Classic Bias Doubts

Thomas Reid (1785):

If a man’s honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to the man’s own word, whether he be honest or not. The same absurdity there is in attempting to prove, by any kind of reasoning, probable or demonstrative, that our reason is not fallacious, since the very point in question is, whether reasoning may be trusted.

Charles Darwin (1877):

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Darwin 1887)"

Alvin Plantinga (2007):

What our minds are for (if anything) is not the production of true beliefs, but the production of adaptive behavior: that our species has survived and evolved at most guarantees that our behavior is adaptive; it does not guarantee or even make it likely that our belief-producing processes are for the most part reliable, or that our beliefs are for the most part true. That is because our behavior could perfectly well be adaptive, but our beliefs false as often as true.

If we can reasonably expect only a weak correlation between true and adaptive beliefs, then we should lower our confidence in all our beliefs to match this correlation level.  If we can identify topics where the correlation should be stronger or weaker, then we should adjust beliefs on those topics to match each topic’s correlation level.   

Adaptive beliefs about the relative location, abilities, weaknesses, and intentions of predators, prey, competitors, and mates should be reasonably true, but we have less  reason to expect adaptive gains from true beliefs about abstract topics like the origin of the universe or the mood of the stars. 

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  • Kip Werking

    “Adaptive beliefs about the location, abilities, weaknesses, and intentions of predators, prey, competitors, and mates should be reasonably true, but we have less reason to expect adaptive gains from true beliefs about abstract topics like the origin of the universe or the mood of the stars.”

    This is entirely backwards, right?

    Biases evolve because, amongst other reasons, false positives are more/less costly than false negatives (Error Management Theory). An extreme example of this is self-deception: it is in an individuals’ fitness-interest to believe its own false advertising. Thus we develop biases about our own abilities (overconfidence), weaknesses (overconfidence), and intentions (she wants to sleep with me; he isn’t committed to me). We don’t tend to develop biases about quantum physics or abstract algebra because there was no difference in costs between false positives and negatives in the EEA and we don’t get any fitness advantage for believing our own lies about them.

    Of course, it is true that, “we have less reason to expect adaptive gains from true beliefs about abstract topics like the origin of the universe or the mood of the stars.” But that doesn’t show (as Robin seems to imply) that our beliefs about these subjects are more likely to be biased or false than beliefs about abilities or intentions. I think the opposite is the case.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Kip, I agree that there are reasons to lie to ourselves on adaptive subjects, as well as reasons to be accurate. But we may also have reasons to lie about quantum physics – we obviously have some evolved tendency to have beliefs on such topics, so the question is what is the mix of pressures on such beliefs.

  • http://miniverse.blogspot.com zcer

    Aren’t we forgetting that reality is not separate chunks of independent systems to be analyzed by separate “belief-producing processes”? Our higher reasoning faculties were co-opted from basic faculties dealing with skills crucial to survival. But because the universe is at least as deterministic as it is, we are also able to understand both quantum physics and relativity.

    Whether on a small or large scale, the functioning of the universe is lawful. I think since we are quite likely to get reality right in its certain domains (e.g. those crucial for survival). We can then use our abilities of reasoning in that domain to apply to the rest of the universe as well. Nature seems to produce all natural phenomena in a combinatorial and recursive fashion. Our thoughts being also combinatorial and recursive in nature, should very likely be able to lead us to the truth in all levels and domains of the universe.

  • Austin Cartwright

    “Adaptive beliefs about the location, abilities, weaknesses, and intentions of predators, prey, competitors, and mates should be reasonably true…”

    “I think since we are quite likely to get reality right in its certain domains (e.g. those crucial for survival).”

    You guys are begging the question. The argument that reality is found due to adaptive constructs because they are adaptive is a circular argument. Just like the faulty argument, truth is obtained by the Bible because the Bible says so. If an adaptive belief is the same as truth then you should not have a problem with calling this web sight, overcoming non-adaptive constructs but it would mean something entirely different than overcoming bias. If determinism is true then science itself is dependent on irrational neurophysiology and its interaction with other irrational forces and the concept of truth is just an adaptive illusion. There are two options that I can see, ether there is more to the universe than the current materialist philosophy can account for or everything we hold true is probably an illusion.

  • michael vassar

    This particular issue bothers me a LOT.
    Unfortunately, I have never encountered anyone who was able to add anything to my analysis, nor to make any progress beyond the basic points via effort, in this domain.
    My tendency is to say that it renormalizes out, e.g. that decision theory says to assume that reasoning processes work because it has nothing to say about what to do if they don’t, but basically I’m not convinced by this argument and my real approach is simply to ignore the issue when I can.

