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Yet another weird SF fan
 

Friday, January 11, 2008

Inheriting Opinions

In the course of the discussion of Donald Knuth's seventieth birthday at Shtetl Optimized, there's a quote from Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About:

Q: How did you become so interested in God and religion in the first place?

A: It was because of the family I was born into. If I had been born in other circumstances, my religious life would no doubt have been quite different. (p. 155)

with the following comment

To me, what’s remarkable about this response is that Knuth without any hesitation concedes what skeptics from Xenophanes to Richard Dawkins have held up as the central embarrassment of religion. This, of course, is the near-perfect correlation between the content of religious belief and the upbringing of the believer. How, Dawkins is fond of asking, could there possibly be such a thing as a Christian or Hindu or Jewish child? How could a four-year-old already know what he or she thinks about profound questions of cosmogony, history, and ethics — unless, of course, the child were brainwashed by parents or teachers?

My Bayesian friends, like Robin Hanson, carry this argument a step further. For them, the very fact that Knuth knows his beliefs would be different were he born to different parents must, assuming he’s rational, force him to change his beliefs. For how can he believe something with any conviction, if he knows his belief was largely determined by a logically-irrelevant coin toss?

I don’t see why inheriting a belief system should be grounds for disbelief. After all, we inherited the genes for eyes but don’t regard that as grounds for disbelieving what we see. (I've commented on similar issues earlier.)

On the other hand, if there were more than one sophont species on Earth with different senses (analogous to differing religions on our Earth), there might be conflicts over which view of reality was more accurate. Eventually, science would iron out the conflicts.

On the gripping hand, a similar process appears to be taking place in the world of religion as religious conflicts that seemed intractable a few centuries ago are now regarded as minor. (Those conflicts that are still raging were raging centuries ago.)

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