That’s the story of my life

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I don’t have a lot to add to this excellent post about the narrative fallacy at lesswrong.  Here are some great excerpts, to convince you to go read the whole thing:

Essentially, the narrative fallacy is our tendency to turn everything we see into a story – a linear chain of cause and effect, with a beginning and an end.

Our brains are engines designed to analyze the environment, pick out the important parts, and use those to extrapolate into the future.

This tendency can be seen in a variety of lower level biases. For instance, the availability heuristic causes us to make predictions and inferences based on what most quickly comes to mind – what’s most easily remembered. Hindsight bias causes us to interpret past events as obviously and inevitably causing future ones. Consistency bias causes us to reinterpret past events and behaviors to be consistent with new information. Confirmation bias causes us to only look for data to support the conclusions we’ve already arrived at. There’s also our tendency to engage in rationalization, and create post-hoc explanations for our behavior. They all have the effect of of molding, shaping, and simplifying events into a kind of linear narrative, ignoring any contradiction, complexity, and general messiness.

A god detector

Density plots of hydrogen's electron

Density plots of hydrogen's electron

Reading this analysis of yet another god of the gaps argument, I noted an intriguing passage:

With quantum mechanical uncertainty and the chaotic unpredictability of complex systems, the world is now understood to have a certain freedom in its future development.  (…)  It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles.

As I understand it, the author of the BioLogos piece has hypothesized a specific mechanism by which a supernatural agent could intervene in the natural world, in a manner consistent with our best understanding of the laws of physics.  Specifically, the hypothesis is that a supernatural force can “override” the outcome of chosen quantum events.

The author states that such actions would be unrecognizable by science as divine intervention.  It is certainly the case that for a given single quantum event, once the wave function collapses into one of its possible states, there’s no way to scientifically determine a “reason” for why that particular state has resulted instead of another.  The author implies that the accumulation of one or more supernatural quantum interventions can ultimately result in a change of some macroscopic events[*1].  But, due to the vast sea of quantum interactions that underlie everything in the world, we could never hope to learn about the divine force by starting from these macroscopic outcomes.

This seemed at first to be just another gaps argument, where something unknown is assigned to divine agency, in other words a completely uninteresting (i.e. untestable, non-predictive, useless) hypothesis that can contribute nothing to our understanding of the world.  But then I realized that I was committing the composition fallacy, as presumably was the author.  While it’s true that we cannot make a prediction about which state a particular quantum event will collapse into, we can make very strong statements about which states are valid ones, and about the probability that each state will result.

We can construct a particle emitter and measure a certain quantum characteristic of the particles as they hit a detector.  We can accurately predict what distribution the resulting states will follow, and we can say that the order in which the states come out should look truly random.  At face value this may seem irrelevant to the author’s hypothesis, but in fact it gives us the exact tools we need to build a god detector.

You see, to test the hypothesis that a god influences quantum events in such a way as to ultimately result in a changed world, all we must do is:

  1. Create a continuous stream of uniform quantum events that we can collapse and measure accurately.
  2. Attract the attention and influence of a god to alter the events in a directed fashion.
  3. Measure the accumulated distribution and randomness of the obtained states to see whether they have varied in a statistically significant way from expected values.

Constructing the apparatus is obviously within our means, and should pose no problems as long as the machine is properly designed and controlled for systematic errors.  Indeed in the event of a positive outcome, ruling out an undiscovered bias in the equipment (or experimenters) would be prudent before releasing findings.  Apart from this, interpretation of results should be easy and unambiguous, and the experiment would be trivial to repeat as often as needed by different groups to verify the results.

Step 2 presents several issues, and these will be the biggest points of contention:

  • What methods should be used to attract divine intervention, e.g. focused group prayer, sacred objects or symbols near the equipment, sanctification of the particle emitter, construction by devout/holy individuals?  While the experiment can obviously be repeated with different parameters in place, the number of permutations is effectively infinite.  A manageable number of procedures could be agreed upon by consulting religious experts.
  • Which deity or entity should be petitioned/invoked for the test?  It would be reasonable to rank the gods by highest patronage and proceed in order.  While it is not clear a priori that the number of people believing in a given god bears a relation to that god existing, this approach would most efficiently allow the greatest number of people to learn whether their god has interacted with the experiment.
  • Power, i.e. how can we know that our target supernatural entity possesses the ability to influence our specific choice of quantum superstate, and that the entity is at liberty to operate in the time and place that the experiment is run?  I submit that this is not a problem but rather a built-in efficiency.  Although it means the experiment cannot detect any supernatural being incapable of participating, the entities of most interest are surely the ones held to be be omniscient and omnipotent[*2], which by definition will not have any such limitations.
  • Hiding, i.e. how can we tell that a supernatural force would be willing to cooperate in such an experiment, rather than withholding its influence intentionally to frustrate the results?  Many candidate deities are held to be willing to communicate with at least those people who sincerely believe in them.  Therefore, as many believers as possible should be recruited to assist in contacting the god and requesting its intercession in the experiment.  It is imperative that this be done in good faith and with full disclosure to the believers, to minimize the chance that their god would perceive the experiment to be insulting, derisive, or insincere, and therefore abstain from participation.
  • Isolation and experimental integrity– the apparatus and indeed the experimenters themselves are confined to the temporal plane; in a very real sense the experiment is part of the medium it intends to study.  There is no guarantee that the divine agency will refrain from interceding in harmful external ways, such as arranging the procession of events in the universe such that the experiment never takes place.  For this we must rely upon the assumed earnest desire of the deity and the believers to establish contact, and the desire of the experimenters to properly test the phenomenon.

