Saturday, October 18, 2008

Intuition and scientific thought

[Inspired by the comments from Thoughts from a Sandwich.]

There's no question that the universe is "organized" in the sense that it's very highly likely (although not certain) that the universe is not just a collection of unconnected, random events. Nobody (besides a few radically skeptical philosophers) disputes this conclusion.

The real question is: what is the best explanation for this organization? Intuition is fine in its place, but coming up with the best explanation requires more, much more, than just intuition.

Our intuition is part of our natural cognitive apparatus, our brains viewed at an abstract level as our minds. It is the result of our past, biologically and socially evolved ways of thinking about the world, which worked under the circumstances our ancestors lived in to solve the problems that affected their survival and reproduction.

We can have some confidence in the reliability of an intuition, but only under the circumstances under which the intuition evolved and for which the intuition was subjected to selected pressure. Whenever we extend our intuition past those circumstances, we can have no confidence whatsoever that our intuition actually applies reliably to the expanded, non-historical circumstances.

We appear to have obtained the ability to consciously think scientifically by accident. Indeed the ability to consciously think at arbitrarily high levels of abstraction appears to be accidental. Conscious scientific thought is a mere five hundred years old, far too little time for biological selection pressures to have made any impact on our physical brains and time for social selection to have made only very little impact on our traditional, learned ideas.

We find something very interesting when we double-check our intuition using scientific thought: Under those circumstances where we see very strong selection pressure for accurate intuitions, the result of our intuition matches the result of scientific inquiry. For example, our intuitions about the macroscopic properties of ordinary objects (mass and size; rocks and trees) matches very closely our scientific understanding of those properties. There is no metaphysical a priori reason for this correspondence; there's nothing in the definition of scientific thought that logically entails it must match any particular intuition. The correspondence is a posteriori, "after the fact". The a posteriori correspondence goes both ways; science specifically gains credibility precisely because it does match our reliably predictive day-to-day intuitions about macroscopic things.

When science fails to correspond to our intuitions, it is always the case that our intuitive predictions of what we should see fails to match what we actually do see. This "failure mode" is a priori: it follows from the definition of science, which takes what we do in fact see as an authoritative epistemic foundation.

When taken out of their original context, our intuition becomes radically unreliable. We don't need to compare our intuition against scientific thought; we need only observe: our intuition leads us to expect to see one thing, and we in fact see something radically different. Counter-intuitive findings of science are all over the place; Lewis Wolpert has written a whole book on such examples, The Unnatural Nature of Science. (Wolpert uses "unnatural" in the sense of "counter-intuitive", not "supernatural".)

And this is what I think Sagan means when he says, "But I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble." [thanks, Dagood] When taken out of its original context, it is misleading to rely solely on an intuition; we must employ the more rigorous methods of conscious science. We can employ our intuition for conjectures, but we cannot rely on our intuition to just hand us the whole truth, or even in many cases anything close to the truth.

15 comments:

  1. Wow! A big hunka thought to chew on! I agree the universe is not just a collection of unconnected, random events. In the early days of radio, radio hams started realizing that the laws of physics describing radio were mathematically similar to the laws of physics about everything else. Then came along a Nobel Prize winning physics professor, Richard Feynman, who published a set of physics lectures based on the very concept that all physical laws, in all topics in physics, are instantiations of a few ablsolute truths united by a dimensionality of some sort. What if there are other universes? Perhaps based on the same absolute truths viewed through other dimensionalities?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I disagree, in that I think intuition should be more widely defined. Much of intuition is learned. For example, the intuition that mathematicians use to make conjectures is certainly not the direct product of evolution. It is a product of internalizing their previous experience in mathematics.

    This is arguably an entirely different sort of intuition, but it's important to note the distinction because they go under the same name.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Miller: Indeed. The defining characteristic of even learned intuition, though, is that the process occurs subconsciously; the intuitive answer appears "all at once", as it were, without consciousness of the steps.

