The Problem of Truth

The website, fivethirtyeight.com, recently published an interesting article that helps explain the problem of truth: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken/. Statistical analysis makes proving an empirical hypothesis difficult. The problem here is that truth is a binary value: something is either true or false. We can’t deal in half-truths. Yet, half-truths compose most of our world. Often, it’s the best we can do in answering difficult questions. This is why we rely on statistics to describe so much of our experience: it is a type of analysis that deals with questions that don’t fit well into a binary, true-false, yes-no, type of answer.

Statistics often provide scientists a result, which is often publishable, but that’s not always the same thing as an answer to the question (1). A data set may provide many publishable results that offer conflicting or even contradictory answers to a scientist’s question (1). N. N. Taleb makes a similar point in his analysis of decision making under complexity: we have considerable difficulty predicting what the correct answer is, and often, we can’t know what the correct answer is, due to limitations in our ability to predict the results of a given event. Statistical distributions for some events are highly unpredictable, which requires extensive observations before any meaningful or useful conclusions can be drawn.

Moreover, subjectivity influences a researcher’s results, which makes Truth a difficult commodity to produce. Daniel Kahneman’s book, _Thinking Fast and Slow_, helps explain how the human mind interferes with our supposedly pure perception of the world, which makes our determination of truth difficult, if not impossible. A better measure of scientific knowledge might be utility: what can we do with this information. Utility is not a binary value that we assign to knowledge, unlike truth. Moreover, utility can be empirically tested, like truth or validity.

In the history of science, most results turn out to be false, at least in part if not completely. John Ioannidis supports this idea, stating that most published findings are false (1). “The important lesson here is that a single analysis is not sufficeint to find a definitive answer. Every result is a temporary truth, one that’s subject to change when someone else comes along to build, test and analyze anew” (1).

We ought to focus our efforts on developing the utility of belief systems that we use in our lives, rather than bickering about truth. This fosters a more honest reporting of what science does on a daily basis, removing the faith that some folks hang on the sciences’ methods. Bad repoting of scientific method(s) gives society a false sense of accomplishment and power regarding the predictive power of these methods. “The scientific method is the most rigorous path to knowledge, but it’s also messy and tough” (1).

1. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken/

Ignorance

Much of our experience of the world is shaped by ignorance. Whether it is a driver yelling at a cyclist because one of them doesn’t know the traffic laws, or an 18th century doctor bleeding a patient because he doesn’t understand the causes of illness, ignorance frequently causes harm — even if the ignorant are trying to help.

I suppose, in part, this is why we have the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.” The ignorant don’t know whether they are hurting or helping, and in their view, they are doing the right thing. How often is this the case? How often do we do the wrong thing when thinking that we’re acting on our correct knowledge?

I’m afraid this happens more often than not, but the silver lining is that most situations don’t have extreme consequences for our ignorant actions. A deli worker who misreads your order and makes you a turkey sandwich instead of a ham sandwich isn’t causing great problems for anyone, and this is the kind of scenario that fills most of our lives. Rarely are we in an operating room where we have to make an uncertain decision about how to save a patient’s life. We’ve built long, arduous training programs in an attempt to put the best-trained people in those situations that can have dire consequences if we act ignorantly. These training programs don’t always work, but they help ameliorate some of the damage we can cause due to ignorance.

An extreme reaction to our own ignorance is a type of paralysis. We become afraid to do anything because, if we really dig into it, we aren’t certain about very many things. We don’t help people because we’re uncertain about whether they want help; we don’t communicate with others because we’re uncertain of the outcome. However, this conclusion is as faulty as the assumption that we’re better off remaining ignorant and simply assuming that we’re acting from knowledge.

It seems that the best effort we can make is to try to act on our best knowledge of any situation, while recognizing that we’ll probably make a bunch of mistakes along the way — until we invent a crystal ball, that is.

How do you know?

I’m reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. If you’ve read other books on behavioral economics and decision making — such as Fooled by Randomness, Predictably Irrational, or Anti-Fragile — this book will be an interesting expansion of the ideas presented in those books. But let me tell you, chapter 21 is where this book is at.