  • http://miniverse.blogspot.com zcer

    “The argument that reality is found due to adaptive constructs because they are adaptive is a circular argument.”

    The Bible is not subject to selection pressures, it can say anything it wants. We however cannot enter the cave where three bears go in and two come out.

    Determinism is not condemnation, it simply means everything has a cause. And is entirely compatible with free will.

    Yes, this may all be an adaptive illusion. But it is simply how we see the world. Fools are only shown they are fools when when they see that they were under illusion. If our illusion is so all-encompassing, it would be an illusion only to non-humans, since we can never be shown to be under illusion. An independent and absolute reality would mean nothing to us.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    but we have less reason to expect adaptive gains from true beliefs about abstract topics like the origin of the universe or the mood of the stars.

    Indeed. And we’ve had beliefs about the origin of the universe for all of recorded history, and most of them are (nowadays) naive, simple-minded, biased and wrong.

    But I think that the scientific method allows us to say that our beliefs on the origin of the universe are more acurate now. Not out of philosophical attachment to it, but because it works. Religious beliefs did not put it us on the moon; scientific ones, of which rationality is a key component, did. Schematically:
    1) If our reason is flawed, we couldn’t acheive the scientific results we have.
    2) We have acheived them, so our reason is not flawed.

    However, that is an argument based in reason! I can’t see any flaw in it as an abstract argument, but there may be a huge gaping hole that none of us can see. So either we have a good amount of rationality, or none at all (and we all have the same irrationality, causing us to consider the same wrong arguments rational).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, yes, our technology may offer evidence that we are getting some new beliefs right, beyond what was useful to our ancestors. But which new beliefs is it evidence for? Surely not all of them.

  • Austin Cartwright

    “Indeed. And we’ve had beliefs about the origin of the universe for all of recorded history, and most of them are (nowadays) naive, simple-minded, biased and wrong.”

    I think this view of our ancestors is biased and condescending. The creation stories that different cultures have are not primarily asking the questions of science. This was not their world view. They were more interested in asking and answering the questions of meaning and what man ought to do. I believe that these stories do have wisdom. These elusive questions are very hard to wrestle with but they are very important. More important, in my view, than the mechanics of the universe. We go for the easier answers and avoid the harder more substantive questions because we like to think that we are not ignorant.

    “But I think that the scientific method allows us to say that our beliefs on the origin of the universe are more acurate now. Not out of philosophical attachment to it, but because it works. Religious beliefs did not put it us on the moon; scientific ones, of which rationality is a key component, did. Schematically:
    1) If our reason is flawed, we couldn’t acheive the scientific results we have.
    2) We have acheived them, so our reason is not flawed.”

    The philosopher of old looked at the world and tried to figure out how to conform to the truths of reality. I see modern science more in the mold of magic. It tries to manipulate the world, not to conform to reality but to form reality to it’s own wishes.

    It is true that religion did not put us on the moon and I would not expect it to and science has nothing to say in regards to meaning and ethics. You can’t get ought from is.

    Just because something work according to a theory does not mean that it is true. I think this view is a part of the scientific method. Science does not prove something it is only able to disprove it. Native Indians did rain dances and it seemed to work because sooner or later it rained. Did this mean it was true…nope. (although this could point us in the right direction) Science has little data from the start of the universe. No one was there. There is no data from before the big bang. There is no way to set up an experiment because the big bang was a one time event. The truth is that we don’t really know. Not much better than our ancestors I would guess.

  • michael vassar

    I think that Stuart is arguing that our technology offers evidence for those new beliefs that flow from the same class of deliberative processes as the technology flows from. That’s not all of them, but is a substantial fraction.
    I think that in practice we almost all agree with this proposition, but of course, it merely moves the argument to the meta-level of “which beliefs flow from the same class of deliberative processes as technology does”. Many advocates of many pseudosciences would claim that their beliefs, which we consider pseudoscientific, are part of this class. Creationists argue that evolution is not part of this class. Some religious individuals claim miraculous effects analogous to those of our technology as arguments for their beliefs, and many leftist academics deny ‘progress’ and, in the extremes of postmodernism, appear to deny that we have achieved technological capacities which in general exceed those of our ancestors (believers in Atlantis and the like would agree).
    I think that it’s probably fair to say that technological progress is invisible to most people, and that the historical middle ages have approximately the same psychological status as Middle Earth does. It doesn’t help that much to ground an epistemology on debated issues such as supposed facts about the present vs the fairly distant past.

  • Austin Carwright

    “I think that Stuart is arguing that our technology offers evidence for those new beliefs that flow from the same class of deliberative processes as the technology flows from. That’s not all of them, but is a substantial fraction. I think that in practice we almost all agree with this proposition, but of course, it merely moves the argument to the meta-level of “which beliefs flow from the same class of deliberative processes as technology does”.”

