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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Pop Psychology At Harvard

Kobayashi Maru posted about a psychology article he found very interesting. The article is The Vagaries Of Religious Experience by Daniel Gilbert. I thought Kobayshi Maru's post was also very interesting, if at times a little too mystical for my brain-damaged mentality:
Outside of time, what appears to us as happy coincidence from the perspective of a locked and linear flow of time may be simply the brushstroke of the master painter who simply... is.

Outside of time, scientific rules for the behavior of the universe may simply be the rules by which God chooses to use color and line and shading.

Inside time - inside our three dimensional box, flowing through a multi-dimensional universe, our explanations (scientific or otherwise) will always be found wanting. There will be miracles and there will be science. I see room for both - so long as we recognize our limitations and the resulting limits on what we can definitively conclude.
I did read Gilbert's article, and I too found it interesting. However the conclusion offered is a gross violation of scientific principles, which is why I am calling this pop psychology. The basic experiments are fascinating (although one of them is interestingly stacked), but the conclusion can't be scientifically derived from the evidence. Kobayashi Maru's answer, although not fully explicated as he noted, adheres far more faithfully (the pun is totally intended, give me some credit here) to scientific method than the original article.

First, let me direct you to an excellent introduction to scientific method. A couple of quotes:
The scientific method is the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.

Recognizing that personal and cultural beliefs influence both our perceptions and our interpretations of natural phenomena, we aim through the use of standard procedures and criteria to minimize those influences when developing a theory.
The scientific method requires that an hypothesis be ruled out or modified if its predictions are clearly and repeatedly incompatible with experimental tests. Further, no matter how elegant a theory is, its predictions must agree with experimental results if we are to believe that it is a valid description of nature.... Note that the necessity of experiment also implies that a theory must be testable. Theories which cannot be tested, because, for instance, they have no observable ramifications (such as, a particle whose characteristics make it unobservable), do not qualify as scientific theories.
Like any good scientist, you may question the range of situations (outside of science) in which the scientific method may be applied. From what has been stated above, we determine that the scientific method works best in situations where one can isolate the phenomenon of interest, by eliminating or accounting for extraneous factors, and where one can repeatedly test the system under study after making limited, controlled changes in it.
A good way to summarize science is that it imposes strict limitations upon what we can assume about observable and testable phenomena. By consciously limiting ourselves to what we can assume about circumstances or observations that we can reproduce, we strengthen our ability to derive conclusions about the observable and testable aspects of our cosmos.

Thus, my strongly held belief has no validity scientifically. Nor does anyone else's - and to accept any scientific assertion without strictly examing the evidence and attempting to verify it is a direct contradiction of the fundamental principle of scientific method.

Now on to Gilbert's article, which is an interesting example of basic science misused to misrepresent science in violation of the scientific method. One suspects that this occurred as a result of "personal and cultural beliefs", because the reasoning is muddy, definitions are lacking and the conclusions are not founded on the evidence offered. This is the fourth sentence:
The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence — things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure — and in more than two thousand years of recorded history, no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God.
Here is the problem in a nutshell. First, "beliefs" are not the same as scientific theories or hypotheses. Second, empirical evidence acceptable to science may not be "things that everyone can see, touch, taste and measure". Most of modern theoretical physics falls quite outside this limitation. ** See below in the comments. Gilbert is attempting to imply that the only evidence acceptable is that which is directly available to everyone. ** Third, announcing that no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God is quite a stretch. What Gilbert should have written is that no one has produced a shred of empirical evidence which can be replicated and observed under scientific conditions. Indeed, he must be aware of this elision, because what follows is an argument that the direct experience of God or the Divine in the minds, hearts and lives of believers is empirically flawed evidence.

Lastly, and most significantly, Gilbert is ignoring one basic aspect of many of the world's great religions, which teach that the Divine is not confined within our world, but has a totally separate existence. Most teach that the Almighty created our universe. You cannot logically expect to determine the absolute existence of a thing by examining a system in which it does not exist. However, most of these religions do teach that God may intervene in our world. Gilbert is trying to provide another explanation for this human experience.