In chapter 21, Kahneman gives some great applications for decision making heuristics, or approximate, algorithmic tools that help a person make a decision under most circumstances. He explains how one researcher, Orley Ashenfelter, developed an algorithm to judge whether a particular vintage in Bordeaux, France will be valuable to collectors using only three variables: the amount of rain fall the preceding winter, the temperature and rainfall in the summer growing season, and the chateau producing the wine. Kahneman claims that this algorithm explains 90% of the value of a particular vintage of Bordeaux, and Ashenfelter says the weather explains 80% of Bordeaux’s quality (as measured by price at auction) and chateau explains 20%. Kahneman goes on to explain how simple algorithms often do a better job of predicting complicated situations than complex statistical models or human experts do: broad stock market returns, price performance of individual stocks, the success of a proposed scientific research program, political situations, hiring a new employee. I’m thrilled to know that there are tools we can use to make better decisions in areas that typically baffle people. I find it odd that most people ignore these tools and continue making unnecessary errors..

Kahneman does note that people can predict some areas of human experience, but these areas are predictable and controlled: things like house fires, chess games, and other situations that change in well-documented ways can be understood and predicted by human experts. Taleb, in Anti-Fragile, explains the difference between the predictable and unpredictable situations that people encounter using a metaphor of quadrants.

This image shows that situations with complex pay-offs and unknown statistical distributions, such as stock market price performance and political events, are unpredictable and changes in outcome can be drastic. However, chess games and house fires are more predictable because their behavior is less volatile: their changes are less extreme because we can better understand those events.

It is particularly pertinent to philosophy that statistics play a key role in understanding how people know about the world, and most theories of knowledge (i.e. epistemological theories) ignore the importance of statistics in our knowledge. For example, it is rare for anyone to know something with 100% certainty: even the force of gravity on Earth fluctuates in its strength over its surface, although most high school graduates will tell you without hesitation that the rate of gravitational acceleration on Earth is 9.8 m/s squared. However, the mathematical constant of gravity is good enough for nearly all people living on Earth. Most of us will never need to know that the force of gravity is weaker on top of Mount Everest and in Kuala Lumpur, or stronger in Oslo, Norway and Mexico City, Mexico. Still, the fact is that we often don’t know what we think we know: in other words, we are often less than 100% certain of many facts that we would say we know for certain. However, as Taleb’s diagram shows, this uncertainty is trivial in most “quadrants” of our lives. The “fourth quadrant” is the domain where that uncertainty can come back to bite us.

The implications of this over-confidence in our knowledge is important. It’s well-documented that most finance experts aren’t as good at picking stocks as they say they are, and that most political pundits don’t have a clue about where the next political crisis will next erupt. Kahneman covers this in his book, and you can find other authors documenting the same information. However, we need to get a handle on how much to trust what someone is telling us. How do we do this? How do we know what we know?

Philosophers talk about knowledge in terms of “justified true belief”. This definition of knowledge requires that a belief must be justified and valid. The concept of truth is a logical value, which provides a rational support for holding a belief. Justification helps explain why we ought to hold a belief by showing how the belief applies to the empirical world. In other words, truth is an abstract value of knowledge and justification ties that abstract value to some support in the empirical world. It seems to me that the demonstrating the validity of a belief is relatively simple compared to its justification. Moreover, validity can be a trivial value: it’s possible to show how many things that don’t exist are valid. For example, this is a valid, but empirically false, useless, and meaningless syllogism: “All unicorns poop rainbows. I am a unicorn. Therefore, I poop rainbows”. Proving that a belief is valid is useless if that belief doesn’t have some application to the empirical world. Consequently, most debates circle around justifications for a particular belief rather than its validity.

Some might say that the philosophical (or possibly religious) concept of Truth applies to justification, because a true and valid argument must apply to the world we inhabit. However, truth is a difficult concept to apply to justification because so much of our previous knowledge has been replaced with more accurate versions, as we found in our gravity example. Consequently, it seems cleaner and easier to talk about justification in terms of testing whether a belief applies to the empirical world. The methods of testing that are beyond the scope of this post, but I may cover it in another post.

