Pseudoscience

James Chastek reflects on science, pseudoscience, and religion:

The demarcation problem is a name for our failure to identify criteria that can distinguish science from pseudo-science, in spite of there being two such things. In the absence of rational criteria, we get clarity on the difference from various institutional-cultural institutions, like the consensus produced by university gatekeepers though peer review (which generates, by definition, peer pressure), grants, prestige, and other stick-and-carrot means.  Like most institutions we expect it to do reasonably well (or at least better than an every-man-for-himself chaos) though it will come at a cost of group-think, elitism, the occasional witch hunt etc..

The demarcation problem generalizes to our failure to identify any meta-criterion for what counts as legitimate discourse or belief. Kant’s famous attempt to articulate meta-criteria for thought, which concluded to limiting it to an intuition of Euclidean space distinct from linear time turned out to be no limitation at all, and Davidson pointed out that the very idea of a conceptual scheme – a finite scope or limit to human thought that could be determined in advance – requires us to posit a language that is in-principle untranslatable, which is to speak of something that has to meaning. Heraclitus was right – you can’t come to the borders of thought, even if you travel down every road. We simply can’t articulate a domain of acceptable belief in general from which we can identify the auslanders.

This is true of religion as well. By our own resources we can know there are pseudo ones and truer ones, but the degree of clarity we want in this area is going to have to be borrowed from an intellect other than our own. The various religious institutions are attempts to make up for this deficiency in reason and provide us with clearer and more precise articulations of true religion in exactly the same way that we get it in the sciences. That a westerner tends to accept Christianity arises from the same sort of process that makes him tend to accept scientific consensus. He walks within the ambit of various institutions that are designed to help him toward truth, and they almost certainly succeed at this more than he would succeed if left solely to his own lights. Anyone who thinks he can easily identify true science while no one can identify true religion is right in a sense, but he doesn’t recognize how heavily his belief is resting on institutional power.

Like Sean Collins as quoted in this earlier post, Chastek seems to be unreasonably emphasizing the similarity between science and religion where in fact there is a greater dissimilarity. As discussed in the last post, a field is only considered scientific once it has completely dominated the area of thought among persistent students of that field. It is not exactly that “no one disagrees,” so much as that it becomes too complicated for anyone except those students. But those students, to an extremely high degree, have a unified view of the field. An actual equivalent in the area of religion would be if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion. Even here, it might be a bit strange to find whole countries that accepted another religion, the way it would be strange to find a whole country believing in a flat earth. But perhaps not so strange; occasionally you do get a poll indicating a fairly large percentage of some nation believing some claim entirely opposed to the paradigm of some field of science. Nonetheless, if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion, the comparison between science and religion would be pretty apt. Since that is not the case in the slightest, religion looks more like a field where knowledge remains “undeveloped,” in the way I suggested in reference to some areas of philosophy.

Chastek is right to note that one cannot set down some absolute list of rules setting apart reasonable thought from unreasonable thought, or science from pseudoscience. Nonetheless, reflecting on the comments to the previous post, it occurs to me that we have a pretty good idea of what pseudoscience is. The term itself, of course, means something like “fake science,” so the idea would be something purporting to be scientific which is not scientific.

A recurring element in Kuhn’s book, as in the title itself, is the idea of change in scientific paradigms. Kuhn remarks:

Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis. When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often the most effective one possible. In the area for which it is advanced the paradigm is known to be in trouble. That trouble has repeatedly been explored, and attempts to remove it have again and again proved vain. “Crucial experiments”—those able to discriminate particularly sharply between the two paradigms—have been recognized and attested before the new paradigm was even invented. Copernicus thus claimed that he had solved the long-vexing problem of the length of the calendar year, Newton that he had reconciled terrestrial and celestial mechanics, Lavoisier that he had solved the problems of gas-identity and of weight relations, and Einstein that he had made electrodynamics compatible with a revised science of motion.

Some pages later, considering why paradigm change is considered progress, he continues:

Because the unit of scientific achievement is the solved problem and because the group knows well which problems have already been solved, few scientists will easily be persuaded to adopt a viewpoint that again opens to question many problems that had previously been solved. Nature itself must first undermine professional security by making prior achievements seem problematic. Furthermore, even when that has occurred and a new candidate for paradigm has been evoked, scientists will be reluctant to embrace it unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors. Novelty for its own sake is not a desideratum in the sciences as it is in so many other creative fields. As a result, though new paradigms seldom or never possess all the capabilities of their predecessors, they usually preserve a great deal of the most concrete parts of past achievement and they always permit additional concrete problem-solutions besides.

It is not automatically unscientific to suggest that the current paradigm is somehow mistaken and needs to be replaced: in fact the whole idea of paradigm change depends on scientists doing this on a fairly frequent basis. But Kuhn suggests that this mainly happens when there are well known problems with the current paradigm. Additionally, when a new one is proposed, it should be in order to solve new problems. This suggests one particular form of pseudoscientific behavior: to propose new paradigms when there are no special problems with the current ones. Or at any rate, to propose that they be taken just as seriously as the current ones; there is not necessarily anything unreasonable about saying, “Although we currently view things according to paradigm A, someday we might need to adopt something somewhat like paradigm B,” even if one is not yet aware of any great problems with paradigm A.

A particularly anti-scientific form of this would be to propose that the current paradigm be abandoned in favor of an earlier one. It is easy to see why scientists would be especially opposed to such a proposal: since the earlier one was abandoned in order to solve new problems and to resolve more and more serious discrepancies between the paradigm and experience, going back to an earlier paradigm would suddenly create all sorts of new problems.

On the other hand, why do we have the “science” part of “pseudoscience”? This is related to Chastek’s point about institutions as a force creating conformity of opinion. The pseudoscientist is a sort of predator in relation to these institutions. While the goal of science is truth, at least to a first approximation, the pseudoscientist has something different in mind: this is clear from the fact that he does not care whether his theory solves any new problems, and it is even more clear in the case of a retrogressive proposal. But the pseudoscientist will attempt to use the institutions of science to advance his cause. This will tend in reality to be highly unsuccessful in relation to ordinary scientists, for the same reason that Kuhn remarks that scientists who refuse to adopt a new paradigm after its general acceptance “are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.” In a similar way, if someone proposes an unnecessary paradigm change, scientists will simply ignore the proposal. But if the pseudoscientist manages to get beyond certain barriers, e.g. peer review, it may be more difficult for ordinary people to distinguish between ordinary science and pseudoscience, since they are not in fact using their own understanding of the matter, but simply possess a general trust that the scientists know the general truth about the field.

