Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thinking About Thinking

Image source: Only Moments

Here are some random thoughts about the way we think, or perhaps the way we should think.

Almost everyone, almost always, has be wrong about almost everything. Think about religion. The world religion with most believers has about one-fifth of the world's population as followers. That means that at least four fifths of the world has erroneous religious beliefs. Moreover while religious belief seems to be universal, all of the world religions are relatively new in the terms of the species, Home sapiens. So the portion of the species with incorrect beliefs would be higher than four-fifths. Moreover, the world religions are divided into theological factions.

Think about scientific beliefs. Our best modern science, tentative as might be its conclusions, might be used as a benchmark for the accuracy of beliefs. How many people today understand quantum mechanics? It has been estimated that there are between 100 billion and 1000 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion to 1000 billion stars; who among us can really grasp such a reality? How many of us understand the working of the brain or of the genome? Or, going to the social sciences, how many of us understand the social and economic processes of globalization? The answer to each of these questions is "very few if any". So the huge majority of the human race is living with erroneous understanding of the physical and social world.

There is no mind body duality. We think with our brains and thought is colored by the chemistry of the brain and emotion. I am old enough to deal with frequent failures of memory, being unable to access a name or event which I know to be encoded in my mind only to be retrieved with the right internal or external cue. Our perception is distorted, our estimates of probability biased, our reason intermittent, with tendencies toward groupthink and snap judgement.

I find it truly amazing that such an instrument of thought should have been produced by evolution, yet there is increasing evidence that evolution has produced comparable intellectual capacities in other species. Play with a cat and learn how limited is human response time as compared to that which evolution has produced in the feline nervous system. Or compare human visual acuity with that of the eagle.

There is no certain knowledge. There are only degrees of credibility. One of the great contributions of modern science has been the epistemological premise that all conclusions are subject to revision with new observations or new theories. Even Newtonian physics which was so descriptive of observed reality for centuries yielded to Einstein's relativity theory and the observations which tested the differences in Newtonian and Einsteinian predictions. Even our direct observations can be erroneous due to glitches in our perceptual neurology; instrumental observations are unfortunately often erroneous due to glitches in the equipment or set up. Deductions are fallible when the deductive logic fails or the premises prove fallacious.

The distinction between determinism and free will is often unproductive. There are factors which influence behavior, and one can predict with high probability that a person with certain characteristics will behave in a certain way. However, those who don't act in the expected ways demonstrate that there is a possibility of acting contrary to the forces of circumstance.

I have been reading A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia by Thomas Keneally, the story of the first settlement by Europeans of Australia. The book describes the draconian punishments that were meted out by English authorities at the end of the 18th century, apparently in the belief that the criminals chose to commit their crimes. From our perspective it seems clear that the people were driven to crime by the circumstances of poverty they experienced in England, and that many of them became the pillars of Australian society when moved to another social environment. The death penalties imposed on people convicted (with only the slightest evidence) of minor crimes strikes us a cruel and unusual. The perception that draconian punishment would deter crime proved hugely fallacious.

If we assume that conditions affect the probability of a person committing a crime, then the "blame" for the crime must be shared between circumstances and criminal. If the circumstances are such that illegal behavior are almost inevitable, the blame attributed to the actor should be minimal.

I wonder whether it is the links between emotion and reason that have evolved in our brains, whether the social behavior that evolved in our nature do not make us unreasonable in the attribution of blame to persons who act in ways we define as criminal but which are highly probable from their circumstances.

Indeed, I wonder whether a probabilistic analysis might help our courts. Would it be possible to develop models to explain the probability that someone with a defendant's characteristics would "be driven to" commit a crime, and a model to predict the effect of alternative treatments if convicted in keeping the defendant from "being driven to" commit future crimes.

Probabilistic models rule deterministic approaches. Not only is the world best understood as probabilistic at the level of sub-atomic particles, there are a multitude of phenomenon that are better understood as probabilistic than as deterministic.

Quantum theory shows the photon as something that behaves as a wave and as a particle. It is the quantum of the electromagnetic field. Light may be refracted by a lens, best modeled by a wave metaphor, but the photon can be detected in ways best modeled by a particle. That duality, once understood provides a metaphor that may be useful in many circumstances.

Perhaps we may see an automobile accident as an event comparable to the detection of a photon as a particle. A moving vehicle is a locus of the probability of that accident. Traffic therefore serves as a probability "wave" of accidents, that can be refracted by changes in the properties of the road network.

In many other situations, we don't know enough to predict with a high degree of accuracy, but we still can make probabilistic predictions. Perhaps surprisingly, the theory of probability and statistics are relatively recent inventions.

The ability of people to bet rationally on horse races or games of chance shows that the species has the ability to think probabilistically, and psychologists have shown that training can help people make better bets, but there are well known biases in probability estimates. Thus it is important to complement probabilistic intuition with calculation based on observed data and theory.

This is too big a subject to come to simple conclusions on the basis of a short essay. But it behooves us to recognize our animal nature and the utility of the edifice of logic and mathematics to help rationalize thought over intuition. Indeed, we are now in a position to use information and communications technology to amplify our ability to think probabilistically.

1 comment:

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