Monday, November 17, 2008

Three Key Concepts, and Their Application

  • Occam's Razor
    "the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory"

  • Falsifiability
    "the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment"

  • Uniformitarianism
    "the assumption that the natural processes operating in the past are the same as those that can be observed operating in the present"

These three concepts form part of the bedrock of the Western scientific method. When taken seriously, they help refute most supernatural claims. Science asserts that physical law has been constant over the time frames of the evolution of life on Earth, the evolution of man, and the development of civilization.

While we cannot travel into the past to directly witness historical events, we can examine evidence that has been (or should have been) left behind. We can also closely examine contemporaries, in both our own and other cultures, making similar claims. In the case of current supernatural claims, not one has held up to scientific examination.

Psychology carefully avoids making judgments about the truth of supernatural claims, instead focusing the individuals ability to function within their local social group. In Western society today we still see individuals making supernatural claims very similar to those we read in ancient texts. Sometimes they are recognized as mentally ill, but this does not stop others from believing and following them. From this it is easy to assume ancient, pre-scientific peoples were even more credulous.

This leaves one with several options on how to partition one's world-view. One extreme is to assert that many contemporary supernatural claims, from many traditions, are all true. A more moderate position is that the world was different two to four thousand years ago, and that supernatural claims from that time period were true. Of course these positions are often subdivided where claims within one tradition are uniformly true while the others are false (or misguided interpretations of events actually powered by the one true source).

The simplest Occam's-Razor explanation is to take a Uniformitarian position and assert that all supernatural claims for all time are purely based in psychology.

1 comment:

William Mitchell said...

I wrote this months ago, but hesitated to post it on my own blog. So I'll put it on yours! :-)

False Rivalry
July 5, 2008

The Bible was written prior to most or all discoveries of modern science. As science pushes away the boundary of the unknown, a sort of rivalry has ensued, in which individuals are expected to choose between the two, or at least to reject pieces of one or the other.

For example, one cannot simultaneously believe the world was literally created six thousand years ago, and also believe it was created five billion years ago.

However, this is a false rivalry if one views the Bible as its writers probably did: in those areas where it does not literally agree with science, it tends to be figuratively true.

Purpose and Likely Origin

The Bible has one central function: to motivate people to act against instinct, in ways that promote their own well-being, both individually and (especially) collectively.

Why and when did this become necessary? One word: agriculture.

During a scientific revolution, nearly all relevant applications of a major innovation are discovered very quickly, then stabilize into a "new normal." For example, refrigeration was invented almost immediately after the compressor, and has hardly changed since. More generally, just about every appliance powered by electric motors had been invented within a few years after the motor itself became widely available. None has changed much since.

Agriculture is just another enabling invention. It stands to reason that all relevant results of agriculture had arisen within a few years of its invention. What might those relevant results be?

One relevant result of agriculture is civilization, in the sense that agriculture creates food surpluses, population explosion, and a central new problem: reconciling individual desires in densely populated areas.

One solution to this is organized religion. More specifically, the solution to complex social problems is to create and popularize a set of rules designed to reconcile both individual and collective needs, in a way that makes both happy. Like government (which arose at the same time, and for the same reason), religion is an invention that assigns costs and benefits to externalities.

This is why the Bible happens to have been written when it was. It was a logical response to a sudden population increase. As is often the case with inventions, the most useful and relevant applications were discovered early. This is why the Bible (Old Testament at least) serves as the rule set for a very large share of world population (a third to a half?), and why nothing has since arisen to replace it.

Increasing Relevance

The more scientifically advanced we become, the less relevant our evolved reflexes become. As a result, some rule set (the Bible is apparently a good one) becomes increasingly central to the ability to function.

Compliance Mechanism

There is a limit to which people will act against their own nature. There must be a compliance mechanism must be to convince the individual to act in his own best interest, against instinct. For government, it is police. For religion, it is hell.

For example, some people will steal or kill given the opportunity. Evolutionarily, this may have been a sensible strategy, but in a complex society, it doesn't work for at least two reasons. First, theft has a negative externality. Second, complex societies require vast amounts of social interaction, increasing the importance of trust far beyond what it was in antiquity. The evolved reflext doesn't work. How to keep it in check?

Government (compliance mechanism: police) is one way, but cannot be everywhere at once. How to create a ubiquitous police force? Hell. Enough people recognize the negative externality of theft that such a rule set is easy to adopt in either case. Everyone benefits from a system that prevents random theft or murder.

Another important compliance mechanism, which I do not yet understand because I haven't experienced it, is to invoke the "religious experience" part of the brain. Neurologists describe a part of the right brain that creates a sense of euphoria and timelessness at the interconnectedness of things. This is a specific part of the brain that has been shown by cranial imaging to become active during a religious experience. Churches appear to use rituals, e.g. music, to invoke the euphoria, and then use it as a compliance mechanism. I don't mean that in a negative way, since the ruleset is obviously in the individual's best interest, and everyone in the room agrees.

Shorthand Reconciliation of Bible and Modernity

For "God," substitute "Nature" or "the nature of things." For "the Word of God," substitute "rule set that leads you to act in your own best interest in a densely populated society. For "Devil," substitute "base instinct that leads an individual to act against his own interest in a densely populated society."

Unanswered Question

Does there exist a more modern rule set, better adapted to today's science?

In a way, the social turmoil of the Sixties was all the result of a mismatch between traditional behavioral rules and their logical underpinning, after the cure of infectious diseases and the invention of birth control. Suddenly, for the first time since the invention of agriculture six thousand years ago, there was no negative effect (direct nor externality) from sexual promiscuity. The rule set no longer matched the reality. This could not help but create upheaval.

It also cannot help but imply that the optimal rule set changes with the technological landscape. It may not change much, or often, but it does change.