One of the most common usages of the term “pseudoscience” is in relation to young earth creationism, and rightly so. This is in fact a case of attempting to return to an earlier paradigm which was abandoned precisely because of the kind of tensions that are typical of paradigm change. Thus one of their favorite methods is to attempt to get things published in peer reviewed journals. Very occasionally this is successful, but obviously it has very little effect on the field itself: just as with late adopters or people who never change their mind, the rest of the field, as Kuhn says, “ignores their work.” But to the degree that they manage to lead ordinary people to adopt their views, this is to act in a sort of predator relationship with the institutions of science: to take advantage of these institutions for the sake of falsehood rather than truth.

That’s kind of blunt, someone will say. If paradigm change is frequently necessary, surely it could happen at least once that a former paradigm was better than a later one, such that it would be necessary to return to it, and for the sake of truth. People are not infallible, so surely this is possible.

Indeed, it is possible. But very unlikely, for all the reasons that Kuhn mentions. And in order for such a proposal to be truth oriented, it would have to be motivated by the perception of problems with the current paradigm, even if they were problems that had not been foreseen when the original paradigm was abandoned. In practice such proposals are normally not motivated by problems at all,  and thus there is very little orientation towards truth in them.

Naturally, all of this has some bearing on the comments to the last post, but I will leave most of that to the reader’s consideration. I will remark, however, that things like “he is simply ignorant of basic physics because he is a computer scientist, not a physicist,” or “Your last question tells me that you do not know much physics,” or that it is important not to “ignore the verdict of the reviewers and editors of a respected physics journal,” might be important clues for the ordinary fellow.

Employer and Employee Model: Truth

In the remote past, I suggested that I would someday follow up on this post. In the current post, I begin to keep that promise.

We can ask about the relationship of the various members of our company with the search for truth.

The CEO, as the predictive engine, has a fairly strong interest in truth, but only insofar as truth is frequently necessary in order to get predictive accuracy. Consequently our CEO will usually insist on the truth when it affects our expectations regarding daily life, but it will care less when we consider things remote from the senses. Additionally, the CEO is highly interested in predicting the behavior of the Employee, and it is not uncommon for falsehood to be better than truth for this purpose.

To put this in another way, the CEO’s interest in truth is instrumental: it is sometimes useful for the CEO’s true goal, predictive accuracy, but not always, and in some cases it can even be detrimental.

As I said here, the Employee is, roughly speaking, the human person as we usually think of one, and consequently the Employee has the same interest in truth that we do. I personally consider truth to be an ultimate end,  and this is probably the opinion of most people, to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, most people consider truth a good thing, even apart from instrumental considerations. Nonetheless, all of us care about various things besides truth, and therefore we also occasionally trade truth for other things.

The Vice President has perhaps the least interest in truth. We could say that they too have some instrumental concern about truth. Thus for example the VP desires food, and this instrumentally requires true ideas about where food is to be found. Nonetheless, as I said in the original post, the VP is the least rational and coherent, and may easily fail to notice such a need. Thus the VP might desire the status resulting from winning an argument, so to speak, but also desire the similar status that results from ridiculing the person holding an opposing view. The frequent result is that a person believes the falsehood that ridiculing an opponent generally increases the chance that they will change their mind (e.g. see John Loftus’s attempt to justify ridicule.)

Given this account, we can raise several disturbing questions.

First, although we have said the Employee values truth in itself, can this really be true, rather than simply a mistaken belief on the part of the Employee? As I suggested in the original account, the Employee is in some way a consequence of the CEO and the VP. Consequently, if neither of these places intrinsic value on truth, how is it possible that the Employee does?

Second, even if the Employee sincerely places an intrinsic value on truth, how is this not a misplaced value? Again, if the Employee is something like a result of the others, what is good for the Employee should be what is good for the others, and thus if truth is not intrinsically good for the others, it should not be intrinsically good for the Employee.

In response to the first question, the Employee can indeed believe in the intrinsic value of truth, and of many other things to which the CEO and VP do not assign intrinsic value. This happens because as we are considering the model, there is a real division of labor, even if the Employee arises historically in a secondary manner. As I said in the other post, the Employee’s beliefs are our beliefs, and the Employee can believe anything that we believe. Furthermore, the Employee can really act on such beliefs about the goodness of truth or other things, even when the CEO and VP do not have the same values. The reason for this is the same as the reason that the CEO will often go along with the desires of the VP, even though the CEO places intrinsic value only on predictive accuracy. The linked post explains, in effect, why the CEO goes along with sex, even though only the VP really wants it. In a similar way, if the Employee believes that sex outside of marriage is immoral, the CEO often goes along with avoiding such sex, even though the CEO cares about predictive accuracy, not about sex or its avoidance. Of course, in this particular case, there is a good chance of conflict between the Employee and VP, and the CEO dislikes conflict, since it makes it harder to predict what the person overall will end up doing. And since the VP very rarely changes its mind in this case, the CEO will often end up encouraging the Employee to change their mind about the morality of such sex: thus one of the most frequent reasons why people abandon their religion is that it says that sex in some situations is wrong, but they still desire sex in those situations.

In response to the second, the Employee is not wrong to suppose that truth is intrinsically valuable. The argument against this would be that the human good is based on human flourishing, and (it is claimed) we do not need truth for such flourishing, since the CEO and VP do not care about truth in itself. The problem with this is that such flourishing requires that the Employee care about truth, and even the CEO needs the Employee to care in this way, for the sake of its own goal of predictive accuracy. Consider a real-life company: the employer does not necessarily care about whether the employee is being paid, considered in itself, but only insofar as it is instrumentally useful for convincing the employee to work for the employer. But the employer does care about whether the employee cares about being paid: if the employee does not care about being paid, they will not work for the employer.

Concern for truth in itself, apart from predictive accuracy, affects us when we consider things that cannot possibly affect our future experience: thus in previous cases I have discussed the likelihood that there are stars and planets outside the boundaries of the visible universe. This is probably true; but if I did not care about truth in itself, I might as well say that the universe is surrounded by purple elephants. I do not expect any experience to verify or falsify the claim, so why not make it? But now notice the problem for the CEO: the CEO needs to predict what the Employee is going to do, including what they will say and believe. This will instantly become extremely difficult if the Employee decides that they can say and believe whatever they like, without regard for truth, whenever the claim will not affect their experiences. So for its own goal of predictive accuracy, the CEO needs the Employee to value truth in itself, just as an ordinary employer needs their employee to value their salary.

