Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Dark Ages Versus the Age of Discontent

Because I am somewhat of a "non-traditional student," my class schedule this semester would not immediately lead one to believe that I am an astronomy major. My classes are:

Astr 121 - Introductory Astrophysics II - Stars and Beyond

Phys 373 - Mathematical Methods for Physics II

Phil 233 - Philosophy in Literature

Phil 245 - Political and Social Philosophy I

Hist 111 - The Medieval World

You'll note the surprising dearth of astronomy courses. There are reasons for this, but detailing said reasons would make for a damn boring blog post, so I'm going to talk about something else (hopefully less boring) instead. (Worry not--the next two semesters will be as dense with astronomy courses as neutrons stars are with, uh, neutrons.)

Instead this post is about an interesting juxtaposition of beliefs I encountered in my fellow students. Both my medieval history and political philosophy instructors began class the first day by directly challenging the beliefs held by their students about a relevant subject (a surefire way not to convince the students of anything).

You can probably guess the common misconception in medieval history: the middle ages were a stagnant "dark age" where European savages meekly held onto life, all the while having any hint of progress quashed by the oppressive, aggressive ignorance of the Church.

So, that's false, of course. And I'm sure I'll learn a much more nuanced notion of what the medieval world was like during the next 13 weeks. But the idea that the middle ages were "dark" is a pretty commonly held belief, or at the very least the idea that people believe the middle ages were "dark" is a pretty commonly held belief.

My political philosophy instructor came at us from a different angle, however. He began the first lecture by presenting us with the idea that, compared to the societies in which the famous philosophers we're going to read about lived, we basically live in a utopia. Violence worldwide is lower than it's ever been at any time in history. GDP is leaps and bounds greater than it ever was in history. Yadda yadda.

This notion received a much cooler reception than the notion that the medieval period was not a dark age. I'll get to the difference between these two reactions in a moment, but the interesting point to me is that the default position to both ideas is one of disbelief. People do not believe the middle ages weren't hopelessly terrible; people do not believe now is (relatively) awesome.

At first blush, these two points of view would seem to contradict. How can we simultaneously believe that the medieval ages were terrible but that now is not terrible in comparison? We might believe that both periods were equally terrible, but that's not the general view held by my fellow students. To make the argument for the "dark ages," many pointed to the religious oppression that used to exist, but does no longer; to the authoritative regimes that used to rule, but do no longer; to the diseases that used to be so deadly, but are no longer. So they do not believe that each period is equally terrible.

Another possibility is that my fellow students have a nuanced position: that things used to suck really badly, but now suck only somewhat badly. But again, I don't believe this matches the professed opinions of my classmates. They were aggressively opposed to the notion that things don't suck now. They offered relatively little opposition to my history professor's arguments but jumped on everything my philosophy instructor said. Clearly, my fellow classmates feel very strongly that things aren't much better now. And that, I suspect, is the difference.

Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists have argued that when we are asked a difficult question, our brains take a shortcut by providing an answer to an easier question. We mentally change the question we are being asked to something that has a readily available answer.

So if the question we are asked is, "How good is civilization now compared to the way it used to be?", that's a relatively difficult question to answer. 7, maybe? A much easier question to answer, and one that is vaguely similar, is, "How do we feel about civilization now?" And we all have readily available opinions on the current state of things.

One of the reasons why the second question is easier to answer is because it doesn't ask us to evaluate the past. We haven't been to the ancient past; we don't know what it was really like. Unless we ourselves are historians, we're unlikely to have strong opinions about the past. And without strong opinions, we don't have easy access to "data" on what the past was like.

The other reason why the second question is easier to answer is because, of course, we have "data" about it. We don't necessarily have good statistics about what society today is like (although we might, and college students taking government classes and reading their preferred websites are likely to think they do), but we do have feelings about the present. I don't want to get particularly political here, but we're all inundated with news everyday telling us how terrible things are now, about racist cops, or the rape culture on college campuses, or the decaying moral fabric that holds America together, etc.

I have no desire to deny there are bad things now, that racism and sexism still exist, that our privacies are being eroded, that morally ambiguous wars are being waged, that much of the world still lives in abject poverty, or anything like that. Modern problems are real and worth dealing with, no doubt. What I'm getting at, however, is how those problems make us feel. They make us feel terrible, and we confuse that terrible feeling with what actually is.

