[extropy-chat] Re: SI morality
cphoenix at CRNano.org
Mon Apr 19 05:11:33 UTC 2004
Robert J. Bradbury wrote:
> An argument may be completely rational -- but may be based on false
> premises. For example a premise that Jews were granted *all*
> of Israel/Palestine (by God).
Perhaps a comparison with formal reasoning may help. Geometry is based
on axioms. I think this is the same as your "premises." These axioms
are not fixed; they depend on context. On the surface of a sphere,
parallel lines meet.
So it's possible to be completely rational in a certain context, and get
results that don't make any sense outside that context. If someone
believes in God and divine miracles, they can quite rationally conclude
that God could have flooded the world suddenly, 4000 years ago. In the
context of science, this makes as much sense as parallel lines meeting.
> That is the problem we need to deal
> with here -- *when* are rational arguments based on invalid premises.
> Secondarily when one is dealing with invalid premises how does one assert
Here, I'll disagree. The problem is not that premises are valid or
invalid. The problem is when results are evaluated in or out of
context. Unfortunately, a major human cognitive flaw is to believe that
the context in their head extends far beyond their heads. Of course,
the internal context is necessarily far simpler than the real world.
I'll get to the real world later.
Note that useful thoughts can be arrived at by either rational or
non-rational thought. Rationality is only as good as its premises, and
for many problems, we simply don't know enough to pick premises. I'll
have more to say about this later, too.
> It seems like it is reasonable for anyone to assert that my premises
> are as valid as yours unless one can claim higher ground with respect
> to the superiority of the validation of ones premises. If one is
> dealing with people uneducated in these methods of evaluation then
> such asserations are useless.
It's easy to say that the context inside someone's head is wrong or
meaningless. That's dangerous and unsustainable, and probably morally
wrong by most systems of morality. And blinds you to the rich value of
human thought processes.
Everyone's mental context is limited. Within their heads, their
premises are fine. The trouble comes when they try to compare their
results to a different context. The results will probably disagree, and
this will usually reinforce inaccuracy. It's extremely hard for people
to change their minds in response to a conflict between what's in their
minds and what's outside their minds. They take the easiest path to
make the conflict go away, which frequently involves warping their
perceptions or rationalizing a reason to ignore the input.
An even bigger problem comes when the process of denying input leads to
xenophobia or neophobia. People may insist they're right to the point
of trying to coerce the whole world into agreement with what's in their
heads. Religious fanatics and scientists alike may go on crusades to
try to crush ideas they don't like.
> If I claim that gravity is a physical force that draws things
> towards greater masses I can drop a tennis ball and demonstrate
> it for anyone to see.
The idea that, because you can get effects you expect, everyone else
will see what you see and additionally be forced to believe your
explanation, is not consistent with human psychology.
Even scientists reject observations all the time. They read the data
differently. They assert that there must be errors in the method. They
attack the credentials of the observer. They change the subject. They
build strawman attacks, and frequently even appear to convince
themselves. They form cliques. They tell their students not to even
read the claims, and certainly not to investigate them.
> If I claim that Christ could manage to
> turn 5 loaves of bread into enough to feed 5000 people (John 6:1-15)
> without invoking nanotechnology I am on somewhat swampy ground.
Lots of people brought lunches; lots of people didn't. So you bring a
kid up onstage and get him to share his lunch. Everyone starts sharing,
and it turns out that a lot of people packed more food than they needed.
A neat example of leadership and community-building. The "that's
mystical" / "that's impossible" conflict can make it surprisingly hard
to find mundane and obvious explanations for things. This is an example
of premature rejection of data that causes discomfort.
> But most people are willing to accept the premises based on
> belief or faith rather than on evidence that the premises are
Most people's minds are so self-referential that they can manufacture
evidence for or against anything. Especially if someone is telling them
how to interpret it. It's a mechanism of human psychology: if you can
actually get someone to a profoundly confused state, and then you tell
them something that makes it all make sense, they'll cling to that
explanation like a life preserver.
For example, get someone to feel unhappy and guilty and confused about
their life. Then tell them, "Your unhappiness is caused by lack of
belief in God." This makes them feel less confused--and they feel
better--so it must be right!--so the rest of their confusion goes away.
And that's the evidence. They can feel the healing touch of God,
soothing all their worries. In their internal context, this is *real
evidence*. From what we know of psychology, we can see how the illusion
works. But we can't say they have no evidence--all we can say is that
they misinterpreted their perceptions.
For another example, show someone a counterintuitive scientific effect,
then give them the science theory behind it. They'll believe it.
