Talking to God

(low-effort post)

The following is not supposed to be an account of all religion, only a very specific thing that happens sometimes.

In logic, a “modality” is a qualifier you can put on a statement, which changes the rules for interacting with that statement. For example, “possibly X”, “necessarily X”, “I believe X”, “I know X”, and so on.

I’m going to use the term “modality” somewhat loosely, to refer to different modes of interaction with statements.

I think there’s a part of rationality that could be described as “the search for the trustworthy modality”. For example, “scientifically” is a pretty good modality. It has a set of rules around it which has, historically, been wildly and vividly successful in comparison with other modalities.

However, rationalists have some problems with the “scientifically” modality, especially in contrast to a “bayesian” modality.

This quest of finding useful modalities isn’t really restricted to rationalists, of course. Basically all humans are looking for the best ways to have their words understood, and looking to understand others. Qualifiers like “I believe” are important tools which allow opinions to be expressed without introducing raw contradiction into the conversational context.[1]

The “God told me” modality, when you can pull it off, allows statements to be made which invite absolutely no disagreement. This is of course very very useful in the right context.

Looking around at the world, it seems clear that many of our problems are coordination problems. War is the most obvious—it could simply stop and everything would be better! Of course, in these parts, we call the general problem Moloch.

So, catching a glimpse of how much better it could be if everyone would coordinate, it might seem easy to call it a glimpse of God’s will. And you can see that if everyone would simply listen to this Will, things would be much better.

So you set out preaching the benefits of this modality, and try to create a community of practice around it.

It almost doesn’t matter exactly what outcome we coordinate on, so long as we coordinate. So you might try to create a very viral form of the God modality. And you might have a lot of arbitrary practices in your community of practice, because you’re implicitly more focused on coordinating on something than on making sure you’ve coordinated on the best possible thing.

Once, at a LessWrong meetup in Los Angeles, a beach bum prophet came to the meetup with a follower or two. They excitedly told us about how the prophet guy was leading bible studies on the beach, and how each of them had turned their lives around because of it. The prophet told me a few stories about God telling him things, which sadly I don’t remember in much detail now. But it did include one instance of God calling him on his BS prophecy, actually.

Of course, I’ve experienced religious people talking about “talking to God” many times. But only rarely do they have the courage[2] to claim that God said anything back. And even then, it seems to me like a soft echo of the ecstatic relationship with God which the beach bum prophet had.

I’m not claiming this is literally true (certainly not of all religions), but it gives me a mental image of religions being started by prophets who see this potential for coordination. They get a few people listening to them, and they think how great it would be if everyone in the world would get on the same wavelength. So they try to spread. But of course the religious practice that gets spread is far from the actual mental algorithm being used by the original prophet (to varying degrees, depending on the case).

(And, also of course, the mental algorithm used by the prophet probably wasn’t that great in the first place.)

  1. ^

    Saying “X” conveys the same information as “I believe X”, from a Bayesian perspective; but if one person says “X” and another person says “not X”, a listener cannot accept what both have said; while if one person says “I believe X” and another says “I believe not-X”, a listener can believe both statements.

    So, the “belief” modality allows us to preserve a conversational norm of “by default, what each person says is assumed as truth in the conversation going forward, unless explicitly questioned”.

    Otherwise, stating contradictory beliefs would invite argument more than it does, which would sometimes be inefficient.

  2. ^

    (or whatever you want to call it!)