Don’t platonify me so much, please!

In the book I’m reading (The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb), the author presents a very interesting concept: “Platonicy”. This is the tendency to believe in forms and models (in a Platonic sense) which makes us misunderstand reality in a very drastic way.

I think this is a very intelligent and useful concept. We “platonify” people, countries, situations… We constantly disregard complexity and we simplify things to the point of simply not understanding them at all.

Along with this tendency to generalize and platonify things, we tend to only notice things that confirm our first impressions (the famous confirmation bias). Therefore, our models and forms start acquiring the aspect of reality, being confirmed everyday in our brains.

We do this with friends! When we know someone, we platonify the person: we include them in one of the categories we had in our brain and create a model or form of the person in our head. Then, we only notice what confirms that first platonification and we think that idea in our head is the real person.

This makes it possible to know someone for years and even so be very far from the reality of that person. I have some friends who I know have a very strange idea of myself — they inserted me in a very specific category and I find them talking not about me but about the model of myself they have in their heads (yes, I know we all do this about ourselves, but that’s exactly the point!).

We then become very surprised when the person does not act according to the model we have of them (this could amount to a Black Swan incident). We notice those bursts of complexity only when they are so strong we could not ignore them. We then think they are the exception — or we break the model and start another one from the ground up, thinking the person in question has changed.

Anyway, what to do about this? We must be aware of our limitations and we must be prepared to fight the confirmation bias we all fall prey to. We should constantly ask: “couldn’t it be that I’m wrong about this/them?”.

I’ll get back to this.

Black swan Nederlands: Zwarte zwaan Français :...

Black swan Nederlands: Zwarte zwaan Français : Cygne noir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Why do people believe in bullshit?

When I hear someone talking about astrology, homeopathy or one of the countless conspiracy theories that people buy into for some reason, I think to myself: “Why do people believe in bullshit?”

Some notes on a possible answer:

(1) If, for some evolutionary reason, our genes had a greater change of surviving as long as we believed some bullshit to explain the world instead of losing time trying to understand it scientifically, then our genes would make us believe some bullshit. Just try to think about it: our species becomes intelligent. It is a huge evolutionary advantage. However, along with intelligence, comes curiosity. We want to know who we are, how the universe works, why the world is as it seems to be. What would be the easiest path for our genes to spread? Make us scientifically curious, prone to far-fetched experiences that made us look like geeks, obsessed with scientific knowledge? Or just make us accept any explanation that made life easier to bear, without thinking too much about death, ready to be confident and happy when spreading our seed? Well, the answer is clear…

(2) So, science and rational thought are allowed by human nature but are not natural to humans. Humans tend to be irrational. Humans tend to believe what makes us happier and more comfortable with our own lives. So, if we want to get closer to the truth, we must escape the evolutionary Matrix. We must confront the dark, cold reality. And we may even survive it!

(3) The degree of emotional attachment to a specific belief doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of that belief. We tend to think it does. If we feel in our gut something is real, we will consider it real. But we should understand our guts are very poor judges of truth: they are even worse than our brains!

(4) We should never be surprised about seeing people believe incredibly stupid things. We should be very understanding. We may be believing in some bullshit too. In fact, bullshit in our brains is bullshit we can undoubtedly control, as long as we search for it. We can try to convince others out of bullshit, but what we should do first is finding the bullshit in our own skulls.

(5) Astrology, homeopathy, etc. (what a big etc. this is!) are systems with a semblance of coherence and rationality, artistically fulfilling, beautiful in their own way, made to be believed with our guts. They are rationally untenable, but our genes made us explain the world first with our guts and only then with our brains.

(6) Science does not create an emotional link between knowledge and the knowledge-bearer. It’s a problem that arises from the fact that science is a rational construction rather than an off-shot of evolution and instinct (reason is a by-product of human evolution but it’s not central to human nature). That’s why an extraterrestrial species would be very different from humans in all aspects, but if they invented science, their methods would probably be similar to our scientific method. So, we must understand this and promote science using reason and sheer curiosity.

So, people believe bullshit because our brain has no direct way of distinguishing bullshit from truth and our brain feels more comfortable with ready-made BS systems of thought than with doubt-ridden scientific knowledge. Science is hard, bullshit is endlessly adaptable to our specific needs. Do I need an explanation that makes the universe control my life? I’ll have astrology. Do I need a medicine that makes treatments painless? I’ll have homeopathy. Do I need a theory that makes the world seem contrived to make me fail? I’ll take any conspiracy theory.

That’s my explanation why we believe in bullshit. I hope it’s not complete bullshit.

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What I’m reading right now

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Politics is fraught with emotion

Well, there’s more to it than sheer number of possible opinions. We invest a lot in our opinions, people get angry if we don’t agree with them and our lifestyle can be at stake when we discuss how to change the world (if at all). So, lots of things to disagree about and a lot of emotions involved. No wonder politics is considered off-limits in many polite conversations.

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Why is politics such a difficult subject to discuss?

Why is there such a large scope of political opinions? The question is a difficult one. But, in fact, there is a lot to disagree about:

  • (A) What is the state of world at present? It is much more difficult than most people realize to understand the world at the present state. 
  • (B) What should we strive for? In other words: what world should we try to achieve?
  • (C) How could we get from (A) to (B)? Even if we agreed about the state of the world and what we should strive for, we could disagree about the better ways of changing the world.

