it happened and NOT having personally witnessed it?
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From:Mark Rafn [dagon.net]
Date:June 21st, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)

not crazy, but still incorrect

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Both are difficult for me to believe to me, but a popular faith is clearly less crazy than an unusual, socially-debilitating one.

Claiming group membership among the people you hold in respect by believing the same things they do seems pretty normal (not completely rational, but not insane either). Humans seem programmed to create and join exclusive tribes, and claiming to believe the impossible is one way to accomplish this.

Believing something popular and socially accepted/encouraged gets you something, at a very low cost in most cases. That's a cheap (even profitable, by some calculations) false belief. Believing something unpopular that restricts your life by keeping you from leaving the house or whatnot is an expensive false belief. Clearly, the more expensive false belief is crazier.

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From:patrissimo
Date:June 22nd, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)

Re: not crazy, but still incorrect

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+1

epistemologically, primary evidence is king.

socially, primary evidence is a chimney sweep.
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From:extempore
Date:June 22nd, 2009 04:12 am (UTC)

Re: not crazy, but still incorrect

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I have no problem with that explanation, although it's most interesting to me for what it says about how we should adjust our estimations. Undoubtedly there is more reason to give credence to the personally risky, socially ostracizing belief. So though it may be "less crazy" to swim with the current, it's vastly less believable.

Separately, I find this explanation very incomplete because it only provides motivation for professing false belief, not for holding it.
From:Mark Rafn [dagon.net]
Date:June 22nd, 2009 04:47 am (UTC)

Re: not crazy, but still incorrect

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Last point first: signaling false belief is difficult, so the motivation for holding a false belief which gives you a social benefit is that you'll better be able to profess it. This is especially true for "cheap" beliefs, which are those that are difficult to test and truth has little relevance to one's success.

For personal self-auditing purposes, you're exactly right: you should be more suspicious of your "easy" beliefs. Fortunately, the habit of testing your predictions serves well to check both popular and unpopular beliefs.

The opposite works too: don't give much weight to beliefs which don't make testable predictions. Those aren't beliefs, they're "just" societal value signals.
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From:extempore
Date:June 23rd, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)

Re: not crazy, but still incorrect

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signaling false belief is difficult, so the motivation for holding a false belief which gives you a social benefit is that you'll better be able to profess it.

I had never thought of it in quite those terms, possibly because the underlying motivation is so alien. What a depressing thought it is, that the more unfalsifiable a belief, the fewer are the (direct) consequences to holding it - and that the instinctive mechanism for resolving the difficulty in signaling false belief is to eliminate the perception of "false" rather than the perception of "belief".

The indirect consequence we can all share together while we die choking on phlegm after some true believer unleashes his bioengineered plague with its 100% fatality rate. But hey, as long as people enjoy their church socials.
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From:slawson01
Date:June 21st, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
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I've seen and participated in some weird things. I'm not sure what to think about them, even though I saw them in clear light just a few feet from me, or was in control and making things happen (In 2003 I attended a weekend workshop where one of the things taught was hypnosis where I hypnotized a cop from chicago).

I've also been to 'magic' shows. Magicians are professionals who specialize in making things look as they are not really. Hundreds of people watch a magician saw a woman in half or something, and no one calls the police. If someone did, they would be made to look like an idiot.

I also don't believe the details about anything I see in the news or anything I see published. Have you ever been interviewed for an article or read an article with an interview of someone you know to be very well versed in the subject they are talking about? It's not really wrong, but it's also not right and you can tell. When you write articles for a living you don't have time to gain the understanding of what you're writing about, so you put it together as well as you can. You can't get it right, because you just don't know and can't spare the time to learn it well enough to do it right, so it is done not too wrong and that is called good enough.

From:matchesmalone
Date:December 26th, 2009 12:49 pm (UTC)

As I do write articles for a living... Well, lately, anyway

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I am in fact well versed in what I write about. That's why I write about it. So, if you're statement is that journalism is dead, then you are correct.
From:eddiehawkins
Date:June 21st, 2009 09:48 pm (UTC)
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Your question kind of changes between the first and second part. The first part is comparing a friend's experience to an experience I've been told happened once upon a time many years ago, and the second part appears to be comparing personal experience to an experience I've been told about etc.

If I was watching a bridge game and each player was dealt all cards of one suit, it would be super-tremendously improbable but I would have seen it and I'd believe it happened (although I might be suspicious about some trickery with the deck). If my friend told me that he saw it yesterday, I probably wouldn't believe him, because it is super-tremendously improbable. If I read in a book that it happened once in 1790, I would still find it unlikely, but I'm a lot more willing to believe that it happened once somewhere than that it happened and it was just yesterday and my friend happened to be there.

maybe a better analogy: if my friend came to me and said he saw a two-headed calf in person yesterday, I'd want a lot of explanation about how and where that happened before I believed it; also, I'd expect there to be other sources of information about it that would independently confirm his story. if my friend told me that a two-headed calf was born a hundred years ago in India, I'd probably say "yeah, that could happen, I guess." and I wouldn't be so demanding of alternative sources of proof.
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From:extempore
Date:June 22nd, 2009 04:16 am (UTC)
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"Two-headed calf" is major league bait and switch vs. "guy died and came back from dead a couple days later." The analogy becomes nonsensical. Equally invalid is "everyone gets dealt 13 cards of one suit" because "impossible" is not synonymous with "quite unlikely."
From:Mark Rafn [dagon.net]
Date:June 23rd, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
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Basic bayeseanism: impossible may not be the same as "quite unlikely", but it _is_ interchangeable with "ludicrously unlikely". There are no 0s or 1s in a rational set of priors, though you may have some that require a lot of decimal places.

