Peter McLaughlin

305Joined Dec 2021

Comments
25

I'm not sure what you mean by saying that my Bayesian argument fails in some cases? 'P(X|E)>P(X) if and only if P(E|X)>P(E|not-X)' is a theorem in the probability calculus (assuming no probabilities with value zero or one). If the likelihood ratio of X given E is greater than one, then upon observing E you should rationally update towards X.

If you just mean that there are some values of X which do not explain the events of the last week, such that P(events of the last week | X) ≤ P(events of the last week | not-X), this is true but trivial. Your post was about cases where 'this catastrophe is in line with X thing [critics] already believed'. In these cases, the rational thing to do is to update toward critics.

Downvoted. I disagree quite strongly on points one and four, but that's a discussion for another day; I downvoted because point three is harmful.

If people with a long history of criticising EA have indeed claimed X for a long time, while EA-at-large has said not-X; and X is compatible with the events of the past week, while not-X is not (or is less obviously compatible, or renders those events more unexpected); then rational Bayesians should update towards the people with the long history of criticising EA. Just apply Bayes' rule: if P(events of the last week | X) > P(events of the last week | not-X), then you should increase your credence in X upon observing the events of the last week.

This reasoning holds whether or not these critics are speaking in bad faith, have personal issues with EA, or are acting irrationally. If being a bad-faith critic of EA provides you with better predictive power than being a relatively-uncritical member of the movement, then you should update so that you are closer to being a bad-faith critic of EA than to being a relatively-uncritical member of the movement. You probably shouldn't go all the way there (better to stop in the middle, somewhere around 'good-faith critic' or 'EA adjacent' or 'EA but quite suspicious of the movement's leadership'), but updating in that direction is the rational Bayesian thing to do.

To be sure, there's always a worry that the critics have fudged or falsified their predictions, saying something vaguely critical in the past which has since been sharpened into 'Several months ago, I predicted that this exact thing would happen!' This is the 'predicting the next recession' effect, and we should be vigilant about it. But while this is definitely happening in a lot of cases, in some of the most high-profile ones I don't think it applies: I think there were relatively concrete predictions made that a crisis of power and leadership of pretty much this kind was enabled by EA structures, and these predictions seem to have been closer to the mark than anything EA-at-large thought might happen.

I think there is a further sense, that many EAs seem to feel that their error was less one of prediction than of creativity: it's less that they made the wrong call on a variety of questions, but simply that they didn't ask those questions. This is obviously not true of all EAs, but it is definitely true of some. In cases like this, listening more closely to critics - even bad faith ones! - can open your mind up to a variety of different positions and reasoning styles that previously were not even present in your mind. This is not always inherently good, of course, but if an EA has reason to think that they have made a failure of creativity then it seems like a very positive way to go.

For more context about my worries: I think that it is possible that OP might be including me, and some things I have tweeted, in point three. I have quite a small follower count and nothing I wrote 'blew up' or anything, so it's definitely very unlikely; but I did tweet out several things pretty heavily critical of the movement in recent days which very strongly pattern-match the description given above, including pointing out that prior criticisms predicted these events pretty well, and having relatively well-known EAs reaching out to me about what I had written. Certainly, I 'felt seen' (as it were) while reading this post.

I don't think I am a 'nefarious actor', or have a history of 'hating EA', but I worry that in some segments of EA (not the whole of EA - some people have gone full self-flagellation, but in some segments) these kinds of terms are getting slung around far too liberally as part of a more general circling-the-wagons trend. And I worry that posts like this one legitimise slinging these terms around in this manner, by encouraging the thought that EA critics who are engaging in some (sometimes fully-justified) 'told you so' are just bad actors trying to destroy their tribe. EA needs to be more, not less, open to listening to critics - even bad-faith critics - after a disaster like this one. This is good Bayesianism, but it's also just proper humility.

Thank you for your reply, Father. You're right that this conversation has tended towards broader themes of agency and providence, so I just want to briefly return to (anthropogenic) x-risks specifically in this comment, because I think there's a disanalogy between (a) the well-studied 'hard-case' of individual freedom-to-fail (b) the case of species-level freedom-to-fail.

