Friday, January 7, 2011

Doubt Itself

     Why Doubt? In my previous post, I declared doubt the greatest tool we have for understanding the universe. I titled the blog after it. Why?

      When someone tells you there is pirate treasure buried under the toolshed, and you go looking, by the time you come back empty-handed, whoever told you such is probably red-faced with laughter. Taking other people at their word without question is the hallmark of a fool. But the deception need not be intentional for the acceptance to be foolish. But strangely, when the deception is passed from generation to generation, century to century, accepting it without question becomes, for some people, not foolishness, but rather a virtue that they call faith.

      Doubt is what lead Newton to test Aristotle's assumption (a mere two thousand years later) that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Dozens of generations of intelligent and, for the time, educated  people living in Europe accepted, without question, that Aristotle was right because he was Aristotle. Certainly many people saw this fact contradicted before their very eyes, but either dismissed it as an accident due to complicating factors, or realized the truth, but didn't dare, or care, to make a fuss about it, likely because they lived in a world where questioning Aristotle or Plato was nearly as great a crime as questioning Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

      But Newton did, and the scientific revolution began. (That makes it all sound tidier than it was, but you get the idea.) Doubt is the essence of science, and science is the reason that human lives have improved more dramatically for the better in the last four hundred years, than they did in the previous four hundred thousand.

      However, before this goes any further, we need to take a sadly necessary detour. The inevitable counter argument from those who see science as just another form of magic is, "Yes, but you have faith in science. You take scientific principles on faith." No. Science never asks you, "Just trust me." Science instead says, "This seems to be the best explanation for what we've observed, and if you have the time and patience, we'd be happy to show you why this explanation makes sense." It never says, "God spoke to me last night. What? Oh no, no one else was there. You're just going to have to take my word for it." I don't have to have faith that quantum mechanics is a pretty good explanation for the behavior of the universe on really small scales, I simply pop in a DVD and watch a movie, knowing that without quantum mechanics (even with all it's weirdness) lasers wouldn't work, and so neither would my DVD. I don't have to have faith that evolution happened, I simply look at my mutt of a dog, and recognize that she is significantly different from either of her parents, take into account my understanding of genetics (which I can find my own evidence for  in my resemblance to my own father), the logically obvious fact that in nature those creatures who are better adapted to their environment are more likely to survive, extrapolate all that over billions of years, and recognize that not only is it conceivable that species have changed over the course of time, it is inevitable. This requires no faith on my part, in either science or scientists. It is based on what I can observe in the real world with my own senses, and what makes logical sense. What else do we have?

     Which brings us to the limitations of doubt. Like everything else, too much of a good thing can be a not so good thing. Can we doubt the validity of human logic, or the trustworthiness of our senses? Yes, but to what purpose? You and I, indeed everyone in the world can look at an apple and say, "I see an apple." (Or una manzana, or une pomme, whatever). Is it possible we are all being deceived? Theoretically, yes. But if we are all being deceived, if there is some alternate reality that our senses don't have access to, how can we ever observe it to discuss it in any meaningful way? This dilemma brings to light the truth of the saying, "What you see is what you get."

     What about logic? Is it possible human logic is fundamentally flawed, not to be trusted? Yes, again, theoretically it's possible. (I actually do think it is fundamentally flawed in one particular way, which will be the subject of a later post, but it doesn't change the argument here.) But what is logic? It's the way we formalize our thoughts so that everyone can understand them in the same way, with the absolute minimal amount of room for individual interpretation. If something is A, it can't simultaneously be Not A. Either Layla is a dog or she's not. (She is.) The beauty of language, its power, the reason Shakespeare can exist, or any poetry, is because of its inherently ambiguous nature. However, when discussing the nature of reality and fundamental truths, this ambiguity is a problem. Logic is the best, indeed the only (if you include math here) tool we have for stripping language of as much ambiguity as possible. If you think it is possible for Layla to simultaneously be a dog and not a dog, and I recognize that is not possible, our conversation about Layla's nature ends there. Like our senses, without a common acceptance that these things are trustworthy, no meaningful conversations can be had and we slip down that dangerous slope towards solipsism.

     No mentally healthy person actually lives their life in constant doubt of the trustworthiness of their logic and senses. This is usually only brought up as a devil's advocate argument from those who wish to throw doubt on the power of doubt itself. So yes, we admit here, doubt has its limits. What this means though, is that we retain a little bit of doubt for doubt itself, which is just a reminder of how effective an illuminant it really is.

