Re: Miracles, ETI, and rationality
Mon, 1 Nov 1999 23:30:05 -0800

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, <>, writes:
> wrote:
> >
> > My ultimate point is the same one I have made in other contexts. We have
> > had tremendous success througout history by removing supernatural elements
> > from our explanations of the universe. Adopting the view that ETs are
> > here and manipulating our world is a giant step backward. Posting to the
> > web to implore ET to respond is simply a form of prayer. I don't believe
> > this has any place in a modern, rationalistic approach to the universe.
> I reject utterly this entire concept of rationality. What you're saying
> is that the historical development of human opinion, in which "progress
> in successfully modeling and manipulating the Universe" was covariant
> with "the change from models that attribute patterns to the desires of
> powerful entities, to models that attribute patterns to the interaction
> of lower-level elements", is allowed to impose a constraint on external
> reality that prevents powerful entities from influencing our world.

No, it does not put a constraint on external reality. But it does provide strong evidence of what we should believe about external reality.

Broadly speaking, we live in one of three universes:

	(A) No Powers are locally present
	(B) Powers are present, but they hide perfectly
	(C) Powers are present, and they sometimes do interact with us

For all intents and purposes, (A) and (B) are the same, so the real issue is whether (A) or (C) obtains. My criticism is directed at those who would support (C). The fact is that all of our scientific successes and slow, painful progress over the centuries have been the direct result of denying (C) and moving to (A). There is no reason whatsoever to go back to believing (C) at this point.

> Maybe people who are already silly to begin with can't accept the idea
> that this whole Universe might be a computer simulation run by
> interventionist sysops without losing all track of reality, but as far
> as I'm concerned, in the event that the Matrix Hypothesis was proven,
> I'd simply go on thinking the same way as always. If I don't believe in
> miracle X, it's because miracle X is easier to explain by reference to
> human legend then by reference to intervention, not because intervention
> is absolutely impossible. Think relative probabilities, not proof.
> Only weak minds demand certainty.

How likely is it, then, that the miracle of the loaves and fishes (in which a multitude were fed using a small initial allocation of food) is the result of nanotechnological food synthesis by an alien Jesus? How can you evaluate this?

Suppose you had absolute knowledge that a sometimes-interventionist Power was in residence on the earth. Doesn't this force you to accept a significant probability that this event was real? Certainly it would have been within the capabilities of the Power.

Now suppose you (somehow) knew that there was no such interventionist Power. Can't you say, now, that this miracle is virtually certain not to have happened?

It seems to me that accepting the premise of an interventionist alien civilization in residence on or near this planet, as several people have suggested, forces you to accept as a reasonable, plausible and significant probability that any number of miraculous, non-scientific events may in fact have been real, and may still be real.

> If there's a Power hovering behind the moon, I don't have to abandon the
> reductionist paradigm. I just say the low-level elements making up this
> Universe are organized in the shape of a Power hovering behind the moon,
> for understandable historical reasons having to do with the previous
> development of intelligent life. And if the Power starts playing games
> with the planet, presumably due to persistent initial programming, then
> the behavior of the Power is explicable in terms of the evolved
> psychology and last-minute social interaction of the race that created it.

The issue is not whether a reductionist paradigm works, because as you say you can trivially expand it to include any phenomena you like. The real issue is whether conscious intelligence plays a role in what we would ordinarily consider natural phenomena, suggesting that our observed laws may be much less lawful than we would otherwise imagine.

Biblical miracles and other magical events represent suspension of natural law. By ordinary scientific reasoning we can rule these out. In the presence of a Power, we can not, for two reasons. First, most of them could be accomplished by sufficiently advanced technology, and second, even for those which appear to violate natural laws, it could be that the Power has systematically and intentionally misled us about the true laws of the universe. Philosophically we have no basis for making conclusions in the face of such superior power.

When we face scientific quandaries today, such as the solar neutrino problem or the missing galactic mass, we can either look for naturalistic explanations in keeping with the philosophical tradition of scientific inquiry, or we can try to solve these puzzles by invoking the existence of a supernatural Power. But the latter explanation is so broad and so unlimited that virtually anything can be explained by this means. It is essentially a religious explanation, not a scientific one.

> Known memetic forces impose one set of probabilities on an explanation
> for an account of a miracle; known facts about the world (i.e. WWII was
> not prevented, nor is child abuse) and probabilities about the racial
> psychology of the initiating race impose another set of probabilities on
> interventionist explanations for an account of a miracle. I don't see
> where the equations break down.

This is close to reasoning I would accept: the fact that Powers apparently do not intervene openly and obviously seems inconsistent with the proposition that they would have instigated a religious movement that would sweep half the globe. Creating Jesus is hardly the way to keep a low profile.

Nevertheless, religious philosophers have devoted uncounted thousands of hours to rationalizing their own higher Power's seeming inattention to the world with his forceful intervention in the creation of Jesus. It is not difficult to invoke the unfathomable mind of the Power to explain why we cannot plumb the mysteries of its divine will. Virtually any pattern of behavior is possible, and the technology of the Power puts essentially no limits on what it may choose to accomplish. In practice you cannot deduce anything significant about the reality of religious miracles from the fact that WWII and child abuse are allowed to happen.