Friday, March 20, 2015

The difference between science and religion, take 2

In the comments section of an earlier post I advanced the following theory of the difference between science and relgion:
My definition of religion is the acceptance of claims on faith, i.e. without evidence.
To which commenter Publius responded:
I would make that "without scientific evidence." There are other forms of evidence - testimonial, personal knowledge, etc.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say that there is no distinction between "scientific" and "non-scientific" evidence.  Evidence is evidence.  You don't get to cherry-pick.  This is exactly the problem with young-earth creationists and lunar landing conspiracy theorists: they cherry-pick the evidence that supports their worldview and ignore the rest.

And then it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually making Publius's point for him.  It is not that religious people accept things with no evidence.  If everything is evidence and you don't get to cherry-pick, then holy texts and other people's beliefs are evidence.  The question is: evidence of what?  To me, holy texts and religious beliefs are evidence of human creativity and/or gullibility, but to a religious person they are evidence of God.  So there is a difference there, but pinning down exactly what that difference is turns out to be quite a bit more subtle than I suspected.  I'm still not sure I have it quite figured out.

Just to lay to rest the idea I'm imagining that there is a difference, let me lay out one very stark example.  Consider the theory that the Bible is the Word of God, which is to say, a privileged communication from the omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe.  Well, the Bible says this:
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.  (Matthew 21:22)
This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for.  This is an unrestricted offer.  It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask."  So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.

[Wait, wait wait...]

Hm.  No pony.

Well, duh, of course there's no pony.  That's exactly what the theory predicts.  The offer has a catch.  To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't.  So that was not a fair test.

OK, so to conduct this experiment I have to find a believer to ask God for a pony on my behalf.  But then I will encounter another hitch: no believer will agree to conduct this experiment because "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord" (Luke 4:12) and asking for a pony seems a bit frivolous.

So let's try something non-frivolous: how about asking for the lost limbs of the victims of the Boston Marathon bomb to be restored.  That seems like a noble enough request.  Surely I can find a believer somewhere willing to make this request of God, if not on my behalf, then on behalf of the victims?  In fact, surely some believer somewhere has actually made this request already without my having to prompt them?  And if not this request, then for some other victim of some other malicious attack or accident that resulted in the loss of a limb?

And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored.  That is rather curious.  It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

1.  No believer has ever asked for this.

2.  There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.

3.  Matthew 21:22 is wrong.

The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might.  Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."

Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory."  In fact, it's woven into the weft and warp of the scientific process.  The very foundation of science is the recognition that the vast majority of theories are wrong, so it is entirely expected that any particular theory is wrong.  In fact, there is hardly any sport in finding a wrong theory.  The tricky part is finding a right theory because only a tiny minority of theories are right.

This is not to say that science-as-practiced by fallible humans always embraces correction immediately.  New theories often meet with initial resistance, but there is a sound reason for this: most theories are wrong, so given a random theory and no other information, the odds are very good that it's wrong.  The current set of accepted theories at any given time have already undergone some very strict scrutiny and filtering.  So the odds of a new theory being better than an old one is, a priori, very low.  And the odds get lower with every new improvement because science converges on truth.  Not always monotonically, but it does converge.

One of the starkest differences between science and religion is their respective attitudes towards scripture and scholarship.  Religions hold scripture and scholars in very high regard.  Science does not.  The closest thing science has to scriptures is the writings of great scientists, but hardly anyone actually reads those except historians of science.  Newton is the closest thing science has to a saint, but no one reads the Principia.  You will occasionally hear a "great scientist" cited as an authority, as in, "Einstein teaches us that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames."  But this is wrong. It is not Einstein that teaches us this, it is nature by way of experiments.  Einstein was just the first to tell the most parsimonious story.

So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins.  In religion, it doesn't.  In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.

You can see this reflected in some of the core arguments advanced for Christianity, which amount to something like: if the Resurrection didn't really happen, the consequences would be horrible.  Therefore, the resurrection must have happened.  It's not data that supports the conclusion, it's the horribleness of the consequences if the conclusion were not true.

The same can be said for science, by the way, because at the core of the belief that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth is a fear of the consequences if this were not the case.  If God really exists, then we are at the mercy of a higher power that we cannot control even if we can come to fully understand it.  Science offers power through the gift of prophecy, but very little guidance on how best to use it.  So some people are understandably scared of having that power.  Others are scared of giving it up.  Welcome to the burdens of being human.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why some assumptions are better than others

All reasoning has to start from assumptions.  Assumptions by definition can't be proven or disproven. So how can we evaluate our core assumptions?  If we try to use reason, that reasoning must itself be based on some assumptions like, "Reason is the best way to evaluate assumptions."  But since that is an assumption, how can we evaluate it without getting into a infinite regression?

