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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Relabeling our Ignorance

When you hang out with medical students, you find yourself privy to all sorts of behind-the-scenes secrets of the profession, some of which make you feel like a savvy insider and others of which make you nervous about ever ending up in the care of a doctor. Somewhere between the former and the latter lies the following fun fact: When a doctor diagnoses you with an "idiopathic" illness, you might assume that implies he understands what's making you sick -- until you look up the definition of "idiopathic," and discover that it means "arising from unknown causes." That's right: when a doctor tells you that you have an "idiopathic T-cell deficiency," he's actually saying, "We have no idea why your T-cells are low." And if you doubt me, please allow me to direct you to the 1966 edition of Stedman's Medical Dictionary, which, to my immense amusement, describes the word idiopathic as "A high-flown term to conceal ignorance."

Having an official-sounding explanation that stands for "we have no freakin' clue" is just one particularly stark example of what I'm coming to see is a ubiquitous phenomenon: our tendency to believe we've resolved our ignorance when all we've really done is relabel it. Putting a name on the gaps in our knowledge gives us the feeling of knowing more, and if we don't think about it too hard, we might not notice that feeling is illusory.

Put another way, what feels like a solution to a mystery is often just a re-statement of the mystery itself. French playwright Moliere famously lampooned this phenomenon in his 1673 play La Malade Imaginaire, in which a character wonders why opium puts you to sleep, and the parody of a doctor explains that it is because the drug contains a "dormitive potency."

Actually, it's barely a parody. There's a rich tradition in the history of science of people attempting to explain a mysterious phenomenon by proposing a mysterious substance as its cause. For example, what causes life? The "theory" used to be that it was generated by a substance called élan vital (literally, "life force".) Saying "Life is caused by élan vital" felt more like a real explanation than saying "We don't know what causes life," even though we couldn't say anything else about élan vital other than the fact that it causes life. As evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley dryly remarked, "To say that a biological process is explained by élan vital is to say that the movement of a train is 'explained' by an élan locomotif of the engine."

There's nothing inherently wrong with using placeholders for what we don't know. "Dark matter" and "dark energy" play this role in astrophysics today. "Dark matter" is our label for whatever unknown substance is making stars orbit faster than we expected; "Dark energy" refers to whatever is causing the universe to expand faster than we expected. Physicists are well aware that "dark matter" and "dark energy" are placeholder terms, and they're actively trying to pin down what's really going on so that we won't need them anymore.

But placeholders become a problem when they fool you into thinking that you're finished with your explanation. And even though science as a whole may not forget that the phrase "dark energy" doesn't actually explain anything, I think individual people fall for this phenomenon all the time. We feel like we've explained something when we know the word for it, even if we don't know anything beyond the fact that this word is the "right" answer. When a kid asks, "Why does stuff fall down?" and his parents say "gravity", they think they've answered the question. But if someone asks them what "gravity" means, can they give an answer beyond "Uh... it's what makes things fall"? Knowing the right buzzword isn't the same as understanding.

Of course, any explanation you give for what gravity is ("an attraction between objects that is proportional to the product of their masses") immediately raises more questions ("What causes the attraction? Why did our universe have to work that way?"). No matter how much you understand about the world, you can keep asking "Why?" and you eventually have to fall back on "That's just the way things are" or "We have no idea." But being able to understand how a phenomenon is entailed by the natural laws of the universe, even if you can't explain why those particular natural laws exist, is a huge step up from merely knowing which label describes the phenomenon.

I'd venture a guess that our tendency not to recognize placeholders for what they are has its roots in the way our schools are structured, in the way we learn to learn. In school you get points for knowing the right answer, for writing the correct phrase on the test, and you learn to recognize that question X goes with response Y. What we come to think of as "learning" is often little more than a sorry blend of rote memorization and call-and-response; is it any wonder that we think merely knowing "gravity" is the word for "why things fall down" means we understand what's going on?

