Monday, January 19, 2015

transitive corroboration not enigmatic authorities

The last entry considered the shallow misconception that dissenters from faith-beliefs insist on evaluating each statement like a scientific hypothesis. But that exaggerated misconception distracted from the actual recommended evaluation strategy, which was much simpler: evaluate the quantity and quality of corroboration. Corroboration happens through many strategies, and not all are applicable to all statements. Realities form a mosaic, so corroboration has many diverse data sources too. It can be complicated in practice. It involves careful judgment. Anyone who's been part of a jury would agree.

However, for the sake of contrasting the attitudes of typical dissenters from followers, one aspect is key and worthy of elaboration: the corroboration of secondhand statements. Candidly, for the majority of statements, neither of the two groups ordinarily has feasible opportunities to obtain firsthand corroboration. They must rely on secondhand statements filtered by additional criteria. The problem is that this common dependence on secondhand corroboration can lead to false comparisons ("We're not so different, you and I!") and then to misunderstandings and stereotypes.

Within the mentality of loyal followers, the supreme criterion for a secondhand statement is nothing more than the authoritativeness of whoever produced it. Thus they think that they differ from dissenters over nothing more than which authorities to revere. Followers of faith-beliefs can mistakenly suggest that every variant of atheism qualifies as a faith with competing cosmic dogmas and stories and laws. Or they can mistakenly suggest that disregarding uncorroborated statements is the same as closed-mindedness. Of course, "postmodern" followers are the most enthusiastic about this; according to them, statements stem from an authority's narrative, different authorities have different narratives, and no narrative is more broadly correct than any other.

But this notion of indisputable authorities is precisely backwards or at least too gullibly lopsided. Truthfully, they might often be valuable sources for corroboration...if their corroborating statements are themselves corroborated. Despite their proud claims to the contrary, they aren't immune to the need for corroboration. A more elementary version is that you must show your work to earn full credit, no matter who you are. An authority shouldn't be allowed to curtly dictate that a statement is accurate without justification.

Essentially, during the exceedingly normal task to accumulate and estimate corroboration, authorities aren't transcendent oracles who mysteriously take over and finish it. They're more like unavoidable extensions of the one gathering corroboration. For instance, perhaps Fred can't corroborate a statement for himself, but he can communicate with Barney to discover what Barney did to corroborate it. If Barney refuses to deliver an account of what he did, or if the account is as unbelievable as a chat with The Great Gazoo, then Fred isn't obligated to accept Barney's uncorroborated corroboration. But if Fred accepts Barney's account, then Fred hasn't necessarily anointed Barney as an authority (Grand Poobah?). Fred has merely borrowed Barney's plausible corroboration. Mentally, he's permitted Barney—Barney's account, anyway—to represent what he would do if he could corroborate it himself. Fred can generalize from Barney, unless he reasonably supposes that he might encounter incompatible results if he were in Barney's place.

This kind of virtual transference has lots of precedents in mathematical contexts. The logic is applicable to a variety of relationships between amounts. Whenever X is equal to Y, and Y is equal to Z, then X is equal to Z. If Miami's noonday air temperature is hotter than Nashville's, and Nashville's is hotter than Fargo's, then Miami's is hotter than Fargo's. Relationships having this characteristic are transitive. Fortunately, corroboration is transitive much of the time, like it was for Fred and Barney. Realistic examples of transitive corroboration are immensely complex, with one corroboration stacking on another stacking on another, with contradictions and errors sneaking in. Needless to say, Barney's corroboration might be more convincing in conjunction with Betty's and Wilma's matching corroborations. Fred could feel still more confident that he would probably discover indistinguishable corroboration if he could imitate their efforts. Transitive corroboration is akin to a mathematical proof with numerous intermediary steps, which anyone can review whenever they wish. Or it's akin to a chain with numerous, compact, easily visible links.

It's far from original or revolutionary. Yet it clashes with the traditional directions associated with a few problematic topics: to not seek corroboration at all, not seek corroboration in the usual manner, not expect corroboration to either be obvious or to exhibit any testable pattern whatsoever, not presuppose that everyone will or can experience corroboration similarly, not overanalyze or even presume to understand someone else's corroboration, not urge that corroboration be lucid or universal or coherent, and on and on. In short, such directions blatantly ensure that corroboration is fundamentally non-transitive...and therefore unthreatening.

