Recap #2: getting lost in my own muddle

In the last couple of months my original plans and general approach have been vigorously shaken. I’ve always wanted to tackle the limitations of rationality, and to show how it is difficult to avoid and/or correct macroscopic errors that invariably afflict all intellectual errors. But I didn’t anticipate the amount of confusion that I would face while doing so: I’ve shown how easy it is to be unaware of our own sources of error, experienced it in person, and now find myself deadlocked. If I can’t see my own mistakes, how can I expect to produce any meaningful thoughts?

However, there is no doubt that it is possible to generate useful insights, so I’m not prepared to give up. I’ll slow down, and maybe take some (off-line) time to think, but will keep trying to inch forward. When one is confused, it’s always a good idea to step back and look at the situation with a detached eye. Hence, this post: in the next lines I will summarise what I’ve written so far, giving particular attention to the problematic bits. The following is not an complete index of the last months of blogging, it is specifically aimed at clarifying the present difficulties instead. [For an ongoing summary of all posts, please see the about section, updated approximately every three months]

Where it starts:

During the first months of blogging I’ve been exploring epistemology, and concluded my first recap with very optimistic remarks:

If the worthiness of knowledge depends on its subjective usefulness, then seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake (my third premise) is intrinsically a good thing because it’s a direct way to find or generate new useful concepts, even before knowing or hoping how exactly the new knowledge may be useful. It shortcuts the problem of unknown goods and allows to discover new useful things even if one ignores their possibility.

Despite some quite challenging premises (reality is unknowable; mistakes always creep in and there is no hope to find objective truths that directly apply to reality; all knowledge is fallible and subjective) my position looked solid: one can use evidence (direct or indirect experience) to evaluate the solidity of knowledge. This lead to the epistemology of science and the realisation that the challenging premises listed above do not question the value of science, in fact they reinforce it.

The next step was therefore very ambitious: I set out to see if, how, and within what boundaries, it would be possible to have a proper science of ethics. The series includes the following posts:

  • Science and ethics (part 1): an odd couple that should generate two siblings. Where I conclude that it is possible to do two things: (1) explore our own innate moral sense, and start understanding what really makes humans tick. (2) use this knowledge to guide our moral choices in a rigorous way. I also conclude that (1) can have high solidity aspirations, while (2) will always be somewhat volatile.
  • Science and ethics (part 2): is there any space for Philosophy? This was a necessary side step: all I can do here is report my thoughts as I don’t have time or resources to do primary research, so I had to ask myself what is the role of pure thought in the evidence-driven path that I’m foreseeing. The conclusion is that there will always be room for philosophy, but with hindsight, I can see now that this post already contains the seeds for my current crisis.
  • Science and ethics (part 3): understanding the biological origin of human morality.  This one is straightforward: I review some of the evidence that supports the founding idea of a science of ethics. Our ethical drives have a biological origin, and therefore fall squarely within the scope of standard scientific enquiry. The side effect is another confirmation that rationality is enslaved to our intrinsic biologically-dictated drives.
  • Science and ethics (part 4): a tool to overcome conflict or just another utopia? Explores some ongoing discussions and the implications of this whole approach. My conclusion is that both (1) and (2) can be rigorous enough to be considered sciences, but they won’t be enough to eliminate conflict (surprise!). Furthermore, (2) will only produce tentative and provisional ways to evaluate different courses of action. All attempts to find absolute moral truths about specific actions are futile, we will never be able to say “this action is the right choice and all other possibilities (known and unknown) are inferior”.

Armed with these results, I was eager to test them out, and tried to evaluate a paradigmatic ethical stance in the most rigorous and evidence-informed way that I could. This also allowed me to start talking about politics, a subject that does light me up. The result is a long rant against the narrow-minded ethics that underlines the position of Boris Johnson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). I stand by my words, but have now to admit that this series of posts also highlighted how shaky is my own endeavour: writing the last post was enough to make my confidence wobble, and I’ve been struggling ever since. What happened? In Part 4 I conclude that:

I’m likely to be writing all this under the influence of some self-reinforcing belief that is also able to hide from my own view the evidence that could challenge it.

And in the mean time I’ve collected plenty of evidence to support my claim. Hence, my crisis, and the need to step back a little. I will now review this evidence and then finish up summarising my fairly fruitless attempts to overcome this self-inflicted deadlock.

  1. While writing all of the above, I also produced two posts on the Selfish Gene concept. This started up as an impulsive reaction to a widely inaccurate account of the Selfish Gene idea published on Aeon. The first post was inspired by my strong reaction: I was convinced that the Aeon article was “a mean (and very well crafted) click-bite, designed to create controversy by spinning misleading pseudoscience against the controversial figure of Dawkins”. I was wrong, and luckily able to recognise it in my second post. [Note: I was right about the science! My mistake was about the motivations for writing the original essay. You will find the full story and all the links in the two posts linked above]
  2. I also wrote a review, with added comment, on Chalmers’ annual lecture at the Royal Institute of Philosophy. The subject was on “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy“. Chalmers himself was kind enough to comment on my views privately, and he did point out one mistake I made in explaining my own reflections. Clearly, the subject itself has a lot to do with making mistakes, and will have to be discussed separately along with my own errors. However, it was a clear indication that I am indeed blind to my own sources of bias.
  3. Finally, I’ve initiated a rather disorganised discussion with Artem Kaznatcheev over at theEGG. Artem further contributed to my confusion in more than one way: first, the discussion itself showed how even the most rigorous discipline (mathematics) can be used to reach false conclusions when applied incorrectly. Secondarily, he is politely suggesting that my own endeavour does look messy, plagued with over-ambition and lacking of rigour. And he may well be right!

What can one do? It does seem that I’ve managed to dig a rather deep hole for myself, and my efforts to climb out of it have been fairly fruitless:

I’ve resolved that I should look for sources of error, concentrate on those that are likely to be invisible, and try to find out how to detect and possibly neutralise them. The first attempt focused on the generic sources of bias that are the direct consequence of biology, it sparked the discussion with Artem and reached fairly depressing conclusions: along with other things that I’ve already mentioned, I also ended up questioning a key assumption that inspires all this blog: is trying to understand reality an aim worth pursuing?

So here I am: I’ve started looking at the reasons why we make mistakes, and instead of finding how to minimise the risks, I’ve ended up questioning the whole point of this blog. It can’t get much worse, can it? Luckily, writing this post did spark a couple of ideas. First, all I’ve written so far does acknowledge that errors are part of the game, the trick is about minimising them and provisionally accepting whatever conclusions one may reach, until proven wrong. This does give me enough reasons to try to ask myself if and how what I’ve found does indeed challenge my fundamental premise (and I do hope it doesn’t). Secondarily, I have a clear indication of a very powerful method to discover my own mistakes: it’s the obvious one, discussion, and discussion with people who hold different views. Unfortunately, I don’t think this method can be powerful enough, because people usually protect their own beliefs ferociously (and I know I do!), but I do have one or two ideas on how to augment the power of this tool; after all, I can’t see any better way to proceed. I need discussions and disagreements, and I need ways to make them count.

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Posted in Ethics, Premises, Science, Stupidity

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