Uncritical Supercriticality

Every now and then, you see peo­ple ar­gu­ing over whether athe­ism is a “re­li­gion.” As I touch on el­se­where, in “Pur­pose and Prag­ma­tism,” ar­gu­ing over the mean­ing of a word nearly always means that you’ve lost track of the origi­nal ques­tion.1 How might this ar­gu­ment arise to be­gin with?

An athe­ist is hold­ing forth, blam­ing “re­li­gion” for the In­qui­si­tion, the Cru­sades, and var­i­ous con­flicts with or within Is­lam. The re­li­gious one may re­ply, “But athe­ism is also a re­li­gion, be­cause you also have be­liefs about God; you be­lieve God doesn’t ex­ist.” Then the athe­ist an­swers, “If athe­ism is a re­li­gion, then not col­lect­ing stamps is a hobby,” and the ar­gu­ment be­gins.

Or the one may re­ply, “But hor­rors just as great were in­flicted by Stalin, who was an athe­ist, and who sup­pressed churches in the name of athe­ism; there­fore you are wrong to blame the vi­o­lence on re­li­gion.” Now the athe­ist may be tempted to re­ply, “No true Scots­man,” say­ing, “Stalin’s re­li­gion was Com­mu­nism.” The re­li­gious one an­swers “If Com­mu­nism is a re­li­gion, then Star Wars fan­dom is a gov­ern­ment,” and the ar­gu­ment be­gins.

Should a “re­li­gious” per­son be defined as some­one who has a definite opinion about the ex­is­tence of at least one God, e.g., as­sign­ing a prob­a­bil­ity lower than 10% or higher than 90% to the ex­is­tence of Zeus? Or should a “re­li­gious” per­son be defined as some­one who has a pos­i­tive opinion (say, a prob­a­bil­ity higher than 90%) on the ex­is­tence of at least one God? In the former case, Stalin was “re­li­gious”; in the lat­ter case, Stalin was “not re­li­gious.”

But this is ex­actly the wrong way to look at the prob­lem. What you re­ally want to know—what the ar­gu­ment was origi­nally about—is why, at cer­tain points in hu­man his­tory, large groups of peo­ple were slaugh­tered and tor­tured, os­ten­si­bly in the name of an idea. Redefin­ing a word won’t change the facts of his­tory one way or the other.

Com­mu­nism was a com­plex catas­tro­phe, and there may be no sin­gle why, no sin­gle crit­i­cal link in the chain of causal­ity. But if I had to sug­gest an ur-mis­take, it would be . . . well, I’ll let God say it for me:

If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daugh­ter, or the spouse whom you em­brace, or your most in­ti­mate friend, tries to se­cretly se­duce you, say­ing, “Let us go and serve other gods,” un­known to you or your an­ces­tors be­fore you, gods of the peo­ples sur­round­ing you, whether near you or far away, any­where through­out the world, you must not con­sent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or con­ceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the peo­ple fol­low­ing. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to di­vert you from Yah­weh your God.

—Deuteron­omy 13:7–11, em­pha­sis added

This was like­wise the rule which Stalin set for Com­mu­nism, and Hitler for Nazism: if your brother tries to tell you why Marx is wrong, if your son tries to tell you the Jews are not plan­ning world con­quest, then do not de­bate him or set forth your own ev­i­dence; do not perform repli­ca­ble ex­per­i­ments or ex­am­ine his­tory; but turn him in at once to the se­cret po­lice.

I sug­gested that one key to re­sist­ing an af­fec­tive death spiral is the prin­ci­ple of “bur­den­some de­tails”—just re­mem­ber­ing to ques­tion the spe­cific de­tails of each ad­di­tional nice claim about the Great Idea.2 This wouldn’t get rid of the halo effect, but it would hope­fully re­duce the res­o­nance to be­low crit­i­cal­ity, so that one nice-sound­ing claim trig­gers less than 1.0 ad­di­tional nice-sound­ing claims, on av­er­age.

The di­a­met­ric op­po­site of this ad­vice, which sends the halo effect su­per­crit­i­cal, is when it feels wrong to ar­gue against any pos­i­tive claim about the Great Idea.

Poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler. Ar­gu­ments are sol­diers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must sup­port all fa­vor­able claims, and ar­gue against all un­fa­vor­able claims. Other­wise it’s like giv­ing aid and com­fort to the en­emy, or stab­bing your friends in the back.

If . . .