In real life this situation can cause problems. The employer needs their employee to care about being paid, but if they care too much, they may constantly be asking for raises, or they may quit and go work for someone who will pay more. The employer does not necessarily like these situations. In a similar way, the CEO in our company may worry if the Employee insists too much on absolute truth, because as discussed elsewhere, it can lead to other situations with unpredictable behavior from the Employee, or to situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty about how society will respond to the Employee’s behavior.

Overall, this post perhaps does not say much in substance that we have not said elsewhere, but it will perhaps provide an additional perspective on these matters.

Miracles and Anomalies: Or, Your Religion is False

In 2011 there was an apparent observation of neutrinos traveling faster than light. Wikipedia says of this, “Even before the mistake was discovered, the result was considered anomalous because speeds higher than that of light in a vacuum are generally thought to violate special relativity, a cornerstone of the modern understanding of physics for over a century.” In other words, most scientists did not take the result very seriously, even before any specific explanation was found. As I stated here, it is possible to push unreasonably far in this direction, in such a way that one will be reluctant to ever modify one’s current theories. But there is also something reasonable about this attitude.

Alexander Pruss explains why scientists tend to be skeptical of such anomalous results in this post on Bayesianism and anomaly:

One part of the problem of anomaly is this. If a well-established scientific theory seems to predict something contrary to what we observe, we tend to stick to the theory, with barely a change in credence, while being dubious of the auxiliary hypotheses. What, if anything, justifies this procedure?

Here’s my setup. We have a well-established scientific theory T and (conjoined) auxiliary hypotheses A, and T together with A uncontroversially entails the denial of some piece of observational evidence E which we uncontroversially have (“the anomaly”). The auxiliary hypotheses will typically include claims about the experimental setup, the calibration of equipment, the lack of further causal influences, mathematical claims about the derivation of not-E from T and the above, and maybe some final catch-all thesis like the material conditional that if T and all the other auxiliary hypotheses obtain, then E does not obtain.

For simplicity I will suppose that A and T are independent, though of course that simplifying assumption is rarely true.

Here’s a quick and intuitive thought. There is a region of probability space where the conjunction of T and A is false. That area is divided into three sub-regions:

  1. T is true and A is false
  2. T is false and A is true
  3. both are false.

The initial probabilities of the three regions are, respectively, 0.0999, 0.0009999 and 0.0001. We know we are in one of these three regions, and that’s all we now know. Most likely we are in the first one, and the probability that we are in that one given that we are in one of the three is around 0.99. So our credence in T has gone down from three nines (0.999) to two nines (0.99), but it’s still high, so we get to hold on to T.

Still, this answer isn’t optimistic. A move from 0.999 to 0.99 is actually an enormous decrease in confidence.

“This answer isn’t optimistic,” because in the case of the neutrinos, this analysis would imply that scientists should have instantly become ten times more willing to consider the possibility that the theory of special relativity is false. This is surely not what happened.

Pruss therefore presents an alternative calculation:

But there is a much more optimistic thought. Note that the above wasn’t a real Bayesian calculation, just a rough informal intuition. The tip-off is that I said nothing about the conditional probabilities of E on the relevant hypotheses, i.e., the “likelihoods”.

Now setup ensures:

  1. P(E|A ∧ T)=0.

What can we say about the other relevant likelihoods? Well, if some auxiliary hypothesis is false, then E is up for grabs. So, conservatively:

  1. P(E|∼A ∧ T)=0.5
  2. P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)=0.5

But here is something that I think is really, really interesting. I think that in typical cases where T is a well-established scientific theory and A ∧ T entails the negation of E, the probability P(E|A ∧ ∼T) is still low.

The reason is that all the evidence that we have gathered for T even better confirms the hypothesis that T holds to a high degree of approximation in most cases. Thus, even if T is false, the typical predictions of T, assuming they have conservative error bounds, are likely to still be true. Newtonian physics is false, but even conditionally on its being false we take individual predictions of Newtonian physics to have a high probability. Thus, conservatively:

  1. P(E|A ∧ ∼T)=0.1

Very well, let’s put all our assumptions together, including the ones about A and T being independent and the values of P(A) and P(T). Here’s what we get:

  1. P(E|T)=P(E|A ∧ T)P(A|T)+P(E|∼A ∧ T)P(∼A|T)=0.05
  2. P(E|∼T)=P(E|A ∧ ∼T)P(A|∼T)+P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)P(∼A|∼T) = 0.14.

Plugging this into Bayes’ theorem, we get P(T|E)=0.997. So our credence has crept down, but only a little: from 0.999 to 0.997. This is much more optimistic (and conservative) than the big move from 0.999 to 0.99 that the intuitive calculation predicted.

So, if I am right, at least one of the reasons why anomalies don’t do much damage to scientific theories is that when the scientific theory T is well-confirmed, the anomaly is not only surprising on the theory, but it is surprising on the denial of the theory—because the background includes the data that makes T “well-confirmed” and would make E surprising even if we knew that T was false.

To make the point without the mathematics (which in any case is only used to illustrate the point, since Pruss is choosing the specific values himself), if you have a theory which would make the anomaly probable, that theory would be strongly supported by the anomaly. But we already know that theories like that are false, because otherwise the anomaly would not be an anomaly. It would be normal and common. Thus all of the actually plausible theories still make the anomaly an improbable observation, and therefore these theories are only weakly supported by the observation of the anomaly. The result is that the new observation makes at most a minor difference to your previous opinion.

We can apply this analysis to the discussion of miracles. David Hume, in his discussion of miracles, seems to desire a conclusive proof against them which is unobtainable, and in this respect he is mistaken. But near the end of his discussion, he brings up the specific topic of religion and says that his argument applies to it in a special way:

Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

The idea seems to be something like this: contrary systems of religion put forth miracles in their support, so the supporting evidence for one religion is more or less balanced by the supporting evidence for the other. Likewise, the evidence is weakened even in itself by people’s propensity to lies and delusion in such matters (some of this discussion was quoted in the earlier post on Hume and miracles). But in addition to the fairly balanced evidence we have experience basically supporting the general idea that the miracles do not happen. This is not outweighed by anything in particular, and so it is the only thing that remains after the other evidence balances itself out of the equation. Hume goes on:

I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January, 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgment of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: all this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.

But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination. Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case, Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered.

