Monday, October 3, 2011

Plausible Deniablity

If you’re ever in a discussion about one of the big questions of life (everything from the origin of the universe to the nature of morality) eventually you will come across this phrase: “But you can’t prove there’s no God.” This is usually in response to something of the flavour “There is no evidence for a creator-god”” and, technically, is true - I can’t prove there is no God. I can debunk purported evidence, but I can’t prove the nonexistence of God any more than I can prove the nonexistence of fairies. That line of thinking, however, misses the point.

At our core, we’re social creatures, and it affects us in ways we don’t often realise. Our brains are pretty good at problem-solving - at dealing with the environment. But they’re positively built for navigating complicated social mores - dealing with each other. Constantly outwitting each other is literally the reason we’re smart in the first place. Those who knew how to avoid conflict at the right time, and to press their advantage when they saw it, were strongly selected for, both in not getting killed by rivals and, in the case of males, by having the social status required to hold a harem.

As a result, we’re not built for science, we’re built for politics - so our first instinct is not to find the most accurate position, but the most socially acceptable one. You get a hint by the way that it’s phrased - “But you can’t prove there’s no God” implies “…therefore I’m allowed to keep believing it.”

But we’re not in the ancestral environment any more. Nobody’s going to kill you or take away your woman for believing in something (well, not in Australia, anyway). You are allowed to believe whatever you want. This kind of thinking is deeply rooted in the ancestral politics of you versus me, tribe versus tribe, Self versus Other - and while you will often still require this kind of thinking in everyday life (though nowadays it’s called ‘politeness’) you really don’t for the discussion we’re having.

The weighing of opposing arguments, the weighing of evidence that we do when having discussions or debates mimics the process that should be going on in your head, with one important difference: unlike in a debate, in your head there are no sides.

You see this kind of thing in straight-up science as well as religion-tinged debates. The climate change debate is a big one - as long as some scientists disagree, you’re allowed to believe it isn’t real. It doesn’t matter that those scientists are in an extreme minority, have no expertise in a field even tangentially related to climatology, and often have huge biases in the form of ties to oil companies - as long as there are some scientists who back you up, you have plausible deniability.

The other one you see a bit is in the realm of particle physics - it’s not really seen amongst the professionals actually doing the work, but amongst the people who eagerly await the results, you’ll occasionally hear a “but supersymmetry might still be a valid hypothesis - the LHC hasn’t disproved it yet.”

Actually, that’s probably a good heuristic - if it seems reasonable to say that the thing you’re defending hasn’t been disproved yet, start worrying. It’s a sign that you want it to be true more than the evidence tells you it’s true.

If you frame the discussion as you defending the God position and me attacking it, then of course I can’t win - when you define a concept so ephemerally as most people define God, it is literally impossible to empirically test their claims. But if you frame it as you, yourself, trying to work out the actual facts of the universe - with me and whoever else feeding you data that supports various positions - you’ll find that it goes a lot differently.

It’s not adversarial - it’s not me versus you, it’s you and me together, just trying to find our way. “I’m still allowed to believe…” and its corollary “You can’t force me to believe…” are missing the point because your beliefs about the world inevitably affect how you live in it; you’re allowed to believe a lie, it’s just not in your best interests.

Like everything I write about on here, I have been very guilty of this in the past - and in non-intellectual areas, am extremely guilty of it still. But ask yourself this - are you better off with a position that you like, and can’t be blamed for holding? Or are you better off with the most accurate position the evidence suggests?

Plausible deniability is a tool for justifying beliefs to others, not for deciding on those beliefs in the first place. The only way forward is to shed those hangups and face the evidence with the cool, impartial eyes of someone who only wants the truth.

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