Statistics come into play in justifying one’s knowledge. Sometimes those statistics are trivial: how likely is it you’ll need to eat breakfast tomorrow morning? And other times, those statistics are more critical: who likely is it you’ll have enough money saved and activities planned to make life worth living if you retire tomorrow morning? Unlike Frege’s logical calculus or parsing syllogisms, showing that a belief is justified is difficult. It requires a demonstration that the belief is well supported by empirical observations, but this will rarely be a deduction. More likely, it will be an inference. Political platforms, investment ideas, and religious ideologies live in this space, and much energy has been spent attempting to justify these kinds of beliefs.

The point of all this prattle is that it is useful to consider the situation in which we find ourselves and consider whether we’re thinking about the situation in the correct way. Is this situation one where being approximately correct is good enough, or if I’m wrong, will there be dire consequences? Also, it’s useful to know how you know something you believe: can this belief be deduced as we do in math and logic, or is this belief something that requires further justification, as we do in engineering, when applying math and logic to the empirical world, or when we discuss “messier” beliefs like those in the humanities.

Cryonics, the atheist’s second coming?

Wait But Why (WBW) has written an interesting post about Cryonics, which is the practice of preserving a body, or a part of the body, in the hope that future humans will resuscitate that body, so the person associated with that body can continue living a happy, healthy life. I learned a bunch about what this process of “freezing” yourself entails, as well as the motivations that go into actually paying for, and doing, this. But, one thing struck me most of all: this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian Rapture.

Cryonics hinges on the faith that people in the future will solve all of their, and our, petty problems before developing a way to bring back to life folks who were beyond medical help in the past. According to WBW’s post, the folks who have paid for this admit there is risk in the whole plan, but they believe that the risk (and the cost associated with trusting a company to maintain their bodies) are worth the pay off of continuing to live life once society has solved the problem of mortality.

It seems to me that clientele for this service must have a pretty strong commitment to scientific materialism, believing that the human body is the foundation of consciousness, and that once the body has degraded sufficiently, life as any human would want to live it is no longer possible. If clients held ontological beliefs that entailed any sort of mind-body dualism, soul theory, or ontological idealism, then paying a large portion of one’s life savings to preserve their material body should be absurd. In other words, the mind must irreversibly cease or decompose with the body for cryonics to make sense.

What’s more, this does something interesting to the traditional Christian view of the Rapture. As you probably well know, Christians believe that dead believers will be reanimated around the time that Jesus Christ returns to earth, and then they will ascend to heaven to live forever. Cryonics moves this trope to the material world, attempting to recreate this process through scientific methods which don’t exist yet, and I find this fascinating. Of course, Christians don’t need to pay for cryonics because they’ve “bought” their resurrection with faith in God, so the purchase doesn’t make financial sense. However, those who don’t believe in the Christian God need to trust someone else to give them eternal life.

But so much for an explanation of cryonics, and an analysis of the beliefs that might justify it. What I find interesting is the need to cling to life to the point that one is willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to gamble on waking up in the future. Something bothers me about this whole endeavor. To oversimplify my feelings, it seems that folks who are willing to pay for cryonics wake up to this realization:

16eclsThen, after digging around in the couch for lots of spare change, they buy an insurance policy in the name of the corporation that’s going to “care” for their corpse while they wait for the world to reanimate them.

To me, this feels like the metaphysical equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. If you wouldn’t give your life’s savings to a Wall Street firm to double your money, why would you give it to an insurance company or a cryonics company? The pay-off is unknown, and maybe impossible. This seems like gambling on an enormous scale. What am I missing?

Moreover, there’s a problem with the second law of thermodynamics. It takes energy to keep human body parts in liquid nitrogen, and once those people are reanimated, they will also require energy to stay living. Assuming that future humans aren’t perpetual motion machines, we can’t all live forever. This makes cryonics a niche industry by necessity. The day it is popular, we’ll need to solve an over-population problem that’s an order of magnitude larger than the one we currently face. The success of cryonics hinges on its high cost and low adoption rate, which unless I’m missing something, seems like a selfish way to go through the world.