Then there's that mother of all placeholders, "God." In "The Perimeter of Ignorance," one of the essays in his book Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, Neil deGrasse Tyson recounts how even the sharpest scientific minds throughout history have invoked divine providence when they reached the limits of their ability to explain the world. When Isaac Newton hit a stumbling block in his Principia -- why do all the gravitational forces between the objects in our solar system balance out to produce stable orbits? -- he concluded, "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." And 17th-century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens explains the planets' motion and composition in great detail in his Celestial Worlds Discover'd, but falls back on God when he gets to less-understood phenomena, like the mystery of life: "I suppose no body will deny but that there's somewhat more of Contrivance, somewhat more of Miracle in the production and growth of Plants and Animals than in lifeless heaps of inanimate Bodies," he writes.

Of course, unless you can say something about how God created life, you haven't explained anything; you've just relabeled your ignorance. Which is not, in and of itself, harmful. The danger lies in forgetting that questions like the origin of life are still open questions, ripe for the solving -- and in clinging to your placeholder rather than gladly replacing it with a real explanation when one comes along.

31 comments:

  1. Great post Julia. It reminded me of this article on the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. It seems that most of the time our understanding of a concept or phenomenon consists mostly our ability to manipulate the language correctly in a shallow sense, rather than truly comprehending it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This reminds me of the standard definition of knowledge in philosophy:

    justified true belief

    The keyword here being "justified." The parent who simply says "gravity" but cannot follow up with an explanation of it does not actually know the answer, he is simply parroting someone else's.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent post, especially the concluding note

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well written.

    The problem is of course, and I am saying this as a young father who is half dreading, half looking forward to the time when his daughter will be able to ask "why?", what can the average individual parent or teacher do? I will be able to explain a lot in biology, but "why gravity"? No idea.

    Because we cannot be omniscient, we end up either with "because that is how it is" (bad idea, stifles curiosity) or "I don't know", and many a parent or teacher is too proud to admit that. I hope I won't be. Maybe there is comfort in hoping that a child that grows up seeing that the parents are not afraid of admitting to and living with honest, unavoidable and hopefully only preliminary ignorance will also grow up to be somebody who does not need to cling to pseudocertainties of the religious kind.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Of course, unless you can say something about how God created life, you haven't explained anything; you've just relabeled your ignorance.

    Cue the resident Christian apologists in 3,2,1...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Bravo Julia!

    To quote a wonderful skeptic, Matt Dillahunty, when the causal chain goes back far enough, and "God of the gaps" christians think they've entered their arena, and you ask "well, if god created space time, who created god?" to which they reply "God is the alpha and omega; the perfect circle"

    You could say "and SO's your argument!"

    ReplyDelete
  7. Julia, I relatively agree, though for edification it'd be nice to see some listed references about our schooling.

    But we need even unfounded epistemic limits for daily functioning.

    If a farmer stops mid-field because he's caught up in infinite regress (assuming he can't contemplate and sew or reap), or you're in the middle of a story and never arrive at an "end," social cohesion seems like it would falter right?

    And not to bite off more than I can chew, but isn't your observation similar (stress similar)to deconstruction? A loathesome idea from a loathesome philosophical movement according to your standards...

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ok, sorry to be nitpicking, but it is "brava" not "bravo," since Julia is a woman, last time I talked to her... ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Which is not, in and of itself, harmful. The danger lies in forgetting that questions like the origin of life are still open questions, ripe for the solving -- and in clinging to your placeholder rather than gladly replacing it with a real explanation when one comes along."

    Ci, Julia

    My older sister tells me a story this morning about her friend Stacy who I know as well she has spent time in my house. Stacy works with Alzheimer's patients and other people with medical challenges. She had a patient who was very quiet had Alzheimers and I would say a touch of Parkinsons too because he shook so bad it was really hard for him to eat soup or anything of the like. Last night, tho like I said he tended to a rather quite person, he looked up at Stacy and asked her if she believed in healing. She said "yes" and prayed for him right then. (I'm not even sure that he's a believer) He fell under God's power as if asleep for about a half an hour and when he woke up the SHAKE WAS GONE! The shaking has been with him for awhile so that alone was really amazing!! Whether he was healed of anything else or not, that remains to be seen. But I sure do know that his life is a lot more bearable today then it was yesterday.