Notice how “unfair” this seems to religion, so to speak. What is the difference between the eight days of darkness, which Hume would accept, under those conditions, and the resurrection of the queen of England, which he would not? Hume’s reaction to the two situations is more consistent than first appears. Hume would accept the historical accounts about England in the same way that he would accept the accounts about the eight days of darkness. The difference is in how he would explain the accounts. He says of the darkness, “It is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived.” Likewise, he would accept the historical accounts as certain insofar as they say the a burial ceremony took place, the queen was absent from public life, and so on. But he would not accept that the queen was dead and came back to life. Why? The “search for the causes” seems to explain this. It is plausible to Hume that causes of eight days of darkness might be found, but not plausible to him that causes of a resurrection might be found. He hints at this in the words, “The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies,” while in contrast a resurrection would be “so signal a violation of the laws of nature.”

It is clear that Hume excludes certain miracles, such as resurrection, from the possibility of being established by the evidence of testimony. But he makes the additional point that even if he did not exclude them, he would not find it reasonable to establish a “system of religion” on such testimony, given that “violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact.”

It is hard to argue with the claim that “violations of truth” are especially common in testimony about miracles. But does any of this justify Hume’s negative attitude to miracles as establishing “systems of religion,” or is this all just prejudice?  There might well be a good deal of prejudice involved here in his opinions. Nonetheless, Alexander Pruss’s discussion of anomaly allows one to formalize Hume’s idea here as actual insight as well.

One way to look at truth in religion is to look at it as a way of life or as membership in a community. And in this way, asking whether miracles can establish a system of religion is just asking whether a person can be moved to a way of life or to join a community through such things. And clearly this is possible, and often happens. But another way to consider truth in religion is to look at a doctrinal system as a set of claims about how the world is. Looked at in this way, we should look at a doctrinal system as presenting a proposed larger context of our place in the world, one that we would be unaware of without the religion. This implies that one should have a prior probability (namely prior to consideration of arguments in its favor) strongly against the system considered as such, for reasons very much like the reasons we should have a prior probability strongly against Ron Conte’s predictions.

We can thus apply Alexander Pruss’s framework. Let us take Mormonism as the “system of religion” in question. Then taken as a set of claims about the world, our initial probability would be that it is very unlikely that the world is set up this way. Then let us take a purported miracle establishing this system: Joseph Smith finds his golden plates. In principle, if this cashed out in a certain way, it could actually establish his system. But it doesn’t cash out that way. We know very little about the plates, the circumstances of their discovery (if there was any), and their actual content. Instead, what we are left with is an anomaly: something unusual happened, and it might be able to be described as “finding golden plates,” but that’s pretty much all we know.

Then we have the theory, T, which has a high prior probability: Mormonism is almost certainly false. We have the observation : Joseph Smith discovered his golden plates (in one sense or another.) And we have the auxiliary hypotheses which imply that he could not have discovered the plates if Mormonism is false. The Bayesian updates in Pruss’s scheme imply that our conclusion is this: Mormonism is almost certainly false, and there is almost certainly an error in the auxiliary hypotheses that imply he could not have discovered them if it were false.

Thus Hume’s attitude is roughly justified: he should not change his opinion about religious systems in any significant way based on testimony about miracles.

To make you feel better, this does not prove that your religion is false. It just nearly proves that. In particular, this does not take into an account an update based on the fact that “many people accept this set of claims.” This is a different fact, and it is not an anomaly. If you update on this fact and end up with a non-trivial probability that your set of claims is true, testimony about miracles might well strengthen this into conviction.

I will respond to one particular objection, however. Some will take this argument to be stubborn and wicked, because it seems to imply that people shouldn’t be “convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And this does in fact follow, more or less. An anomalous occurrence in most cases will have a perfectly ordinary explanation in terms of things that are already a part of our ordinary understanding of the world, without having to add some larger context. For example, suppose you heard your fan (as a piece of furniture, not as a person) talking to you. You might suppose that you were hallucinating. But suppose it turns out that you are definitely not hallucinating. Should you conclude that there is some special source from outside the normal world that is communicating with you? No: the fan scenario can happen, and it turns out to have a perfectly everyday explanation. We might agree with Hume that it would be much more implausible that a resurrection would have an everyday explanation. Nonetheless, even if we end up concluding to the existence of some larger context, and that the miracle has no such everyday explanation, there is no good reason for it to be such and such a specific system of doctrine. Consider again Ron Conte’s predictions for the future. Most likely the things that happen between now and 2040, and even the things that happen in the 2400s, are likely to be perfectly ordinary (although the things in the 2400s might differ from current events in fairly radical ways). But even if they are not, and even if apocalyptic, miraculous occurrences are common in those days, this does not raise the probability of Conte’s specific predictions above any trivial level. In the same way, the anomalous occurrences involved in the accounts of miracles will not lend any significant probability to a religious system.

The objection here is that this seems unfair to God, so to speak. What if God wanted to reveal something to the world? What could he do, besides work miracles? I won’t propose a specific answer to this, because I am not God. But I will illustrate the situation with a little story to show that there is nothing unfair to God about it.

Suppose human beings created an artificial intelligence and raised it in a simulated environment. Wanting things to work themselves out “naturally,” so to speak, because it would be less work, and because it would probably be necessary to the learning process, they institute “natural laws” in the simulated world which are followed in an exceptionless way. Once the AI is “grown up”, so to speak, they decide to start communicating with it. In the AI’s world, this will surely show up as some kind of miracle: something will happen that was utterly unpredictable to it, and which is completely inconsistent with the natural laws as it knew them.

Will the AI be forced by the reasoning of this post to ignore the communication? Well, that depends on what exactly occurs and how. At the end of his post, Pruss discusses situations where anomalous occurrences should change your mind:

Note that this argument works less well if the anomalous case is significantly different from the cases that went into the confirmation of T. In such a case, there might be much less reason to think E won’t occur if T is false. And that means that anomalies are more powerful as evidence against a theory the more distant they are from the situations we explored before when we were confirming T. This, I think, matches our intuitions: We would put almost no weight in someone finding an anomaly in the course of an undergraduate physics lab—not just because an undergraduate student is likely doing it (it could be the professor testing the equipment, though), but because this is ground well-gone over, where we expect the theory’s predictions to hold even if the theory is false. But if new observations of the center of our galaxy don’t fit our theory, that is much more compelling—in a regime so different from many of our previous observations, we might well expect that things would be different if our theory were false.

And this helps with the second half of the problem of anomaly: How do we keep from holding on to T too long in the light of contrary evidence, how do we allow anomalies to have a rightful place in undermining theories? The answer is: To undermine a theory effectively, we need anomalies that occur in situations significantly different from those that have already been explored.