For that matter, how can I be sure that the concepts in my head, which I am here rendering into words, correspond to the concepts that form in your head when you read these words?  How do I know that what I mean when I write, say, "concept" is the same thing that you understand when you read the word "concept"?

Here's how.

I want you to clear your mind for a moment.  Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Then look at the following pictures and their associated captions.

Paka moja

Paka wawili

Paka tatu

Paka nne

Paka wengi

Paka kubwa

mbwa moja

Now I am going to make some predictions:  If I were to ask you, "What does 'paka' mean?" you will reply, "cat."  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'moja' mean?" you will reply "one".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wawili' mean?" you will reply "two". And if I were to ask you, "What does 'tatu' mean?" you will reply "three".   And if I were to ask you, "What does 'nne' mean?" you will reply "four".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wengi' mean?" you will reply, "many".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'kubwa' mean?" you will reply "big".

Was I right?  If so, how did I do it?  Here are some possibilities:

1.  I got lucky.
2.  I have a magical ability to predict or control your actions.
3.  God told me.

Now, I am going to tell you that none of those are the right answer.  Of course, just because I tell you that doesn't mean that I'm right.  I could be mistaken, or I could be lying.  But here is what I believe to be the right answer:  I have a model of you that allows me to predict some (but not all) of your behavior.  That model is (to a first order approximation): you are a human.  Because you are a human, your brain is hard-wired to pay attention to certain visual stimuli.  Among those visual stimuli that your brain is hard-wired to detect are the creatures known as "cats" in English, "gatos" in Spanish, "katzen" in German, "chatulim" in Hebrew, and "paka" in Swahili.  The reason your brain is hard-wired to detect cats is that this ability conferred a relative advantage in reproductive fitness to some of your distant ancestors, probably because their feline neighbors were more kubwa than your typical modern nyumba paka.  (And how you know how to say "house" in Swahili.)

Of course, none of this guarantees that you and I mean the same thing when we say or hear the word "cat".  It's possible that the features of cat-ness that my brain cues in on are different than yours, and that some time in the future we will discover that what you mean by "cat" corresponds more to what I mean by, say, "furry".  But that's not likely.  Why?  Because in the little experiment above I not only associated the word "paka" with images of (what I think of when I say the word) cats but also with numbers, and numbers are concepts that go with nouns like "cat" and not adjectives like "furry".  It just doesn't make sense (to me) to say, "one furry, two furries..."  Maybe "paka" means "furry thing".  But that doesn't make sense either because then the last image should have been labelled paka moja too and it's not, it's mbwa moja.  (And now you know how to say "dog" in Swahili.)

Why do I believe that my explanation of my (limited) ability to predict your actions is the correct one?  Because it explains more than the other possibilities.  Consider theory #1, for example.  The odds of my predicting your actions with as much precision as I can by pure luck are indistinguishable from zero.  It's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely.  And every time I do it it -- every time I interact with (the things that I perceive to be) my fellow humans and get responses from them that make sense out of the myriad possible responses they could produce if they were simply choosing responses at random, it becomes more unlikely.

Theory #2 is not so easily ruled out.  In fact, I cannot prove to you that it's false [1].  So why do I reject it?  Because it lacks explanatory power.  My ability to predict your actions is limited.  I can predict that you will be able to figure out that "paka" means "cat" from examples, but I cannot predict what your favorite flavor of ice cream is.  Again, it's possible that I am lying about this, that I really can predict (or control!) your ice cream choice.  But that just begs the question: are there any limits to my prophetic abilities?  If so, what are they?  If not, why do I not use my omniscience to work my will on people more often?

The fundamental problem with theory #2 is that "magic" is nothing more than a synonym for "mysterious unknown process."  So theory #2 is not really a theory at all, it's an oblique way of punting on trying to come up with a theory.  The whole point of this exercise is to get a handle on my ability to predict the future, and invoking "magic" is essentially saying, "I don't know."  Magic is not a valid theory, not because it's necessarily incorrect (remember, I already conceded that I can't prove that my abilities are not magical), but because it cannot possibly represent progress.  Invoking magic is not an explanation, it's giving up on all hope of finding an explanation.