    There are always going to be things that we cannot fully explain but that does not mean that God does not care and that He cannot intervene. I'm convinced..(but I wasn't always convinced about healing) NOW I see it frequently!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Harry,

    Recognizing that some of the problem labeling that passes as explanation is simply a cover for our ignorance isn't a call for inactivity. It's simply a call to recognize the difference between "knowing that" and "knowing why (or how." Your example farmer can know that planting seeds in the spring works, while planting them in winter doesn't without knowing why that is the case.

    A lot of Hume fans on here, I think, and one of Hume's best ideas in my opinion, was his theoretical decoupling of learning from rationality. He recognized that the reason we believe that specific effects will follow certain causes has nothing to do with our ability to express a full scientific or rational explanation of the phenomenon. Instead, pre-rational factors (custom was his term) are responsible.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Placeholding would then be defining Massimo's natural laws as laws ordained by nature, except for no known purpose of no known lawgiver.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Caliana -

    1) Stop calling me "Ci"

    2) Why don't you get back to us in a few weeks and let us know if the "healing" was permanent? Evangelicals are notorious for not doing follow-up studies of "miraculous" healings.

    3) There are a number of possible physical mechanisms at work - however, even if human beings do possess some sort of latent healing ability that hasn't yet been explained, it doesn't automatically validate your belief system - "I don't understand it, therefore Jesus!"

    Of course, you'll see this as an attempt on my part to rationalize my non-belief, because I don't want to be held "accountable".

    ReplyDelete
  13. Presumably all language began with variously pitched grunts and whistles; academia usually settles for a cursory knowledge of the latin roots. In computing, nobody knows everything that's going on at every level of the computer; somebody, somewhere, knows something about each individual component and understands each level of complexity, but tracing the whole train of interaction is not only impossibly time-consuming, but it's a big part of what we built computers to avoid having to do.

    I agree that we tend to set these functional cut off points too short on the line, but all we really need is communicable, functional point of reference with which to communicate what we need to communicate and get on with it. Unless you want to ontological bucket of eels about what it means for something to Be, gravity "is" the thing that causes my phone to hit the ground. Gravity also "is" the curvature of spacetime, or, maybe, it's something else entirely. I only actually need to know that things fall down to avoid walking off cliffs. As Steven Pinker pointed out, it's not useful to describe World War II via the paths of trillions of quarks, it's useful to us to see it in at the considerably bulkier, much higher, and more immediately informative human-sized level.

    So to re-frame the problem for a second, all knowledge is a metaphorical model for what we think is a motion of energy in space, and the problem is every individual is forced to accept that they are ignorant of some things, and will always remain ignorant of some things, and there is nothing they can do about it, simply for want of time and the current nature of knowledge. Every thing we know is place holding for something else: our conscious experience of the universe is, to the best of our understanding, a neurological metaphor summing up a bunch of crappy sense data.

    Of all the people I've met in the sciences, there are a handful who still openly believe in God, and it hasn't stopped any of them from pursuing what they pursued in their own field. A biologist arguing against creationism said, "I believe God created life, I just believe he took four billion years to do it through normal means." A programmer friend referred to dark matter as "God's last joke," yet continued to study computing and economics, without attributing market flux or ping time to God's will. Someone who thinks God created the universe a few thousand years ago is probably not a paleontologist, but may be contributing to other fields (though, personally, I doubt it). My grandfather was a theologian and an ordained minister, so I have some inside info: no serious theologian believes in a personal God, regardless of what they believed when they started studying theology.

