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.

Friday, 4 November 2011

And The Wisdom To Know The Difference?

I heard the other day some pundit in the finance industry opining that the concepts of Left and Right in politics have become largely meaningless. It seems to be a popular view and I see what they're getting at - with the demise of the Iron Curtain back in the 80s and the much-vaunted Triumph of Capitalism and the fact that the main political leaders, at least in the UK, have become eerily interchangeable since then (though apparently not in the US where politics has become more polarised than ever.) It seems as if the old Left/Right wing Labour/Conservative debates have become largely redundant.
And yet... I still see the difference. It may not be discernible in the Houses of Parliament and it may be harder to define than it used to be in the old Communist-Block/Free-World era, but I reckon it's one of those things where, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

" change the things I can... accept the things I can't... and the wisdom to know the difference", so the old saw goes. That last line was always intoned to me as a teenager with added emphasis, as if the difference was obvious and I should just shut up about it and get a proper job. I grew up in a rather conservative working class family and Mrs Thatcher would have been proud. Conservatism is very much about accepting the world as it is and making the best of it.
Some accept it with regret. It would be nice if things were different they say, 'in an Ideal World', but 'Life's not fair.' Best to just keep your head down and get on with it. Conservatism and being working class have this in common - it's all about knowing your place, not making a fuss. It's the whole Protestant Work Ethic thing - very Calvinist.
Others of course like the world being as it is - life is about getting all you can, while you can, and sod everyone else.

I've always found Conservatism, at least in the UK, an odd paradox. Conservatives used to be all about The Establishment - landed gentry, hereditary wealth and all that. It was about the established church, obedience to time-honoured status and authority - to the monarchy, the gentry, the clergy, the courts, and beneath them the police, the teachers, the doctors and ultimately the husbands and fathers, who's homes of course were their castles. In extremis there was the military. The assumption was that these men (and it was all men) knew best. To defy them was at best highly irregular, at worst, illegal, immoral or unnatural. Conservatism and Conservation joined forces to preserve the time-honoured traditional landscapes and ways of life of the British People.
Then, around about the 80s, Conservatism came to mean something completely different, in some ways, completely the opposite. It was all about making money, at any cost to society (even if it meant dismissing the entire concept), morality or legality. If you could get away with it it was ok - as long as it resulted in profits and growth. (The legal system could be modified accordingly.) Everything and anything was for sale. Meritocracy, Social Mobility and Competition were the governing ideals. Cutting edge technology was the means. In theory at least, if you could do the job better than anyone else you could have it - wherever you came from, no matter what class, sex, race or age. There would be no point in discriminating against, say, a black lesbian over a bunch of white guys if she was the best for the job. You'd only be limiting your profitability. Old Conservatives no doubt would have had something quite different to say about it.
How these two 'Conservatisms' could possibly get on in the same party still baffles me. Sure, the Establishment were by far the wealthiest people in the country, like the new breed of global entrepreneurs, but there the resemblance ends. Old Conservatism has by and large ended up snoozing in the Upper House but their ideals still surface, apologetically, with Back to Basics, Caring Capitalism and The Big Society, and probably most stridently in Euro-Scepticism and UKIP.
There's nothing wrong with being sceptical about the EU. I make it my business to be sceptical about politics and economics generally but the Euro-Sceptic seems to be more in the grand old Conservative tradition of blaming the foreigners when things get tough - be they EU bureaucrats or immigrants. Right Wing politics, including old style Conservatism seems to be very much about defining one's self against outsiders - whether it be at the family level, the gender level (all us men together), racial, national or even species level (Right-Wingers are far less likely to worry about the 'rights' of animals unless they're their pets.) Changing the things you can and accepting the things you can't naturally focusses you on your immediate surroundings - the people and place you grew up with. Everything else is quite literally beyond you. Under extreme circumstances the consequences can be dire - most obviously in pre-war Germany where The 'Other' was simply to be exterminated.
But I don't want to suggest that Conservatives are Nazis. God knows, Left Wing politics has its own monsters.

Being Left Wing, as I suppose I broadly am, is not an exact mirror image of the Right. Left wingers, it seems to me, tend not to see the world so much in terms of Them and Us. There is a vague, possibly Utopian sense that we really are all in this together (all of us - men, women and children, all races, creeds and nationalities, sexualities, ages and states of health, even other species, even The Environment), and that, even if we're not all equal (whatever that means) we are somehow all deserving of (that hackneyed phrase) Equal Opportunities - The Pursuit of Happiness and all that. Democracy, Human Rights, The Rule of Law...
But wait - isn't that what the modern Global Entrepreneur believes too? Well yes and no, because the Capitalist sees this freedom and happiness only in terms of material wealth, markets, competition. The left-winger sees this 'deserving' being in spite of differences in material wealth, even of the poorest and most powerless, even in those, to some extent, who have brought their misfortune on themselves, through crime or negligence. Right-wingers are typically far less forgiving - assuming an uncompromising notion of the freedom and power of the human will. Whatever mess you may end up in you have no one but yourself to blame. Get over it. Left-wingers believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, of rehabilitation, of mitigating circumstances, of second chances. If this all sounds terribly idealistic and airy-fairy, it is. It's an ideal. Something to aim at.