To make his argument Gilbert sets up some rather remarkable conditions and definitions:
God's job is to provide an explanation for experiences that are otherwise baffling and inexplicable. These curious experiences need not involve seeing angels or speaking in tongues, but may instead be of the garden variety.
This may make sense to Gilbert, but it is laughable to most philosophers and theologians. God does not have a "job" bounded by man's needs in religious cosomologies. I think Gilbert should have written that the reason our minds came up with the idea of God was to explain certain experiences. Note also that Gilbert flings a large chunk of religious experience out the door by confining himself to the "garden variety". He goes on to list characteristics of the human mind which would explain this type of religious experience (things working out better than one would expect):
Our tendency to underestimate the power of random processes to create order leads us to seek explanations where none are needed. Our tendency to be satisfied by well-formed utterances that are devoid of content compels us to accept explanations when none are provided.
Luckily for us, the human brain tends to search for and hold onto the most rewarding view of events, much as it does of objects.

Our ability to find and embrace the most rewarding view of the circumstances that befall us is nothing short of remarkable, which is why people adapt so quickly and so well to almost every form of tragedy and trauma.
In other words, people believe in God or the Divine because it makes them feel good. This, of course, is not true. As those who are religious can testify, all too often the experience one has in prayer or while listening to religious teaching is the awful confrontation with one's own misbehavior. You have lied, acted uncharitably, unkindly, abused other people.... Etc, etc, etc. It's a very unpleasant and uncomfortable experience which forces you to abandon rationalizations and the demands of your own ego. Granted, if one throws out the commandments of religion and adopts the progressive type of "I'm okay, you're okay, God is all love and tolerance" religion, Gilbert's assertion would be true. However, this is a rather small subsegment of religious thought even in the United States and those congregations which have adopted this type of theology are collapsing in upon themselves.

But back to Gilbert:
...we are surprised when experiences we once feared and avoided turn out to be much less awful than we had anticipated, and we are deeply surprised when they turn out to be blessings in disguise.
Surprises such as these are curious events, and curious events beg for explanation. The proper explanation is that we have brains that avidly pursue the most rewarding view of things. The other explanation is providence. If there is a God who watches over us, who guides our hand when we are uncertain, who leads us to places we might not otherwise go, then unanticipated good fortune makes perfect sense.
Gilbert then cites an experiment showing that people do tend to attribute apparent good fortune to outward circumstances rather than their own mental perception of those circumstances. To me this particular experiment rather tends to prove that people will accept a logical, seemingly valid assertion even when it is not true. If this is an allegory, it is more an allegory relating to Gilbert's attempted argument. Gilbert's conclusion:
Science rules out the most cartoonish versions of God by debunking specific claims about ancient civilizations in North America or the creatio ex nihilo of human life. But it cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins.
Ah. What seems to be reasonable - that science cannot tell us whether there is a "force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God" is not. First, Gilbert has elided and artificially constricted the argument by limiting the scope of human religious experience. Second, he assumes the conclusion in writing "beyond our ken". Third, he assumes the conclusion again in writing "What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins."

His conclusion would be true if all human religious experience were limited to sorting events in order to be comfortable or satisfied with them, but it is not. As most believers can testify, religious experience is often better described as a rather forcible kick in the conscience-butt. Here in the Bible Belt this is often described as being "convicted", and indeed that is about what it feels like. You stand convicted of your misdeeds before the court of the Almighty. Gilbert has failed to examine the type of religious experience on which most people base their faith, so he cannot scientifically derive his conclusion "neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins". Artificially limiting your evidence is a fundamental scientific error.

Gilbert does not hide the fact that he seeks to convince:
Scientists understand all this piety and faith by assuming that belief in God is one of the many primitive superstitions that human beings are in the process of shedding. God is a myth that has been handed down from one generation of innocents to the next, and science is slowly teaching them to cultivate their skepticism and shed their credulity.
If Gilbert wishes to dethrone God and enthrone science, surely he should do so in a scientifically valid way! Polemics are not convincing and are not scientific. The scientific method is valid, provided one recognizes its inherent constraints. I believe that it is an important epistemological element of our culture, and I hate to see it debased this way. It's a sad irony that I find this article deficient not in faith but in application of the scientific method.