Even one single question could have as many answers as humans in the world (in fact, they do). We are talking about three difficult questions. The fact that we have so few political parties is amazing, to be honest.

So, politics is fraught with division. The first step we could take to make things a bit easier on us all? Just accept that others may think different and not always because they are bad people.

Then, we can argue openly and attentively — but there’s something else that most of us are not ready to do: we must argue without preconditions. This means we must accept the possibility (as remote as it may seem) of being convinced by others. 

And, just to make things even harder: we must believe that some answers are better than others. We just cannot assume ours are the better ones.

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God vs. Man? Rather Man vs. Man

Creationism is interesting not because it has any scientific value, but because it gives us the opportunity to look at the results of misguided intelligence first-hand.

To become a creationist is simple: you decide to believe that the Earth was created exactly as described in the Bible. Then, you bend everything else to this premise using all your intelligence and skill. If someone doubts the premise, you just say: “It was God that told us so! God is bigger than you! So, shut up and listen to the beautiful story I created from that premise.”

Let’s just look at an example. In the wake of the infamous debate between Nie and Ham, Anna Lloyd explains “Why science is irrelevant to my belief in God“. This is a very interesting text, because it shows in a very blunt way the true nature of creationism: it is not a scientific theory at all, but rather a refusal to apply the scientific method to study reality. There would be nothing seriously wrong with that if the conclusions weren’t scientific conclusions: the Earth is so and so, created so and so. Why? Because I say so. Or rather: because God says so. To whom? To me through ancient texts written by God through man. Why should we believe it? Because I say so.

Here’s where I differ with Nye and many others like him — I believe the Bible to be true, without question. I believe it was written supernaturally by God through men. Does that make logical sense to a human? No. Why believe it?”

Yes. Indeed. Why?

Well, we won’t get far if we don’t engage with her ideas. She actually explains why she prefers the Bible to the scientific account of things. She says:

“If there’s anything that’s been proven throughout history time and again it’s that people are imperfect. We mess up, we misunderstand, we skew, we distort. If the thing by which we test our world [i.e., Science] is imperfect, then how can we expect the results to consistently be true?

So, science is imperfect. She then chooses to believe God’s word as stated in the Bible. Who wouldn’t? If only we could be certain that the Bible is God’s word…

Let’s get back to a situation in which neither of us has decided if we should believe the Bible or rather prefer the scientific account of things that tells us the Bible cannot be literally true.

Are we choosing between divine logic and human logic?

No, we are choosing between two human accounts of things.

We don’t see God anywhere. We just see a book which seems a rather odd collection of ancient myths and we see a tradition of human followers who believe this book to be divinely inspired. But that could just be imperfect humanity for you: messing up, misunderstanding, skewing, distorting and making it all sound as divine words.

(Also, don’t forget: a still undecided person has to choose between many different and incompatible sacred books. This reeks of humanity believing something for all the wrong reasons.)

In the other hand, we have science. Is science just another set of sacred beliefs? No! Science just says: humans are imperfect — we mess up, we misunderstand, we skew and we distort everything, even when we are acting in good faith. We are not divine — not by a long shot.So, science (which never denies being a human creation) tries to compensate for all those faults by studying them and applying a very strict method to overcome them.

Science doesn’t expect scientific knowledge to be sacred or “consistently true” — it is tentatively true, or better: it is truer than “knowledge” we would get if we didn’t apply the scientific method. The scientific method is a method that can help us escape the very thing that Anna describes: humans mess up, humans misunderstand, humans skew, humans distort — more: humans are animals with strong evolutionary skills that are not fine-tuned to know the world accurately (as they would be if a God had created them by plan), but rather fine-tuned to survive (as if we were created by nature by surviving). That’s the reason why we need to compensate for failings. If only a God had made us more perfect and ready to understand the world without having to go through all the pain of science…

So, why so many people choose to believe the Bible as a literal account of what happened in the past? The reason is our very human tendency to believe what makes us feel better. Reason is hard and tentative and doesn’t give us ready-to-serve answers that promise eternal life. Science just promises to try harder everyday to discover the truth, whatever it is.

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How to decide on a blog’s title

A very good question that I don’t know how to answer, to be honest.

This blog was born out of my need to have some space where I can write down my notes, reflections and questions about a very strange assortment of subjects: science, literature, language, translation, the transfer of useful knowledge between thinking and living, etc. (This “etc.” is unusually large, I can assure you.)

In fact, this began as a way of making me write down texts about my PhD thesis subject. I thought about giving this blog the title “Science in Literature”. But that would be too specific. I read a whole lot more than books on “science in literature”. In fact, I read much more than I should about other things, since I should be writing my thesis, period.

But let me tell you this: we don’t have a lot of time to think and read and reflect and go living side by side. We will all end up dead. So, let’s not limit ourselves too much.

It is eerily funny that after deciding on naming this blog “Reading, Thinking, Living” I googled those three words and found this quote by Sylvia Plath:

So much working, reading, thinking, living to do. A lifetime is not long enough. Nor youth to old age long enough. Immortality and permanence be damned. Sure I want them, but they are nonexistent, and won’t matter when I rot underground. All I want to say is: I made the best of a mediocre job. (Karen V. Kukil (Hg.): The Unabrigded Journals of Sylvia Plath. New York 2000. S. 149.) Found here.

Yes, that’s exactly this: we won’t be here forever. I want to understand the world so furiously that I can’t stop reading and thinking. And then we must keep living. How to do this as well as possible?

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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