Friday, 18 November 2011

A Working Hypothesis

I don't know if there's a handy layman's term for the kind of argument that is impossible to prove wrong, even when it probably is. In science such hypotheses are known as unfalsifiable. They might conceivably be right but there's just no way of telling. Bertrand Russell's teapot is the famous philosophical example. In ordinary everyday usage though I've found it almost impossible to come up with a not-too-lengthy but convincing way of explaining what I mean. This is especially troubling because almost everyone I know has some sort of Russell's Teapot in their lives and most of them would be lost without it. I've started collecting them.

I joined Facebook recently, against my better judgement and ostensibly to promote my books and nursery. An artist friend of mine told me I should be 'Schmoozing' more and that FB is a good way to do it, but I find I'm not the schmoozing kind. Still I've had some nice catch-up conversations with long-lost friends so all is not lost. One of these friends is a self-confessed conspiracy-nut and it's always interesting to get into 'debates' with him. I'll maybe talk more about him later but one contributor on his 'Wall' commented gnomically "...but the inner eye or intuition always knows the truth..."
I wanted to scream - What? How do you know? What the hell are you on about? So are you saying people never misunderstand things? Not if they use The Inner Eye. But their intuition must sometimes get things wrong. Then they can't have used The Inner Eye correctly.
Unfalsifiable.There's no way of showing whether this Inner Eye exists or not, or if it does what he claims it does. It's existence and infallibility are consistent with any state of affairs. You can't disprove it. It's an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Another famous one is 'God moves in mysterious ways', variations of which are used by the religious to justify the fact that awful things happen to good people. Nothing is inconsistent with God's love and omniscience. There is no valid counter-evidence. God is love.
It might be argued that "God moves in mysterious ways" and "the inner eye always knows the truth" are not hypotheses but articles of faith, but this does not prevent them being trotted out in otherwise rational debates. They're a sort of unanswerable get-out-of-jail-free card for the believer. The fact that I have no answer (or only a very convoluted one) is taken to mean that I've lost.
So I want a quick and pithy aphorism to stick into the debate at that point just to point out that, while they are of course free to believe what they like, they can't use that sort of argument in a rational debate. Otherwise anyone could just say any old thing and there'd be no point trying to have a debate in the first place.
Karma is another one - You lead a blameless life and something horrible happens - Well you must have done something to deserve it. Positive thinking - If you want something enough it'll happen. But I did really want it, and it didn't happen. Well you can't have really really wanted it or it would have happened.

I can see why people like these Unfalsifiables. They can be invoked when a sense of order or justice seems to be lacking in the world, or as an explanation for the inexplicable. They're a guard against uncertainty and chaos. The friend I mentioned above likes to think of himself as very rational and even anti-religious (As he likes to remind us all, he has a physics degree) but at base I suspect his preoccupation with conspiracies is a search for order in what he sees as an evil world. He may have rejected God but that hasn't stopped him believing in the Devil. It does at least give him something to go up against. Some of the conspiracies, once argued through, require such extraordinary powers of organisation and mind-control that the only recourse is to use them as evidence for some immense global (possibly alien) super-power. Hence David Icke and the Illuminati. (More Unfalsifiables.)

The whole spiritual/religious edifice is a mesh of Unfalsifiables. Heaven gives comfort when a loved one dies, Hell, a sense of justice. Souls and spirits explain away the incongruities of consciousness and personality (and life-after-death). You don't have to blame yourself if your children go astray if you can put it down to them just being born that way. Fate and Destiny likewise. It just wasn't meant to be, say the hippies.
I want to include Common Sense and Categorical Imperatives here too. On the one hand, Common Sense is invoked as the self-evident normal way to do things. It is not questioned where this 'sense' comes from. It's just the way it's done, they way they've always been done. Likewise there are things that are simply not done. End of subject. Categorical Imperatives are commandments from on high for the atheist. You simply don't do that sort of thing around here.
God of course is the biggest Unfalsifiable of the lot. He conveniently explains everything away. No need to think at all if you don't feel like it. You just use your infallible Inner Eye and there He is. More than anything, Unfalsifiables mean there's a lot of things you don't have to think about. They're just given. They mean you can relax and get on with the important things in life, like shopping, and looking cool..