Believers do test their faith, and their faith is tested. I would invite all those who believe to put their faith to a scientific and logical test using genuine scientific method. That Which Is acts in this world largely through our interaction with That Which Is. In my next post I'm going to write about a truly remarkable religious experience which I had less than two years ago.

The MaryHunter has a roundup of TMH's Bacon Bits - The best 2005 posts, and Bad Science, Worse Journalism is particularly relevant:
The arrogance and hubris that can breed bad science maps perfectly onto the MSM. After all, not unlike scientists, journalists are an elite corps, chosen from on high and trained to distribute knowledge and information to the lowly masses. In the case of science, the lowly masses largely don't understand it, and certainly don't have the resources to do research. So the scientists do all the work and we trust and believe them. This trust fills the scientists with a unique power, and sometimes, power corrupts.

As for journalists, the lowly masses trust and believe them because they don't have the time or resources to go get the news facts themselves. Therein lies the temptation and ultimate progression: trust, power, corruption.


You remarked early in your fascinating post that: "Second, empirical evidence acceptable to science may not be "things that everyone can see, touch, taste and measure". Most of modern theoretical physics falls quite outside this limitation."

I don't understand your comment in the second sentence of this quote. Modern theoretical physics CAN make measurements - perhaps not a direct measurement - on things that are unobservable and can never be observed in the ordinary sense.

Your statment is basically unclear. If you posit that modern physicsal concepts call for the existence of things that have only a Platonic existence, you have made an error. even if things cannot be observed by senses, they can still have some sort of signature that betrays their real existence. We can see their effects in the real observable world and measure some properties indirectly: properties that have no direct physical analogy.

Well this is getting too deep for a cold evening and correcting papers calls.

IF I misunderstand you, my apologies. If you can't understand me...well, many of my students would agree, especially when I discuss physics with them.

Best Regards...and I look forward to reading this essay claoser, along with your subsequent commentary.
Charlie - Thanks for mentioning it. Maybe I'll add a footnote to the post.

"Everyone" can't measure particles in a linear accelerator. I agree that modern physics is firmly rooted in scientific method and in evidence, but it is most certainly not evidence that everyone can experience directly. **see below**

In order to succeed in his argument Gilbert appears to be trying to exclude significant aspects of human religious experience as acceptable evidence. Read in context with the rest of the article, the "everyone" is a significant and necessary ingredient of his argument. Scientific data must be independently reproducible, but scientific method doesn't demand that it fall into your lap while you are walking down the street. You do have to be willing to actually do the experiment.

It really is a very interesting article.

**This point was driven home to me quite recently. I was reading some sort of leftish political forum and someone wrote about a cabal. Basically this person thought particle physicists were scamming the public; there was also more than a hint that it was a vast Chimpyish conspiracy to blow up the world with their nefarious (yet faked) experiments.) It's the sort of thing that sticks in your mind.
Ah physicists...I prefer to take them at their word And he's a nobel laureate as well.
Nice post! You took this topic much further (and with far more force and clarity) than I had the patience or background for. I particularly liked: "the Divine is not confined within our world... You cannot logically expect to determine the absolute existence of a thing by examining a system in which it does not exist." Brava! That's what I was trying to say. Just as ants in a terrarium, we are ill equipped to measure what is outside the glass walls of our universe.

As for particle physics (and string theory especially), the most succinct thing to say is that it keeps coming back to the notion matter (and thus energy) are simply pure thought - probability stacked on probability. Or to borrow a punchline from a Hindu joke: it's turtles all the way down.
Quite a post, MOM! As far as your response to good ole charlie, I (a card-carrying scientist) would go so far as to argue that the Scientific Method itself is predicated on a good bit of faith -- faith that the universe obeys logical, testable laws. Puts the shoe on the other foot for a change. I wrote about this awhile back in relation to the Evolution vs. ID debate.

Good point, Kobiashi. If ever there was a mathematical construct bucking for the "Belief-as-Pseudodcience" award, it would be that surrounding string theory and M space.

MOM, I'd be honoredif you'd link this post up to my Best of 2005 Open Trackback Post from yesterday. I'll hard-link it later on.
Will do, MaryHunter.
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