Wednesday, February 08, 2006
"The fool saith in his heart, There is no God" (Psalms 52:1), and so begins the ontological argument for the existence of God formulated by St. Anselm. In short, Anselm's argument is that (list taken from Wikipedia):
Intuition can take us far, and coupled with basic deductions from these a priori axioms intuited we have a simple recipe for a human model of the world. In relation to our scientific intuitions we now accept that they must be embedded in a larger framework fleshed out by the process of science, that social synthesis of induction (observation and experiment), deduction (model building) and skepticism which allows us to move beyond individual human perceptions and generate ordered systems out of the noise of our sensory experience. Though operationally we act as if down is down, we know that we reside on a sphere and our perception of up and down emerges because of our location at the bottom of a gravity well on the surface of a sphere whose size is great enough in relation to our bodies that it appears flat. If we elect governments that promise to fund space missions we generally hope that they will look beyond intuitive physics and follow the insights of Newton, as unintuitive as they maybe on occassion. We understand, especially those raised with a deep awareness of modernity and an innate capacity to abstract, that there are limits to our intuition and we must sometimes follow the guardrails set by the sciences to navigate strange waters safely.
In the physical sciences this is clear. We don't leave the manfacture of silicon processors to tinkerers who follow their gut, we don't leave bridge building to hobbyists with enthusiasm and we don't render to latter day Leonardo's the task of designing airplanes based on their artistic flair and intuitive leaps. The cold equations and peculiar heuristics that physical scientists and engineers imbibe through their education give them insights that the rest of us can not intuit by our lonesome. In the biological sciences the same process is occurring, as biotechnology will likely render the life sciences a "two-brained" organism with a pure and applied branch, both leveraging abstract concepts toward deductions which point into uncharted waters. Nevertheless, in fields like evolutionary biology folk biology still stands its ground, at least in the United States. I have delved into this topic before, but, I simply wanted to point to this as an instance in the natural sciences where folk intuitions have not been banished in the marketplace of ideas (their recall is subject to intense counter-active lobbying by interested parties).
Now, let us move further, into the social "sciences." I put "sciences" in quotes because the character of these fields is subject to a great deal of variance, ranging from econometrics to history. The study of humanity as a subject to prone to a great pitfall: the overwhelming power of our intuitions and the received wisdom. Many people know that "T.V. causes violence," that "parents shape the personalities of their children" and that "astrology works." If you have an instance where someone challenges this orthodoxy you are often simply confronted by a repetition of the truism rather than a counter-argument. Listen closely the next time to a news program where a member of a camp that is arguing something that seems intuitively appealing or socially promoted is confronted by an antagonist who comes prepared with facts: the proponent of the intuitive or socially accepted side rarely marshals any responses, and they are clearly totally unconcerned that that will be necessary, so serene are they in their belief that the public will accept their position.
This brings me back to the point about intuitions and deducing from them, humans have an innate folk psychology and social intelligence, and in our day to day world it serves us fine, but, it gives us false hope in modeling aggregate group behaviors as well as those in other times and places. Sometimes this folk psychology can be easily falsified, at least in a strong deterministic form, by a simply inspection of the historical record. Consider an acquaintance of mine who suggested that defeat of Muslims on the field of battle (this was pre-Iraq War and the individual was arguing for invasion) would show that their God was weak or false and that this would crush the back of their civilization. I happened to know that this person was Protestant by upbringing and I was surprised they didn't note that the Israelites did not fade from history when their God abandoned them, when Assyria assailed them, Babylon deported them, Rome scattered them.2 Or that the Church was founded on the blood of the martyrs, that they welcomed death that they declared was the will of their God. This is not to say that the Muslims necessarily would take strength from defeat, but it implied to me that this folk psychologizing was thin gruel indeed, and simply a post hoc prop for a prior belief than a genuine attempt to understand the opponent. Since intuitive ideas derived from folk psychology seem to jump out at us, they are often not subject to subsequent scrutiny and examination. They float freely and unconstrained in the winds of ideological and social bias, spreading like memetic wildfire.
