Answer to a question: what do I think about God’s communication patterns?

This started as a comment on Book Review: How Minds Change, but it got so long and off the original topic that I felt it didn’t belong in that comments feed. People would have to scroll past a large block of text that doesn’t have much to do with the original article.

For context, I was responding to jaspax,

(Sorry, it doesn’t look like the conservatives have caught on to this kind of approach yet.)

Actually, if you look at religious proselytization, you’ll find that these techniques are all pretty well-known, albeit under different names and with different purposes. And while this isn’t actually synonymous with political canvassing, it often has political spillover effects.

If you wanted, one could argue this the other way: left-oriented activism is more like proselytization than it is factual persuasion. And LessWrong, in particular, has a ton of quasi-religious elements, which means that its recruitment strategy necessarily looks a lot like evangelism.

when I said,

And even more deeply than door-to-door conversations, political and religious beliefs spread through long-term friend and romantic relationships, even unintentionally.

I can attest to this first-hand because I converted from atheism to Catholicism (25 years ago) by the unintended example of my girlfriend-then-wife, and then I saw the pattern repeat as a volunteer in RCIA, an education program for people who have decided to become Catholic (during the months before confirmation), and pre-Cana, another program for couples who plan to be married in the church (also months-long). The pattern in which a romantic relationship among different-religion (including no-religion) couples eventually ends up with one or the other converting is extremely common. I’d say that maybe 90% of the people in RCIA had a Catholic significant other, and maybe 40% of the couples in pre-Cana were mixed couples that became both-Catholic. What this vantage point didn’t show me was the fraction in which the Catholic member of the couple converted away or maybe just got less involved and decided against being married Catholic (and therefore no pre-Cana). I assume that happens approximately as often. But it still shows that being friends or more than friends is an extremely strong motivator for changing one’s views, whichever direction it goes.

Since it happened to me personally, the key thing in my case was that I didn’t start with a clear idea of what Catholics (or some Catholics, anyway) actually believe. In reading this article and the ones linked from it, I came to Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale, which illustrates the point very well: scottalexander quoted Bill Maher as saying that Christians believe that sin was caused by a talking snake, and scottalexander himself got into a conversation with a Muslim in Cairo who thought he believed that monkeys turned into humans. Both are wild caricatures of what someone else believes, or at least a way of phrasing it that leads to the wrong mental image. In other words, miscommunication. What I found when I spent a lot of time with a Catholic—who wasn’t trying to convert me—was that what some Catholics (can’t attest for all of them) meant by the statements in their creed isn’t at all the ridiculous things that written creed could be made to sound like.

In general, that point of view is the one Yudkowsky dismissed in Outside the Laboratory, which is to say that physical and religious statements are in different reality-boxes, but he dismissed it out of hand. Maybe there are large groups of people who interpret religious statements the same way they interpret the front page of the newspaper, but it would take a long-term relationship, with continuous communication, to even find out if that is true, for a specific individual. They might say that they’re biblical literalists on the web or fill out surveys that way, but what someone means by their words can be very surprising. (Which is to say, philosophy is hard.) Incidentally, another group I was involved in, a Faith and Reason study group in which all of the members were grad students in the physical sciences, couldn’t even find anyone who believed in religious claims that countered physical facts. Our social networks didn’t include any.

Long-term, empathic communication trades the birds-eye view of surveys for narrow depth. Surely, the people I’ve come in contact with are not representative of the whole, but they’re not crazy, either.

Then Tim Freeman asked,

If you are Catholic, or remember being Catholic, and you’re here, maybe you can explain something for me.

How do you reconcile God’s benevolence and omnipotence with His communication patterns? Specifically: I assume you believe that the Good News was delivered at one specific place and time in the world, and then allowed to spread by natural means. God could have given everyone decent evidence that Jesus existed and was important, and God could have spread that information by some reliable means. I could imagine a trickster God playing games with an important message like that, but the Christian God is assumed to be good, not a trickster. How do you deal with this?

Here’s my response.

The easier thing to answer is what I don’t believe, and what all the Christians who I know personally—well enough to have an idea of what they believe—don’t believe. We don’t think there was Only One Shot in which everyone who had heard of an obscure Nazorean preacher would get eternal bliss and everyone else, including people who lived before him or too far away from him (possibly on other planets) would get torment. I know that there are evangelists on TV (including Catholics on ETWN) who insist that this is the case. I would guess that the ones on TV really think that—they now have a reputation to maintain, like the 9/​11 truthers apart from Charlie Veitch in the example above[1]. Members of their congregations might say they believe it, too, when they’re reminded that it’s the criterion for continued membership in their social lives, but I’m not in a congregation like that. My social category would probably be called “liberal Catholic.”

I should give you a better answer, though, one that doesn’t just say, “I’m not like them,” pointing to another group. First, my conception of God is very low-level/​foundational: when I decided to stop calling myself an atheist, the definition of God that I was taking on was (and still is), “the reason why existing things are distinct from non-existing things.” So, for instance, the reason that apples fall is on one level because they experience a force toward massive bodies like the Earth, on another level because mass curves space-time and the path of the apple is a geodesic, and on another level because God is making it happen (i.e. the curvature and the travel along the geodesic, rather than anything else), each time an apple falls. I realize that most atheists do believe in reality and wouldn’t define God this way.

This belief starts looking more religious when I add that this low-level God has thought-like/​human-like/​emotion-like ideas. God can have opinions about human actions in a way that gravity can’t. I put a lot of “-like”s in that because a thing/​principle that is more fundamental than space, time, or matter can’t have a brain, and humans get their thoughts and emotions from brains. This is probably where the real theist-vs-atheist divide is, but for me personally, I felt that the previous paragraph, the idea that there’s any foundation to reality at all, was the bigger step and that’s when I stopped calling myself an atheist. Anyway, most Christians would be quick to point out that it’s easy to over-anthropomorphize God, who is some fundamental, structureless principle, not a brain, so statements about what God thinks, feels, or has opinions about are analogies to human thinking, feeling, and having opinions.