Is the possibility of death so daunting, or life so amazingly good, that you won’t move over and make space for the next generation that is waiting for the resources you’re consuming? I expect that a cryonics proponent believes that humans will solve the population problem before they decide to reanimate the dead, and I hope they’re correct. But that means you’re going to keep waiting, putting more time and energy-cost between you and living — more time that allows for disaster to strike your cold, hard body.

Applied Philosophy: Aging

I feel like my father is grasping. Over seventy years old, I believe that he feels the good things in his life are slipping through his fingers. I imagine that this feeling is terrifying.

As if caught in quick sand, he struggles to stop his descent. Grasping at expensive food and wine, as well as regular international travel, he ignores knee replacement surgery that would allow him to walk, as well as close friends in his home town. Regularly trading exercise for rich food, he sinks deeper, and I’m not certain that he’s sinking with a smile on his face. There is a desperation in his actions.

I’m still young enough that the sand grains draining from my cupped hands aren’t as noticeable. However, I hope that advanced aging feels less like a continuous theft — of health, mobility, sensation, and time. There are choices we can make early in life that shape our later years. Regular exercise, diet, and social interactions are no guarantee that we’ll live long, happy, and healthy lives. But they help tip the odds in our favor. Given that death is the surest event in life, I’ll happily work to tip the odds.

I’m afraid that my dad will die feeling like he’s been cheated. I’m afraid he’ll be bed-ridden, like his father: his mind taken by Alzheimer’s, his mobility stolen by failed knees, and his health ruined by a rich diet with little exercise. Fear of pain keeps him from replacing his knees. Fear of missing good food and drink keeps him from changing his diet. He feels he can’t do anything about this now, and I’m afraid he’ll make this a truth the longer he waits.

I’m afraid that my Dad is afraid: of aging, pain, death. All of these are valid fears. But fear can lead to grasping at comforting experiences, and I’m not sure that food, wine, and travel can quell fears about aging, pain, and death. Each new rich, luxurious experience stands to remind him of what he’s losing. Unable to catch all the experiences that slip through his fingers, he fears the coming end. This vicious cycle feeds on itself. Eventually, his feeling that he can’t do anything about his situation will clap shut like a trap, and his feeling will become reality. What’s more, his range of options narrows, like prey backed into the trap by the hunting party. The farther he moves into the trap, the more heroic he’ll have to leap to avoid it, and exhausted by the chase, the less able he’ll be able to leap.

I hope I’m missing something. That he’s playing a calculated game, in which he lays down his cards on Death’s table, laughing. I know that’s not how my father lives his life, but I hope that’s what he’s doing.

Science and Religion, what are they good for?

Scott, the author of Skeptic Meditations, has made it clear that I need to more adequately describe what the relationship between the sciences and religions are in a situation where we use both as valid means of knowing about the world. He pointed out that there are conflicts between popular religious views and well-accepted scientific views — vaccinations versus faith healing, for example. I agree, there are conflicts between scientific findings and religious tenets, and I’m not advocating any type of relativism.

I think the source of this conflict between the sciences and religion frequently arises from the claim that religion or science (pick your favorite side) provides all the answers to all the questions we have. In other words, this debate stems from a misunderstanding of what an epistemic method is capable of doing for us. An epistemic method is a way of generating useful knowledge about how we experience the world. For example, physics has enabled us to mathematically understand gravity, which lets us put telecommunications satellites in orbit. Physics is an epistemic method, as is biology, sociology, or understanding foreign languages. However, I also submit that much “softer” subjects, such as literature, music, and religion are also epistemic methods. Each of these areas of study are epistemic methods, or tools, because we can use them to better understand our experiences of being human.

Now most folks don’t find much problem with the claim that each of these epistemic tools has its intended use. For example, I wouldn’t use my (limited) knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets to solve an algebra problem, and my algebra won’t necessarily help me understand the history of astronomy. In other words, each epistemic tool solves some problem very well, and it solves other problems less well, or not at all.