    I agree that the success of technology offers some evidence for beliefs. But the problem is that if our minds are only made for and by adaptive ends then this becomes a defeater for the evidence that technology offers.

    “Many advocates of many pseudosciences would claim that their beliefs, which we consider pseudoscientific, are part of this class. Creationists argue that evolution is not part of this class. Some religious individuals claim miraculous effects analogous to those of our technology as arguments for their beliefs, and many leftist academics deny ‘progress’ and, in the extremes of postmodernism, appear to deny that we have achieved technological capacities which in general exceed those of our ancestors (believers in Atlantis and the like would agree).”

    Are you saying that there is only one type of system to gain knowledge and the rest is pseudoscience? I agree that when Creationists try to do science that it is pseudoscience but when they are asking the questions that science do not cover than I think it could have some truth contained in it. Progress can only be made if there is a set universal point we are all heading for. If this does not exist then postmodernists are probably right.

    “I think that it’s probably fair to say that technological progress is invisible to most people, and that the historical middle ages have approximately the same psychological status as Middle Earth does. It doesn’t help that much to ground an epistemology on debated issues such as supposed facts about the present vs the fairly distant past.”

    I think it helps in that it shows that we probably do not know as much as we think we know just like our ancestors. I also think it’s helpful to leave the door open that maybe they knew something we don’t. I don’t know how useful it is beyond this.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Peiter/ Peiter

    Austin,
    I think you’re only partly correct in that our ancestral creation stories did not deal with science in our sense of the word. Seems that it’s only after it’s recently become impossible to sanely believe in literal interpretations of scripture that it’s been relegated to the metaphorical level. Problem is, what did they deal with?
    The Greek view of science/philosophy was in some cases entirely devoid of regard for empirical data. Hence, they reached conclusions now known to be false. As I see it, the ethics of the ancient eras suffer the same biases; they are not based on the best avialable knowledge about human nature, therefore they fail. The exact same reasons not to put much weight on ancient science apply to their ethics.
    You wouldn’t trust a 12th century BCE Jewish plummer to do your plumming today, why would you trust a ditto ethicist’s “answering the questions of meaning and what man ought to do”? You surely do not go directly from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, but how can not knowing ‘is’ in any meaningful way help you concluding upon ‘ought’? Today we have tons and tons of psychological, sociological and sexological evidence that contradict the ethics of 12th century BCE Greece or Israel. Why suppose they were on to something useful?

    Furthermore, I believe you are mistaken when you claim that we today go for easier answers. I suspect otherwise. I find our current knowledge of the Universe both more marvellous and less pretentious/’easy’ than the anthropocentric versions of the ancient era. There is more splendour in modern cosmology and physics than in contrived father complexes.

    I think it difficult to contend that the empirical scientific method has proven exceptionally superior compared to all other forms of acquiring knowledge. If you disagree, I’d like hear examples were other forms of gaining knowledge has resulted in actual knowledge actually being gained.

    Regarding our mental faculties, reality (as in plane crashes) is the ultimate arbiter. No doubt we have many biases, but how this should somehow be so strong as to affect statistics is not clear to me. Adaptive traits only work if they relate to reality, both of nature and its inhabitants. We have the added ability of “letting our hypotheses die in our stead,” which is what we do: we test our beliefs against reality, all the time.

  • michael vassar

    Peiter: The above post shows a lack of historical awareness. Most philosophically, theologically, and in so far as they existed “scientifically” inclined people have believed that scripture is properly interpreted as metaphorical since at least the Middle Ages. Essentially every theologian or philosopher you have heard of will have had this interpretation.

    Biblical literalism is, for the most part, a post-printing development.

    Of course, “what is metaphor” and “what is meaning” remain active philosophical questions. Many philosophers have held that religious doctrines are “literally true” but don’t mean the common interpretation. For some religious doctrines, such as trans-substantiation, the position that the miracle is occurring can only possibly be “literally true” according to highly dubious theological definitions of meaning. The assertion that Biblical creation is “literally true” (both versions!) in the same sense that the wine literally becomes blood is an odd assertion, but one that has little resemblence to the position of modern creationists.

    Psychologically, I am tempted to suspect Voltaire of naivity here. He said “those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities” as a revelation, but I suspect that the function of the assertion of absurdities is to some extent understood by those who partake in them, and is in fact to convey evidence of one’s willingness to commit atrocities.

  • michael vassar

    Peiter: Science has at least one serious competitor. Math. The two are so superior to all competition that they are frequently conflated, but they really are very different.