About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Unfortunately, many people blatantly ignore Hume’s advice, moving that bar so low that banal coincidences suddenly count as “miracles,” reinforcing their preexisting supernaturalist view of the world. One such instance took place in the q&a session after a nice talk I attended a few days ago at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The talk was by Lawrence Bush, author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Reflections of a Reluctant Atheist.
Bush gave an eminently sensible talk, starting out with the common observation of coincidences to which human beings attribute special meaning (a secular version of Carl Jung’s discredited idea of “syncronicity”). As Bush wryly commented at one point, while it is a good idea to pause and reflect on what happens to us in life, it is rather egomaniacal to imagine that the universe is sending us messages (often through catastrophes, personal or affecting others) just so that we can learn from our experiences.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, given the somewhat new-agey flavor of some (but by all means not all!) chapters of the Society for Ethical Culture, the q&a was as irritating as Bush’s talk had been level headed. One questioner in particular related a touching story of his adoptive grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and given six months life expectancy. The grandson reacted constructively to that abysmal prediction, using the remaining time to travel with his grandma to places where she had always wanted to go. Turns out the woman lived three years, which allowed for more travel and what I’m sure are indelibly good memories.
But then the grandson went back to the doctor and pointedly asked: “You said six months, she lived three years. What are the chances of that?” To which the doctor apparently replied with a no-nonsense (if a bit insensitive, assuming things really went that way) “One in seven hundred.” The conclusion of the story is that the questioner asked “What is the difference between 1/700 and a miracle?” strongly implying that his grandmother had of course been the beneficiary of a miracle.
Besides the obvious question of why god (or the universal life force, or whatever) couldn’t be bothered to perform a bit more substantial miracle, say by curing the woman instead of simply prolonging her life by a few weeks, the question highlights how easily we are impressed by occurrences that are in fact perfectly ordinary. One in seven hundred, the odds indicated by the doctor, are the known probability of someone affected by that particular tumor to survive three years instead of the six months of the original diagnosis. Medical research arrives at these numbers by statistical studies of large populations of patients, and surviving beyond average simply means that — for a variety of complex reasons, including age, general health, genetic makeup, and sheer luck — one’s position on the bell curve describing the mortality for that disease happens to be somewhat to the right of the population’s mean.
A miracle, on the other hand, is a suspension of the laws of nature, presumably actuated by a supernatural being. The odds of a miracle, as Hume hinted, are infinitesimally small (and cannot actually be calculated), because we see the laws of nature working just fine every minute of every day, and we have never reliably observed a suspension of such laws. Hume was careful enough not to say that miracles are impossible, just stating that if you want to claim one, the burden of proof is high indeed. Much higher than 1/700, I should think.
People find meaning in coincidences, as Bush pointed out in the lecture at Ethical Culture, because we are pattern-seeking animals. The discovery of patterns in nature is very important, because it can make the difference between life and death. Skeptical writer Michael Shermer recently wrote in Scientific American: “So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error).”
The second reason for people’s penchant for interpreting coincidences as personally significant messages emanating from the forces of the universe is what philosopher Daniel Dennett called “the intentional stance,” the tendency of projecting agency on phenomena, even though they may be the result of mindless forces. As Dennett put it: “Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.”
Just like pattern-seeking, adopting an intentional stance is useful: this is how we make educated guesses about what other human beings will do, an absolutely necessary skill for navigating complex social spaces. But again, like pattern-seeking, the intentional stance is often applied indiscriminately, and the combination of these two natural attributes of the human mind is probably chiefly responsible for superstition, mysticism and eventually the roots of organized religion.
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease, it is sensible and indeed a positive thing to reflect on how this affects your view of life and how you wish to spend your remaining days. But it is a sad random occurrence of existence, not a message in a bottle sent to you by a strangely interested and yet largely uncaring (or even callous) cosmic entity. Life is what it is, not what we would like it to be, and it is the ethical duty of a reasonable person to accept things for what they are, trying to change what can be changed and enjoying the rest of the ride while it lasts.