The Complexity Critique

Razib at Gene Expression:

I have always been struck by starkness of human hypocrisy and its incongruity in the face of avowed beliefs. … Sin is common, and human weakness in the face of contradiction the norm.  Mens’ hearts are easily divided, and simultaneously sincere in their inclinations. … All this leads to the point that I believe far too many of those of us who wish to comprehend human nature scientifically lack a basic grasp of it intuitively. … Many atheists simply lack a deep understanding of what drives people to be religious, and that our psychological model of those who believe in gods is extremely suspect. The "irrationality" and "contradiction" of human behavior may be rendered far more systematically coherent simply by adding more parameters into the model. … When I engage with these sorts of issues with readers of Overcoming Bias or Singularitarians my suspicions become even stronger because I see in some individuals an even greater lack of fluency in normal cognition than my own. … My point is that understanding human nature is not a matter of fitting humanity to our expectations and wishes, but modeling it as it is, whether one thinks that that nature is irrational or not within one’s normative framework.

This frustrating critique is frustrating common: "You’re wrong because your model is too simple.  But I’m not going to tell you what your model is missing, at least not in a clear enough way to help you improve your model."  Yes of course almost all our models are too simple.  We all know that; what we don’t know is exactly what complexities we should be adding to our models.  And for the record I was a teen cultist and my dad and brother were/are church pastors.

For social scientists I think there is actually an advantage in having a less powerful intuitive understanding of human behavior – it helps us notice things that need explaining.  To want to explain particular human behaviors you first need to see them as puzzling, and people with powerful intuitive understandings can predict behavior so well intuitively that they often don’t notice behaviors that are at odds with our best theories. 

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