[I hope it's OK for me to write what follows, purely for convenience's sake, as if I shared your faith. My first attempt at this comment was quite clunky, with a lot of unnecessary phrases like 'Catholics believe' and 'it is Catholic dogma that' cluttering up the argument. But I understand that this way of writing is not always taken well coming from an atheist, and not for no reason. Feel free to read it all as if it were in scare quotes and preceded with 'if I were a Catholic, I would say:'.]

In the case of (a), we know from scripture that (despite God's hopes) not all will be saved. This is a repeated theme, for example, in Christ's parables. Now, there is a serious theological problem about how we might reconcile this revealed truth with God's providence and hope for our salvation; but, as you mention, there are serious proposals for how to answer this question. But (importantly) the question only arises because the Holy Spirit has revealed to us, through scripture, that not all shall be saved. It's part of our duty to puzzle out the mystery of how this might be true; but it is not up to us to doubt that it is true.

By contrast, when we turn to the case of (b) the revelation of scripture is not that humanity might go extinct before the parousia. Indeed, I think there are many verses which seem plainly to have the implication that this is not a real possibility. This is not a case where God hopes for something to come about, but rather one where he has declared that it will come about: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is not a case where we're asking how something that God has revealed is true, might be true; we're essentially asking how it might not be true. The problem for your position, as I see it, is not primarily a philosophical one; rather, it's a scriptural one.

There are, of course, cases that are more analogous to (b) than (a) that have been discussed by theologians: similar difficulties abound over the question of whether and how Judas might have had the freedom to not betray his Lord, for example, even as Christ has already declared that he will. But none of these cases seem exactly analogous to me. And I think secular thinking about existential risk has been informed, to such an immense degree, by assumptions incompatible with Christianity (e.g., as Thomas Moynihan has emphasised, the separation of fact from value) that it's an insurmountable challenge to try to turn back around and integrate it into Christianity.

The world is 'obviously and visibly' autonomous to you, maybe; but not to Christians. From the CCC:

With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence.

(Again, similar positions are dogma in other Christian denominations; I focus on Catholicism because I know it best and because OP is a Catholic.) The crucial phrase here is 'at every moment': every single act is enabled only by God, every being is sustained by him at all times. Nothing is autonomous; we are 'utterly dependent', both metaphysically and ethically, on God.

If you think this is an obviously mistaken view, then you believe that Christianity (at least in its orthodox varieties) is obviously mistaken. For what it's worth, I'd warn against being so hasty here: you take your view for granted only because you are benefitting from the centuries of hard intellectual labour it took to even state the naturalist worldview clearly, never mind to argue in favour of it. Your mechanistic view of the universe is not the shared common sense of all humans; it's an incredibly recent intellectual development, and it's worth reading around to discover just how unobvious it actually is.

But regardless, even if you continue to see some version of your position as 'obviously correct', it's important to be clear that it is not an orthodox Christian view. It's far too easy to underestimate the intellectual diversity of the world, and it's something I have seen on this forum in particular innumerable times. When dealing with alternate worldviews, it's easy to treat them as basically similar to and commensurate with our own, imagining that they share the basic 'obvious' foundations even as they differ sharply on important questions. But other worldviews are in fact far more alien than EAs typically imagine.

This is why I'm so impatient with things like 'EA for Christians' , which has tended to focus on some surface-level consonances while not even noticing the immense gulf between secular ethics and Christian ethics at the most foundational level. (By contrast, this immense gulf was obvious to proto-EAs like Derek Parfit, who made it the basis of his ethical methodology, and to a lesser extent Peter Singer.) I really enjoyed OP's post, because he really takes seriously that there is a difficult intellectual challenge in trying to accommodate thinking about x-risk into Christianity. But far too many EAs think of this as a messaging and outreach problem, rather than a fundamental philosophical issue.

'personally... I don't understand how very many people could sustain a perception of the world as a place that is subject to ongoing divine intervention'.

