Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Surely You're Yoking Ms. Libresco?

Leah Libresco wrote a blog called “Unequally Yoked” which she put up at the Patheos Atheist channel. Now “Unequally Yoked” is up at the Patheos Catholic channel, and she explains the shift by announcing that she has converted to Catholicism. This was brought to my attention by a series of “see you can convert too” messages from well wishing believers in my circles of friends and acquaintances.

Rather than feign complete ignorance at who she is I pointed out that I had loosely followed a demonstration she had conducted on the linkage between belief and lies. She called it the ideological Turing test (ITT). I’ve been interested in Turing tests for some time, and so I looked over what she was proposing when it came up on a Google search for Turing test.

In the classic Turing test machines are pitted against people to show which is more human-like. The particulars of questions and interfaces change so investigating a Turing test becomes an exercise in discovering what people think is human as well as discovering how well machines can be that version of human.

In Leah’s ITT the questions that define what it was to be a Christian in 2011 were:
• What’s your best reason for being a Christian?
• What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
• Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
• How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?

These are simply-worded questions. Reading her conversion to Catholicism “last post as an Atheist” she delivers a less clear question: “how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.”? Her answer was: “I don’t know. I’ve got nothing. I guess Morality just loves me or something.” I wonder how well her answer would score on her own ITT?

The results of the ITT showed that Atheists and Christians could pretend to be Atheists about as well as each other. The sample-size is small, and the Christians may have done more poorly at pretending to be Atheists, but I'm not sure it is significant.  About half the Christians were very poor at pretending to be Atheist. Some Atheists were poor at pretending to be Atheists  The Christians presented rational reasons that they thought were false. Some attempted creating “internally consistent” arguments which they thought were wrong.  Could they have been introducing ideas they crafted from stereotypes rather than reason?

Here is an example answer to the 2012 question: "Are there people whose opinions on morality you trust more than your own? How do you recognize them? How is trusting them different than trusting someone’s opinion on physics?"

"I have become a disciple of Sam Harris since he came out with 'The End of Faith'. I find his argument in 'The Moral Landscape', that science can tell us how to live our lives in such a way that we can maximize human well-being, compelling. If I have a quandary, I consult his works first."

Many people did not think this was the answer an atheist would give, and it was not. This was an answer given by a Christian pretending to be an Atheist.

In this answer a moral authority is dispensing morality. Arguments were found to be emotionally compelling. Everything feels good so it must be right. One could replace names and the empty nod to science and easily craft a Christian argument for morality coming from god. The arguments are presented, and then felt.

The process is largely ignored as is the second half of the question. In trusting someone’s opinions on physics one might want to see that they melded theory and experiment in a process that produced testable or predictive results. The person answering this question feels the morality is right because they have faith in Sam Harris. There are probably Atheists who think that they are atheists simply because of what they have faith in, but they beg questioning.

The “it feels good” family of answers about the source of morality appears to contain the first-cousins of Leah’s answer. It is interesting that Leah describes examining her own answer, and then using her decision to determine if she was Catholic.

Ok, ok, yes, I heard what I just said. Give me a second and let me decide if I believe it.” -- Leah Libresco

So she gives herself an ITT and fails as an Atheist. There is Irony here.

The True Turing Test is won by computers that try to mimic being human without actually developing the substance to formulate human opinions on their own. Perhaps that is the way some humans develop their own personalities, but there are many people who profess to being less shallow than that. Instead of just telling you what you want to hear it is possible for people to tell you what they think some of the time. In order to do that the teller must think. The machines that successfully pretend to be human do not think.

What of the Atheists who successfully pretend to be Christians. The respondent to the ITT questions in 2011 that was judged most Christian was an Atheist (though a tie for top might be a better description). They responded to the question: “What’s your best reason for being a Christian?”  With a long answer that included: “It didn’t just mesh with the knowledge I had; it surpassed what I knew and offered lessons that were validated by the fruit they bore.

Leah describes the ritual of her conversion thusly: “I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth. And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth. I asked my friend what he suggest we do now, and we prayed the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours together (I’ve kept up with that since).

Again the parallels between Leah’s conversion and her ITT are deliciously ironic.

This leads me to what I think is the obvious question about the ITT, and that is : “What do you care what other people think?”.

In the true Turing test the question boils down to whether someone is capable of thought so what other people think is vital to the answer. However, the ability to pretend to be human can trump the ability to think, and we are left with a potentially unsatisfying outcome.

In the ITT we are not testing thought, but the ability to feign Faith or the lack of it. We know that it is a game of lies and that the winner will be able to best define something often described as the antithesis of thinking.

If one’s own decision making process begins to mimic a game of lies what are the possible outcomes? Are any of them good?

Leah describes a convoluted set of philosophical constructs. I think she is getting at the idea of an absolute morality via Plato, but I could be wrong. What she did describe well was a process where she argues with someone, and then feels good about the answers she gives. In essence she performs an ITT on herself, and comes up with the answer “Catholic” for what her faith was.

I’m not fond of her process.

I’m kinda torn on whether it would be a good idea for her to perform true Turing tests on herself.

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