      The other limitation of doubt is its common abuse by those who choose to believe something for which there is no evidence. They mistakenly believe that because something can't be disproven, because a shred of doubt always remains, that is as good as proof. Not quite. The burden of proof always falls on the person who makes a claim about the world that can't be readily substantiated. If I claim to be a millenia old vampire lord who appears human in all outward aspects, you are not the crazy one for saying, "Yeah, right." Or, to slightly modify a quote by the brilliant Christopher Hitchens, "That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

     This misuse of doubt is the same that is employed by conspiracy theorists of all stripes. To take a particularly relevant example, there are an unfortunate number of people in this country who still think anthropogenic-induced climate change is a great global (liberal) conspiracy. One of the only reasons this argument is still around (I'll return to the rest in a later post) despite overwhelming mountains of scientific evidence, is that conspiracy theories are, by their very nature, impossible to disprove, since every counter-argument is simply dismissed as "part of the conspiracy." This makes them no less ridiculous, however. Let's say there was a massive, flawless, global conspiracy to perpetuate the greatest (fully conscious) lie in the history of the world on the biggest population in history who also happen to have a historically unprecedented access to information (you can already see this getting a bit silly). If this were the case, who would stand to benefit if the lie could be exposed? Merely the oil industry, the coal industry, the natural gas industry, the automobile industry, the air-travel industry, the shipping industry, the lumber industry, the power companies, every government on the planet, everyone who burns fossil fuels to heat their homes, everyone who drives a car... In short, not just every single one of the greatest concentrations of power in the world, but pretty much everyone on the planet. No one wants global warming to be something we are partially responsible for, and a few hundred, even thousand, scientists who are living off research grants to study the climate couldn't conceivably hide that fact from the other seven billion of us. Because while everyone clearly wants to go live in a hut and study glacier melt in northern Greenland twelve months a year, I have a feeling that at least one of them would probably take the king's ransom that Ford, or Toyota or BP or Gazprom would be offering for conclusive evidence that it was all a hoax. So again, we see that doubt, in this case doubting the consensus of 98% of the scientists who study this subject for a living, scientists who drive cars and eat beef and heat their homes with oil, is an excessive application of doubt.

     There is, of course, the adult equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, "I can't hear you!" This is that last-ditch defenses of things that cannot be proven or demonstrated in any objective way, "It just makes sense to me," "Or I just have faith that it's so." Okay, fine, you're entitled to believe whatever you want, but I hope you can see why I can't go along with you. You haven't offered me anything that we can both look at or logically agree on about which we can both say, "Okay, we agree on that." All you have said is, "You're just going to have to trust me." Somehow, I have a feeling there's no treasure under the shed.


  1. Yes doubt is, like water, an almost universal solvent that reduces the absurdity of other people's unfounded claims rather well. It is the reason that many ancient philosophies held it in such high esteem, although religion has always held it and people who profess it with contempt (see the apostle Thomas).

    Still to some of your examples;
    Leyla may not be able to be a dog and not a dog at the same time, but could Schroedinger's Cat not be both dead and alive at the same time?

    Anthropomorphic global warming...while clearly humans have an impact on the planet, the level of impact and the usefulness of government "solutions" is usually what more sane people are debating. I've met a few researchers doing effective research in the Himalaya, but grant money keeps making them chase BS in places like the Maldives. There is a lot of politics steering and intertwined in that science and that is a key reason there is doubt from those observing it. As someone who often has to defend Darwinism from those on the right, I feel equally as strongly that those on the left jump a little too quickly into anthropomorphic global warming than the evidence really deserves.

    But as you would I'm sure agree, we go where the evidence leads, and there is no "truth" that can't be thrown out at a moments notice in light of new evidence.

  2. Thanks for reading, Brian.

    Yes, the Schrodinger's cat example is something I considered. Schrodinger's cat is the result of quantum mechanics, which is one of the places where I think our logic ceases to function. I mentioned that I would elaborate on this point in a later post, though it is essentially the same point I had made to you in response to part of your book. I only included a real-world example to give something a little more tenable to the reader than the cold "A can't equal Not A."

    As for global warming, no, I really am just talking about those who think it is a conspiracy, such as Congressman Issa, Senator Inhofe, and many people I know personally. It was an example meant to illustrate how doubt can be misused. I could just as easily have used any of the 9/11 conspiracies, or alien abductions, or Freemasonry, etc.

    As for there being a supposed lack of evidence, I'm not sure what greater consensus we need than has already been established. The leader of the human genome project was a creationist; there will always be dissent among scientists, that is what makes it work. For many, it has become a question of faith, just like evolution. Because we are talking about incredibly long periods of time, people are able to deny what is impossible to put in front of them. The same thing occurred in every major scientific advance of the last 400 years, and without fail, those who stood on the other side once the evidence was sufficient, then overwhelming, then irrefutable, ended up looking quite foolish.

    There is certainly science to discuss with that issue, and even more certainly, what to do about it. Denying that it is occurring is, at this point, much like denying evolution; it is a matter of choice, but a choice made with very little support.

    Further, as in all science, the question then becomes, "Okay, where's the contrary evidence?" As I tried to point out, if significant contrary existed, every power structure on the planet would be cramming it down our throats so that the status quo could be maintained.

    Also, the assumption that it is only "those on the left" who accept global warming is precisely the problem. Making this about ideology, not about facts, is the reason that those "solutions" have been largely ineffective and empty.

    As always, your comments are appreciated for their thoughtfulness and provocativeness.