Theory 3 is even harder to dispense with.  God is not quite the same as magic because God is knowable, at least partially.  So how can I convince you that I am telling the truth when I say that my ability to predict the future is not a revelation from God?

One possibility is to make another prediction: I probably don't have to convince you that I'm telling the truth.  You almost certainly believe me.  In fact, you probably believed that I was not having revelations from God even before I told you.  Your belief was probably so strong that my positing divine revelation as an explanation for the results of the cat experiment seemed like pedantry.

Am I right?  If so, how did I manage that trick?

Why, the same way I managed the first one, of course: I have a model of you.  I have a model of you even though I have no idea who you are!  How did I come by that model?  Through a life-long and on-going process of generating hypotheses, testing them, and discarding the ones that don't fit the facts.  This goes all the way down to hypotheses about what words mean, and which words I can rely on to have the same meaning in your brain as it does in mine (like "cat") and which ones I can't (like "God").

Rationality grounds out in having everything hang together in a way that grants me the gift of prophecy that I demonstrated at the beginning of this post.  No other mental process has that property.  Prayer might grant you inner peace and harmony, but it does not help you build bridges or restore sight to the blind or increase crop yields.  This is not to say that prayer is without value.  Inner peace and harmony are much to be desired.  There is not much value in being able to build an iPhone if your life is a continuous nightmare of existential angst, though improving crop yields and inventing vaccines should not be lightly dismissed either.  It's a lot harder to achieve inner peace if you are sick or hungry than if you are not.

The point is: the apparent infinite regress of rationality bottoms out in its effectiveness, in its ability to confer the gift of prophecy and hence the power to change the world according to one's desires.  That still leaves open the very thorny problem of identifying or selecting those desires.  The hardest part of getting what you want is, very often, figuring out what it is, and in this rationality offers less help, though it does offer some.  I'll explore that in a subsequent post.

[1] In the middle ages thousands of people died painful deaths because of the impossibility of proving theory 2 to be false.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

AT&T update: out of the frying pan, into the fire

An update on our on-going nightmare with AT&T: after two weeks, four technician visits to our house, and I don't know how many phone calls to CSRs and supervisors, they were finally able to get our internet connection back up and running today.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that somehow they managed to break our phone line in the process.  It was working this morning, but just as the internet tech was leaving we noticed that we didn't have a dial tone on our main phone line any more.  We've been down for a few hours now and they have not been able to figure out what the problem is, except that as far as anyone can tell, the problem is far upstream of our house, and the fact that it happened at the same time that we were fiddling with the internet connection is just a coincidence.

But it's a damned odd coincidence.  Damned annoying too.

[UPDATE:] They fixed it.  Whew!

[UPDATE March 12:] The nightmare is not over.  They are still billing me for my now-discontinued DSL service.  On hold with AT&T billing for 30 minutes and counting while they (supposedly) fix it... arrggghhh!!!

Monday, March 02, 2015

A libertarian data point

We don't have to wonder what life would be like if the Ayn Rand faction of the American TEA party has its way.  They are doing that experiment in Honduras.  The results, unsurprisingly, are not pretty:
[T]he police ride around in pickup trucks with machine guns, but they aren’t there to protect most people. They are scary to locals and travelers alike. For individual protection there’s an army of private, armed security guards who are found in front of not only banks, but also restaurants, ATM machines, grocery stores and at any building that holds anything of value whatsoever. Some guards have uniforms and long guns but just as many are dressed in street clothes with cheap pistols thrust into waistbands. The country has a handful of really rich people, a small group of middle-class, some security guards who seem to be getting by and a massive group of people who are starving to death and living in slums. You can see the evidence of previous decades of infrastructure investment in roads and bridges, but it’s all in slow-motion decay. 
I took a van trip across the country, starting in Copan (where there are must-see Mayan ruins), across to the Caribbean Sea to a ferry that took my family to Roatan Island. The trip from Copan to the coast took a full six hours, and we had two flat tires. The word “treacherous” is inadequate—a better description is “post-apocalyptic.” We did not see one speed limit sign in hundreds of kilometers. Not one. People drive around each other on the right and left and in every manner possible. The road was clogged with horses, scooters and bicycles. People traveled in every conceivable manner along the crumbling arterial. Few cars have license plates, and one taxi driver told me that the private company responsible for making them went bankrupt. Instead of traffic stops, there are military check points every so often. The roads seemed more dangerous to me than the gang violence. 
The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras. The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris. They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists. That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.
 Well worth heading over to Salon to read the whole thing.