Tuesday, 4 August 2015

ANT1 - House of probability: a puzzle

First some context:

A Naive Thinker (his own self-deprecation, not any deprecation forced on him by me) has a “puzzle” on his blog in which there are five rooms, but only four that really matter.  In the first, there is a black bag with a known number and distribution of coloured balls and you are asked to say which colours are the most and the least likely to be selected at random from the bag.  In the second, you are asked to select a ball at random from a similar black bag and encouraged to assess the likelihood the colour you picked is the most or the least common.  In the third, you are asked to assess the likelihood that the most or the least common colour in a black bag (that this time you get to rifle through) happens to be your favourite colour.  In the fourth, there is yet another similar black bag, this time with a golden ball removed from it, on display, and you are asked to assess whether the golden ball – which you are told “came from inside the bag” – is among the most or the least common within the bag.

The conclusion reached by A Naive Thinker is that we don’t know, because we are specifically not told what is in the bag, nor are we told how the ball was selected from the bag (for example, it could have been selected at random, or it could have been removed precisely because it is considered special in some way, favoured).

A Naive Thinker then uses this lack of clarity to argue against the Principle of Mediocrity, which he characterises thus: “(t)he (Principle of Mediocrity) states that humans represent a random sample, therefore are likely to be common”.  Note that Wikipedia expresses it slightly differently (grammar polished): “if an item has been drawn at random from one of several sets or categories, then it is more likely to have come from the most numerous category than from any one of the less numerous categories” but it does go on to say that “(t)he principle has been taken to suggest that there is nothing very unusual about the evolution of the Solar System, the Earth, humans, or any one nation.”

Then the preceding correspondence:

neopolitan | February 15, 2015 at 4:16 am

This is quite an interesting argument, but … I think that you have problems when trying to apply it to the Earth. The major problem you have could be highlighted by considering the two selection scenarios – random and favoured. You are suggesting that there is no indication whatsoever as to what sort of selection was made, but if we were to compare that to the question of whether the Earth is random or favoured, then your scenario should include a wealth of hints as to the method of selection – just as there are hints on this planet that indicate that we are either here as part of a natural (undirected) process or as part of a divine plan. We just need to think very carefully about the hints to see if there is something conclusive one way or the other.

We should also be looking at those hints before trying to assess the likelihood of our existence. I note that we could make predictions based on the divine plan theory, but I suspect that these predictions would often fail and this won’t upset the predictor since he or she will simply put that down to not really knowing the divine plan.

And that, I suppose, is another problem. The divine plan, if there is one, is so sprawling and unpredictable as to be indistinguishable from undirected developments. Perhaps there is actually some cosmically obscure divine plan, but we will never know it in this lifetime, and the existence of such a divine plan is totally useless for the purpose for which it is normally employed – proving the existence of a god. The best we can really say is that we don’t know whether there is a divine plan or not (and consequently we don’t know whether there is some sort of god or not), even if I personally suspect not.

anaivethinker | February 15, 2015 at 9:15 pm

Hi Neopolitan,

Thanks for your comment. My conclusion in this blog post was neutral towards the naturalism versus theism debate, but I do agree with you that this is a major problem for the contemplative person.

You said, “. . . the existence of such a divine plan is totally useless for the purpose for which it is normally employed – proving the existence of a god.”

I agree with you. Despite the inability to reach any certain conclusion, you still “personally suspect” that naturalism is true which intrigues me. I personally suspect the opposite – that theism is true. So, it makes me wonder, what exactly is our difference?

Judging by your comment, I think we would agree science cannot adjudicate the question of the existence of every type of divine plans. There is no experiment that rules out all divine plans, nor is there an experiment to rule in a particular divine plan. This means any sort of conclusion about the existence of a divine plan will necessarily stem from phenomenological experience or a priori reasoning. I would also bet that you give more weight to a priori reasoning here, as experience can be marred by hallucinations, illusions, delusions, and so on. Then, my question for you is what reason do we have to think that such a divine plan is unlikely?