  • . . . you feel that con­tra­dict­ing some­one else who makes a flawed nice claim in fa­vor of evolu­tion would be giv­ing aid and com­fort to the cre­ation­ists;

  • . . . you feel like you get spiritual credit for each nice thing you say about God, and ar­gu­ing about it would in­terfere with your re­la­tion­ship with God;

  • . . . you have the dis­tinct sense that the other peo­ple in the room will dis­like you for “not sup­port­ing our troops” if you ar­gue against the lat­est war;

  • . . . say­ing any­thing against Com­mu­nism gets you stoned to death shot;

. . . then the af­fec­tive death spiral has gone su­per­crit­i­cal. It is now a Su­per Happy Death Spiral.

When it comes to our origi­nal ques­tion—“What makes the slaugh­ter?”—the key cat­e­gory to pay at­ten­tion to isn’t re­li­gion as such. The best dis­tinc­tion I’ve heard be­tween “su­per­nat­u­ral” and “nat­u­ral­is­tic” wor­ld­views is that a su­per­nat­u­ral wor­ld­view as­serts the ex­is­tence of on­tolog­i­cally ba­sic men­tal sub­stances, like spirits, while a nat­u­ral­is­tic wor­ld­view re­duces men­tal phe­nom­ena to non­men­tal parts. Fo­cus­ing on this as the source of the prob­lem buys into re­li­gious ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Su­per­nat­u­ral­ist claims are worth dis­t­in­guish­ing, be­cause they always turn out to be wrong for fairly fun­da­men­tal rea­sons.3 But it’s still just one kind of mis­take.

An af­fec­tive death spiral can nu­cle­ate around su­per­nat­u­ral be­liefs—par­tic­u­larly monothe­isms whose pin­na­cle is a Su­per Happy Agent, defined pri­mar­ily by agree­ing with any nice state­ment about it—and par­tic­u­larly meme com­plexes grown so­phis­ti­cated enough to as­sert su­per­nat­u­ral pun­ish­ments for dis­be­lief. But the death spiral can also start around a poli­ti­cal in­no­va­tion, a charis­matic leader, be­lief in racial des­tiny, or an eco­nomic hy­poth­e­sis. The les­son of his­tory is that af­fec­tive death spirals are dan­ger­ous whether or not they hap­pen to in­volve su­per­nat­u­ral­ism. Reli­gion isn’t spe­cial enough, as a class of mis­take, to be the key prob­lem.

Sam Har­ris came closer when he put the ac­cus­ing finger on faith. If you don’t place an ap­pro­pri­ate bur­den of proof on each and ev­ery ad­di­tional nice claim, the af­fec­tive res­o­nance gets started very eas­ily. Look at the poor New Agers. Chris­ti­an­ity de­vel­oped defenses against crit­i­cism, ar­gu­ing for the won­ders of faith; New Agers cul­turally in­herit the cached thought that faith is pos­i­tive, but lack Chris­ti­an­ity’s ex­clu­sion­ary scrip­ture to keep out com­pet­ing memes. New Agers end up in happy death spirals around stars, trees, mag­nets, diets, spells, uni­corns . . .

But the af­fec­tive death spiral turns much dead­lier af­ter crit­i­cism be­comes a sin, or a gaffe, or a crime. There are things in this world that are worth prais­ing greatly, and you can’t flatly say that praise be­yond a cer­tain point is for­bid­den. But there is never an Idea so true that it’s wrong to crit­i­cize any ar­gu­ment that sup­ports it. Never. Never ever never for ever. That is flat. The vast ma­jor­ity of pos­si­ble be­liefs in a non­triv­ial an­swer space are false, and like­wise, the vast ma­jor­ity of pos­si­ble sup­port­ing ar­gu­ments for a true be­lief are also false, and not even the hap­piest idea can change that.

And it is triple ul­tra for­bid­den to re­spond to crit­i­cism with vi­o­lence. There are a very few in­junc­tions in the hu­man art of ra­tio­nal­ity that have no ifs, ands, buts, or es­cape clauses. This is one of them. Bad ar­gu­ment gets coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. Does not get bul­let. Never. Never ever never for ever.

1Link: http://​​less­wrong.com/​​lw/​​lf/​​pur­pose_and_prag­ma­tism/​​.

2It’s not triv­ial ad­vice. Peo­ple of­ten don’t re­mem­ber to do this when they’re listen­ing to a fu­tur­ist sketch­ing amaz­ingly de­tailed pro­jec­tions about the won­ders of to­mor­row, let alone when they’re think­ing about their fa­vorite idea ever.

3See, for ex­am­ple, “Mys­te­ri­ous An­swers to Mys­te­ri­ous Ques­tions” in Map and Ter­ri­tory.