If the AI finds itself in an entirely new situation, e.g. rather than hearing an obscure voice from a fan, it is consistently able to talk to the newly discovered occupant of the world on a regular basis, it will have no trouble realizing that its situation has changed, and no difficulty concluding that it is receiving communication from its author. This does, sort of, give one particular method that could be used to communicate a revelation. But there might well be many others.

Our objector will continue. This is still not fair. Now you are saying that God could give a revelation but that if he did, the world would be very different from the actual world. But what if he wanted to give a revelation in the actual world, without it being any different from the way it is? How could he convince you in that case?

Let me respond with an analogy. What if the sky were actually red like the sky of Mars, but looked blue like it is? What would convince you that it was red? The fact that there is no way to convince you that it is red in our actual situation means you are unfairly prejudiced against the redness of the sky.

In other words, indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced that the sky is red except in situations where it is actually red, and those situations are quite different from our actual situation. And indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced of a revelation except in situations where there is actually a revelation, and those are quite different from our actual situation.

Common Sense and Culture

If we compare what I said about common sense to the letter of St. Augustine on the errors of the Donatists, quoted here, it seems that St. Augustine takes his belief in Christianity to be a matter of accepting common sense:

For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

It is true that St. Augustine talks about “divine witness” and so on here, but it is also easy to see that a significant source of his confidence is existing widespread religious agreement. It is foolish to abandon “the unity of all nations,” and impudent to “condemn the communion of the whole world.” And the problem with “charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world,” is that if you disagree with the common consent of mankind, you should first attempt to convince others before putting forward your personal ideas as absolute truth.

Is common sense a real reason for St. Augustine’s religious position, or he is merely attempting to justify himself? Consider his famous rebuke of those who attack science in the name of religion:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

St. Augustine in fact seems to be giving priority to common sense over religion here. If your religion contradicts common sense, your religion is wrong and common sense is right. This suggests that his argument for his religion from common sense is an honest one; it might even be his strongest reason for his belief.

As I said in the earlier post, the argument for religion from the consent of humanity had problems even at the time, and as things stand, it has no real relevance. There is no religious doctrine, let alone any religion, that one could reasonably say is accepted by even a majority of humanity, let alone by all. At any rate, this is the case unless one makes one’s doctrine far vaguer than would be permitted by any religion.

I concluded above that St. Augustine’s defense of common sense is likely an honest one. But note that this was not necessary: it would be perfectly possible for someone to defend common sense in order to justify themselves, without actually caring about the truth of common sense. In fact, consider what I said here about Scott Sumner and James Larson. Larson’s claim to accept realism is basically not an honest one. I do not mean that he does not believe it, but that its truth is irrelevant to him. What matters to him is that he can seemingly justify himself in maintaining his religious position in the face of all opposition.

Consider the cynical position of Francis Bacon about people relative to truth, discussed here. According to Bacon, no one is interested in truth in itself, but only as a means to other things. While the cynical position overall is incorrect, there is a lot of truth in it. Consequently, it will not be uncommon for someone to defend common sense, not so much because of its truth, but as part of a larger project of defending their culture. Culture is bound up with claims about the world, and defending culture therefore involves defending claims about the world. And if everyone accepts something, presumably everyone in your culture accepts it. One sign of this, of course, would be if someone passes freely back and forth between putting forth things that everyone accepts, and things that everyone in their culture accepts, as though these were equivalent.

Likewise, someone can attack common sense, not for the purpose of truth, but in order to engage in a kind of culture war. Consider the recent comments by “werzekeugjj” on the last post. There is no option here but to explain these comments with the methods of Ezekiel Bulver. For they cannot possibly represent opinions about the world at all, let alone opinions that were arrived at by honest means. Werzekeugjj, for example, responds to the question, “Do people sometimes write comments?” with “No.” As I pointed out there, if they do not, then he did not compose those comments, and there is nothing to reply to. As Aristotle puts it,

We can, however, demonstrate negatively even that this view is impossible, if our opponent will only say something; and if he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of our views to one who cannot give an account of anything, in so far as he cannot do so. For such a man, as such, is from the start no better than a vegetable.

Nor is it possible to apply a principle of charity here and say that Werzekeugjj intends to say that their claims are true in some complicated metaphysical sense. This does apply to the position of the blogger from Atheism and the City, discussed in that post. He presumably does not intend to reject common sense. I simply point out in my response that common sense is enough to draw the conclusions about causality that matter. The point is that this cannot apply to Werzekeugjj’s expressed position, because I spoke expressly of things in the everyday way, and the response was that the everyday claims themselves are false.

Of course, no one actually thinks that the everyday claims are false, including Werzekeugjj. What was the purpose of composing these comments, then?

We can gather a clue from this comment:

“in such a block unniverse there is no time flow
so your point on finalism or causality is moot
same with God
they don’t exist

The body of the post does not mention God, and God is not the topic. Why then does Werzekeugjj bring up God here? The most likely motivation is the kind of culture war motivation discussed here. Werzekeugjj associated talk of causality and reasons with talk of God, and intends to attack a culture that speaks this way with whatever it takes, including a full on rejection of common sense. Science has shown that your common sense views of the world are entirely false, Werzekeugjj says, and therefore you might as well abandon the rest of your culture (including its talk of God) along with the rest of your views.

Supposedly describing their intentions, Werzekeugjj says,

i’m not trying to understand the world or to change your mind but i’m trying to state what is true
and i’m puzzled by how you think there is no problem with arguments like these

This is false, precisely as a description of their personal motives. No one who says that balls never break windows and that they did not write their comments (in the very comments themselves) can pretend to be “trying to state what is true.” Sorry, but that is not your intention. More reasonably, we can suppose that Werzekeugjj sees my post as part of a project of defending a certain culture, and they intend to attack that culture.

But that is an inaccurate understanding of the post. I defend common sense because it is right, not because it is a part of any particular culture. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “Common sense is the foundation of all reasoning.  If you want to reject a common-sense claim, you’d better do it in the name of an even stronger common-sense claim.”

Motivated Reasoning and the Kantian Dichotomy

At the beginning of the last post, I distinguished between error caused by confusing the mode of knowledge and the mode of being, and error caused by non-truth related motives. But by the end of the post, it occurred to me that there might be more of a relationship between the two than one might think. Not that we can reduce all error to one or the other, of course. It seems pretty clear that the errors involved in the Kantian dichotomy are somewhat “natural,” so to speak, and often the result of honest confusion. This seems different from motivated reasoning. Similarly, there are certainly other causes of error. If someone makes an arithmetical error in their reasoning, which is a common occurrence, this is not necessarily caused by either confusion about the mode of knowing or by some other motive. It is just a mistake, perhaps caused by a failure of the imagination.