If the hypothesis is correct then this or other similar experiments should show positive results given enough testing.  However, the experiment’s main weakness is that it cannot satisfactorily falsify the hypothesis on failure.  Repeated negative results cannot conclusively disprove the existence of a supernatural entity, or even disprove its ability to affect quantum states.  Several false negative situations could arise, among them:

  • The entity may repeatedly abstain from interaction with the experiment, or may elect to alter the states in such a way as to retain the apparent distribution and randomness of the results (for example by exactly reversing each individual particle’s state outcome from what would have naturally occurred).
  • Several distinct supernatural agents may attempt to exert influence over the experiment at once but in mutually opposing ways, such that the overall signal is not distinguishable from negative results.

If this experiment does not demonstrate a positive outcome, ideally a more rigorous test can be found that would be capable of falsification of the hypothesis.

Footnote *1: The alternative would be that the supernatural actor operates randomly, capriciously, or to such an insignificant extent that no notable changes ever occur in our observable, macroscopic world.  This would be tantamount to no intervention at all, and is therefore not an interesting case to pursue.

Footnote *2: Taken to mean the supernatural actor is aware of all possible quantum superstates in the universe and able to manipulate any or all of them in the hypothesized manner.

How to Argue

This is a great short podcast on how to argue that talks about a lot of the same points I made earlier.  It goes into additional detail about how to prepare and conduct arguments so that everyone benefits.

Argument > Debate

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Like most sports, I’m not much good at debate.  I say it’s a sport because it’s a competition with a winner and loser where the participants’ skills have the largest bearing on the outcome.

I think that most people casually lump debate and argument into the same mental bin; if not as exact synonyms, then as different degrees of the same thing.  But they are really quite different!  A debate has almost nothing to do with logic or the correctness of stated facts, but these things are crucial to the outcome of an argument.

Continue reading Argument > Debate

Dishonesty in science: we still win

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As Orac states:

Science as it is practiced today relies on a fair measure of trust. Part of the reason is that the culture of science values openness, hypothesis testing, and vigorous debate. The general assumption is that most scientists are honest and, although we all generally try to present our data in the most favorable light possible, we do not blatantly lie about it or make it up.

Science is a massively collaborative endeavor, with each researcher relying on the existing mesh of literature as a starting point for their own contributions.  When everyone is being honest, a good methodology and peer review will prevent most obvious problems of bias and rigor.  In other words, the facts are pretty well understood, and everyone has a pretty good idea about how robust various theories are.

This is important, because it means when research is invalidated (or some theory is shown to be inferior to a new one), it tends to be an incremental change, not a destructive one.  Anything we learn will update, clarify, and add to our existing understanding.  Any new theories we employ will work at least as well as the old ones they unseat.  Relativity is more correct than Newton’s laws, but that doesn’t mean apples must be re-checked to verify that they do in fact fall toward the earth instead of levitating or falling toward the moon.

When a researcher repeatedly confabulates data in a case of massive fraud, it knocks everyone for a loop.

Continue reading Dishonesty in science: we still win

The emotions of energy

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Hybrid fusion-fission energy generation a possibility via Futurismic.

Isn’t it interesting how this story swept through the internet?  Everyone, of course, wants to get rid of nuclear waste right?  Awful, evil stuff.  Bury it in the earth if you have to.  Making it disappear in a magic theoretical reactor is even better, what great news!  But what struck me is how no one seems to realize that this is by no means the first idea for a reactor to deal with nuclear “waste”, and that the stuff isn’t really waste at all once you understand a little about it.

Read on, and discover a whole nuclear world that you’ve probably never even heard of.

Continue reading The emotions of energy

Closed-minded, all

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Photo credit: garryknight from flickr

We suck at thinking, all of us– humanity.  It’s poetically tragic given that we haven’t met any life forms who can do a better job of it yet.

We skeptics enjoy thinking of ourselves as rational and reasonable, smugly superior among a vast sea of credulous, closed-minded believers.  But we’re not nearly as clever as we think, nor are we very different from the true believers.

Continue reading Closed-minded, all

A critical baseline

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There are so many fallacies and biases that I can’t keep them straight, even though critical thinking is something I value highly.  I’m not much good at debate, and although I’d love nothing more than to engender critical thinking and skepticism in others, I don’t have any good ideas on how to do that, except maybe hitting them with a WWIT? question.

But what about aspiring skeptics– people who already have the spark of reason but haven’t yet learned to see the fnords on their own?

Continue reading A critical baseline

What would it take?

I saw this somewhere on the Internet a few days ago and have since forgotten the source.  But it’s so elegant that I want to spread the meme.  Plus, a post on Friendly Atheist reminded me again.

“What would it take to convince you that you’re wrong?”

That one sentence is all you need to figure out whether someone is capable of being reasonable about any particular subject.  In fact, making people admit to themselves that they’re not willing to entertain any possibility of being wrong, could be enough to break the spell.

Willing to be wrong

From Skepchick:

I love that most everyone here is willing to be wrong about everything.

Through disagreements, we are able to see our views reflected back at us and change them if necessary. Or, even if they don’t change, we may gain insight into just why we hold a particular view.

That’s how I try to approach my whole life.  It’s just as rewarding to “lose” an argument as to be right in the first place.  Either way, it means I come out of the discussion feeling smart.