    The point is God is not an epistemological barrier; God is a political problem. Science rarely faltered because the scientist decided not to investigate; it faltered because the scientist couldn't find the answer, or was killed by the reigning theocrats. People harp on the danger of using God as an explanation for X on the theory that it will prevent investigation, but it's never stopped the inquiring mind from unravelling X and discovering it's two short lines bisecting each other. The father of genetics was a monk, for God's sake.

    Apologies for being long-winded.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Perhaps this is slightly offtopic or too specific to biomedical science, but the "dormitive potency" problem is actually worse than implied here in medical research centers; I feel this does active harm to the science and clinical applications. I am speaking as a researcher interested in both very basic aspects of systems biology and in practical engineering of biological databases and analysis software.

    For reasons of practical use or from expectations of database users, sometimes I or my colleagues have to create an entity in a database that is actually a poorly understood external pattern or very approximate classification. Such an abstract thing often could not actually work as an agent in a biological system and in some sense just conceals our ignorance. Having a classification of things that can cause sleepiness, as an example, can be quite useful, but it does not mean that such a potency actually exists. Too often my colleagues and experimentalists believe that such a temporarily useful item is an actual actor or agent in systems. Much waste of research effort and other mischief seems to me to be based on this misplaced concreteness or reification. (Or at least that is what I think that people actually trained in philosophy might call it.)

    Somehow many researchers base research on an idea that useful "dormative potencies" can be experimentally confirmed and refined as actual agents, instead of being just useful placeholders until better information on agency is obtained.

    I have tried, usually without success, to relieve them of this strange but pervasive belief. My attempts are sometimes critiqued as too abstract or philosophical (as if abstraction is not what you need to engineer useful software and "abstract philosophy" would be an insult ;-) ).

    On a more general point, I have often thought that the philosophy of biology for the carbonware of brains and the successful bioinformatics for the siliconware of computers have a more considerable overlap than is usually appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Julia,

    Yes!

    I wrote about this back in '08 and coined my own term for it: The Placeholder Fallacy.

    I think one reason people fall for the fallacy is that they confuse what an explanation is for what an explanation does.

    The explanation for lightning predicts lightning effects, but it also tells us what actions we can take to avoid lightning. For example, we can seek shelter in a Faraday cage or build lightning conductors onto our buildings.

    Saying "God did it" seems explanatory to some people even when it's completely non-predictive because "God did it" informs us of what to do in a thunderstorm, i.e., pray. I think that having a contingency plan is very satisfying, even if there's no evidence that the plan will be effective. Duck and cover springs to mind.

    ReplyDelete
  16. In addition to the problem of relabeling ignorance, labeling at too high level or too abstractly seems to result in a general obstruction of communication. This can result in wide variation of what these labels mean in the minds of different people who end up arguing using words that they are assuming the other person has the same definition for. Also, even while a group of people may share in their minds a common understanding of a complex label, when it is used in communication with one who is not of that group (as in the doctor talking to their patient, or the scientist saying X% of the universe is dark matter to the public), it is an automatic barrier to that person to understanding the nature of the communication at all.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The man was healed by God, therefore God exists. Perfect logic as far as I'm concerned. Agree, Massimo?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Massimo's God is the natural law administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Peter says:
    (1) "every individual is forced to accept that they are ignorant of some things, and will always remain ignorant of some things."
    Absolutely, that's why I included the paragraph about how eventually you'll always run out of explanations. But just because you will always have some amount of ignorance doesn't mean you can't become less ignorant.

    (2) "I only actually need to know that things fall down to avoid walking off cliffs."
    Well, if practical benefit is your only need for knowledge, then yeah, my argument is less relevant. I wasn't claiming that everyone "should" strive for knowledge for its own sake. I was just claiming that IF you have any interest in knowledge for its own sake, that it's easy to be misled by these placeholders into thinking that you actually know more about the world than you do.