Nonetheless, consider the examples chosen in the last post. Scott Sumner is the anti-realist, while James Larson is the realist. And if we are looking only at that disagreement, and not taking into account confusion about the mode of knowing, Larson is right, and Sumner is wrong. But if we consider their opinions on other matters, Sumner is basically sane and normal, while Larson is basically crazy. Consider for example Larson’s attitude to science:

In considering what might be called the “collective thinking” of the entire Western world (and beyond), there is no position one can take which elicits more universal disdain than that of being“anti-science.” It immediately calls forth stereotyped images of backwardness, anti-progress, rigidity, and just plain stupidity.

There are of course other epithets that are accompanied by much more vehement condemnations: terms as such anti-semite, racist, etc. But we are not here concerned with such individual prejudices and passions, but rather with the scientific Weltanschauung (World-view) which now dominates our thinking, and the rejection of which is almost unthinkable to modern man.

Integral to this world-view is the belief that there is a world of “Science” containing all knowledge of the depths of the physical world, that the human mind has the potential to fully encompass this knowledge, and that it is only in the use” of this knowledge that man sins.

It is my contention, on the other hand, that the scientific weltanschauung is integrally constituted by a dominant hubris, which has profoundly altered human consciousness, and constitutes a war against both God and man.

Stereotyped or not, the labels Larson complains about can be applied to his position with a high degree of accuracy. He goes on to criticize not only the conclusions of science but also the very idea of engaging in a study of the world in a scientific manner:

It is a kind of dogma of modern life that man has the inalienable right, and even responsibility, to the pursuit of unending growth in all the spheres of his secular activity: economic, political (New World Order), scientific knowledge, technological development, etc. Such “unending quest for knowledge and growth” would almost seem to constitute modern man’s definition of his most fundamental dignity. This is fully in accord with the dominant forms of modern philosophy which define him in terms of evolutionary becoming rather than created being.

Such is not the Biblical view, which rather sees such pursuits as reeking disaster to both individual and society, and to man’s relationship to Truth and God. The Biblical perspective begins with Original Sin which, according to St. Thomas, was constituted as an intellectual pride by which Adam and Eve sought an intellectual excellence of knowledge independently of God. In the situation of Original Sin, this is described in terms of “knowledge of good and evil.” It is obvious in the light of further Old Testament scriptures, however, that this disorder also extends to the “seeking after an excellence” which would presume to penetrate to the depth of the nature of created things. Thus, we have the following scriptures:

Nothing may be taken away, nor added, neither is it possible to find out the glorious works of God: When a man hath done, then shall he begin: And when he leaveth off, he shall be at a loss.” (Ecclus 28:5-6).

And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.” (Eccl 8:17).

For the works of the Highest only are wonderful, and his works are glorious, secret, and hidden.” (Ecclus 11:4).

For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men. And the suspicion of them hath deceived man, and hath detained their minds in vanity.” (Ecclus 3:21-26).

These scripture passages proscribe any effort by man which attempts to penetrate (or even be inquisitive and curious about) the hidden depths of God’s “works.” It is evident that in these scriptures the word “works” refers to the physical world itself – to all those “works of God that are done under the sun.” There is no allegorical interpretation possible here. We are simply faced with a choice between considering these teachings as divinely revealed truth, or merely the product of primitive and ignorant Old Testament human minds.

It is not merely that Larson rejects the conclusions of science, which he admittedly does. He also condemns the very idea of “let’s go find out how the world works” as a wicked and corrupting curiosity. I say, without further ado, that this is insane.

But of course it is not insane in the sense that Larson should be committed to a mental institution, even though I would expect that he has some rather extreme personality characteristics. Rather, it is extremely obvious that Larson is engaging in highly motivated reasoning. On the other hand, most of Scott Sumner’s opinions are relatively ordinary, and while some of his opinions are no doubt supported by other human motives besides truth, we do not find him holding anything in such a highly motivated way.

Thus we have this situation: the one who upholds common sense (with regard to realism) holds crazy motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters, while the one who rejects common sense (with regard to realism) holds sane non-motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters. Perhaps this is accidental? If we consider other cases, will we find that this is an exceptional case, and that most of the time the opposite happens?

Anti-realism in particular, precisely because it is so strongly opposed to common sense, is rare in absolute terms, and thus we can expect to find that most people are realist regardless of their other opinions. But I do not think that we will find that the opposite is the case overall. On the contrary, I think we will find that people who embrace the Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have more accurate opinions about detailed matters, and that people who embrace the anti-Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have less accurate opinions about detailed matters, despite the fact that the anti-Kantian side is right about the common sense issue at hand.

Consider the dichotomy in general. If we analyze it purely in terms of concern for truth, the anti-Kantian is interested in upholding the truth of common sense, while the Kantian is interested in upholding the truth about the relationship between the mind and the world. From the beginning, the anti-Kantian wishes to maintain a general well-known truth, while the Kantian wants to maintain a relatively complex detailed truth about the relationship between knowledge and the world. The Kantian thus has more of an interest in details than the anti-Kantian, while the anti-Kantian is more concerned about the general truth.

What happens when we bring in other motivations? People begin to trade away truth. To the degree that they are interested in other things, they will have less time and energy to think about what is true. And since knowledge advances from general to particular, it would not be surprising if people who are less interested in truth pay less attention to details, and bother themselves mainly about general issues. On the other hand, if people are highly interested in truth and not much interested in other things, they will dedicate a lot of time and attention to working out things in detail. Of course, there are also other reasons why someone might want to work things out in detail. For example, as I discussed a few years ago, Francis Bacon says in effect: the philosophers do not care about truth. Rather their system is “useful” for certain goals:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Meanwhile, Bacon does not himself claim to be interested in truth. But he desires “advantages and effects,” namely accomplishments in the physical world, such as changing lead into gold. But if you want to make complex changes in the physical world, you need to know the world in detail. The philosophers, therefore, have no need of detailed knowledge because they are not interested in truth but disputation and status, while Bacon does have a need of detailed knowledge, even though he is likewise uninterested in truth, because he is interested in changing the world.

In reality, there will exist both philosophers and scientists who mainly have these non-truth related concerns, and others who are mainly concerned about the truth. But we can expect an overall effect of caring more about truth to be caring more about details as well, simply because such people will devote more time and energy to working things out in detail.