Anyone who sees that bridge deal, even with their own eyes, and thinks there's a measurable chance it's not a trick is innumerate. Likewise anyone who witnesses torture and execution and later sees the victim alive. Accepting it secondhand from a few sources isn't actually that much worse. Either way, smart money's many millions to one on a lie or a trick.

Two-headed calf is pretty likely compared to the other two events, and I have no trouble accepting such a report, or suspecting it to be real if I saw it in a sideshow.
From:adspar
Date:June 21st, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
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your question assumes that rationality applies equally to evaluation of everyday real-world situations and to evaluation of religious beliefs. for you it does; for others it doesn't. their conclusions precede their reasoning, and the "calculus" is whatever gets them to the desired end to their own satisfaction, the specific form depending on the individual. "crazy" just isn't a concept that they can meaningfully apply to religious dogma.
From:matchesmalone
Date:December 26th, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)

Are you stating...

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Your karma ran over my dogma?
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From:787style
Date:June 21st, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
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Because there's a potential punishment that comes with not believing in scenario two. If you believe in the potential for an afterlife, and someone gives you a scenario that could directly impact your existence in said afterlife, ones belief system could potentially be swayed.
From:naturalborn
Date:June 22nd, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
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What I don't understand is how you continue to find the subject of religion interesting. I find it sort of like most people being absolutely convinced in the existence of the easter bunny - depressing, yes, interesting, no. Talking someone into not believing in god is like talking them into not smoking, it's just a waste of time.
From:kantianpacifist
Date:June 22nd, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
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I put it to you then: what is appropriate use of time, if that is a waste of time?

I don't care for such strong assertions as what's "worth" discussing. There are many great men who believe that all discussions are worth having.
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From:extempore
Date:June 22nd, 2009 04:21 am (UTC)
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Three things I do not find interesting for their own sakes: politics, religion, and finance.

Three things I devote attention to anyway: ...

In all three cases the reason is the same, more so since I had kids and had to assume a longer time horizon. Perhaps it was best expressed in another context: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
From:howardtreesong
Date:June 23rd, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
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On the off chance you haven't already read Jon Krakauer's "Under The Banner Of Heaven," I recommend it. As I recall it, he gets near the concept your opening post raised in the context of Mormonism, although I don't think he quite frames it that way -- in all events, I'm guessing you'll like the book.
From:mwilkie40
Date:June 26th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC)
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"Why not just tell people I'm an alien from Mars. Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They'll believe anything you say, because you're a reporter. But if I, Michael Jackson, were to say, 'I'm an alien from Mars and I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight,' people would say, 'Oh, man, that Michael Jackson is nuts. He's cracked up. You can't believe a damn word that comes out of his mouth.'"

—Michael Jackson
From:matchesmalone
Date:December 26th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)

Actually...

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It's more likely your analogy would happen the other way around....
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From:shandrew
Date:June 26th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
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In our country that is around 75% Christian, only 20% attend church on a given week.

If people REALLY believed in being slain and rising from the dead, don't you think the attendance would be higher? If I really believed that religion could immortalize me and jesus came back from the dead, i'd be in church every freakin' day!

The reason that their beliefs are unremarkable and not crazy is that most don't actually believe them literally.

(Ok, i lied. Personally i do believe that i can rise from the dead. It's just very improbable.)
From:glenross
Date:July 1st, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)

power of narrative

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and yet here we are. To draw the irony further, Jesus convinced some through witnessed "miracles" but was vastly more convincing after death, through the Bible. Judaism has survived for thousands of years based on written documents, stories and ceremonies. Isn't this a testament to the power of narrative over the human psyche? To some kind of societal logic of religion and group thinking?

I am not a believer, and am not drawn to group thinking (or so I like to think), but find it far more interesting to ask why? That men are sheep is too reductive and lacks imagination, imho. [not that it doesn't infuriate me when some use religion to oppose science, or worse, to justify killing/oppressing others]

"We're all individuals!"
From:matchesmalone
Date:December 26th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)

This is what happens when you stay away for a long time....

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Wish I had responded to this post in anything resembling real time, however, here we are, the day after Christmas, and for some reason I was drawn to your blog, Paul. Fact, or miracle? I don't know. Supposedly, a miracle has been defined mathematically as something that has less than a 1 in 10^-50 chance of happening. Your question seems to posit The Bible is a work of fiction, and as such, has already been proven otherwise. You can't use the same standards of proof today on an event that happened almost 2000 years ago.

Having stated that, had I been around at the time, I might not have become a follower of Jesus, simply because I don't know that I would've known anyone that witnessed the event firsthand, or seen it for myself.

So, I guess your question comes downto, what you should believe. Only you can answer that. Sounds like faith, actually.

I hope you and your family had a Merry Christmas, however, if you're not celebrating the birth of Christ, then what are you celebrating?