That leaves only the alternative from earlier: enigmatic authorities. When they decline to offer any explanation, the quality of their corroboration is unknown. Else they may offer an explanation, but its details include "methods" that are explicitly individualized...or rare...or ambiguous...or involuntary. Specifically, they may describe an extraordinary message which suddenly appeared in solely their brain. They may narrate an unsettling dream and proceed to clarify what the bizarre images really meant. They may proclaim that they sensed a statement's authenticity via an extraordinary personal ability granted to them by a god. They may assert their god's true opinion on the basis of their intuitive connection with it. They may revise a moral rule by opinionated, subjective, metaphorical reinterpretations of sacred texts. They may glibly argue that their idiosyncratic preferences are superior due to their ineffable wisdom or spiritual accomplishment. They may frame a particularly welcome surprise as a divine signal written just for them.

Their rationales are perfectly opaque to further investigation or refinement by their listeners. The options are to wholly assume or reject the statements/corroborations. Transitive corroboration isn't like that. Its priceless value is its effectiveness at weeding out uncorroborated pretenders and incompetents. It's why the statements of some authorities are genuinely (verifiably) more accurate than the rest. It's why someone can't selfishly choose the "right" authorities/websites/books to corroborate their prejudices about realities—well, they can if they don't mind that their ideas might be partly or entirely fictional (*cough* politicians). It's a deep change of perspective that's harder to recognize than its outward result of the dismissal of faith-beliefs.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Hypothesis or not?" is not the instructive question

Lawyer: So does this theory of evolution necessarily mean that there is no God?
Professor Frink: No, of course not...It just says that God is an impotent nothing from nowhere with less power than the Undersecretary of Agriculture, who has very little power in our system. (chuckling Frink noise)      —"The Monkey Suit", The Simpsons
I've noted before that misconceptions clump together. So the stereotype that dissenters of faith-beliefs have a pitiful lack of imagination is often paired with a second: that they narrow-mindedly interpret every statement like a literal scientific hypothesis. "As someone with a broader viewpoint, I don't pretend that everything can be analyzed through scientific means. I recognize that science has its limitations, and perhaps my faith-beliefs do too. That's why I'm unimpressed when critics scoff that my faith-beliefs are 'inferior hypotheses'. To the contrary, my faith-beliefs are significant because the topics aren't restricted by empirical methods. When I'm worshipping or praying, I'm not a scientist measuring outcomes to test a hypothesis. It sometimes seems to me that you people spend a lot of time, especially on the Web, elevating science into an object of adoration. Just as I have my favorite celebrities and lecturers and books, you have yours. I believe what my favorites proclaim, and so do you. I confess that I approach everything through the lens of my faith-beliefs, but you do the same with science. That devotion explains your determination to misconstrue my ideas as hypotheses and mix up your science with my faith-beliefs."

Surprisingly, I sympathize a little with this stereotype's complaint. I don't wish to phrase my opposition as a war between science and religion's competing hypotheses. I'm not eager to verbalize a stark choice between "sides", assign every statement accordingly, and pressure everyone to align themselves with the correct side. The effort to classify statements into domains is a diversion. I prefer to emphasize the question of each statement's credibility. What is its meaningfulness? How is the accuracy of its meaningfulness demonstrated in practice, especially in comparison with the many inaccurate statements which resemble it? What if someone could take the time to put aside an alleged war between ideologies and only try to judge as impartially as possible whether their dear statements could be mistaken?

To reiterate, these inquiries apply to statements from science as well as religion. The more central quarrel isn't about which team is generally "better" and therefore right. We don't follow statements made by scientists purely because science is great and we love science (whatever that means). We're guided by practical definitions of trustworthiness. The process matters. Statements from a science "domain" are trustworthy to the extent that each is backed by a sufficient, public, repeatable process. The pivotal point isn't the mere acknowledgment that science can be persuasively accurate; it's understanding why that is.

In this context, dedication to science is less about allegiance than about a crucial side effect: full appreciation of scientific standards. Those can inform the predominant manner in which someone sifts through the credibility of statements. They can't subject every statement to thorough science itself—exhaustive and meticulous observation, theorizing, experimentation, publication, peer review, etc. In that sense, they can't handle every statement like a hypothesis. Nevertheless, once they can recognize how science laboriously earns trust in its statements, then they can contrast it with the various alternative ways that humans try to inspire trust...such as manipulation or simply the overbearing, blunt command "Trust me!"

The final goal is a paradigm shift. They can stop selectively asking, "Is this statement 'scientific'? Should I act like a scientist when I ponder it?" They can switch to consistently, honestly, fearlessly asking, "Regardless of the domain this wondrous statement comes from, can anyone reasonably explain why I should believe it, and how I could possibly verify its particular details?"