    (3)"People harp on the danger of using God as an explanation for X on the theory that it will prevent investigation, but it's never stopped the inquiring mind"
    I'm not sure about that. As evidence you cite the fact that there are inquiring scientists who also believe in God. But I think the relevant question is whether there would be more inquiring scientist in the absence of God-belief.


    Hey, Doctor Logic, nice post -- looks like we're thinking along similar lines! And I like your point that saying "God did it" seems explanatory to some people because they think it predicts what strategy will be effective. That's a related problem I might blog about someday: the fact that we often don't realize when our theories have no explanatory power, because we don't acknowledge to ourselves that we would find a way to make our theory "explain" absolutely any result that occurred. I suspect people rarely ask themselves honestly whether there is any conceivable result that would induce them to abandon their theory.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Peter,

    "...but all we really need is [a] communicable, functional point of reference with which to communicate what we need to communicate and get on with it."

    I agree. A nice pragmatic way of putting it.

    Yet later you write, "The point is God is not an epistemological barrier; God is a political problem."

    Hardly. That's akin to saying a duck is not an animal, its a vertebrate. Any authority 'brought to the table' can be an epistemological issue.

    Making God, or x, political rather than metaphysical changes nothing, it simply indicates the type of epistemological wall one is refusing to go past.

    ---

    Monkey,

    I don't understand how your point invalidates my assertion that what Julia sees as passing for simulacrum necessarily contributes to societal functioning.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "2) Why don't you get back to us in a few weeks and let us know if the "healing" was permanent? Evangelicals are notorious for not doing follow-up studies of "miraculous" healings."

    Glad you brought that up.

    Last March, over a year ago, a little girl "Molly" on Sid Roth's program "Its Supernatural"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8PRbdqP3zwb

    ..prayed for a person who had a shoulder that was injured. (22 minutes and 20 seconds into the vid.) Tho I wasn't even praying for healing, I just listened to her prayer because she was intriguing to me. :) So for no reason that would make any particular sense to me, I moved my left arm upward and the gripping pain that I had in the muscles between my neck and shoulder was gone! For about three to four months previously, I had to hold the muscles between my neck and shoulder with my other hand to lift my arm above my head. Weightlifting accident I guess. A year later, that shoulder still moves just fine! :)

    You have to get thro more than half the vid (15 to 18 minutes) to these kids praying for people. But it is really neat. I'm not sure that I've seen anything just like it. They are NOT your run of the mill "faith healers". These children believe that God is going to change peoples circumstances for His Glory not theirs. Maybe that's is the difference.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Again, it doesn't validate your belief system.

    These children believe that God is going to change peoples circumstances for His Glory not theirs. Maybe that's is the difference.

    So now we have to worry not only about our own beliefs, but about the beliefs of the other guy as well? For an omnipotent being, your god certainly seems to get bogged down by a lot of human limitations.

    ReplyDelete
  23. caliana,

    Per your shoulder, hypnotists can do the same things for their patients without ever having to invoke god. You're selecting what you want to feel.

    ---

    Not too many years ago I was just like you, all churchy and feeling good. Then I made the "mistake" of wanting to know just what the hell truth was. Best mistake of my life.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Julia,
    But just because you will always have some amount of ignorance doesn't mean you can't become less ignorant.

    This is tautological. In all my experience in academic and non-academic worlds, I have very rarely encountered a person who chose to remain ignorant of something, and wasn't in a constant state of collecting new information about navigating the life they were leading. The rare instances of it occur in people like me: I chose to remain ignorant of how to draw, because I just don't have time. Everybody else wants to know more, and does learn more.

    I was just claiming that IF you have any interest in knowledge for its own sake, that it's easy to be misled by these placeholders into thinking that you actually know more about the world than you do.

