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results of belief poll #1

I definitely enjoyed doing this poll, and look forward to doing it again soon with new questions.

While there will no doubt still be a few more people responding to the poll, I currently have 35 responses, including myself... which seems good enough to report the results.

Most of the questions came out about how I expected, based on opinions I've seen my friends express in the past. But there were definitely a few surprises, and a lot that I learned by looking at the results. Roughly speaking, it seems that my friends tend to agree with me on pretty much all the questions.

The only question where I was in the minority was on whether there have already been "negative consequences of global warming". I initially picked 3, which was the second lowest answer of anyone... and the only person picking lower, zarex, also picked 2 for whether it was manmade, which pretty much discredits any opinion he has on the rest of it... I don't think anyone could pick that for that question without being completely unaware/unfamiliar with the science. At any rate, after rethinking things I changed my answer to 5 instead of 3, because I really don't know whether there have been negative consequences. I see articles about supposedly negative consequences now and then, but they never seem all that rigorous to me, it all sounds like a bunch of speculation. Of course, many of the speculations could be true, but unlike the connection between CO2 production and temperature increase, I don't think any causal relationship has been rigorously established. Then again, maybe I still should have answered higher because whether or not you can prove there have been any negative effects, it's entirely reasonable to think there may have been some minor ones (possibly, even some of the ones that get reported). I intend to keep more of an eye on this one, and see if it turns out I was just naive on this issue too. I've always had a strong intuition that global warming didn't make sense, but the further I've looked into it the more solid the science appears, so I've had to override my natural intuitions on a lot of it. Would not surprise me if I had to do the same thing for the remaining question. I guess part of the reason I'm more skeptical on that one is that I hear people so often saying ridiculous things like "oh it's really hot outside! must be global warming!" or "oh, we had a lot of storms this year, damn that global warming again!" The more realistic ones seem like changes to the ecosystem like increases in extinction rates... of course, then you have to debate whether something like that counts as "negative" before it actually affects human populations, which gets into a whole nother debate.

I guess the biggest surprise for me was seeing how many people buy into time travel and faster-than-light travel, at least enough not to mark them both a 1. Time travel has always seemed nutty to me, and filled with all kinds of paradoxes that make it untenable even if it weren't a blatent violation of the laws of physics. (Yeah, you can get rid of the paradoxes if you are able to paste together different branches of the quantum multiverse, but that also seems like it gets really sketchy really quickly, and would involve lots of infinite loops spawning infinitely more recursive branches every time... I don't think anyone has ever come close to actually coming up with a way in which that could make sense and be fully self-consistent) Same goes for faster-than-light travel. When I wrote it, putting in the word "local" was intended to make it clear that I was talking about comparing speeds locally, not jumping through a wormhole . But I guess judging by the responses, some people (notably geheimnisnacht) must have interpreted it differently. While I don't really think there is any possibility of a large massive object moving through the same space at a speed faster than a massless particle like a photon, I'll give it a 1 in 100,000, maybe even a 1 in 10,000 shot that maybe, somehow, there is a way to tear the fabric of space and reconnect it using a wormhole that joins two different regions of space and effectively gets you from point A to point B quicker than light would travelling the longer path (of course, you still wouldn't beat light that went through the wormhole too). But even with this interpretation, picking greater than 1 is unrealistic (unless you just picked something mild because you haven't investigated the subject or haven't thought about it). For those who picked 2 or higher (and have thought about it a lot), do you really think there is at least a 1 in 10 chance that something like that would work? If so, I blame Star Trek, and other bad sci-fi for this one =) Not that I don't enjoy watching it occasionally (and especially enjoyed the recent movie), I just wish people would view it more as fantasy than sci-fi. Also, for anyone who thought there was a decent chance of faster-than-light travel and a decent chance of intelligent life out there, I think you're being inconsistent... if it were possible to travel faster than light, then the Fermi paradox would be much worse; it would be essentially impossible to explain why we haven't detected extraterrestrial life yet... the only explanation would be that we are alone.