Monday, January 05, 2015

lack of imagination

An awful yet predictable characteristic of a stereotype is that it exemplifies "common sense" to those invoking it...but it can actually be ludicrous to those it targets. One example is the curious stereotype that dissenters of faith-beliefs supposedly lack imagination. As a follower of faith-beliefs might say it, "I believe that realities have literally miraculous origins. Anyone without faith-beliefs like mine must have a dreary life. They're earthbound. They're stuck with long lists of facts about what they can only sense directly. They can't hope for unending comfort after the challenges of living. They can't rely on benevolent, unnaturally potent beings such as angels to help them. They can only absorb a multitude of disconnected events, often accidental; they can't discern a gigantic, purpose-driven story in which to situate the events. They just see objects in space, things in motion, governed by unintelligent, uncaring processes. If they would attempt to see beyond mundane minutiae, then they would appreciate the fulfillment of envisioning my incredible faith-beliefs."

Regardless of how insightful the stereotype appears to them, it has four glaring shortcomings on closer examination. First, it fails to agree with another favorite stereotype of theirs: bohemian artists, i.e. free-spirited, rebellious iconoclasts. (Some have an irritating habit of grouping themselves into an elite, extra-special subset of humanity called "creatives".) They produce works that aren't always "respectful". They might dare to ignore the supernatural plane, ridicule it, or intentionally portray it "incorrectly". They may be atheists by their own unashamed admission, or at least they express religious ideas that are exotic or wishy-washy. In any case, unlike the stereotype, they plainly combine their rejection of proper faith-beliefs with an abundance of wild imagination. It fuels their fiction.

Second, the stereotype fails for many experts in sciences and mathematics. Throughout history, advances in such fields have depended on imagining stuff that couldn't be observed via ordinary perception. Excellent theories proposed formidably abstract yet testable and precise concepts. Through the logic of mathematics, those led to corresponding calculations for estimating future effects or for tracing past causes. Contemporary sciences and mathematics include entire ethereal domains. As with energy (or quantum mechanics, aagh), some are so intangible that opportunists try to deceptively link them to unrelated, informal, hypothetical notions. The point is that leaps of imagination were part of uncovering these far from obvious concepts, and imagination is part of understanding or expanding them too. Not all who have these skills are also consistent dissenters of faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, more than enough fit the description for the sake of tarnishing the stereotype.

Third, the stereotype fails to acknowledge that imaginative faith-beliefs have been...commonplace. In proportional terms, faith-beliefs that align with natural human inclination are unimaginative. Diverse societies have had them for ages. The more innovative path is the readiness to consider realities that diverge from this ancient template. It might require imagination to ponder an unseen god authoring everything. But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose a human-like author with a human-like soul. It might require imagination to insist on a grand plan uniting every single moment of chaos—not to mention a high tolerance for frequent bewilderment. But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose large-scale satisfaction of a human craving for orderly structure. It might require imagination to defend the doctrine that humans are exceptionally important and empowered (ensouled?). But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose that human supremacy and intelligence are self-aggrandizing signs of nobility wisely delegated from a higher authority. In short, conventional faith-beliefs reflect and impose human concerns. Imagination is picturing possible truths which aren't so derivative of those restrictive expectations.

Fourth, the stereotype fails to employ an appealing strategy to reach outsiders, in my opinion. It might inspire committed followers, but it doesn't present a tempting incentive to start following faith-beliefs. I could be mistaken, but I doubt that most potential initiates are primarily impressed by the existence and benefits of invisible ideas. Their default area of interest is their own lives: their difficulties, their communities, their ethics, their needs, their aims, their "significant" personal events. To place too much emphasis upfront on the details of another realm is to answer questions they aren't asking. To cast the spotlight on stupendous images of otherworldly perfection is to show a passive, remote, hollow creed. Substantial faith-beliefs should have ramifications on stuff that has substance. Granted, nobody can deny the obvious psychological value of an additional source of extra motivation to confront problems and to invigorate self-renewal. Yet that rationale isn't compelling either when numerous alternatives could similarly provide productive motivation without similar demands for unearned confidence in ineffectual statements about powerless myths.

In the end, even if the stereotype were accurate, a lack of imagination might not be worse than the opposite risk of excessive imagination backfiring. For the more that a creation is fed, the greater the chance that it could start to seem independently real and then proceed to domineer the thinkers who animate it!