Thus, in addition to providing a word (“God”) for “Why does anything exist at all?” this also gives a grounding for objective ethics, that action X can actually be right or wrong, rather than something people just feel positively or negatively about. Using an expression from physics, the idea that a universal mind that has opinions on human actions “breaks the symmetry” between possible opinions about those actions. In this, I’ve been taking one side of the Euthyphro dilemma, but apparently it’s been a centuries-long debate. There’s less agreement than I’d originally thought within Christianity that God makes morality (as opposed to just saying, “God is moral”). I mostly got my perspective from Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion.

Your question was about communication, so I’m getting to that now. Sometimes people say that Bible stories are supposed to be exemplars of good behavior (both inside and outside the Christian camp), but a quick thumb-through of Genesis should be enough to put that to rest. Most people I know would instead say that God communicates through the Bible or through the history that the Bible conveys, that there’s a general, gradual improvement in goodness (adherence to the morality of the previous paragraph) and the primary function of the Bible is to illustrate this change. Read in rough historical order, people got better, and people are still getting better. The Abraham and Isaac story was probably a human sacrifice story, originally, that got pulled in line with a perspective that human sacrifice is wrong (just as Noah’s flood was a recasting of a general Mesopotamian myth into a monotheistic framework, putting one god on both the pro-flood and the anti-flood sides—and it doesn’t quite work). On my own read-through, I noticed that King David was the first person who seemed to have any compassion for his enemies, which was puzzling to his contemporaries and only got normalized as an ideal centuries later. The first prophets supported an animal sacrifice cult; the last prophets were much more concerned about social justice (e.g. Hosea 6:6). Jesus revolutionized moral thought in a variety of ways, too, and some of those even stick among atheists in our culture. For instance, Aristotle didn’t recognize humility as a virtue, though it was one of Jesus’s major themes, and it so took over our culture that rejecting it, like Nietzsche did, now seems radical.

Considering God’s communication like that, as a gradual improvement that gets normalized in the culture, it’s not the cruel joke that it would be if it were, “Worship such-and-such a guy you maybe couldn’t have heard of, given where and when you live, or demons will eat your guts.” If you’re accustomed to interacting with hard-liners who say such things or even draw the borders of Christianity to require such things, then maybe this will sound overly soft. But it does characterize what most of the Christians I personally know believe.

That much, everything described above, is roughly where I was a quarter century ago, at the time of my conversion. As I said in my first comment, my wife wasn’t trying to convert me, but I saw what the religion was like for her, got interested, did a lot of reading, and decided to join. That was my original point to jaspax, that religions and political beliefs of all types do spread through friendly and romantic relationships, not just door-to-door evangelization (which doesn’t seem to me like it would be very effective). It’s also in line with bc4026bd4aaa5b7fe’s point in the original article.

Some things have changed since then. I’m less sure about the argument that goes, “Existence of an opinionated God breaks the symmetry among human actions that gives objective reality to moral positions.” While I still think that the implication holds, I don’t see how it would matter in the human sphere. Maybe God prefers action X, but how would we know it? Conscience is a feeling—how would we distinguish a feeling that happens to align with the universe from a feeling that does not? If this alignment[2] is progressive over centuries, it’s more like something that happens to us, which doesn’t change the fact that we’re following our feelings or what we think other people want. I don’t see a way to escape an emotivist conclusion, at least epistemologically, not ontologically.

Also, I’m now less inclined to think of consciousness as an atomic thing, a categorical boundary between consciousness and non-consciousness. I have several draft posts about my struggles with that, but it’s at least clear that human minds can be taken apart, little by little, by brain lesions, drugs, and other physical manipulations. (I wonder if the converse is true: if two people are actually psychic, communicating all their brain activity through radio waves or something, that they would automatically become one person?) Catholicism doesn’t have much to say about it, but I find it hard to see how ethics survives this dissolution of individuality. Buddhism does, and I’ve been asking questions about that. I’m unlikely to switch religions, but I will be incorporating things that I learn into my personal philosophy and sharing them with the people I interact with, including the Catholic community that I’m still a part of.

To make sure I didn’t leave your question in the gaps:

  • “I assume you believe that the Good News was delivered at one specific place and time in the world, and then allowed to spread by natural means”
    Yes, but not exclusively that one time and place. At least, I’ve been answering your question thinking about God’s communication of ethics/​how to live, but now I realize that by “Good News” you might mean Jesus’s resurrection or what happens after death. I guess it’s telling that I only now realized what you might have meant and I haven’t even collected my thoughts on that.

  • “God could have given everyone decent evidence that Jesus existed and was important, and God could have spread that information by some reliable means”
    Christianity did become a world religion, so the ideas got around. I just looked up some figures and almost exactly 13 of the world’s population is Christian. That wouldn’t be enough if the downside of not being Christian is “demons eat your guts,” but as I said above, I don’t believe those are the consequences.

  1. ^

    In the original article, Book Review: How Minds Change.

  2. ^

    My use of “alignment” here wasn’t intended to sound like “AI alignment,” which I’ve been learning about/​hearing a lot about recently, but it’s actually a similar concept, I guess. How well do these pesky humans’ objectives align with their creator’s? The difference, though, is that we’re positing a powerful creator and a not-powerful creation, whereas the AI alignment problem is about AI that could become more powerful than us.