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November 30, 2004

The Way of Truth

Cross-posted to Dean Nation.

The person you agree with 100% of the time is yourself. And sometimes, even that isn't so! Running a weblog focused on diverse topics I stumble on to many areas where I disagree with person X and agree with person Y, and many areas where the converse happens. The person with whom I will disagree will sometimes attempt to call me back to Reason, or suggest that I Really Can't Believe That. It's like my mental faculties just escape me now & then! To paraphrase H. L. Mencken there are individuals who live in terror that someone, somewhere, out there can conceive of a rational opinion at variance with their own!

I exaggerate for effect. We all succumb to this tendency now & then. As a species we seem intent on focusing on individual battles rather than tracking the progress of the war, perhaps this is what makes strategic thinkers "geniuses," they are not modal personalities. This shouldn't be too surprising when you realize that though we are shaped by ultimate considerations they work through variations in proximate traits. If you don't survive the battles, you won't live to enjoy the fruits of victory in war.

Human beings have confirmation biases. That is, we are more likely to accept evidence that confirms our hypotheses. We also have coalitional biases, that is, we are more likely to give credence to individuals who we know share our other biases, and this can even work to counteract confirmation bias on occassion (that is, you accept weak evidence for hypothesis A but individual 1, who you share multiple other biases with, offers evidence for B, and so the evidence for A looks far weaker to you now).

In terms of specifics, you see these coalitional and confirmation biases show up in various manners. For example, my admiration for Paul Gross is grounded in the reality that he shares two particular biases of mine: he fights creationism where ever it rises to battle science, and also keeps an open mind on topics relating to human nature (from evolutionary psychology to human biodiversity). Now, I happen to disagree with some of Dr. Gross' opinions on foreign policy, but I don't particular care about that topic much so it doesn't really diminish my admiration for him.

Back when I was a "hardcore" libertarian and a freethought activist, I was heartened to find out that non-theist philosopher Antony Flew was also a committed Thatcherite (Flew has expressed a recent openness to Deism FYI, so I haven't labelled him a negative or implicit atheist as I would have 1 year ago). This tendency for humans to exhibit correlation on numerous variables is not surprising, that libertarians are generally secular & self-perceive their views as "rational" would be no great surprise to anyone (or that they are mostly male). The most common explanation for this tendency is that there are underlying axioms or experiences that commonly shape one's opinion on alternate hypotheses. For example, if one adheres to a new found respect for "traditional wisdom," a turn torward the dominant religion and simultaneous acceptance of conventional social mores might be expected. On the other hand, I think people often dismiss the more unpredictable sociological angle: one may switch from Democrat to Republican if one joins a church where everyone is a Republican not because of a genuine heart-felt change in personal values, but because everyone else is a Republican (the values then change in a Pascalian fashion as the constant refrain of the new truth seeps into your brain).

But enough theory, I would like to address a specific. On occasion, some regular readers of my opinions express dismay that I take an elitist attitude toward the evolution/creation "controversy." That is, I tend to discount the creationist opinions of the American public for two reasons, first, I don't think they are deeply felt, and second, they are wrong. Now, the truth is that I may believe that it is wrong for schools to serve only kosher meals or only vegan meals (in deference to the dietary restrictions of some students), but, it is not an opinion that I would not be particularly concerned about this even if "my side" lost the battle at a school board meeting. The latter political dispute is of a different kind that the former scientific dispute.

I am not one who is going to deny that science is totally innocent of norms, values and "unproven" assumptions, but, I will assert that convential political "debates" occur primarily because humans are often unable to eloborate and clarify for each other their deep-seated instincts and values which could render their opinion rational, at least in light of their axioms, to other disputants. The axioms of science are more naked and transparent (methodological naturalism, a reliance on evidence, inference and reason), and the means take priority over the ends! This last part is crucial: I don't believe that teaching creationism in the public schools is a disaster for the negative effect it will have on evolutionary theory per se, rather, I worry about the corrosive effect it will have on those children who might later be influenced by the scientific method, with all its checks & balances and its reliance on good faith (rather than plain faith).

Am I being paranoid? Perhaps, but civilization does hang in the balance, because the modern world is contingent upon the open society, and especially science (republicanism and institutions of civil society are necessary for genuinely innovative science in my opinion, but the affluent middle class society which feeds these values would be untenable without the scientific revolution).1 I am of the mind that the world has produced only one true scientific society, that of Europe in the 17th century (which later expanded to become coterminus with the world). Evolutionary psychologists have addressed our cognitive difficulties with the scientific mode of thought, and only a small minority of individuals in our ostensibly scientific culture will be involved with science or technology in their daily lives, but these individuals are a necessary condition for the perpetuation of middle class affluence. To flourish and grow young scientists and engineers need a culture that will enable them. The creeping in of creation science and other assorted qwackeries will not result in the death of our civilization in one fell swoop, but this is another battle that needs to be viewed in the context of the war against human nature, the war against confirmation bias, groupishness and all the assorted drives and tendencies shaped by our environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA).

But, I must admit that there is a reason that some people sympathize with the public will to insert their norms and values into the realm of science, and that is because those norms and values have been driven out of other domains of knowledge which are more amenable to manipulation. The rise of multiculturalist political correctness in the United States seems to have resulted in the flight from the classrooms of a positive discussion of the preconditions of the shaping of the republic. The seminal importance of religion in both the cultures of New England and Pennsylvania might be deemphasized so as not to seem biased toward Christian faith. The fact that modern civilization as we know it was created by white Europeans seems to be something that must be addressed with discomfort. The reality that this fact has the implication that much of modern art, with its profuse plentitude derived from middle class affluence, is generated by white European men is also another source of discomfort for the cultural elite. The War Against Science accusation against religion has become part of the zeitgeist, engendering a greater hostility toward "godless science" than there need be.

An erosion of Western cultural values in the classrooms should not be compensated for by the insertion of a system-of-thought that simply no longer exists within the purview of modern science, itself one of the crowning jewels of Western civilization! Rather, we must return to a fideltiy toward Truth, no matter the consequences, no matter how politically unpleasant they might be in the modern age, because for every unpleasant Truth, there are pleasant ones, depending on where you stand. Yes, the founders of the original colonies might be considered distasteful religious fundamentalists or evangelicals, but many of the founding fathers were Deists or liberal Christians. Yes, racism was endemic to early American society, but nevertheless there were exceptions like the Quakers who would refuse to have anything to do with those owned slaves and argued for a universal freedom. Yes, the native peoples of this continent were decimated, but in the end they were not exterminated and today still exist as autonomous nations with their communal freedoms intact.

We are the ones, irrational humans, who impute to Truth a positive or negative light. Prior to the rise of Western civilization truth was more subjective, it has proximate utility as a frame to model the world so that our existence could be safeguarded and genes perpetuated. But with the efflourescence of the Greek spirit in Western civilization we began to move past proximate considerations and look toward the ultimate goals, toward a culture of rational Truth and openness. We gave up our proximate fixations, at least in rhetoric if not always practice, in the interests of ultimate methods which tunneled themselves undernearth the high gradient generated by human bias and prejudice. We should always remember that Western civilization has grown by leaps & bounds by a particular constraint of means which felicitously gives rise to glorious ends.

1 - I offer a conundrum that modern science is partially dependent on the existence of the society that it created. I think one can resolve this by remembering that the methods of science have evolved over the past few centuries, the elite and gentlemenly orientation of science is not the science of today. And in any case, sometimes good ideas can fruit in salty earth by a capricious toss of the dice by God or Nature.

Posted by razib at 12:01 PM