I've deliberately couched my characterisations of Left and Right in caricature, but the obvious point here is that hardly anyone is either entirely left or right wing. They're useful labels for broad tendencies and a useful shorthand for describing some extreme individuals and groups. If there's a parallel on the Left to the changes in Conservatism over the last 30 years it's that no one over here seriously believes in the kind of faceless grey uniformity advocated by Mao and Lenin (but not, I'm pretty sure, by Marx.) The big change is toward much more individualism on both sides. The difference is once again that the Left do not see their individualism expressed purely in what they can buy.
Much was made for a while of the likes of Michael Portillo's move from Marxist student activist to Tory MP, as if this exemplified the demise of socialism as a viable political force, when for me, all it meant was that some people tend to think in extremes and assume that if the answer doesn't lie at one end of the spectrum, that it must be at the other. When I was at Brighton Poly back in the 80s I'd have been accused of being a Woolly Liberal for this but if Mr Blair hadn't hijacked the term I'd have been quite happy to talk here about some sort of Third Way.
Some see this as evidence of weakness - as an inability to make up one's mind. Being a real Leftie is extremely hard work and I have no such aspirations. We all, to some extent, have to live in The Real World, because we only have one life, we have to make the most of it. In my experience the very committed left wing activists are not the most self-sacrificing individuals but those who really enjoy what they do. Those who dismiss all protesters who are not utterly committed, true to the cause and without contradictions miss the point. It is necessary, no, essential that the Anti-Capitalist protesters outside St Paul's both pitch their tents outside the cathedral, getting attention by making a minor nuisance of themselves, but also nip off to the pub (or even home) in the evening (as the infamous heat scan photo suggested a few weeks back) because they have lives too. It doesn't make them any less right to make a fuss. The Bankers certainly won't feel compelled to stick to any coherent ethical standards in their endeavours. They'll both try to make as much money as possible at the office and perhaps go to church or give to charity as well.
What bothers me much more is that whatever the individual practitioners get up to in their time off, the logic of the market they serve is inexorable. It is an amoral machine for making money. And modern politics has hitched itself to this machine.
This is why I sometimes find I have more in common with old-style conservatives than one might expect (and why some of my most enjoyable debates have always been with them) - because we both have a sense that something is wrong, and it's a moral sense, not rational, not economic.
The difference, going back to Serenity Prayer at the top, is our differing notions of what can and can't be changed. The Leftie almost of necessity remains open to the possibility of making things better. It's almost an article of faith, no matter how unformed our strategy might be, or how futile our efforts. The Triumph of Capitalism is not the success of some great moral humanist system of progress and development, it's what's left after everything else has failed. It's Natural Selection, red in tooth and claw. Its strength is that it thrives when you stop trying to do something better. Left-wing politics goes against the grain, a constant uphill struggle against just giving in and doing what comes naturally. And since the old totalitarianisms have been discredited, it's piece-meal, incremental, a process, not a goal, and demands constant vigilance.

I was brought up very strongly with the notion that very little could be changed and that the sooner I realised that and got on with getting a job, getting married and having kids, buying a mortgage and the insurance and the pension and all the rest of it, the better, because everything else was just Cloud Cuckoo Land.
My dad was a Trades-Unionist (a shop-steward actually) in the 70s and an old-fashioned Labour man. He believed that there was not much to be done with the world except to try to get fairer slice of the pie for your self and your family through negotiations and, if it came to it, industrial action. He thought a lot of his colleagues were layabouts and spongers. He believed you couldn't expect to have a voice unless you put yourself up for election. Otherwise all you could do was vote and accept the consequences. I don't agree with a lot of that but he had a powerful (sometimes intimidating) belief that people really ought to do better but I don't think he thought there was much point in trying to change the world (at least not when I was old enough to debate with him) and I think that was a terrible shame and a waste, because he had so much more energy than I do for these things. My dad was a force for the good. I'm sure everyone who knew him would agree with that.
Still as just one in seven billion (give or take) I'll be happy if I can make just slightly more than one 7,000,000,000th of a difference, and that will have to do.