Few of us feel terrible about the atrocities committed one hundred or one thousand years ago, however more terrible they may have been than atrocities committed now. You can argue, of course, that there's no reason to feel terrible about the past, because there's nothing we can do about it. We can change the world now, so our emotions do us some good in motivating that change. (The counter to this is something like the Holocaust Museum, which makes us feel absolutely awful on purpose so that we ensure nothing like it ever happens again.)

That's a valid argument, but it misses some nuance. Let's say that the world today is only half as bad as it was a hundred years ago, by some measure of Objective World Awesomeness (OWA). Do we think, then, that the feelings people had about the world a hundred years ago were twice as powerful as the feelings we have today? I sincerely doubt that. We feel to the maximum extent that we are capable about whatever we experience that we feel is deserving of the most emotion. Our feelings are characteristically not objective, essentially by definition.

The roundabout point I'm making here is that it is no surprise that we can believe the world today sucks while simultaneously believing that the world of the middle ages sucked, even if we don't believe they sucked equally or that today sucks only slightly less by comparison. The space for this seeming contradiction in our head comes from the fact that we evaluate world sucktitude by distinctly different measures--the present with emotions, the past with factoids. Our brains dispense with this cognitive dissonance by categorizing the past and present differently.

This isn't an unfounded hypothesis, and it's not untestable. To be sure, I suspect that the vast majority of students who come out of my medieval history class will do so saying, "Actually, it wasn't a dark age at all, because blah blah blah." But I suspect that while my fellow classmates may come away from the philosophy course knowing a good deal more about Locke, Hobbes, and Marx, few will leave it saying, "Actually, now doesn't suck quite so bad, because blah blah blah."

And I think this is a problem. I think we as humans too often substitute our feelings about a subject for objective evaluations of a subject. I say this from experience. To make this blog uncomfortably personal again, this is one of the big lessons I have learned in therapy: that the way I feel about something is not necessarily indicative of the way something actually is.

For a very long time, I believed I was incapable of change. This belief came from me having experienced superficially similar feelings for the last 10 or 15 years: loneliness, despair, self-hate, etc. And if my feelings were the same, that must mean I was the same, right? Well, no. I believed I could use my feelings about myself as an accurate measure of myself, but that belief was wrong (and kept me from combating my depression for a long time).

I suspect that most people fall prey to the same kinds of erroneous beliefs. (Most people don't go through a good chunk of their life depressed, though, and I suspect the difference there is that most people's erroneous, feeling-based beliefs aren't negative and inwardly focused.) And a good deal of psychological research backs me up on this. The beliefs we hold most strongly are not the ones backed up by the most evidence, but those associated with the strongest feelings.

What's the solution? Well, we could just make sure we brainwash people to believe the right things, but I don't think that tackles the central issue. I think a short-term solution is teaching people to be more critical of their own beliefs from a very early age, teaching people not to accept blindly what they feel to be true, perhaps even teaching people to actively distrust that which they feel most strongly about. The long-term solution is to modify human nature so that we no longer make this substitution error, but I have a feeling that's crazy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I think I think, therefore I might be.

StatCounter says I still get the occasional visitor. Sometimes, that visitor isn’t a robot! Anywho, that was quite a lengthy hiatus I went on there—the kind of hiatus where you’re not sure if the person is just taking a break or the person is gone forever. But here I am again, so I guess it was just a break. The last year has been kind of rough, and because of that blogging kind of fell by the wayside. I’d like to think things are picking up again, and I’d like to think blogging might be one of those things which gets picked up. So, to all my devoted sentient readers, here’s a post!

I should probably warn you beforehand that this post is going to involve some religion, a lot of philosophical stuff, some personal stories, and basically no physics. And it will probably be long. So, you know, continue at your own peril.

While I am not a big fan of labels, it would not be disingenuous to say that I fall roughly into the skeptical/science-y/non-religious camp. As a result, I have on occasion engaged in debates with those who are more or less diametrically opposed to me where it concerns the supernatural. An argument I often hear (and a common argument in the evil baby-eating fundie vs. evil baby-eating atheist brawl) is that scientists are guilty of hubris for daring to believe they can unravel the mysteries of god/the supernatural/the universe.