    It's not being able to see the steps that renders intuitions unreliable when we step out of their original domain, and why we must validate even the most reliable intuition with conscious, scientific thought.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There is laws of the universe, but only up to a point and those laws don't always have orderliness outcomes, no way.
    Number 1 law- of course, everyone knows who is education and stuff- Gravity, it's the underlying law.
    Is there another, maybe light speed is top speed. Another, life needs water i think, role of dark matter, rate of universal expansion, bearing in mind also that even the universe may expand and therefore exist-unevenly, decay rates of isotopes also is predictable u can say, but remember, please try to understand when u think about design- that universe was formed after the big bang like lumpy way, like rice maybe, some of it lumps up, this lumps coagulation- and what comes out of that pattern of undesgined irregularity- this is stellar star nurseries (baby factory of stars). All has no design in essence- remember the lumpy rice detectable from background radioation shifts?
    Basic universal pattern therefore isn't design, like if i throw a hundred smarties into the air, they will fall in a spray according to a law (gravity), but it's not a design. This is why crop circles can not be genuine as natural phenomena.
    Order in the universe is gravity which frames chaos. I don't know if it's clear as such what i am telling, so sorry, cos i am tired and don't have time to use whitesmoke also.
    bye bye everyone, Jasmine

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ok, last and final, in Medina th second i became a non believer I experienced the universe on a deeply intuitive level.
    And i am still struggling to work it's meaning out u can say.
    What can i tell u then about that, without rambling and disjointed stuff?
    Ok, it's benevolent, u got to know that. Second, the most rare and valuable item is intelligence.
    Life is normal enough in the universe, intelligence huh, no- it's another. There is only 7.
    Last, intelligence seems to merge with the universe as it grows up over like millions of years- and all this is connected like the internet u can say on a quantum level - on a mystical level, but this is out it is.
    Am i wrong and mental and stuff?
    Prove it.
    And thusly we see how new heresies get born.
    Ok, i am off for me afternoon sleep cos i had just a LOUSY day overall also.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Is this like William Lane Craigs 'metaphysical intuition' that every thing that begins to exist has a cause. Even though this is not the case?

    Personally I think logic, and not just intuition is suspect when taken outside of original evolutionary environments. We just can't step outside the universe to observe if our intuition, logic (i.e. everything either exists or doesn't exist) and scientific discoveries really do describe reality. Scientists wouldn't claim that science does, only that it approximates reality. This presents no problems for us who never have to live in a black hole or experience the rapid expansion after the plank time of course, logic, and intuition work just fine in most cases.....even if we can't say that they describe reality.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Brian: Is this like William Lane Craigs 'metaphysical intuition' that every thing that begins to exist has a cause. Even though this is not the case?

    We definitely have intuitive notions of causality; I wouldn't say, however, that these intuitions are specifically metaphysical, in the sense I usually use the term "metaphysical".

    Personally I think logic, and not just intuition is suspect when taken outside of original evolutionary environments.

    You seem to be veering close to metaphysical realism. To suspect something is to talk about a method of resolving that suspicion, otherwise suspicion is indistinguishable from credulous belief.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Long post alert!


    You seem to be veering close to metaphysical realism. To suspect something is to talk about a method of resolving that suspicion, otherwise suspicion is indistinguishable from credulous belief.


    I think we are on a different page. I would have thought that saying logic might just be how we view the universe and not how the universe is to be the opposite of realism. More an idealism of some sort. But personally I think of myself as a empirical type. I don't care if it doesn't seem logical or intuitive, if the evidence backs the explanation, then that explanation will do till a better one comes along.

    To suspect something means to hold it in some doubt. I don't mean to hold it as correct and real or open to resolution which you seemed to imply.

    If a man tells me that he knows that there are 1000 billion stars in the universe then I can hold that statement to be suspect. How would he know such a thing? Where's his evidence to confirm that that figure is good, and not just something he pulled out of the ether? Do I have to propose a way to resolve my reasonable skepticism in his pronouncement? Seems like he have the burden of proof not I. If he's a noted astrophysicist I'd give him the benefit of doubt as he probably does have a good idea, but if he claimed that was the exact number I wouldn't believe him unless he counted or knew of an exact count.