On this account, Scott Sumner’s anti-realism is an honest mistake, made simply because people tend to find the Kantian error persuasive when they try to think about how knowledge works in detail. Meanwhile, James Larson’s absurd opinions about science are not caused by any sort of honesty, but by his ulterior motives. I noted in the last post that in any such Kantian dichotomy, the position upholding common sense is truer. And this is so, but the implication of the present considerations is that in practice we will often find the person upholding common sense also maintaining positions which are much wronger in their details, because they will frequently care less about the truth overall.

I intended to give a number of examples, since this point is hardly proven by the single instance of Scott Sumner and James Larson. But since I am running short on time, at least for now I will simply point the reader in the right direction. Consider the Catholic discussion of modernism. Pius X said that the modernists “attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy,” but as we saw there, the modernists cared about the truth of certain details that the Church preferred to ignore or even to deny. The modernists were not mistaken to ascribe this to a love of truth. As I noted in the same post, Pius X suggests that a mistaken epistemology is responsible for the opinions of the modernists:

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.

As I noted there, epistemology is not the foundation for anyone’s opinions, and was not the foundation for the opinions of the modernists. But on the other hand, Pius X may be seeing something true here. The “agnosticism” he describes here is basically the claim that we can know only appearances, and not the thing in itself. And I would find it unsurprising if Pius X is right that there was a general tendency among the modernists to accept a Kantian epistemology. But the reason for this would be analogous to the reasons that Scott Sumner is an anti-realist: that is, it is basically an honest mistake about knowledge, while in contrast, the condemnation of questioning the authenticity of the Vulgate text of 1 John 5:7 was not honest at all.

Truth and Expectation II

We discussed this topic in a previous post. I noted there that there is likely some relationship with predictive processing. This idea can be refined by distinguishing between conscious thought and what the human brain does on a non-conscious level.

It is not possible to define truth by reference to expectations for reasons given previously. Some statements do not imply specific expectations, and besides, we need the idea of truth to decide whether or not someone’s expectations were correct or not. So there is no way to define truth except the usual way: a statement is true if things are the way the statement says they are, bearing in mind the necessary distinctions involving “way.”

On the conscious level, I would distinguish between thinking about something is true, and wanting to think that it is true. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that insofar as we have an involuntary assessment of things, it would be more appropriate to call that assessment a desire:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

Angra was quite surprised by this and responded that “That statement gives me evidence that we’re probably not talking about the same or even similar psychological phenomena – i.e., we’re probably talking past each other.” But if he was talking about anything that anyone at all would characterize as a belief (and he said that he was), he was surely talking about the unshakeable gut sense that something is the case whether or not I want to admit it. So we were, in fact, talking about exactly the same psychological phenomena. I was claiming then, and will claim now, that this gut sense is better characterized as a desire than as a belief. That is, insofar as desire is a tendency to behave in certain ways, it is a desire because it is a tendency to act and think as though this claim is true. But we can, if we want, resist that tendency, just as we can refrain from going to get food when we are hungry. If we do resist, we will refrain from believing what we have a tendency to believe, and if we do not, we will believe what we have a tendency to believe. But the tendency will be there whether or not we follow it.

Now if we feel a tendency to think that something is true, it is quite likely that it seems to us that it would improve our expectations. However, we can also distinguish between desiring to believe something for this reason, or desiring to believe something for other reasons. And although we might not pay attention, it is quite possibly to be consciously aware that you have an inclination to believe something, and also that it is for non-truth related reasons; and thus you would not expect it to improve your expectations.

But this is where it is useful to distinguish between the conscious mind and what the brain is doing on another level. My proposal: you will feel the desire to think that something is true whenever your brain guesses that its predictions, or at least the predictions that are important to it, will become more accurate if you think that the thing is true. We do not need to make any exceptions. This will be the case even when we would say that the statement does not imply any significant expectations, and will be the case even when the belief would have non-truth related motives.

Consider the statement that there are stars outside the visible universe. One distinction we could make even on the conscious level is that this implies various counterfactual predictions: “If you are teleported outside the visible universe, you will see more stars that aren’t currently visible.” Now we might find this objectionable if we were trying to define truth by expectations, since we have no expectation of such an event. But both on conscious and on non-conscious levels, we do need to make counterfactual predictions in order to carry on with our lives, since this is absolutely essential to any kind of planning and action. Now certainly no one can refute me if I assert that you would not see any such stars in the teleportation event. But it is not surprising if my brain guesses that this counterfactual prediction is not very accurate, and thus I feel the desire to say that there are stars there.

Likewise, consider the situation of non-truth related motives. In an earlier discussion of predictive processing, I suggested that the situation where people feel like they have to choose a goal is a result of such an attempt at prediction. Such a choice seems to be impossible, since choice is made in view of a goal, and if you do not have one yet, how can you choose? But there is a pre-existing goal here on the level of the brain: it wants to know what it is going to do. And choosing a goal will serve that pre-existing goal. Once you choose a goal, it will then be easy to know what you are going to do: you are going to do things that promote the goal that you chose. In a similar way, following any desire will improve your brain’s guesses about what you are going to do. It follows that if you have a desire to believe something, actually believing it will improve your brain’s accuracy at least about what it is going to do. This is true but not a fair argument, however, since my proposal is that the brain’s guess of improved accuracy is the cause of your desire to believe something. It is true that if you already have the desire, giving in to it will improve accuracy, as with any desire. But in my theory the improved accuracy had to be implied first, in order to cause the desire.

The answer is that you have many desires for things other than belief, which at the same time give you a motive (not an argument) for believing things. And your brain understands that if you believe the thing, you will be more likely to act on those other desires, and this will minimize uncertainty, and improve the accuracy of its predictions. Consider this discussion of truth in religion. I pointed out there that people confuse two different questions: “what should I do?”, and “what is the world like?” In particular with religious and political loyalties, there can be an intense social pressure towards conformity. And this gives an obvious non-truth related motive to believe the things in question. But in a less obvious way, it means that your brain’s predictions will be more accurate if you believe the thing. Consider the Mormon, and take for granted that the religious doctrines in question are false. Since they are false, does not that mean that if they continue to believe, their predictions will be less accurate?

No, it does not, for several reasons. In the first place the doctrines are in general formulated to avoid such false predictions, at least about everyday life. There might be a false prediction about what will happen when you die, but that is in the future and is anyway disconnected from your everyday life. This is in part why I said “the predictions that are important to it” in my proposal. Second, failure to believe would lead to extremely serious conflicting desires: the person would still have the desire to conform outwardly, but would also have good logical reasons to avoid conformity. And since we don’t know in advance how we will respond to conflicting desires, the brain will not have a good idea of what it would do in that situation. In other words, the Mormon is living a good Mormon life. And their brain is aware that insisting that Mormonism is true is a very good way to make sure that they keep living that life, and therefore continue to behave predictably, rather than falling into a situation of strongly conflicting desires where it would have little idea of what it would do. In this sense, insisting that Mormonism is true, even though it is not, actually improves the brain’s predictive accuracy.