To me, a priori reasoning at the very least shows that naturalism is unlikely. In more technical terms, naturalism is incoherent because it cannot reasonably account for certain features of reality. At the moment, my favorite example is the question, why do you exist? This is not a question of consciousness which is a property of you. Suppose that naturalism is correct that you are fundamentally an electrochemical reaction in your brain, this supposition merely alters the question: why is this particular electrochemical reaction you? There is no conceivable way to reduce the connection between you and this particular electrochemical reaction to more fundamental natural law or principle, so one move naturalists can make is to say the connection is an illusion and that self-existence is an illusion. In other words, you do not exist. But, I am more certain that I exist than anything else. This means naturalism is incoherent. Theism provides a coherent answer to the question: God placed you in a certain body at a certain time in history so that you may have the gift of life and to see if you would choose to enjoy this gift for eternity. This makes theism more coherent compared to naturalism, but this does not mean theism is more coherent compared all other worldviews.

neopolitan | February 16, 2015 at 11:06 pm

I do appreciate that your conclusion was neutral, it’s a refreshingly honest position for a theist (unfortunately, I tend to discuss these sorts of things with a bad crowd – you know the sort, amateur apologists).

As to why we don’t agree, I do have a piece on my world view as well as one on where I come from, which might help (here and here). If you look there, I can save some typing time and some space in your comments feed :)

I don’t actually give more weight to a priori reasoning, although I do agree that we are subject to all forms of delusion and error. To me, the key is to identify those experiences that are common – those which lie behind our personal delusions and mistakes. And I don’t think that naturalism is incoherent. I’ve been pondering that for a few weeks, and trying to come up with a clear explanation as to why. This was based on the common claim that there is no empirical proof to the naturalist’s claim that empirical proof is better than all other proof. I think there might be proof, but I need to ponder it a bit more.

Oh, and I do think that our selves are largely imaginary. In other words, I don’t really exist in the way that I seem to exist from the perspective of being inside my head. Or … consciousness is a similar illusion to the illusion of free will.

anaivethinker | February 17, 2015 at 6:04 am

Thanks. I just “followed” your blog. I’m not sure if it matters that there is empirical proof for empirical proof. It does not seem to be a weakness of naturalism to me at all. Naturalism by definition is informed by science, but it is really a philosophical position grounded in ideas like the causal closure thesis. There are plenty of versions of theism that are also informed by science which simply reject the philosophical grounding of naturalism in favor of others. We can count Young Earth Creationism out of this group, but you get the idea. :)

I see that you seem to have adopted eliminativism (i.e., consciousness and freewill are illusions). Honestly, at the moment I think this is the most coherent version of naturalism. :) But, since I know with more certainty that I exist than, well, anything else, eliminativism becomes less coherent than a worldview which could somehow account for self-existence. Also, if freewill is an illusion, then there is no such thing as morality. You could never meaningfully bring up the problem of evil in a debate. Personally, when I was a naturalist I could never accept freewill as an illusion. That’s too much nihilism for this guy. I was more into emergentism or some other science-of-the-gaps.

neopolitan | February 19, 2015 at 6:44 am

I haven’t forgotten you, but I am involved in a battle royale elsewhere. I’ll keep your reply here unread and will get back to you if there is ever a lull in hostilities :)

And then, finally, my actual response:

Hi A Naive Thinker.  

The battle royale mentioned in my last comment a few months ago is over and, while I lost comprehensively, reason won the day against (my) ignorance and I did learn a couple of things (a tiny little bit of humility for example).

Re-reading your puzzle, I am struck again about how while the idea is instructive, the simplicity of it is also deceptive.  Your analogy is that living on this planet is the golden ball and the universe above (and below and all around) us is the black bag containing an unknown number and distribution of balls of undisclosed colours.  However, living on this planet is a far richer experience than gazing at a golden ball (however exciting the idea of a golden ball might be to the more material among us).  There are plenty of hints in nature that can guide us towards a conclusion as to our provenance - whether we are random or favoured products.

