Living in a world of inductive inferences

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Our unfathomable world of inferences. Image source: Wikipedia.

It occurred to me a few years ago, while watching the evening news, how much the world we live in is one of inductive inferences, that is, largely subjective extrapolations and generalizations. I’ve held this intellectual position for a long time but it was only then that it struck me as a deeply felt experience, not just a mere abstraction.

Regardless of our intellectual, religious, or philosophical positions, perhaps most of us assume many more notions about how reality is put together than the empirical facts of experience could justify. In science, this inductively inferred web of notions and beliefs takes the form of models, which are mathematical mock-ups that are to reality much like a map is to the streets of a city. Empirically, only very few positions in the map are actually tested against the actual configurations of the myriad streets it purports to represent. But since the map is generated by a coherent mental procedure – that is, a coherent set of axioms and derivations about the nature of reality, which Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm – by confirming a few of its implications empirically we attain tremendous psychological confidence about the validity of the mental procedure as a whole and, therefore, about the entirety of the map.

For instance, with the Standard Model of particle physics we’ve constructed a pretty good map of matter at the subatomic level, insofar as the Standard Model correctly predicts the vast majority of experimental observations of individual particles and relatively simple systems of particles. In other words, when we test the map against a few, small, isolated alleys of the city, we find an excellent match. And since the map was not put together ad hoc, but derived from a coherent mental procedure, we extrapolate these simple matches and inductively infer that the map accurately represents all the complex networks of streets, highways, junctions, tunnels, and overpasses of the entire city. What gets lost in this is the fact that nobody has ever simulated anything macroscopic, starting from the basic laws of particle physics, to check if the simulated results would match up with the realities we ordinarily experience. In other words, nobody really knows if the reality of the weather, the oceans, forests, people, bothersome neighbors, traffic jams, office intrigues, illnesses, marriages and divorces, teenage delinquency, politics, history, etc., can really be reduced to the empirically verified behavior of subatomic particles. As a matter of fact, nobody even knows if relatively simple, microscopic systems, like large protein molecules or DNA, can be reduced to the basic laws of particle physics. We just assume they can, because such an assumption is an axiom of the current scientific paradigm. Yet who is to say that entirely novel and irreducible causal forces don’t kick in at slightly higher levels of complexity? Who is to say that nature isn’t mostly governed by these non-local causal agencies, which only come into play when enough subatomic particles interact according to configurations currently too complex to test under controlled conditions? I discuss this hypothesis at length in Chapter 6 of Rationalist Spirituality.

An argument often mentioned in defense of science is the effectiveness of technology. We live in a technological society driven by computers, wireless communications, drugs designed at the molecular level, and all kinds of marvelous technological apparatuses. That they all consistently work is a testimony to the correctness of science, one might claim. And the evidence this provides is certainly much more visible and palpable than the relatively few and impenetrable (by comparison) laboratory experiments reported in scientific papers. Yet this argument is fallacious: technology is designed so as to eliminate – by construction – all but the potentially small set of causal forces that are understood by science. Take computers, for example: their binary behavior operates on a statistical basis. If enough electrical charges build up and cross a certain statistical threshold, the computer reads a ‘1;’ otherwise, a ‘0’ is read. It is conceivable that many more causal forces are at play in the buildup of the electrical charges but, through the diligent and ingenious application of statistical techniques, we eliminate their effect by construction. Analogous mechanisms are built into all technologies, for this is the only way to ensure that “noise” and unanticipated factors do not cause our apparatuses to stop working. Amongst those “unanticipated factors” there may lie evidence that things aren’t quite what we think they are…

Science, as a group activity subject to all the psychological and sociological biases of collective human behavior, is just an example of our tendency to extrapolate the little we know and construct vast worlds of inductive inferences to live in. Culture itself already embodies an unfathomable web of extrapolations that most of us take for granted without a second thought; as though they were empirically confirmed facts. From the moment we can understand what is spoken to us, we begin to get entangled in this web. As a result, later in life we end up assuming, for instance, that we are our brains; that our consciousness is a product of brain activity, even though there is not even a tentative, properly formed explanation for how that could possibly be the case. We accept that we are locked up inside what Alan Watts called a “bag of skin,” entirely separate from the world “out there.” We accept that the present is determined by the past, even though all that is available to observation are correlations, not causality (the latter is part of our web of inductive inferences, as I discuss in Chapter 1 of Dreamed up Reality). We assume that all reality is amenable to our rationality and ordinary perception mechanisms, even though we know the same certainly does not apply to amoebae or earthworms. We inductively infer that history and cosmology explain how we got here, even though both seem to revise their stories more often than one would feel comfortable with. We accept that death is the end of our identity and personal history, even though a growing volume of data published in leading medical journals seems to cast doubt on this notion. We believe that truth is literal, everything else being at best a good metaphor and, as such, ultimately unreal. Yet, aboriginal cultures throughout the world are incapable of making a distinction between literal and metaphorical truths (we actually have reason to believe they are correct, as I discuss in my upcoming book Meaning in Absurdity). Clearly, the world we live in is largely a matter of education and culture – of projected, inductively inferred concepts – not of hard empirical facts. If one looks critically and skeptically enough, there is precious little of the latter, if any.

Reality is far too diverse, broad, elusive, ambiguous, and complex for us to pin it down empirically to any sufficient degree. Even the empirical data we do collect can only be interpreted within the framework of a paradigm of thought and is, therefore, not really neutral. But in our desperate search for closure we confabulate models and extrapolations to construct unfathomable edifices of assumed truths. They make up the world we actually live in as far as our experience of reality; a world of stories, not facts.

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