This directly applies to the debate between science and religion, the one that has scientific atheists and fervent religious followers calling each other nasty names. At least since Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic church for his astronomical observations, religion in Europe and it’s colonial descendants has been on the defensive, trying to maintain its control of many epistemic areas that are becoming more usefully described by branches of scientific investigation: astronomy, biology, geology, and their relatives are all able to tell us the story of how our universe has come to be the way it is better than religion can. I say “better” in the sense that the sciences produce knowledge about our experience of the world that is able to predict more and do more for us.

However, there are things that the sciences still don’t do very well. Despite using the sciences to harness nuclear energy or build a jet engine, the sciences don’t tell us what we should do with this new information and our new abilities. Ethics is an area of our knowledge that is recalcitrant to scientific analysis. Coping with suffering, pain, or loss is another area that the sciences can’t teach us how to do very well, as is making difficult and complex decisions. For these areas of human experience that can’t be captured by scientific analysis, we need a different epistemic tool.

Some folks claim that science will be able to describe these intractable problems, such as ethics and human subjectivity, but that’s the same sort of faith-based reasoning that these science-minded folks would like to see driven out of the decisions to vaccinate children against preventable diseases. In both cases — vaccination and faith in science’s epistemic powers — it is a mistake. By this reasoning, science loses its rigor, becoming little more than magic: anything is possible, because the argument assumes the consequent.

What I’d like to see in the debate between the sciences and religions is a recognition that no individual epistemic tool is capable of providing a complete explanation of human experience to us.*  By design, each field of science, as well as literature, philosophy, language, and religion has a limited area of study. To think otherwise requires the one who holds that opinion to explain why using a less-useful epistemic tool is preferable to a more useful one. It’s a fundamental tenet that we need multiple epistemic tools to develop a more complete understanding of the world

It’s an historical accident that philosophy and religion are old enough epistemic tools that they were catch-all categories for human knowledge over many centuries. But since the 18th or 19th Centuries, the fields of epistemic elaboration have been subdivided into smaller and smaller plots. Many branches of the sciences have supplanted religious traditions and philosophy as the epistemic authority on various problem sets.

Is there a problem in accepting that we need multiple tools to make sense of our experiences? I suppose the problem lies in deciding which epistemic tool set is sufficient for building our knowledge. That problem is a towering one, and it’s certainly going to take more space than I have left in this blog post.

However, I’m curious as to why we ought to eschew religious traditions, in context with the arts and sciences, as part of our epistemic tool box. It seems to me that we ought to retain all of our epistemic tools, since they don’t weigh anything, and they might still prove useful, as long as we recognize that they each have limited utility.

 

* I suspect this is due to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems applying to our epistemic endeavors, certainly within the formalizable sciences, but the formal proof of that suspicion is beyond my mathematical abilities.

Science vs. Religion — a false dichotomy

I was raised in a non-religious family. We didn’t attend any sort of organized congregation, and we celebrated Christmas and Easter as cultural events, rather than ones with any religious significance. In high school, I was well-trained in physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry (for a high-schooler), a I began to wonder what all this religious stuff was really about, and I started reading.

Fast forward a number of years — I’m still reading, and I’ve completed some degrees in an attempt to help figure out what all this religious stuff is really about. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do have better questions on that subject.

As you know, the internet is full of many angry monographs and diatribes for and against science and religion. Those kinds of articles and discussions are tiring to read. This is not one of those. I am primarily interested in what sciences and religions do for us as people and communities.

It’s a common to teach that philosophy (e.g. Natural Philosophy, or the sciences) replaced popular religion as the tool of knowledge in Ancient Greece around 400-500 B.C. But it’s interesting that any historical account of later years — Seneca, St. Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, yesterday’s newspaper — includes a discussion of the local religious practices. Religions are alive and well in societies around the globe.