Or do a magic trick, and give them any plausible-sounding explanation.
Note that until they try to apply or test what they're told, the last
two examples are functionally indistinguishable. So don't be so quick
to condemn people for lack of evidence. First, most people have real,
tangible evidence underlying their faith. Second, most scientific
explanations accepted by laymen are not based on evidence but on
interpretation--and not even their own interpretation, but the one they
were handed by the scientist.
> With regard to Paul's question. You have to view the fact that
> rational argument, behavior, etc. has a greater value than the
Which inverse? There are several kinds of non-rational and irrational
thought. Intuition; trust in assertions made by others; rationalized
primitive/emotional inclinations; and so on. Some of these, in some
contexts, are reasonable strategies. After all, what's the
highest-value thing to do when it's just been demonstrated that you're
in an unknown context and all your postulates are suspect? Is it to
grab the first postulate that comes along and seems to fit? No: as I
explained above, that leaves you wide open to religious conversion.
(Unfortunately, it's often hard for human brains to try out postulates
while retaining the ability to discard them. Once it's in, it redefines
self and non-self, and anything that threatens it is rejected.) It may
be better to fall back on non-rational thought until you've had a chance
to comprehend your new environment and learn postulates that lead to
Now I'm ready to talk about the "real world" and about science. It's
tempting to think that the world is a single context that everything can
be compared to. But this is equivalent to reductionism. There are lots
of things in the world that can be understood far more completely by
approximation than by first principles. For example, human psychology
has some really weird phenomena (phobias, optical illusions,
passive-aggressive behavior, etc) that a study of physics will not help
you understand. To a psychoanalyst or a politician, or even a medical
doctor, a study of shamanism will have more concrete utility than a
study of electromagnetism.
In fact, when dealing with people, not studying at all--not trying to
form postulates and practice formal thought, but just going on instinct,
intuition, and experience--may be more effective. This is because
people are incredibly complex, and we have a strong evolved non-rational
toolset to help us deal with them. In addition to people, things like
ecology may still be too complex for rational thought to improve on
accumulated heuristics, because we simply don't yet know the postulates
and methods. And then there are things like immunology and cosmology
where none of our tools really work yet, so the only way to approach
them is by study and rationality. Eventually, we can expect that study
and rationality will encompass psychology (including religion and
parapsychology) and ecology and everything else as well.
You mentioned the undesirability of chaos. The alternative to chaos is
the belief that a self-consistent real-world context exists. But even
though it exists, we can't access it directly. Science is motivated by
the desire to build conceptual contexts that map to the real-world one.
Its methods include cataloging (an underrated skill these days),
categorization, experiment, creativity, criticism, and more. In some
sub-contexts like electromagnetism, scientists have been very
successful; the mapping is very close. In protein folding, the end is
in sight. Pedagogy, psychology, and oncology are quagmires, though
oncology may be ready for a synthesis.
But back to the practice of science: the trouble is that scientists,
like everyone else, are prone to the illusion that their chosen context
extends everywhere. Let's be clear: I don't mean that scientists should
leave room for the paranormal or magical. They should not. I mean that
chemists should leave room for physics, and physicists should leave room
for psychology, and psychologists should leave room for chemistry.
Otherwise you get absurdities like chemists declaring that Drexler's
physics and mechanics work is worthless, when it's obvious they don't
even understand it.
One thing I never see addressed in discussions of rationality: How does
a rational thinker know when to keep their ears open and their mouth
shut? Obviously, the belief that a rational thinker will be an expert
in everything is irrational. But it's far too common. Scientists are
slowly learning enough to be rational in certain limited contexts. And
in a few glorious areas, those contexts have spread enough to merge.
But anyone who aspires to rationality should learn from the
overconfidence of scientists who, secure in their rationality, talk
nonsense outside their field. That's as big a mistake--I would argue
that it's the same mistake--as religious people talking nonsense while
feeling secure in their irrationality. The mistake is assuming that
their mental context extends farther than it actually does.
And scientists and rationalists have even less excuse than
irrationalists. If as great a scientist as Lord Kelvin could be wrong
about something as mundane and technical as heavier-than-air flight,
surely the rest of us should be extremely cautious when talking outside
our field of study--or even inside it, for many fields. But no, we keep
making the same mistake: our context defines our universe, and
everything we see must be made to conform. Appeals to rational thought,
in the end, are usually just another way to rationalize this process.
Chris Phoenix cphoenix at CRNano.org
Director of Research
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology http://CRNano.org
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