I want to say a bit about Belief here. I recommended a book a few posts back called Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz, which is generally excellent but which makes the mistake, I think, of using the word 'belief' way too broadly, and she's not alone. She uses it to cover all sorts of human cerebral activity including ideas, assumptions, observations, theories... I think this is horribly misleading but not unusual. I've thought a lot about this and have come up with at least four distinct meanings of the word.

First up - there are the kind of beliefs people have despite the fact (or indeed because of the fact) that there is no material evidence or rational explanation for them - things like God, Heaven, The Inner Eye, Karma. Such beliefs are an assertion of a personal conviction that something is so, irrespective of what anyone else says. We tend to talk of 'Believing In' such things. Having Faith is a similar sort of idea.

This is very different to what the scientist means when she says 'I believe in Evolution'. I prefer not to use the word 'believe' like this because I think it's very misleading but in this case the strength of the 'belief' results from the strength of the material evidence and rational explanation. What she's saying is she thinks she has very good reason to think the theory of evolution is true. She thinks the evidence is strong and the logic sound but like any scientific hypothesis it could in due course be radically modified or falsified completely. This is sometimes described as 'Believing That' something is the case and has nothing to do with Faith.
If you want to see the difference, try transposing a religious assertion into scientific language:
'I believe that my redeemer liveth, given the available evidence, but further work is needed.'
That's just not faith.

Thirdly, there is the way people 'believe in' something as a kind of assertion of hope and trust. You might say you believe in your marriage, or the UN or human nature. It's partly based on past experience, but is also about optimism. You feel they've been trustworthy in the past and you'd like to believe they won't let you down in the future, but you can never be sure. Anyway there'll definitely be no future in your marriage unless you believe in it to some extent. Again, you could just as easily say you 'have Faith' in it.

Fourthly I think there's a sort of common sense, taken-for-granted sort of belief where we just assume things about the world because it's never occurred to us to think otherwise. This may include anything from simply 'knowing' that tables and chairs are solid and not made up mainly of empty space, that Jesus loves you and that wearing sandals with socks is just plain wrong. Mostly we're not even aware of these kinds of beliefs until someone challenges them.

Needless to say people use these meanings almost interchangeably a lot of the time. Religious people believe in God in all four ways. Sometimes they like to try using material evidence but when that doesn't work their faith is strengthened by the lack of same. Ultimately they tend to fall back on hope and trust. For many uneducated people it never occurs to them to doubt.

Some people see science as a belief system in the first sense, but in fact it is a system based on Working Assumptions, or it should be. There are scientists who cling to their theories like articles of religious faith or express a 'belief in' them because otherwise no one will take them seriously but this is not what science is about. The most profound assumptions in science are ones like the assumption that you can usefully apply maths and logic to physical phenomena - that it is useful to measure and count things, add them up and average them and put your results on a graph. It also assumes that physical principals do not just arbitrarily vary from place to place. A mile in Jo'berg is assumed to be the same as a mile in London. Causality is generally assumed to hold true. Birth does not cause conception, except in a very roundabout way. Further, science only takes into account physical forces and objects - it assumes there are no spirits or Gods working in the background arbitrarily manipulating your experiments.
There is no a priori reason why any of these assumptions should hold true. They just seem to work, and have done for a very long time. They produce useful results and predictions. It may not seem like this when we are confronted with the sheer extravagance of The Search for the God Particle or the apparent inanity of Dark Energy, or the controversies about Climate Change or Vaccination, but those are at the outer edge of scientific understanding and almost necessarily beyond most of us. Normal science builds satellites and mobile phones and cochlear implants and whatever one may think about those things they definitely work (most of the time). This is because the working assumptions behind them (maths, causality, and without divine intervention) hold up. As soon as they no longer do so (once they are falsified) they will be discarded. This is what is so different to the unfalsifiable Givens above.