I agree! But that's where you differ from Christianity. OP is a Catholic, and it is part of Catholic dogma that miracles are happening all throughout the world right to this day. It is, for example, one of the criteria for sainthood that (excepting cases of martyrdom) the candidate for sainthood must have performed verifiable miracles in their lives. The Vatican often takes this requirement very seriously indeed, sending teams of serious and seemingly-rational men to investigate every facet of the purported miracles; and in a lot of cases - not most, but many - these men are satisfied that the miracle did indeed occur. The most recent canonisations occurred just last month. 'Miracle' here isn't 'nice thing that happened because of the saint that might seem supernatural but could just be surprising'; it is defined as an event 'which can only be attributed to divine power'.

You might try to explain it away, by saying that the Vatican is just keeping up appearances and the Catholic hierarchy doesn't really believe in constant supernatural intervention in the world; but I think this is pretty unsustainable when you actually look closely at how the people in question behave. This might seem odd to you, but it's a matter of fact that this all happens.

Things are slightly different in other Christian denominations (Protestantism is especially diverse and thus weird), but in general the belief in some kind of divine providence is shared dogma across all different versions of mainstream (Nicene/Chalcedonian) Christianity. Trying to rationalise Christian belief as 'well I guess they must be compatibilist deists' isn't being charitable, it's potentially offensive as well as philosophically incorrect. It might be hard for you to understand that people genuinely do believe in ongoing divine intervention in the world, but that's what it is.

Could you unpack "Compatibilists all deny that impersonal determinism is at all analogous to some agent intervening in the causal structure (this is part of what it means to be a compatibilist)" a bit?

Contrast your earlier example (you are writing a comment, and you are certain that you are going to finish it because that's what you want to do) with an example of coercion (you are writing a comment, and you are certain that you are going to finish it because someone has a gun to your head and is forcing you to write it). In the latter example, there is obviously some sense in which you are 'unfree'; everyone, except maybe Thomas Hobbes, would agree with that. In the former example, incompatibilists would tend to argue that you are also unfree: if you are able to be certain, your decision must be pre-determined in some sense, and this makes you unfree. Compatibilists, however, insist that the former case is not like the latter case: while you are unfree when an agent intervenes in the causal structure of your decision, you are perfectly free when you are 'determined' by the causal structure itself.

The point that I was making is just that God's providence is more like the former than the latter: it's an instance of some agent intervening in the causal order of your decision, not the causal structure just playing itself out. But Christians, of course, can't say that it's entirely analogous to the gun-to-the-head case, since they want to say that providence is compatible with free agency. So the philosophical question for Christians is how to combine human freedom with divine intervention in the world. This is an entirely different question from the compatibilism question in secular philosophy, which asks how free will might work if we just ignored God or denied that he existed. In that case, issues about divine intervention fall away, and the only question is whether you are free if the initial set-up of the universe was just so such that your decision was in a certain sense 'pre-determined'. As you write, 'that is my relationship with nature'. Nature, sure; but not the Christian God.

I think you've imported some intuitions from the secular free will debate into thinking about providence, in potentially unhelpful ways. e.g., the framing of 'compatibilism', which is unhelpful because nobody (not even the Calvinists!) thinks providence is incompatible with agency; the question is not 'are these two things compatible?', but rather 'how are these two things compatible?'. 'Compatibilism' is thus less a position in the debate than the presupposition that makes the debate meaningful in the first place. But you identify the position that agency is compatible with providence with a particular model of the relationship between those two (a model influenced by secular free-will compatibilism), implicitly begging the question against all other models.

Your model implicitly presumes that, when Christ prophecies that he shall return and judge the living (and the dead), the fact that 'the living' are still around is fully the causal responsibility of human beings—in the nearest (im)possible world where everyone dies before the parousia, nothing about God would have to be different, only some facts about humans. As you had it, prophecies are about agency.

I think this is false on its strongest readings: prophecies are partly about divine providence. And divine providence cannot just mean that the deist god set everything up just right in the beginning such that everything just worked out as planned; it has to mean that God is actively working in his creation, as is Christian dogma. In this case, in the (im) possible world where the gates of Hades really do prevail against the church and creation is destroyed, some facts about God and his providence must be different - he must be acting in a different way. Your model, I think, is incompatible with Christian dogma, although it might be compatible with other religions (e.g., I think Islam might be closer to this, although I'm no expert).

