Re: Eliezer on Science versus Religion

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Tue Mar 06 2001 - 09:20:11 MST

"Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" wrote:
> ...I make the equation:
> This holds true for 99%+ of all known religious claims prior to, say, 1492
> AD.
> The idea of nonfalsifiable faith is a strictly modern invention, driven by
> theology's loss of confidence. Ergo, to say that any of the major current
> religions (you know, the ones whose Books were written before 1492) make
> nonfalsifiable claims is to accept the academically fashionable in
> defiance of theological history.

Hmm... Well, restricting one's definition of "religion" to the
elaborately codified ones of the historical era (the last 5000
years) seems a bit narrow. A more anthropological view which includes,
say, myths accreted to consolidate and preserve a social hierarchy
might well consider unfalsifiability to be a salient virtue of
such stories (at least, as far as their social function as tools of
power is concerned).

Bertrand Russell, in a discussion of "taboo morality", comments:
"Taboo morality is the primitive kind. It is the only kind, I think,
in primitive tribes, where, for example, it would be a rule 'You must
not eat out of one of the chief's dishes.' If you do you'll probably
die!... so they say. And there are all sorts of rules of that sort.
I remember the king of Dahomey had a rule that he must not look long
in any one direction, because if he did, there would be tempests
in that part of his dominions. And so there was a rule that he
must always be looking 'round." (LP "Bertrand Russell Speaking" 1959 52 min.
Woodrow Wyatt interviews published in _Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind_).

And let's not forget the fortune-teller's art as a component of
religion, which has a long and distinguished history continuing up
to the present day, and of which unfalsifiability is an essential
component. The 1976 BBC television production of Robert Graves' _I Claudius_
has a great deal of fun with the Roman obsession with fortune
telling, as for example in the following scene. Augustus Caesar is
being poisoned by his wife Livia, and is visited on his sick bed
by a friend (this is from Episode 5 "Poison Is Queen", Chapter 4 "False
Pretenses" on the DVD set):

AUGUSTUS: I've had premonitions. Premonitions of death.

QUAESTOR: Well we all have them.

AUGUSTUS: No no no no no. This is serious. Listen, old friend.
Let me tell you. Two weeks after we came back... from you know
where, yes... I was in Mars Field giving a libation -- a little
ceremony. Well, you remember!

QUAESTOR: Well, I remember, but I wasn't there.



AUGUSTUS: Well nearby there's the temple built in the memory of
Marcus Agrippa.

QUAESTOR: Yes, I know it.

AUGUSTUS: Well, an eagle circled my head five times, then flew off
and settled on the "A" of Agrippa's name.

QUAESTOR: Why, Caesar!

AUGUSTUS: Oh don't lie to me, don't lie to me, it's clear what it
means, let's not pretend! It was telling me that my time had
come, and that I must give way to someone by the name of Agrippa.

QUAESTOR: Posthumous?

AUGUSTUS: Who else?

QUAESTOR: Did you consult an augur?

AUGUSTUS: Oh, I don't need an augur, it's plain, plain as the
nose on your face.

QUAESTOR: Well there may be some other explanation -- you're not
an expert on the interpretation of signs.

AUGUSTUS: Then listen to this. The following day, lightning
melted the "C" on my name on a statue nearby. It struck the
"C" of "Caesar". Do you follow, "C"! Now what does "C" mean?

QUAESTOR: A hundred.

AUGUSTUS: A hundred. Exactly! Livia saw it. She went to
an augur to find out what it meant. She wouldn't tell me,
but I forced it out of her. It means that I have only a
hundred days to live. I shall die in a hundred days.

QUAESTOR: Or weeks!


QUAESTOR: Why shouldn't it be weeks? Or months? Why shouldn't
it mean that you live to be a hundred?

AUGUSTUS: Do you think so?

QUAESTOR: Why not?

AUGUSTUS: Then perhaps she went to the wrong augur. Perhaps
he looked in the wrong book. (Laughs)

Further, many of the stories people make up to explain each other's
behavior are unfalsifiable in principle. Even present-day psychiatry
is notorious for making up explanations of this sort.

Jim F.

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