I know this view of knowledge is unattractive to people compared to the unfalsifiable 'Truths' listed at the top. People don't like uncertainty. They like to think they know what's what. There's something manly about standing up for what you believe. Saying 'I can't be sure' seems more like a moral failure than a simple statement of the human condition. Our leaders are expected to know exactly how things are and what's to be done, and woe betide them if they seem a bit confused. Of course decisiveness and certainty are not the same thing. Making a decision when you aren't sure what you're doing is almost more heroic than pretending you do. And sometimes we need to believe we know what's happening (in the third, positive thinking, sense) in order to motivate ourselves and others. Positive thinking probably works because it makes us more alert and open to possibilities but that's all a bit woolly isn't it. Far easier to posit some Cosmic Ordering keeping an eye out for us wishing things would happen and then, out of the blue, intervening to grant our wishes. Psychology is such a bore by comparison. All those books...
It's easier too to imagine too some kind of sentient being standing over the world, somehow keeping it all running, harmonious and balanced, than having to grapple with all that physics, which, after all doesn't have all the answers anyway. Likewise seeing consciousness as some sort of irreducible and immortal soul inhabiting our material bodies is so much more manageable than neurology. And the neurologists don't have all the answers either. Surely they should by now, if they were ever going to?

But of course I'm being facetious. God, Intelligent Designer, the Soul, what are they made of? Where are they? How do they operate on the world. What do they want? These explanations are simpler than the scientific only in so far as they are easy to say. We don't actually know anything about them. The scientists may have to write out and explain a lot of complicated equations and stuff (frankly I don't get it) but the believer has to come up with all sorts of substances and forces that we have no notion of, acting in ways we can't detect, for reasons we have no way of understanding. And yet they claim to be able to grasp all this just by sitting quietly and using their intuition. What arrogance!

I understand also that the notions of souls and after-lives and karma are comforting, and faced with a grieving Mother there is no way I would try to take that away from her. Faced with imminent death I might even pray myself. It's got to be worth a try, when all else fails. I might even, under those circumstances, be able to convince myself that it might be true.
I also understand why moral philosophers need their categorical imperatives, just as the religious need their commandments and precepts. Because without it, they say, how could there be any moral foundation to life?

Philosophers like to remind social Darwinists that you can't derive 'ought' from 'is' (meaning you can't derive what people ought to do from what is the case in other species. Our ancestors might have been racist but that doesn't make it ok for us to be racist) but the reverse is true too. You can't derive 'is' from 'ought'. Just because something would be a good thing doesn't mean it must be so. It would be nice if there was a simple moral code 'out there' for us all to abide by or face the consequences. It would be wonderful if all these evil bastards, torturers and child-abusers got their come-uppance in the here-after. It would be nice if all the dreadful things that happen in the world could be put down to this one Big Brewin' Evil so we knew where to aim the rocket launchers, but wanting it doesn't make it so, and I don't think I'll ever be able to convince myself otherwise, and actually I don't want to. I'm ok with working assumptions. I'm ok with not being sure. It doesn't stop me being hopeful. And when someone does something generous and beautiful I don't want to give the credit to some otherworldly being. When someone is saved from danger or cured of a disease I want to give the credit to the rescuers or doctors, not to some imaginary guardian. We do amazing things - we, humans, and we deserve the credit.

Most of the time, here in the relative comfort of modern Europe, we tolerate each other's Givens because they are at worst irritating, at best, quaint. But when the people's of the wider world come to face each other, armed with their conflicting Unfalsifiables, how will they ever speak to one another? Maybe they just want to kill one another and don't care how they justify it. There's nothing much to be done about that, but on the other hand maybe they're just mistaken about each other. Maybe some of them, if it was drawn to their attention, might admit they weren't so sure any more and that maybe the other guys had a point. Maybe they could come to see some of their Givens as working assumptions. Maybe if they sat down and thought about it and perhaps looked at the evidence sometimes, maybe some of them might change their minds. I know it sounds far-fetched but you never know. It could happen. It's better than the alternative.

I'm very aware that this leaves open the question of where I get my values from and how I justify being so outspoken about them. Rest assured I plan to come back to that.


Vincent said...

Gathering evidence is very expensive and requires special skills. Mostly people only want to gather evidence supporting their own case, for example to prove they are innocent. Few are they who gather it impartially.

As for rational debate, it's very expensive too. I don't think it happens in ordinary interactions. I don't think most people take any interest in it. I realize that I have little or no interest in it myself.

In general I welcome people's Givens, their conversational formulae of Unfalsifiables. When someone is saved from danger or cured by a disease, I consider the involvement of rescuers and doctors unverifiable and probably unfalsifiable too.