 

Skeptical Scenarios

I promised to return to some of the issues discussed here. The current post addresses the implications of the sort of skeptical scenario considered by Alexander Pruss in the associated discussion. Consider his original comparison of physical theories and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

If we consider this in light of our analysis of form, it is not difficult to see that Pruss is correct both about the ordinary chair sentence being consistent with a large variety of physical theories, and about the implication that it is consistent with most situations that would normally be considered “skeptical.” The reason is that to say that something is a chair is to say something about its relationships with the world, but it is not to say everything about its relationships. It speaks in particular about various relationships with the human world. And there is nothing to prevent these relationships from co-existing with any number of other kinds of relationships between its parts, its causes, and so on.

Pruss is right to insist that in order for the ordinary sentence to be true, the corresponding forms must be present. But as an anti-reductionist, his position implies hidden essences, and this is a mistake. Indeed, under the correct understanding of form, our everyday knowledge of things is sufficient to ensure that the forms are present: regardless of which physical theories turn out to be true, and even if some such skeptical scenario turns out to be true.

Why are these situations called “skeptical” in the first place? This is presumably because they seem to call into question whether or not we possess any knowledge of things. And in this respect, they fail in two ways, they partially fail in a third, and they succeed in one way.

First, they fail insofar as they attempt to call into question, e.g. whether there are chairs in my room right now, or whether I have two hands. These things are true and would be true even in the “skeptical” situations.

Second, they fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat. In the straightforward sense, I do know this, because the claim is opposed to the other things (e.g. about the chairs and my hands) that I know to be true.

Third, they partially fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat in a metaphysical sense. Roughly speaking, I do know that I am not, not by deducing the fact with any kind of necessity, but simply because the metaphysical claim is completely ungrounded. In other words, I do not know this infallibly, but it is extremely likely. We could compare this with predictions about the future. Thus for example Ron Conte attempts to predict the future:

First, an overview of the tribulation:
A. The first part of the tribulation occurs for this generation, beginning within the next few years, and ending in 2040 A.D.
B. Then there will be a brief period of peace and holiness on earth, lasting about 25 years.
C. The next few hundred years will see a gradual but unstoppable increase in sinfulness and suffering in the world. The Church will remain holy, and Her teaching will remain pure. But many of Her members will fall into sin, due to the influence of the sinful world.
D. The second part of the tribulation occurs in the early 25th century (about 2430 to 2437). The Antichrist reigns for less than 7 years during this time.
E. Jesus Christ returns to earth, ending the tribulation.

Now, some predictions for the near future. These are not listed in chronological order.

* The Warning, Consolation, and Miracle — predicted at Garabandal and Medjugorje — will occur prior to the start of the tribulation, sometime within the next several years (2018 to 2023).
* The Church will experience a severe schism. First, a conservative schism will occur, under Pope Francis; next, a liberal schism will occur, under his conservative successor.
* The conservative schism will be triggered by certain events: Amoris Laetitia (as we already know, so, not a prediction), and the approval of women deacons, and controversial teachings on salvation theology.
* After a short time, Pope Francis will resign from office.
* His very conservative successor will reign for a few years, and then die a martyr, during World War 3.
* The successor to Pope Francis will take the papal name Pius XIII.

Even ignoring the religious speculation, we can “know” that this account is false, simply because it is inordinately detailed. Ron Conte no doubt has reasons for his beliefs, much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did. But just as we saw in that case, his reasons will also in all likelihood turn out to be completely disproportionate to the detail of the claims they seek to establish.

In a similar way, a skeptical scenario can be seen as painting a detailed picture of a larger context of our world, one outside our current knowledge. There is nothing impossible about such a larger context; in fact, there surely is one. But the claim about brains and vats is very detailed: if one takes it seriously, it is more detailed than Ron Conte’s predictions, which could also be taken as a statement about a larger temporal context to our situation. The brain-in-vat scenario implies that our entire world depends on another world which has things similar to brains and similar to vats, along presumably with things analogous to human beings that made the vats, and so on. And since the whole point of the scenario is that it is utterly invented, not that it is accepted by anyone, while Conte’s account is accepted at least by him, there is not even a supposed basis for thinking that things are actually this way. Thus we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that we are not brains in vats, just as we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that there will not be any “Antichrist” between 2430 and 2437.

There is nonetheless one way in which the consideration of skeptical scenarios does succeed in calling our knowledge into question. Consider them insofar as they propose a larger context to our world, as discussed above. As I said, there is nothing impossible about a larger context, and there surely is one. Here we speak of a larger metaphysical context, but we can compare this with the idea of a larger physical context.

Our knowledge of our physical context is essentially local, given the concrete ways that we come to know the world. I know a lot about the room I am in, a significant amount about the places I usually visit or have visited in the past, and some but much less about places I haven’t visited. And speaking of an even larger physical context, I know things about the solar system, but much less about the wider physical universe. And if we consider what lies outside the visible universe, I might well guess that there are more stars and galaxies and so on, but nothing more. There is not much more detail even to this as a guess: and if there is an even larger physical context, it is possible that there are places that do not have stars and galaxies at all, but other things. In other words, universal knowledge is universal, but also vague, while specific knowledge is more specific, but also more localized: it is precisely because it is local that it was possible to acquire more specific knowledge.

In a similar way, more specific metaphysical knowledge is necessarily of a more local metaphysical character: both physical and metaphysical knowledge is acquired by us through the relationships things have with us, and in both cases “with us” implies locality. We can know that the brain-in-vat scenario is mistaken, but that should not give us hope that we can find out what is true instead: even if we did find some specific larger metaphysical context to our situation, there would be still larger contexts of which we would remain unaware. Just as you will never know the things that are too distant from you physically, you will also never know the things that are too distant from you metaphysically.

I previously advocated patience as a way to avoid excessively detailed claims. There is nothing wrong with this, but here we see that it is not enough: we also need to accept our actual situation. Rebellion against our situation, in the form of painting a detailed picture of a larger context of which we can have no significant knowledge, will profit us nothing: it will just be painting a picture as false as the brain-in-vat scenario, and as false as Ron Conte’s predictions.