It is the height of arrogance, some believe, that we believe we can know how life or the universe began. I say life and universe here, because those are current unknowns in science. There’s a pretty good theory as to how life evolved, and a pretty good theory as to what the universe looked like ~14 billion years ago, but we cannot yet say with any certainty exactly how life got started in the first place or what (if anything) was happening more than 14 billion years ago.

But as I said, these are current unknowns. In the past, it might have been the height of arrogance to presume to know how the great diversity of life came to be, or how the planets moved about the heavens, or why the Earth sometimes shook and lightning split the sky. This moving goalpost is known as the god of the gaps. Much of what was once thought to be in the domain of the divine has yielded to scientific explanation, so that now supernatural causes can only be posited in current gaps in scientific understanding (unless you don’t go in for teleological arguments at all).

Now, I’m not going to spend much time directly refuting this kind of argument. Instead, I’d like to offer an alternative viewpoint as to what such an attitude entails. Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a lecture about what he sees as the problem of intelligent design, and he spends part of this lecture giving examples of otherwise great scientists (such as Newton) who, when confronted with a problem they could not solve, called upon the god of the gaps as a solution. What happens more frequently, however, is not that we fail to find a solution to a problem, but that we fail to imagine a solution and invoke the divine instead.

I claim that this attitude is a far more damning instance of hubris than the scientist who believes he can solve a difficult problem. In essence, this attitude says that if I cannot solve a problem, then no one can, that the problem is impossible to solve. If you ever find yourself lacking clear examples of arrogance, there you go.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely arrogant scientists out there, and I have no desire to defend such arrogance (as you will see shortly). But I do believe the attitude of science (in some Platonic sense unplagued by the troubles of the real world) is not that science can unravel all problems and explain all mysteries, but that it’s worth it to try to do so.

And in the 400 years since we have institutionalized and made rigorous this can-do attitude, we seemed to have made some incredible progress. We have gone from galloping horses (~45 kph) being the fastest mode of transportation to space probes hurtling out of the solar system (~60,000 kph). We’ve gone from infant and childhood mortality being so prevalent that average life expectancy was 30-40 years, to now, where you can reasonably expect, even at birth, to live to 70 years. Yadda yadda; science is great; you’re reading this on your magic, world-connected box.

Here’s where I stop bashing religion and transition to a personal anecdote because science says convincing you of something by appealing to your emotions is more effective than appealing to your reason. Also, I’m trying to make a more general point.

In my preface above, I mentioned that the last year had been rough. Now, as some of you (and the Google robots) know, I have been battling bouts of depression for something like 15 years. For much of that time, I resisted treatment. I refused to talk about it, I conveniently forgot to refill my antidepressants, and I believed my therapists were incapable of helping me.

Why did I engage in all of these self-destructive behaviors? Because, despite having some pretty severe self-esteem issues, I was thoroughly convinced of my own genius. And because I had not managed to cure my depression with my own big brain, I came to believe that it was, in fact, impossible to cure my depression.

Sound familiar? This is basically the same hubris present in the god of the gaps argument. I don’t believe this is coincidental. My stubborn refusal to believe that anything could help me and the belief that as of yet unsolved problems are not even scientific stem from a common belief: that human reason is a pure and perfect pinnacle of intelligence. It might not be entirely obvious that this is so, so let’s explore the notion a bit.

It’s hard to find solid data on this issue, but I think it’s fair to say that most people believe in some notion of free will. There is the dualist perspective employed by many religions, which says that we have a body and a soul, that the body is bound by physical laws, but that the soul is free to make choices. There are also notions, probably more common now than they used to be, that the universe is deterministic but for the human mind. We might not necessarily have a soul, but we have some essence isolated from external factors, such that we can always choose otherwise even in limited circumstances. I will concede that most people probably don’t sit around contemplating the issue of free will (once they’ve graduated from their pot-smoking college days), but even so, they hold to the idea that people are responsible for their actions and that we can judge them based on said actions. To believe thusly (except in a purely pragmatic sense intended to keep society running) ultimately means you believe there is some person-centered force at work beyond the clockwork laws of the universe.