That leads me neatly to why I consider naturalism to be the stronger argument than its competitors.  When we compare the wealth of hints against two hypotheses – that we are either emergent beings from an entirely natural process or designed constructs – it simply seems to me that emergence is far more coherent (if less comprehensible) than design.  As I explained to a religious friend of mine a couple of decades back, without a designer, things don't have to make sense.  But as soon as you start looking for things to make sense, which the theist is does because sense is a feature of design, it doesn't take long before you have to appeal to inscrutability.  When that happens, I think that the theist has lost, because there's little functional difference between a plan that no-one can observe, know or understand and no plan at all.  (Using similar logic, I am often willing to grant a deist god to those arguing for it.  I don't deny that the universe is here and shoring up that otherwise inexplicable existence is the only thing for which the deist god seems to be responsible.)

This might seem a little nihilistic, but it's only because we are pattern seeking creatures (read as "animals", not "created beings").  We seek patterns irrespective of whether there are patterns that exist, and we find patterns even when they don't (the face on Mars and Pluto on Pluto being examples of this phenomenon).  You considered that my position regarding consciousness and the self as being nihilistic as well.  Hopefully the preceding paragraph gives you pause in that I point to emergence.  I'm very much of the opinion that our illusions of self, consciousness and free will are emergent features of our brains and the culture/language/experience laid down on those brains.  There is a little bootstrapping going on, of course, as in the "being" experiencing the illusion of being a "being" is the illusion itself.  This might offend common sense but we have plenty of examples of findings in psychology where common sense doesn't get much of a look in.  I look here at the findings of researchers such as Daniel Kahneman who shows that our quick intuitive thinking is efficient, but not always effective (ie sometimes it's quite wrong because we are fundamentally lazy), while our slow thinking is more effective but much less efficient (and we tend to avoid it because it usually represents too much of a cognitive load).  To know if our selves actually exist, we'd have to slow down and painstakingly make the effort to actually observe ourselves - and when we do that, as in meditative practices, the experts queue up to  tell us that the self doesn't actually exist.  It's for this reason that I have to dismiss your certainty (and indeed my own certainty) of personal existence, on which you build your conclusion of a non-randomly selected golden ball (in so much as it represents some form of rational design behind the universe and ultimately theism).

While putting the context together for this, I note that in your third room, there’s no real need to search through the bag.  Perhaps you had another intent but if so, it’s unclear what this intent was and the ability to view the balls and select your favoured colour appears to be no more than a distraction.


  1. Hi Neopolitan,

    Thanks for the long term follow up, you brought up interesting issues to explore.

    You said, “When we compare the wealth of hints against two hypotheses, we are either emergent beings from an entirely natural process or designed constructs, it simply seems to me that emergence is far more coherent (if less comprehensible) than design.”
    My criticism for this thought is I don’t think it reaches far enough back. Natural processes themselves could be designed. For example, the view of Theistic Evolution is that the conditions and laws were created such that the universe would produce intelligent , free creatures. So, I wonder how do you rule out the view of Theistic Evolution? You would probably ask me the same in reverse, so I’ll give it a go in a minute.

    You said, “To know if our selves actually exist, we’d have to slow down and painstakingly make the effort to actually observe ourselves – and when we do that, as in meditative practices, the experts queue up to tell us that the self doesn’t actually exist.”
    I reject this criterion for knowledge of self-existence because I think observing oneself is logically impossible. This is because observing is by definition taking in data external to oneself. I submit to you Descartes’ criterion: “I think, therefore I am.” Or, we could conjure up other criteria such as experience. To have experience necessarily entails that one exists.

    It’s not just that nonexistence of self is contrary to common sense, it is flat out absurd. Learning that, say, taking showers causes cancer would fly against common sense, but learning that I don’t exist dissolves everything into absurdity. I mean who is reading this? Who is typing this? That’s the reason I think we can only talk about this as an abstract theory and no one truly believes it. The naturalist denying self-existence is conveniently avoiding a very difficult feature of reality. And at the high cost of nihilism which is probably why orthodox naturalism cannot tolerate denial of self.

    So, I said I would take a swing, I’ll make it fast. I think self-existence, the desire for good outcomes, conscience, freedom, love, beauty, hate of evil, are among features of reality and experience that are better explained by us existing and living for a purpose. The purpose seems to be a gift to us from a creator deity who has in mind to save those who love life. Add this with scientific theory of evolution and you get Theistic Evolution.

    1. My response got a little long and involved, so .... it's here!


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