    "Knowledge for its own sake" is a synonym for "curiosity," unless, and only unless, you want to invoke something platonic or otherwise superneural. Most people have curiosity about something, and will work there way to knowledge in some way or another. I don't believe that anyone who is really curious about gravity will accept gravity as an explanation. Also, for the significant portion of my life when I was not curious about gravity and curious about getting drugs, I became very good at it, and nobody in that particular quest for knowledge accepts a placeholder of any kind; I would submit as a point of respect for seekers of academic knowledge that neither would they. In your initial example of idiopathic, yes, it's to conceal ignorance, but not from the people who need to know. It hides ignorance from the people who would do better not to increase their stress level (and, I admit, probably to ensure payment for an examination that didn't reveal anything).

    Harry,
    Making God, or x, political rather than metaphysical changes nothing, it simply indicates the type of epistemological wall one is refusing to go past.

    What I'm trying to divide is the idea that the personal God is a direct barrier to knowledge from the idea that the social effect of God is detrimental. The individual belief of God will not stop technological and scientific advancement: the personal God is a cure for an existential ailment. The social effect of God is that people with either extreme existential needs and no scientific or theological curiosity, or people with political power invested in the popular belief, will attempt to suppress alternative explanations.

    This is actually the problem with the militant atheist movement in general: they are trying to beat the personal God, and there's neither need nor likelihood in that pursuit. You only have to beat the political God.

    ReplyDelete
  25. "Per your shoulder, hypnotists can do the same things for their patients without ever having to invoke god. You're selecting what you want to feel."

    Particular types of shoulder injuries don't just disappear without treatment. And anyone who is against healing by God's power is probably as disbelieving of hypnosis as well. But you'd take hypnosis as the cause for repairs over healing by Gods power because? You have watched the video well enough to say these things? I think you have not.

    ---

    "Not too many years ago I was just like you, all churchy and feeling good."

    I'm just a regular person who has had a lifetime of struggles like everyone else.Truth be told, I use to swear a blue streak and various other things. (I use to be the MASTER of the bad attitude and that is why yours and others DO NOT bother me.) Thank the Lord He helped me put that in my past.

    So you use to be churchy and I use to be pretty much un Goldly. I guess that puts us on two different ends of the spectrum, doesn't it.


    "Then I made the "mistake" of wanting to know just what the hell truth was. Best mistake of my life."

    The cynic's cynic? That would seem like a monumental mistake to me too. You may believe that you are more or less happy but do you have JOY?

    ReplyDelete
  26. Perhaps this will go through, perhaps not.

    caliana,

    I wasn't referring to healing, which you were. I was referring to feeling no pain...which I assume (and I could be incorrect) is your sign that everything is healed. That's what hypnotists can do. I don't believe they can heal anything.

    To answer your question, truth sucks, but it gives joy. So no I don't have the biochemicals the brain gives off during prayer or meditation coursing through me, but I've gained my mind back.

    I would think your God would want you to follow truth. Is this incorrect? If it is, why would you want to follow that god? If it is not, truth qua religion will only lead you away from that god.

    It's one thing devout atheists don't understand. Religion is mainly conceptual, and it's only because of that huge step in humanity's thought process that rationality and reason were able to be born... not excluding the sufficiency of language for religion's existence.

    ReplyDelete
  27. One problem with placeholders in science is the possibility of inadvertently creating a false distinction, thereby biasing one's attempt to grasp the phenemomenon. In that sense, a label, such as 'dark matter' may be like a compass needle pointing in the wrong direction.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Who says there's no justice?

    I briefly chide Julia for flirting with deconstruction, and last night I got a full dose of De-colonialism and Post-modernism applauding each other for about an hour.

    How does the Humanities keep getting funding for this hooey?

    Of course there's no correlation between my presumption and subsequent comment on this post to last night's infuriating simplicity. But I choose to believe there is.

    I'm guessing that makes me a follower of Comeuppance. All hail the deflated balloon!

    ReplyDelete
  29. On the subject of gravity, I recall an explanation in a geography textbook used in junior schools in Ireland over fifty years ago: "everything falls down unless it is held up"

    ReplyDelete
  30. Are you implying that the term "God" is merely an idiopathic term?

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.