When I take the doctor's prescription and get better, I cannot know if I would have got better just as fast if I had merely trusted to time and my body's own self-healing efforts. When medicine makes me feel worse, I check the list of possible side-effects and usually find my symptoms there. My surmises are unverifiable and unfalsifiable. So I believe whatever suits me. I imagine that the most efficacious healer of all time must be the Placebo effect, for evidence-based medicine as it is now known is probably not more than fifty years old.

I'm not entering debate, certainly not the rational kind. Nor am I trying to wind you up. Tell me to shut up and I will!

Steve Law said...

No no, of course I don't want you to shut up. I always find your contribution hugely stimulating because we disagree so much, not in spite of it. What's the point in only talking to people you agree with?
This posting was written very much with you in mind as it happens.
And I agree with you for the most part. Almost always, in almost every area of life, a fully tested rational debate is not possible or even desirable (where would be the fun in that?) but to say that a more reasoned, evidence-based approach is simply never possible or useful when life and death decisions have to be made is taking it too far to the other extreme.
You can believe whatever suits you as long as it doesn't harm anyone else. Your life-style, as far as i can tell is pretty innocuous, mine too, so it doesn't matter too much, but if you and I come up against each other in any serious way on a moral, legal or economic issue, if it's not simply to degenerate into a trial of brute physical strength, I'll expect you to come up with a good argument - one we can both accept.
Certainly people gather evidence favouring their cases. Every rational debate (including all scientific research) begins with something someone wants to do. Everyone starts out biased. But then the job of the opposition party, the peer-reviewers or the opposing counsel is to pick holes in the arguments, and if it's not to become just a slanging match some consensus has to be reached about what does and does not constitute good evidence, and what counts as a valid argument. I believe (in the second sense) that reason fulfills this purpose better than anything else.
What you say about the placebo effect is very to the point. If we expect something to make us feel better it very often does, and medical researchers should be looking into that, but that doesn't change my basic argument.

Anonymous said...

I've come to the conclusion, in the process of slowly and unwillingly relinquishing more and more of my own teapots (can't swear that they're all gone yet, and don't know if it is actually possible to be completely free of them) that the real reason for their enduring and universal appeal is our it would seem equally universal abhorrence for feeling helpless.

The evolution of human consciousness has been a most marvellous thing, but it carried this cost - the realisation, the awareness, of the randomness of our existence. There's nothing inherently 'wrong' with randomness but we do seem to hate with a passion our inability to bring it under control.

We can learn to tolerate randomness and helplessness and still enjoy life, but by and large it seems we are pretty unwilling to put in the effort. Maybe there are people who don't, and never did, find it an effort, but I haven't encountered any.

PS I really like your blog, and your ding dongs with Vincent, whose blog led me to yours!

Vincent said...

I was quite surprised by your comment, Gentleeye, for I read into it the subtext that you have decided to live your life without the idea of God.

I have crossed over to the other side in the meantime, realizing that I never properly relinquished the idea of God in the first place, for it is deep within me, much deeper than reason.

I intend to write about it soon, together with any insights that I can muster into the climate of belief vs. unbelief in today's world.

I should also add that abandoning the idea of God is clearly the subtext of your posts too, Steve, and those of Bryan M White. It seems to me that any discourse based on linked propositions such as "reason is enough", "science is finding out all we need to know", "We're on our own - we must rely on our own resources" implicitly says so in a climate where it is accepted that others think differently, but (in the opinion of the writer) are wrong.

So I would like to simplify the discussion as one about God. However since the word can mean pretty much anything you care to imagine, it won't be appropriate for me to pursue this topic in "ding dongs" - but in an essay on my blog.

I find your thought hugely stimulating as well, Steve, but till now I've been too lazy & failed to set out my ideas as plainly as you have.

Bryan M. White said...

@Vincent: I'm not sure how I got dragged into this. I thought that the recent posts to which you're referring were actually, in part, a defense of those who believe in God. But what do I know; I only wrote them.

I wasn't aware I was "abandoning the idea of God" at all. In fact, I still have a lot to say on the subject. I guess the fact that we support a scientific viewpoint makes us all blasphemous heathens by definition.

Vincent said...

