Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Making Sense of the World

Imagine the following three possible frameworks or models used to make sense of the universe, this world, and all behaviour and actions.


This universe was created by a race of aliens from another universe or dimension. Perhaps they exist outside of space and time (whatever that means). They either created or monitor all activity on earth. Perhaps they have ways of understanding and following human desires, or perhaps they interfere in human activity, according to their whims and fancies, or maybe not.


This universe is a function of the Matrix. It is an artificial construct, a virtual reality built by citizens of the future, human or robot, as a giant experiment or project of value. As such, our existence is really just our consciousness responding to whatever 'they' want us to see. Our bodies are either plugged into machines somewhere in the future, or we only exist in digital form.


This universe was created by the Abrahamic God. He exists outside or space and time. He hears and sees everything. He chooses to answer or ignore prayer. He has a plan for everyone. His ways are mysterious.


These are your three frameworks. I made up two of them, with inspiration from the media. The third is a commonly espoused belief system. Here's my question - what makes the third model any less ridiculous than the first two?

Granted, my description of all three were brief. But you are free to build on all three. If your goal in choosing a belief system, framework or world view is 'does this make sense?' or 'does this prove useful?' or 'does this explain everything in this world?', then all three frameworks are equally useful.

Take any physical law or phenomenon like gravity or electromagnetism. Take any biochemical unit or process like cell or an organ system. Take any aspect of human or animal behaviour like jealousy or altruism. Any of the three frameworks could be used to explain these facets of our world. They can all be used to explain economic productivity, evolution, tsunamis and genocide. 

All the three models are somewhat vague, and that proves advantageous. Being vague means the model explains more variation. The more specific the model is, the easier it is to undermine. You could explain away any bizarre phenomenon into the variation that the model accommodates. And since it accommodates everything in its vagueness, the model is never wrong.

Do you see the problem here? All three models cannot be correct. And these are just three. The number of models you could invent to explain variation in what you observe is infinite. How do you tell right from wrong?

'All models are wrong, some are useful'. We use models that useful to us. We don't really care how right they are. We use a model because we find it useful. Because it makes sense to us in our specific context. But if all three models are equally useful, then why prefer one over the other? Is it because only one is the product of historical thought and cultural evolution, and the other two are more recent and more clearly 'fake'?

We think prayer works because it works for us, and that's enough. We don't seem to care that historical data shows us that affliction and death rates for polio, smallpox and cancer have no relationship with prayer. That irrespective of how holy you were or how hard you prayed, if you had cancer in 1900, you would likely die. That cancer survival rates have more to do with the invention of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy than anything else.

Perhaps it is best to go beyond retrospective usefulness in picking the right model, seeing as how any speculative thought can account for all variation in observable phenomena. Perhaps we should stop asking 'how much variation does this model explain?' and instead ask 'how much predictive validity does this model have?'

Any made up theory can explain what you see around you. It doesn't matter if the model involves God, aliens, AI, time travelling robots, space monkeys, or a new scientific theory. All these models or frameworks can seem equally 'valid' or 'right' in that they have an explanation for everything, answers to all your questions.

To decide which model is right, or to create a better model, it seem much more intuitive to base that model only on the evidence you have, incomplete as it is, and then test it and continually modify it by making predictions, admitting all along the way that your model will always be imperfect and a work in progress.


In 50 years, when we do develop a vaccine or cure for AIDS, the same people who call AIDS a punishment from God will be thanking God for answering their prayers and curing people. It's easy to validate any model using retrospective post-hoc rationalisation, especially if your model was vague to begin with, you never tested it by making specific predictions, and you're making it up as you go along, avoiding any attempt at testing your beliefs and instead picking and choosing facts that seem to fit into your pre-existing framework and ignoring everything else or considering it a test of your faith.


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