The most interesting result, however, was the one about whether there are properties of the world which are not determined by mathematical relationships. There were a lot of people who picked 1 or close to 1, and then another big cluster of people picking 10 or close to 10, and very few picking something in the 4-6 range. So it looks like I have two camps of friends, one camp which strongly believes one thing here, and another camp which strongly believes another thing. I myself picked 3, which wasn't nearly as popular as 2 or 1. If I'd answered it 2 years ago, I would have probably picked 1. So it's something I've been getting a lot more open-minded on, but I still believe roughly the same thing I have for my whole life regarding this. The wording of the question went through several phases. Initially, I phrased it in terms of materialism... "is materialism false"? I tried changing materialism to something that talked about mental properties reducing to physical properties, but I didn't like that wording either. There are just too many subtle ways in which the wording could be misinterpreted and I wanted something that got more to the heart of the issue that materialists and non-materialists debate. I think the thing that really distinguishes what people call the "physical world" from what some people call the "spiritual world" or the "mental world" or the "phenomenological world" is that physical properties are things that can be specified precisely by mathematical equations. You can measure a photon's wavelength, or an electron's charge, or the energy of something, etc. and reduce it to a variable that correlates with some other variable. But then there's the question of whether there is something more than just the equations going on, some substance perhaps... some metaphysics. It can also be interpreted as what Chalmers and others call "qualia", mental properties which do not supervene on physical properties... the things that philosophical zombies are supposed to lack. I'm still pretty confident that Chalmers is wrong, and that any of the other specific loopholes in materialism that people think they have found are wrong, but I've found over the past couple years that I'm more open in general to the possibility that there is some way my worldview there could fail... some way in which I haven't encountered yet or perhaps nobody has encountered yet. At any rate, it does seem like the kind of thing that Jaron Lanier warns against being too overconfident about... it certainly *appears* to me that everything in the world can be specified with numbers and equations, but sometimes appearances can be deceiving, even if they present a very compelling illusion... and I don't want to overstate my certainty just in case. Perhaps another way of explaining why I picked 3 rather than 1 or 2 is that it's easier for me to imagine that there is some way in which the entire framework for my worldview fails, rather than imagining that some specific detail is wrong... changing one detail messes up all of the other surrounding knowledge I have, that reinforces it. But tearing down the whole structure at once may actually be more likely if everything was an illusion from the start. Ok, now I'm kind of talking crazy talk so I'll shut up :)

Oh, and regarding the live forever question, I mentioned this in a thread but for those who didn't see it... my personal answer is that I'd really like to live at least 1000 years and I'd love to have the technology to do so (although I'm not as enthusiastic about seeing everyone have the same technology--could lead to societal problems). And I'd probably even want to live for 10,000 or 50,000 years. But once it gets into the millions of years, I'm pretty sure I would be bored to tears. And if I wasn't bored to tears, I'd have learned and grown and changed so much that there wouldn't be any meaningful sense in which the resulting entity was still "me"... so it's kind of moot. Also, I don't think it is even possible to live forever, given the heat death of the universe and all, so it's also moot from that point of view. Originally I had a 16th question asking whether you'd want to live 1000 years, but I had to cut it because lj wouldn't let me add any more.

P.S. Oh right, I guess I'm also in the minority on not wanting to live forever. So 2 questions out of 15.



( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 8th, 2009 07:53 am (UTC)
"inertial supression field"? You might as well say "something like a magic wand that waves you over to the other side of the universe", it wouldn't mean anything more or less. You could imagine it didn't have any inertia, but in the real world, things have inertia. Your description doesn't give me any better of a picture for what it would be than watching the roadrunner run off a cliff and then fall when he looks down... both seem equally cartoonish and unrelated to anything in the real world.

Also, even if you got rid of all of its mass, it would still only travel *at* the speed of light, not faster.

That's why I've decided the only way to accomplish large-scale interstellar travel would be your wormhole solution. But, as you said, you'd still have to "drag" the other end of the wormhole to the destination, requiring slower-than-light travel in the first place. I've actually got a short story about this, where self-sufficient slow spaceships are sent out over vast distances, having to live on their own for centuries, just to bring a wormhole to the proper destination.

Yeah, that's much more reasonable. Another obstacle to it that I don't think I mentioned before is that you'd need some way of changing the topology of spacetime, basically tearing a hole in it and stretching it out... that's something that is fine to just wave over in a book (just claim that they have some way of doing it), but I think it would pose a serious obstacle to getting this to work in real life. Brian Greene and others for some reason believe that such topology changing transitions happen in string theory on a microscopic scale. I don't think it's a mainstream opinion of the string theory community, just him and a few others. Although then there's the whole question of even if it does happen on a microscopic scale, how would you ever get it to work on a macroscopic scale, and get it to stay open and stable?

As for mathematical relationships, yeah, qualia were what immediately popped in to my mind, though intentionality and subjectivity follow as close seconds.

Yeah, it seems like those are all really closely related though.

The inability of formal structures to describe certain phenomenological relations shouldn't be taken as a failure of those structures, however. That's like getting mad at a hammer for not being a screwdriver, though I think a lot of the materialist resistance to the idea comes from the feeling that if the hammer isn't the only tool, all those things you thought were nails will then turn in to screws and it might seem silly to hold on to your hammer. Nothing could be further from the truth: a balanced approach using hammers on nails and screwdrivers on screws makes sense, though I see why that intuition upsets people working within a "everything must be unified!" paradigm.