It’s true that we, as a society, no longer hold sacrifices and pray for good weather in the coming year for a healthy crop in Iowa, like the ancient Anasazi, Greeks, or Mesopotamians did: instead, we apply fertilizers and plant seeds developed by the biologists and chemists at Monsanto. Empirically speaking, this seems to yield more consistent results than the sacrifices and prayers have done.

Similarly, we don’t try to exorcise demons when someone falls ill. We go to the doctor for diagnosis with various imaging tools, medicine, and perhaps surgery. Again, surveys show this appears to help us live longer than the previously accepted practices.

Despite, religion’s diminished role in some important aspects of our lives, people still rely on religions for many things in their lives. Why? Atheists and Logical Postivists would have us give all that up as mumbo jumbo — or at least acknowledge this behavior as irrational and silly. Yet, many people are still deadly serious about their religious beliefs. When someone is willing to die for something, and kill you alongside them, there’s nothing silly about it. We need to understand what’s going on here.

Even in less deadly and more uplifting situations, religion plays a big role in life. Coming of age celebrations, annual change of season celebrations, and mourning rituals help people mark the passage of our lives in a way that science fails to do. There is an internal, personal, and intangible aspect to our lives that is private and yet shared with others in social settings that religions help us foster. Moreover, this need not be in contest with scientific projects or values.

In this role, religions could be viewed as a practical or pragmatic type of psychology, or social psychology, and if we ignore this role that religions play in our cultures, we may end up with violent situations like religious extremism, where people lash out in order to protect values that they feel are in danger.*

Rather than viewing sciences and religions as somehow competing for the dominant explanation of what exists in the world (i.e. ontology) or what we can know about the world (i.e. epistemology), I’m interested in exploring how science and religion function in our cultures to shape the ways we interact with each other and the broader world we inhabit.

Many debates about sciences and religions focus on ontological and epistemological issues: Does God exist? How do we know whether God exists? How old is the world? How do we know how old the world is? etc. These debates aren’t particularly useful for anyone, because the combatants are entrenched in alien ontological and epistemological positions. Changing one’s mind through conversation is unlikely.

Moreover, most people don’t have such monotonic philosophical views. Most of us accept at least some scientific findings as useful (if not true), e.g. we take ibuprofen for headaches or we use machines designed using an understanding physics (reading glasses); and most of us can understand at least some religious tenets as metaphorically acceptable, e.g. the Old Testament’s description of the Universe’s and the Earth’s creation as a metaphor for the longer, geological and ecological development of the Universe and the Earth.

It’s this mixed ground that I find interesting and useful for discussing the sciences and religions. In this mixed ground, I find that religions and sciences are often investigating similar problems: applied psychology and various types of religious ministry are an easy example. The tools each discipline uses to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one may be different, but the problem is the same. I believe there is some useful things each can learn from the other in this mixed situations.

The neurological research surrounding prayer and meditation is another interesting mixed ground that the sciences and religions are investigating together. Scanning the brains of praying Catholic monastics and meditating Buddhist monastics have shown similar brain activity patterns. This kind of research may help us understand the similarities and differences of various religious practices, which could have important social and cultural implications for how people of different faiths interact with each other (for better or worse).

Rather than “Science vs. Religion”, we ought to refocus from this divisive approach. We ought to think of “Sciences and Religions”. It’s important to note the variety of scientific methods that exist among the different fields of scientific inquiry, as well as the variety of religious beliefs and methods used by the various religions in the world. The Scientific Method is often cited as a unifying aspect of Scientific Practice, but beyond “testing hypotheses”, what a clinical psychologist does in their daily work is almost unrecognizable as “science” when compared to what an experimental physicist does. Moreover, it’s plausible to claim that one could empirically practice a religion: conversion experiences could be explained as “testing hypotheses” of a particular religious system. The confirmation and falsification criteria of these different kinds of hypotheses and tests need further elaboration, but the language makes sense. What do you think, is there something to be gained from exploring this mixed ground in scientific and religious inquiry?

* This kind of violence is unacceptable, and I’m not defending it as a valid response to feeling threatened. Rather, I think there are ways to address this type of situation using a religious and scientific understanding of the world.