Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dawkins and Decidability

On Tuesday night I was lucky enough to have friends who brought me along to Richard Dawkin's talk at University of South Carolina. I snapped the photo above from a few rows back. Dawkins is the author of The Selfish Gene and a bunch of other books, including his current on The Greatest Show on Earth. He's an evolutionary biologist, and writes and speaks very persuasively on the topic. Reading his first book was one of those WOW headspinners that change the way you think about the world. At least, I hope you've had that experience.

By coincidence, InsideHigherEd has a piece today called "Believing in God and Evolution" about a fundamentalists cleverly co-opting The Origin of Species and about bible colleges that make their students swear silly things like the belief that the earth is six thousand years old, and so on. It's a topic that never fails to rile up both sides, which you'll see if you read the comments. The internets are full of that stuff, and you can easily mobilize your amygdala by searching for blogs on either side of the great belief divide.

The connection, of course, is that Dr. Dawkins is quite outspoken about the general silliness that ensues when one believes things that aren't tied to knowledge and empiricism and all that boring stuff. In that vein was a question from the floor after Dawkins did some readings, asking about the evolutionary basis for belief in mystical stuff. If we assume that mystical stuff is generally wrong, then it ought to be detrimental to survival, right? It applies very generally. Think about all the things people believe. Undoubtedly, most of it is wrong, including most of what you and I believe about all the things we're sure of. This error is tolerable because approximations are usually good enough, but can get out of hand.

The difference, I think, is related to a computer science idea of "semi-decidability." As an example, some computer programs will run forever if allowed to, but there's no general way to know ahead of time if this will be the case. On the other hand, if the program does halt after a while, you can eventually discover that fact just by letting it run and run. So you can discover if it halts (if you're patient), but not if it doesn't.

The mystical beliefs that persist seem to largely be in the semi-decidable category. That is, I can't prove that there are no squid overlords in the sea watching our every move. They haven't been found yet (that I'm aware of), but they might be discovered tomorrow. It's only decidable in the event that it turns out to be true.

That type of question or belief covers a lot of territory. Anything outside the scope of our immediate empirical state of knowledge is semi-decidable. Philosophers have had raging debates over this sort of thing. Does the mailbox really exist when I'm not looking at it?

A semi-decidable belief is different from one that approximates some aspect of reality--a formal or informal empirical taste of the world. If we call a student "bright" this is an assessment we draw from experience and observation, and it communicates something to others we tell. This is the mundane sort of information transfer that gets us through the day. Consider:
Stanislav: Have you tried out the new fish place on 5th? It's great.
Tatiana: No--thanks for the tip. How did you hear about it?
Stanislav: The squid overlords told me in a dream.
Stanislav lurches from informal empiricism into semi-decidability in a dramatic way by, in effect, claiming that the squid question is now empirically settled. At this point, Tatiana would probably remember she left the stove on and discretely exit. But notice a curious fact--if everyone believes there are squid overlords, this could be a quite normal conversation:
Stanislav: Have you tried out the new fish place on 5th? It's great.
Tatiana: No--thanks for the tip. How did you hear about it?
Stanislav: The high priest of the squid overlords told me over lunch yesterday.
If the two are both squid-ites, then this might not be an unusual exchange at all. There's no boundary crossed where a semi-decidable questions has claimed to be settled. The question of squid overlords is comfortably untouched, since the presence of a priest doesn't affect the central question of the sea-dwellers' own foot-headed existence.

In the past, one can imagine that clever characters claimed proof of semi-decidable questions, and perhaps even tried to produce some artifacts or recollections to support the claim. It might go like this:
Stanislav the Shaman: Hear me! In a dream last night, dark creatures spoke to me and I could feel their suckered appendages on my body. Here--look! See that dark spot on my arm there? They told me that the fish would be plentiful this year and for three more years, but we must build them a temple: The Citadel of the Squid Overlords. Oh, and I'm to be the high priest. All hail the squids! Now bring me a coconut latte!
You'd think this sort of thing would be harder to pull of now that empiricism is well-established and we have a miraculous way to transmit information around the globe. Yet people still believe that the moon landings were faked, and any major event spawns its own group of conspiracy theorists. Religions still spring up like weeds. Did you know that Jedi is a real religion now--the thing from Star Wars. Not sure if they have to talk like Yoda or not.

So maybe it is genetically hardwired, this tendency to cultivate worldviews that are unverifiable. One advantage could be getting a "group bonus" for believing. It's a simple strategy: I will pretend to believe X if that gets me security, food, mates, etc. And for some it won't be a pretense. Maybe this malleability allowed people to survive turbulent times when cultures mixed because of war, famine, flood, or other impetus to displacement. I can't speakee your language too goodly, but I have the little chain with the squid, see? Can I has a cheezeburger?

It would be nice to introduce a topic like this in a critical thinking course, but the secular academy is strongly allergic to being "preachy." The irony is acid--that we'd work very hard to make students understand that the Earth moves around the Sun and not the other way around, but we don't make a conscious effort to help them understand the qualitative difference between that question and the burning question of the squid overlords.

And in case you think I'm making all this up, you can buy the tee-shirt here!

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