Part of this is the problem of social science, it just isn't that scientific. There is the old joke that economists have 100% predictivity of the past, and economics is often considered the most rigorous and empirical of the social sciences with the most robust models at its disposal. Much of cultural anthropology has devolved into a study in self-critique. History is now laced with broad Post Modern textual analyses or narrow monographs on F.D.R's shoelaces. Nevertheless something is better than nothing, a weak signal in the noise is better than no signal. By taking the social sciences into account we can at least attempt to acheive rates of success greater than expectation if we were throwing darts blindly.
This where a new field like cognitive science comes into play. Synthesizing the findings of psychology, computer science, philosophy and neuroscience, cognitive science is the beginning of the first steps toward decomposing the human mind, an understanding of the basic atoms of social science. Without an understanding of elements modern chemistry would be little beyond a hodge-podge of alchemical formulae that worked. Craft chemistry might exist, but industrial chemistry wouldn't, because we wouldn't have a fine grained and deep understanding of the nature of matter to allow us to venture into uncharted and dangerous (explosive) waters. Much of modern social science is in its pre-atomic era, a sea of correlations and regressions that attempt to bring into sharp relief the shadows cast by the underlying causal actors. To genuinely understand how the human social organism acts and plays itself out on the world stage, we must understand the mind.
To do this, we need to move beyond the "ghost in the machine," but, importantly, we need to shift beyond the value in the macine as well. Modern cultural anthropology is a thick description field characterized by a great deal of self critique. Not only is it a highly skeptical field, but there is a definite tincture of left-wing activism which identifies with the "oppressed." This is in contrast with the older anthropology which was the tool of imperialism, and took a blatantly pro-Western point of view from the git-go, and was often characterized by wild conjectures and generalizations bereft of data or skepticism. Ultimately, it seems that anthropology has swung both ways, and hasn't hit upon the solution: treat culture as an artifact of nature, without value.
Now, if oxygen was going to study the elements and create its own periodic table, ultimately it stands to reason that oxygen would be out for its own good, when all things are summed at the end of the day. But, in the process of understanding elements oxygen needs to set aside its own biases about how an "element should behave," whether that be its contempt for promiscuous carbon or disdain toward priggish argon. A similar problem occurs with humans, values tend to obscure our perception and warp our judgements. Much of cultural anthropology and schools of Post Modern humanism in general has taken this to its logical conclusion: all of humanity becomes a sea of values. Nevertheless, there is another tack: enforce intellectual discipline and step outside of the animal you are and view yourself clinically. To a large extent this enterprise will fail, we are biased, and overall it may fail, this is no panglossian universe where all is possible under the sun of imagination. But it behooves us to attempt at least to get beyond expectation and our primal hunches in understanding the world around us.
This is is already a bit long, so I will complete it with haste with a specific example of a problem I see: people seem to forget that they lie. That is, one common finding of cognitive psychology is people will ascribe particular reasons, often in verbose and eloquent form, to acts which they have primed toward by subliminal cuing from the researchers in question. In other words, humans are not as conscious and reflective as they believe they are. They attempt to read the intent of others in alien cultures purely by the content of their speech is bound to fail. But, the content of their speech is highly accessible, and combined with a few rudimentary folk intuitions and it is easy to reach rather superficial and fallacious conclusions within 10 minutes.
What I say is this: take a difficult course of action that works toward your ultimate ends, rather than comfortable ones that satisfy your proximate inclinations. Study, learn, understand. There is a time to paint yourself with the blood of your enemy, scream at the top of your lungs and tear your hair out in mourning for those you have lost, but not in this space and this time. Reason is a slave to passions, but it must not be consumed by its master.
1 - Please side step debates about qualia, I'm not going there.
2 - Most of these events are historical, unlike much of the earlier sections of the Hebrew Bible. We know that Jews and Christians kept faith even in the midst of the harshest persecutions.