This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.
This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?
Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.
When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.
Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.
We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.
The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.
*Who Was the Umbrella Man?
Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.
The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.
As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:
As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.
He argues that the Bushman might falsely conclude that the wires in the radio produce the voices by some unknown mechanism, because he has no knowledge of electromagnetic radiation and radio technology.
This point also came up several times in the 600+ comments following my post on the Afterlife Debate. Commenter Luoge, for example, wrote:
“But the brain-as-mediator model has bot yet been ruled out. We can tamper with a TV set and modify its behaviour just as a neurosurgeon can do with a brain. We can shut down some, or all, of its functioning, and we can stimulate to show specific responses. And yet no neurologist is known to have thought that the TV studio was inside the TV set.”
There are two reasons to reject the brain-as-mediator model – it does not explain the intimate relationship between brain and mind, and (even if it could) it is entirely unnecessary.
To deal with the latter point first, I have used the example of the light-fairy. When I flip the light switch on my wall, the materialist model holds that I am closing a circuit, allowing electricity to flow through the wires in my wall to a specific appliance (such as a light fixture). That light fixture contains a light bulb which adds resistance to the circuit and uses the electrical energy to heat an element in order to produce light and heat.
One might hypothesize, however, that an invisible light fairy lives in my wall. When I flip the switch the fairy flies to the fixture where it draws energy from the electrical wires, and then creates light and heat that it causes to radiate from the bulb. The light bulb is not producing the light and heat, it is just a conduit for the light fairy’s light and heat.
There is no way you can prove that my light fairy does not exist. It is simply entirely unnecessary, and adds nothing to our understanding of reality. The physics of electrical circuits do a fine job of accounting for the behavior of the light switch and the light. There is no need to invoke light bulb dualism.
The same is true of the brain and the mind, the only difference being that both are a lot more complex.
More importantly, however, we have enough information to rule out the brain-as-receiver model unequivocally.
The examples often given of the radio or TV analogy are very telling. They refer to altering the quality of the reception, the volume, even changing the channel. But those are only the crudest analogies to the relationship between brain and mind.
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?
Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.
Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.
I think most people can intuitively understand that funding on science, space, and technology is unlikely to have a meaningful causal connection to suicide by hanging, strangulation, or suffocation.
Yet – look at those curves. If a similar graph were shown with two variables that might be causally connected, that would seem very compelling.
There are a couple of points about this I want to explore a bit further. First is the important caveat that, while correlation is not necessarily causation, sometimes it is. Two variables that are causally related would correlate. I dislike the oversimplification that is sometimes presented: “correlation is not causation.” But it can be.
The second point is a statistical one. The important deeper lesson here is the power of data mining. Humans are great at sifting through lots of data and finding apparent patterns. In fact we have a huge bias toward false positives in this regard – we find patterns that are not really there but are just statistical flukes or complete illusions.
Correlations, however, seem compelling to us. If we dream about a friend we haven’t seen in 20 years then they call us the next day, that correlation seems uncanny, and we hunt for a cause. We aren’t even aware of the fact that . . .
In my last post, I wrote about how not having enough contextual data can outright boggle the mind. Today, we’re going to read about something else that similarly boggles the mind, albeit not really related to any linguistic phenomena. It’s an interesting little logical fallacy in the field of statistics known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc, or more commonly, ‘correlation does not prove causation’. Here, we define correlation as ‘when two things happen at the same time’, and causation as ‘when one thing causes the other’.
This logical fallacy is great at showing the glaring inaccuracies caused by lack of data on a specific subject, and how this lack can cause us to reach blindly for (often incorrect) conclusions in the proverbial fogginess of our mind. Additionally, the comedic factor here is amplified if you forego the law of parsimony (also known as Occam’s razor), which states that of all the possible solutions to a question or problem, the simplest one is most likely the truth.
Have you ever been in a recording booth or a really quiet place? If you’re in there for a long time your mind begins to create its own sounds. Essentially, you begin to hallucinate due to a lack of external stimuli. This is basically what goes on in the aforementioned logical fallacy: you end up compensating for a lack of data by drawing a perceived (and often inaccurate) connection between the sole items of data you have.
What does this have to do with a language blog? Essentially, it’s a great way of showing how a lack of the background information required for comprehension can yield wildly inaccurate knowledge. Dig this:
Did you know that children with bigger feet are statistically better at spelling? This is statistically true. Without additional contextual information, I could hypothesize that having larger foot-size means the children would perform better at sports and have better balance while carrying large and cumbersome schoolbags, making them less prone to falling over in bustling school hallways, making them less likely targets for bullies, leading to an inevitable increase in confidence, leading to better scholastic performance, and thereby, better spelling skills!