Thanks for stopping me so promptly in my tracks, Bryan. Your response makes it even plainer that I must stick to my declared resolve of not engaging in verbal fisticuffs, not reacting against.

Steve Law said...

Ooh - a nice lot of comments here. Thanks guys.
First up - Gentleeye - I'm not even sure it's possible to 'relinquish' our Teapots, only to recognise them for what they are - working assumptions, and not always well-founded ones. It's about humility.

The sense of helplessness, randomness, meaninglessness you fear must result from uncertainty, I must confess, I can't relate to. Maybe I'm missing something. I'm generally a very self-aware sort of person, but I must admit i can't find any such fear within myself, and I am, I hope a moral, creative, caring sort of person. I honestly don't see the problem.
Certainty strikes me as far more dangerous.

Secondly Vincent, I'm not saying, and I have never said (and I've pointed this out several times before) that science and reason are enough. This is a straw man. Please - feed it to the horses.

In this posting I am offering 'reason' as a means of communication between people with conflicting Teapots. (I can't tell you how much pleasure this 'Teapots' thing is giving me btw)
I am using 'science' as an analogy of the value of working hypotheses. The fact that we can never be sure that quantum mechanics is correct does not stop us using transistors.
In other words, by analogy, using working assumptions instead of beliefs does not preclude a full and enriching life.

Finally I can happily countenance God as a working hypothesis but I for one don't think it stands up to scrutiny.

Vincent said...

Well, if I am not mistaken here---and I’m trying to do my homework more conscientiously than heretofore---you are saying that it’s arrogant to rely on intuition, unless the person who does rely on it can provide proof when communicating with people like Russell and yourself who don’t want to waste your time in rational debate with someone who cherishes something unfalsifiable.

You say “ ... And yet they claim to be able to grasp all this by sitting quietly and using their intuition. What arrogance!”

I am not ashamed of my arrogance, if that is what you call it. To me, 100% of the idea of God comes from intuition, because the real God, if any, is unknowable. Whenever I’m in rational debate with anyone, the only truth that I place value on is one which resonates with my intuition. So if someone “proves” something to me that doesn’t sound right, I’ll assume there is something missing in their premises or their logic. But that doesn’t bother me because it never occurs to me that logic can lead to truth except in the narrow logical world of logic.

So I happily abandon rational debate in order to cherish my “teapots”, if that is what you want to call them. But Bertrand Russell was an old fool for the latter part of his life, and his teapot analogy is a prime example, placing him in the same club as Richard Dawkins for fatuous pronouncements. How can anyone dispassionately compare something which a person holds dear (because it resonates meaningfully with his whole being) with a teapot somewhere in space?

PS: intuition is not infallible. But it leads always to what matters most to oneself---sometimes beyond physical survival. Reason is useful for solving material problems, like where is the leak coming from, why is this computer program not working.

Steve Law said...

Hey there - I've got to dash so I'll make it quick.
No - I'm not saying intuition is arrogant. What I'm saying is that to claim to be able to gain an understanding of the nature of the universe that way seems a little presumptuous to say the least.

"if someone “proves” something to me that doesn’t sound right, I’ll assume there is something missing in their premises or their logic"
No - this is where we part. I accept that (no more than that, I relish the fact that) reality seems to be counter-intuitive. I'm constantly having to re-think my opinions in the light of new evidence and the exposure of flaws in my thinking. I actually look for flaws in my thinking. Otherwise i'm just pandering to my preconceptions.

I meant the teapot notion as a light-hearted metaphor. Russell's personality doesn't come into it. I just like the imagery. It's certainly not meant to trivialise anyone's deeply held convictions.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right, Steve, and that it is more accurate to say that we can maybe, over time, recognise what our Teapots really are rather than 'relinquish' them.

With regard to certainty, that was where I started, and I had to give it up. I feel 'reasonably' comfortable with uncertainty and randomness now, and wouldn't say that I fear it. I am more curious than fearful. But I also acknowledge that giving up that certainty wasn't altogether easy. I liked it.

@ Vincent - you may be reading too much into my subtext! I certainly have not decided to live my life without the idea of God - but what that idea is has changed hugely for me.

I like your point that intuition 'leads to what matters most to oneself'. And what matters most may have little to do with reason or logic.