So if mathematics is the hammer in this analogy, what is the screwdriver? Introspection or something? I guess my main problem is that the hammers seem very trustworthy and the screwdrivers completely untrustworthy, if they do anything at all.
Jun. 8th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
I happen to be a professional scientist myself, and yes, any sparse evidence I've seen "proving" that 1) global warming is significantly negative and 2) that it is significantly man-made, has been rather unconvincing. Sure, it's not my specialty, but lots of people trained in climatology happen to agree with me, including those who are unarguably extremely well versed in the issue - that you can characterize them as "unaware/unfamiliar" is ludicrous.

I like to think of all scientists as being well trained in spotting BS, and the issue has far more coming from it than any other field I've seen.

What really offends me, however, is the notion that the issue is not up for discussion, and since I happen to answer the way I did, my other opinions must be "discredited". This turns the whole issue into little more than the promotion of dogma, which has no place in any scientists' world. You even said yourself that you have plenty of skepticism.
Jun. 8th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)


See also http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2009/01/gentle-introduction-to-unqualified_22.html

...On the poll data, I did NOT interpret 2/10 as corresponding to at least a 1/10 probability. More like a "1" corresponds to "inconceivable!" and a "2" corresponds to "rodents of unusual size."
Jun. 8th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)

On the poll data, I did NOT interpret 2/10 as corresponding to at least a 1/10 probability. More like a "1" corresponds to "inconceivable!" and a "2" corresponds to "rodents of unusual size."

Ah, interesting. I should be more specific in the next one about what the numbers should mean--also, I think I should include a 0, to be more symmetric with the 10. What I'd want it to be would be that 0 would mean "less than 5%", in other words something that rounds to 0... 1 would be something that rounds to 10% (ie, from 5-15%), 2 would be something that rounds to 20%, etc. For this one, since there wasn't a 0 I guess I assumed that 1 meant something that rounds to 0%, and that 2 meant something that rounds to 10%... but because there wasn't a 0 I think it made it confusing. Unfortunately, that was lj's default and it is a pain to change them one by one.
Jun. 8th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)

lots of people trained in climatology happen to agree with me, including those who are unarguably extremely well versed in the issue - that you can characterize them as "unaware/unfamiliar" is ludicrous.

I think there are a good number who are skeptical of the consensus for various reasons. But I think it would be really difficult to find ones who would be such extreme radicals that they would agree with a "2" here. You're basically saying that nearly the entire scientific community in every country in the world is either suffering from a mass delusion or just lying to the public about their data and conclusions. That's a pretty massive conspiracy claim and would require some pretty substantial evidence for me to even consider.

What really offends me, however, is the notion that the issue is not up for discussion

I think it has been up for discussion for a long time, it's just that we're now at the tail end of it where one side has conclusively won the argument and the other side has only a few die hard people who refuse to admit they lost. That's not an uncommon pattern in science, it tends to happen because the people who are working on stuff that turns out to be wrong have a strong interest in continuing to work on it, even after it turns out to be full of holes.

This turns the whole issue into little more than the promotion of dogma, which has no place in any scientists' world. You even said yourself that you have plenty of skepticism.

I would hope that my skepticism about some aspects of what I view as alarmism, and about whether crippling the economy is really worth it to solve the problem, would help persuade you that I'm not just promoting dogma.
Jun. 8th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
Well, the notion of a "2" is pretty subjective of what that means. I took it to mean "pretty darn unlikely".

Is the increase in global temperature of the earth over the past 150 years primarily due to the manmade production of carbon dioxide?

We're talking about an increase of (at most) 1C over 150 years, which is difficult to consider significant, and impossible to determine the source of with any real confidence - and certainly no reason to conclude it is "primarily" manmade.

Have there been any negative consequences of global warming so far?

It's impossible to say with confidence that there are any negatives whatsoever, when the difference is so minuscule. Maybe there are even positives.

You're basically saying that nearly the entire scientific community in every country in the world is either suffering from a mass delusion or just lying to the public about their data and conclusions.

You could look at it the other way as well - there is a significant scientific community, including many, many experts in climatology, who do not believe in (significant) anthropomorphic climate change. Are they all suffering from a mass delusion, and lying about their data and conclusions?

What about all the hoopla over "global cooling" in the 1970's? I'll bet there was a similar consensus about it then. Were they all deluded too? (Clearly it was not nearly as grand as today's hoopla, but that's due to many factors.)

I will admit that the dogma (and related financial/political interests) have helped push me more into the skeptical range. There is so much loaded language ("deniers") that it's tough to take most sources of information seriously. The huge financial interests of those promoting it (Gore, and many climate scientists) can also not be disregarded.
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 8th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 8th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 8th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
If we assume a completely deterministic universe, I don't see paradoxes with time travel that are sufficiently compelling to make it "nutty". And I think I'm less confident that you about whether existing theories will be replaced by something stranger which will enable an as-yet-unimagined method of time travel.