The truth is, it’s actually because children with larger feet are probably a lot older than children with smaller feet. Duh.
Did you know that you are more likely to get cancer if you always wear a seat-belt?
- The Curious Case of Correlation ≠ Causation (sensitivecontext.com)
- How to tell a Conspiracy Theorist from a Conspiracy Believer (illuminutti.com)
- The Logical Fallacies (thecontemplationhypothezation.wordpress.com)
- Logical Fallacies (gpissues.wordpress.com)
- Tools for argumentation: Hierarchies of argumentation; Logical Fallacies (lizditz.typepad.com)
Science is great, one of the best processes humans have come up with. It has everything to do with how we live long, productive, healthy lives. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all method of how to solve every problem.
I am unabashedly a fan of science. I wholeheartedly recommend it. But lately I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy when science cheerleaders pronounce, “Science will solve everything!,” i.e., just apply science and all will be fixed. Because, SCIENCE! YAAAAYY.
I may get myself into trouble with this post, but as an advocate of science, I still say there is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method. People who advocate fanatical reliance on science—where all competing methods of gaining knowledge are illegitimate—are practicing scientism.
Just Throw Science At It
The “just apply science” plan is an overly simplistic solution that not everyone will automatically buy into. There are other, also valid ways of evaluating problems. All the world’s problems cannot be solved by throwing science at it. At least not now (probably never).
Lately, this position has been disputed. There is an ongoing debate in the science/skeptical community regarding philosophy. Is it dead? Does science need it? How does it inform us (if at all)? Can we discuss morals via a scientific basis? You will see heated exchanges about these questions crop up in publications, blogs and in conference discussions. You will also see science placed above the fields of the humanities. Should it be? It’s worth thinking about. So I have been. I assume I’ll be thinking it through for a while because it’s weighty stuff. But, at some point, you have to stop collecting data and taking notes and finally write things down.
For a start, scientism has utility problems. If we need to justify everything with empirical evidence, and then justify that evidence with evidence, and so on, not only do we get bogged down in minutiae, we end up in a scientistic loop which we can’t resolve. There must be a point where we accept a premise as a given – that reality is real, that we aren’t being fooled by a devious creator. See this Peter S. Williams video.
“…it is tempting to infer that all phenomena―including human actions and interaction―can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.”
- There is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method (venitism.blogspot.com)
About two years ago during a conversation, a friend of mine mentioned a movie she thought I’d really like. In fact it was a documentary, and as a fan of docs, I was eager to hear more about it. “You’d find it interesting,” she said. “It’s kind of about stuff you investigate. It’s called What the Bleep Do We Know!? Have you heard of it?”
I had indeed heard of the film, a New Agey jumble of pseudoscience and mysticism about supposed links between consciousness and quantum physics, produced by followers of J.Z. Knight, a woman who claims to dispense information from a 35,000-year-old ghost. In fact, I had done my best to keep it from misinforming the public when it was first released, writing a few short skeptical pieces about it.
Not wanting to get into an argument with my friend, I just let the conversation trail off. But before I did, she made an interesting comment: “To be honest I didn’t really understand a lot of it. . . . But you’re really smart—you would get it.”
She assumed that the reason she didn’t understand the film’s information was because she had no background in science. I, on the other hand, did not understand the film precisely because I do have a strong background in science. When people don’t understand something they are told, there are three possibilities or root causes.
Most commonly, the person assumes, as my friend did, that the problem lies with the listener. Her (quite reasonable) assumption was that the film was comprehensible and that if she didn’t understand it, it was due to her limitations or lack of knowledge. This was a mainstream, feature-length documentary film with some famous people in it—including physicists. Surely these people would not appear on camera discussing self-evidently nonsensical ideas such as that thoughts can control reality.
Less often, the problem lies with the speaker’s inability to effectively communicate—perhaps he or she does not share the same native language as the listener, is disorganized, or has a speech impediment for example. In this case the information and message may be correct and clear, but communication does not occur because of a problem with the source.