And that’s the key notion. There is the universe, and then there’s you. It’s hard to escape this perspective. After all, we peer out into the universe through our eyes. Everything that we perceive falls into us. And without the aid of mind-altering substances, we firmly believe in a sense of self that is distinct from the world around us. And what constitutes this sense of self, what makes it feel real, are the thoughts that go running through our heads. There is a universe of stuff out there, and there is a universe of thoughts in here.

Thinking, then, is a special and uniquely human act. Perhaps some other animals engage in it as well, we think, but they don’t do it like we do it. Historically, the capacity to reason has been thought of as one of the defining characteristics of the human animal. We believe we are capable of cleanly deducing the truth given the facts, or making the right decision given all the evidence. This is why naive economic models mostly assume rational agents, and why we generally trust that juries can work.

And this is the connection to the hubris I described above. While we are certainly not blind to the idea that emotions can influence our thinking, we believe that if we are able to control our emotions, the human brain—isolated as it is from the rest of the universe—will arrive at the correct answer given the correct data. If we apply reason, we will be correct. Reason is a binary force that is either on or off. Thus, if we use our reason but we cannot find an answer, the only possible explanation is that there is no answer.

Unfortunately, scientific research over the last half century or so has shown that humans are actually spectacularly bad at rational thinking. We can do it, yes, but only just barely. We may even be unique in our capacity to do it at all (probably not), but it is not a trait honed to perfection by evolution. For one, evolution tends not to hone things to perfection. And two, evolution hasn’t had much time to hone our reason at all.

So we can think, but our thinking is plagued by a whole host of cognitive biases that distort our thinking away from what would be purely rational. There are two things which are important to note here, though. One is that these cognitive biases are not necessarily emotional influences getting in the way of our perfect reasoning. Instead, it’s better to think of them as illusions of thought. And that’s the second point. Illusions in general don’t represent some failure of evolution to make a module (sight, sound, reason) perfect, but evolution developing a heuristic that works most of the time toward the end of ensuring survival and reproduction. Cognitive biases are not necessarily bad; they’re just ways of thinking geared toward an end other than perfect rationality.

If you look at the capacity to reason as an evolved module like any other, it becomes clear that there is no reason to expect it to function “perfectly.” The rest of our modules are far from perfect, after all, because they don't have to be. Our sight, for example, does not reproduce in our mind’s eye some direct analog of the world out there. We see only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, our perception of the colors of objects is altered by nearby objects, we have a blind spot in the middle of our vision that our brains simply fill in, etc.

Our sight is still enormously useful, both in keeping us alive and in giving us some picture of the real world, but ultimately, there are feats our eyes cannot accomplish. No matter how hard we look at an object, we will never see it in radio waves. Some illusions will always fool us. Just the same, there is no reason to believe that the evolved module of reason is perfectly capable of the task of reason. There are limits to what we can accomplish with our own thoughts, for the simple reason that thoughts exist on a biological substrate and not in some dualistic netherworld.

Possibly the most glaring fault in our vision, however, is our belief that it accurately and completely reflects the real world. And this is a common theme in human consciousness. Despite the patchy and inconsistent data our senses actually relay to the brain, despite how inaccurately our memories correspond to history, despite how biased our thinking can be, our brain is designed to convey a sense of consistency and definiteness in the world it creates for us, and we trust it.

This trust is dangerous. It means we can fool ourselves into believing problems are intractable. It means we can fool ourselves into believing we can think our way out of any problem. It means that if something works for one person, we'll believe it should work for every person. It means we can condemn people to death on the “strength” of eyewitness testimony. It means we can feel comfortable declaring people evil because we’re sure we’re capable of choosing to be good.

Some say scientists are arrogant. And some scientists are, of course. But the story of science is not about unparalleled geniuses using the hammer of their perfect intellect to crush the insignificant nails of ignorance (this is a terrible metaphor, but I laughed while writing it, so you’re stuck with it).

The story of science as I see it is of believing that it’s worth it to try to figure things out. From that stance alone we admit our own ignorance. The world might not be only what it appears to be, so let’s try to figure out what it actually is. Our brains might be fallible, so let’s try to account for those failures when we seek answers. We might be ill-equipped to solve some mystery on our own, so let's share our findings and see what others discover, too.

Science done right is the deconstruction of hubris.