To put it slightly differently, what you call 'pre-compatibilist confusions' are exactly what are necessary for this debate, because secular compatibilism is just the position that arises when you start to ignore divine providence and only bare impersonal determinism remains. Compatibilists all deny that impersonal determinism is at all analogous to some agent intervening in the causal structure (this is part of what it means to be a compatibilist); but divine providence is kinda analogous to that. If you want to call this position a 'pre-compatibilist confusion', you are committed to seeing all views on which God is active in his creation as inherently confused. I might be sympathetic to that view; but I doubt that it's the position you thought you were arguing for.

[For context, Father, I was raised and confirmed as a Catholic, but I have left the faith. Hopefully that explains something that you might pick up from my comment, a kind of frustration and impatience with attempts to reconcile Christian dogma with developments in secular ethics; and hopefully what I write is nonetheless helpful to you.]

'theology needs to assimilate awareness of the potestas annihilationis, and so long as no discontinuity of principles arises, any theological implications and adjustments inferred by the discovery of AXRs would constitute authentic development of dogma.'

I simply cannot see how the introduction of AXRs into theology could not introduce a discontinuity into Christian principles. The words of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds are pretty clear: Christ will come to 'judge the living and the dead'.  The words of St Paul are pretty clear: on the day of judgment, those 'who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with [the dead] to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever'. The words of Christ himself are pretty clear: 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. ' When Christ returns, there will still be living humans 'who are left', and the church will have been sustained through faith and grace. The obvious inference, then, is that humanity shall not go extinct before the parousia.

That Christ will return to his creation is not just an accidental part of Christian dogma; along with the atonement and the resurrection, it is the centrepiece of Christianity, defining what it even means to be a Christian. But his creation must still be there when he returns. Taking seriously the possibility that humanity might destroy itself undermines this very basic level of dogma. You may be correct that providence must be reconciled with responsibility; but the idea of a species-level extinction event seems to me incompatible with any conception of providence. If any of scripture's promises of providential protection are to be taken seriously, this must include the very basic providential protection of the human species itself, which was made in imago Dei.

You speak of our 'awareness' that humanity might annihilate itself. But this is a purely secular awareness, that has come about after the 'death of God' in Western culture (both popular and intellectual) and the emergence of secular science and ethics.[1] I see no way for Christianity to incorporate this awareness while remaining Christian.

  1. ^

    Indeed, it's my scholarly belief that Derek Parfit's arguments about the ethical stakes of extinction (which are the foundation of almost all work on existential risk) came about when he moved away from the cyclical and implicitly providentialist understanding of time that his contemporaries had inherited from Malthus, and moved into a purely secular and catastrophist temporal framework. But I've not published this work yet!

Thank you for your fantastic summary! Yes, I think that's a great account of what I'm saying in this post.

I think you've run together several different positions about moral epistemology and meta-ethics. Your three bullet points definitely do not describe the whole range of positions here. For example: RM Hare was an anti-realist (the anti-realist par excellence, even) but believed in a first principles derivation of morality; you may have come across his position in the earlier works of his most famous student, Peter Singer. (Singer has since become a realist, under the influence of Derek Parfit). Likewise, you can have those who are as realist as realists can be, and who accept that we can know moral truths, but not that we can prove them. This seems to be what you're denying in your comment - you think the only hope for moral epistemology is first-principles logic - but that's a strong claim, and pretty much all meta-ethical naturalists have accounts of how we can know morality through some kind of natural understanding.

For myself, I'm a pretty strong anti-realist, but for reasons that have very little to do with traditional questions of moral epistemology; so I actually have a lot of sympathy with the accounts of moral epistemology given by many different metaethical naturalists, as well as by those who have straddled the realist/anti-realist line (e.g. constructivists, or Crispin Wright whatever name you want to give to his position), if their positions are suitably modified.

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