Sometimes the problem lies neither with the listener nor with the speaker, but instead in the content. In this case, the reason that the listener doesn’t understand what is being said is that what is being said makes little or no sense by any objective measure. This is insidious and difficult to detect because people do not like to challenge authority on a topic they are presumably trying to become educated about—especially in public. The speaker is not talking gibberish; quite the opposite: he or she may be very eloquent. Furthermore, identifying nonsense often requires some basic understanding of the subject.
MORE . . .
Humans have debated the issue of free will for millennia. But over the past several years, while the philosophers continue to argue about the metaphysical underpinnings of human choice, an increasing number of neuroscientists have started to tackle the issue head on — quite literally. And some of them believe that their experiments reveal that our subjective experience of freedom may be nothing more than an illusion. Here’s why you probably don’t have free will.
Indeed, historically speaking, philosophers have had plenty to say on the matter. Their ruminations have given rise to such considerations as cosmological determinism (the notion that everything proceeds over the course of time in a predictable way, making free will impossible), indeterminism (the idea that the universe and our actions within it are random, also making free will impossible), and cosmological libertarianism/compatibilism (the suggestion that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe).
Now, while these lines of inquiry are clearly important, one cannot help but feel that they’re also terribly unhelpful and inadequate. What the debate needs is some actual science — something a bit more…testable.
And indeed, this is starting to happen. As the early results of scientific brain experiments are showing, our minds appear to be making decisions before we’re actually aware of them — and at times by a significant degree. It’s a disturbing observation that has led some neuroscientists to conclude that we’re less in control of our choices than we think — at least as far as some basic movements and tasks are concerned.
At the same time, however, not everyone is convinced. It may be a while before we can truly prove that free will is an illusion.
MORE . . .
- Science & Technology – Re: The Grand Illusion of Free Will. Your Brain is Lying to (disclose.tv)
- Scientific evidence that you probably don’t have free will (io9.com)
- The problem of Free Will – Compatibilism versus Determinism (broganocallaghan.wordpress.com)
- Security as an Illusion? (thetawny.wordpress.com)
- Can Philosophy of Mind Provide Reasons for Believing in God? (qdvf.wordpress.com)
- A view on the will of an agent. (dominicsmithies.wordpress.com)
via NeuroLogica Blog
Skeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.
Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.
Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.
Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.
Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.
It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact.
MORE . . .
I have a theory: There’s something inherent in human nature that makes people need religion. Some kind of religion. Any kind of religion. Even the most atheist people in the world still can’t fight this urge to have some kind of religious conviction.
With this I don’t mean that every single individual person in existence has religious convictions. Of course there are exceptions, ie. people who truly are neutral and skeptic in the proper sense of the word, who do not obsess about some conviction. However, these seem to be more the exception than the rule. What I mean is that no matter what group of people we are talking about, there will always be some fanatic individuals which obsess about something with religious conviction.
Even people with an atheist world view can still have hard time resisting this urge, and thus they will find some substitute.
One such substitute in the modern world are conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theory fanatics present all the symptoms of religious fanatics. Here are some of them:
- A conspiracy theorist has “seen the light”, so to speak. That is, he has seen the Truth, which the majority of other people haven’t.
- A conspiracy theorist has the absolute, irrefutable, unshakable CONVICTION that he knows the Truth, only the Truth, and nothing but the Truth. There’s absolutely no doubt in his mind that what he believes is the Truth.The conspiracy theorist will say things like “there’s NO WAY these photos are not faked” and “there’s NO WAY this is something else than controlled demolition”, etc. He is absolutely sure and certain at all possible levels that he knows the truth.
- There’s absolutely nothing you can say that will convince the conspiracy theorist otherwise. You can refute every single claim he makes to absolute smithereens with hard scientific easy-to-understand facts, and that will not move his conviction even a fraction of an inch. Not even a shadow of a doubt will cross his mind at any point.
- The doctrine which the conspiracy theorist believes is based on a series of books, web pages and “documentaries” made by some other conspiracy theorists (which are completely akin to prophets), and every single word in these works is considered the absolute Truth by the conspiracy theorist. Every single claim, no matter how small or how ridiculous, is the absolute Truth. Not a single claim is considered dubious or unimportant.
- The conspiracy theorist has the irresistible urge to spread the Truth to others, the lost lambs who wander in darkness and still don’t know the Truth, who haven’t seen the light, and who must be converted.Spreading the Truth is in no way limited to the Internet. Like the most vocal religious movements, also conspiracy theorists will organize protest marches and parades, where they will disturb the peace of completely unrelated events, they will get into TV shows to spread their convictions, they will preach to individuals at their workplaces and other places, etc, etc.