    I'm only stating that just because humans can't grasp concepts that might be illogical to our thinking it doesn't follow that the universe is logical or bound to human pronouncements about cause and effect or another intuition. The universe may be logical and intuition may be spot one (though in causation it's wrong at the quantum level I believe) but then again logic and intuition may be the form (think something like Kantian idealism which I dislike, but anyway) of how we grasp the universe. There may be many more ways that logic and the universe relate, I don't know. With science we can say we're getting closer to some grasp of reality, but can't say we've got reality. I guess I wouldn't argue from incredulity or ignorance, as Lane Craig seems to, and state that as a positive assertion. Just because he can't grasp something non-caused or anybody else for that matter, doesn't mean the universe has to obey and have no non-caused events. Maybe our evolved brains aren't up to the challenge of understanding certain parts or processes in the universe as they are really. It's up to the person proposing that an intuition or logic binds the universe to prove the statement reasonable in all cases and not just in everyday cases otherwise we are right to doubt that his universal statement isn't universal.

    ReplyDelete
  9. well i watch stuff on comsology all the time and they are quoting huge differences in figures on the number of stars in the milky way- from 100 bn- to 50 bn, which to me own mind is statistically as bad as saying maybe there is 0 or maybe there is 50bn, i mean, the differentiation is identical.
    This is not acceptable to me actually and i want better than this from astropyhsicists.
    Jaz

    ReplyDelete
  10. Brian: If a man tells me that he knows that there are 1000 billion stars in the universe then I can hold that statement to be suspect. ... Do I have to propose a way to resolve my reasonable skepticism in his pronouncement?

    You don't have to. If you don't care how many stars there are in the universe, then you just shrug it off. You're not "skeptical" so much as apathetic.

    If, however, you actually want to know how many stars there are in the universe, then yes, you need to figure out how to resolve your skepticism. It's not enough to just be undecided; you want to find a way to make a decision.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jaz: The difference between 50 bn - 100 bn is very different from 0 - 50 bn, mathematically and statistically speaking.

    There are a lot of ways of talking rigorously about the difference; the simplest is to note that the 100 bn differs from 50 bn by one order of magnitude (2 x 10^1), whereas 50 bn differs from 0 by nine orders of magnitude (1 x 10^9).

    ReplyDelete
  12. You don't have to. If you don't care how many stars there are in the universe, then you just shrug it off. You're not "skeptical" so much as apathetic.
    Fair point. I'll remain agnostic. I don't really care, but I also don't like stating something extraordinary as a fact, or well supported hypothesis when that's not the case.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I know a way to resolve the skepticism, become extra universal, perhaps god-like and verify that each logical statement maps perfectly onto physical reality! Now, where's my deity-in-a-box machine?

    Here's my favorite bit of cut-n-paste for the week from Bertrand Russell:
    According to this view we could only say things about the world as a whole if we could get outside the world, if, that is to say, it ceased to be for us the whole world. Our world may be bounded for some superior being who can survey it from above, but for us, however finite it may be, it cannot have a boundary, since it has nothing outside it. Wittgenstein uses, as an analogy, the field of vision. Our field of vision does not, for us, have a visual boundary, just because there is nothing outside it, and in like manner our logic world has no logical boundary because our logic knows nothing outside it...Logic, he says, fills the world. The boundaries of the world are also its boundaries. In logic therefore we cannot say there is this and this in the world, but not that, for to say so would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic go beyond the boundaries of the world as if it could contemplate these boundaries from the other side also. What we cannot think we cannot think, therefore we also cannot say what we cannot think.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't know, Brian, that Russell is correct in this case. We can definitely discuss counterfactuals and subjunctives using not only logic but also ordinary scientific reasoning. We can talk about what would have happened if only, what might have happened but for. We can talk logically about unicorns and Middle Earth. So logic seems in some sense to go beyond this world.

    ReplyDelete
  15. We can talk about what would have happened if only, what might have happened but for. We can talk logically about unicorns and Middle Earth. So logic seems in some sense to go beyond this world. All true, but the point is, we can't talk about what we can't conceive. We may view the world on one level, the level of an evolved primate, but there may be other levels. Anyway, I don't have a choice but to conceive the world as an evolved primate and to use primate logic. It probably doesn't matter if the world is real, the logic is real or neither in the end. Even the most skeptical person uses the stairs or lift to get down from the top floor as Hume might have said.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.