I sounds now like you intended "any negative consequences of global warming" to be interpreted as net consequences over some unspecified time period. If I had interpreted it that way, I would have given a much lower response, especially if the time period extended back several decades. But I interpreted it as asking something more like whether there exists anyone who has been harmed by global warming. Neither interpretation seems important compared to questions about whether it will cause net harm in 2020 or 2030.

"determined by mathematical relationships" seems like a much stronger statement than the kind of materialism I believe in. I don't expect hypothesized phenomenon that can't be described by math to have explanatory power. "Determined by" seems stronger than "described by".

On living forever, I'm unsure whether my position is much different from yours. Any "me" that exists a million years from now will be quite different from the current me. I tend to think of that future entity as me, mainly due to habit and to laziness about analyzing the classification issues. And I'm a long way from accepting heat death as inevitable, although I plan to postpone for at least a few decades any attempt to seriously tackle that problem.
Jun. 8th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)

If we assume a completely deterministic universe, I don't see paradoxes with time travel that are sufficiently compelling to make it "nutty".

I don't see what determinism would have to do with it. Instead of presenting the standard grandfather paradoxes, which I'm sure you've heard, let me present another related one. If you can have a closed-timelike-loop, that is where time and causality flows in a circle rather than a straight line... then what is the total entropy at any point in the circle? Recall that entropy must always increase in the forward time direction.
(no subject) - peter_bayesian - Jun. 8th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 8th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peter_bayesian - Jun. 8th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 9th, 2009 01:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 8th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 8th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
I wasn't quite sure what to put for the "mathematical relationships" one. In some sense, it's almost axiomatic for me that everything that there is can be talked about mathematically. I'm confident about this even if it turns out that there are fundamental, irreducible qualia or phenomenological things or whatever. However, phrasing the question in terms of things being governed by mathematical relationships suggested to me that you were thinking more about the physical world actually being the mathematical world, in a quasi-Platonist/Pythagorean identity, which is something I'm less sure how to even evaluate.

As for the living forever, I would suspect that even though it wouldn't really be "me" a thousand years from now (or even probably a hundred years from now) it would be good for each individual at each time to be able to keep living. I don't think there needs to be a holistic unity to the person for the eternal life to be good - as long as there are local unities, that's probably enough.
Jun. 8th, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)
How would you define "identity"? What distinguishes entity A from entity B, where A and B are at two different points in space-time?
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 9th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Jun. 10th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 10th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 10th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 10th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 9th, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)

I'm confident about this even if it turns out that there are fundamental, irreducible qualia or phenomenological things or whatever.

Really? So, you could imagine a scenario where qualia were some properties that don't reduce to anything in the physical world, but are describable with mathematics? To me, that seems even further fetched than the scenario where mathematics only works to describe objective external properties, not subjective internal states. I don't agree with people who speak this way about internal states, but I think I've started to at least understand the motivation behind statements people make like "there will never be an equation that represents pain or redness itself, you can only get at that through introspection". I just think they are taking an in-practice limitation and making it an in-principle limitation, although sometimes I wonder at where the boundaries are between practice and principle which is one reason I didn't answer fully confidently on that question.

Regarding the quasi-Platonic stuff... that's not specifically what I had in mind, but often I tend to think it ultimately does reduce to that if you carry the other conclusions far enough. I think you can make a case that they are two separate issues, but I'm not sure because they do seem tightly related in my own mind.

Here's another way of asking it:

Are there qualitative properties of the world, or just quantitative properties? In other words, are all qualitative properties just fuzzy approximations of quantitative properties (and could be in principle eliminated in favor of them), or are there some *truly* qualitative aspects of the world, like perhaps the character of physical reality itself or the nature of the alleged "physical objects" that the mathematical relations are relating. Actually, now that I've phrased it this way I'm feeling like they really are the same question, so I'll leave it for you to ponder and maybe come up with a way in which they are separate.
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 9th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 11th, 2009 05:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 11th, 2009 07:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 11th, 2009 06:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 11th, 2009 07:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 11th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 11th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Jun. 11th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Jun. 11th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 8th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I wasn't sure what you meant by the FTL question. I had figured it would be pointless to ask the question you actually intended; (I'd have put a "1"). As for my interpretation, I think it's hard to say we know much about the situation. Such a feat would require energy densities far above what we can achieve today, the existence of exotic particles, or some kind of strange natural phenomenon. All of this, from my understanding, lies outside of the scope of our current models of the universe. Of course, because of this, we're nowhere near even sending information long distances at effective ("non-local") FTL speeds, much less macroscopic objects.
Jun. 9th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)

because of this, we're nowhere near even sending information long distances at effective ("non-local") FTL speeds, much less macroscopic objects.

I'd say that we're nowhere near even being able to conceive of how it might work even in principle.
(Deleted comment)
( 35 comments — Leave a comment )


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