Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Inferential Distances Again

I briefly touched upon this previously, but some actual examples in the form of fake dialog would be more useful. Before I get to that though, let me try and frame the problem abstractly. When you master a body of knowledge with long argument chains, you'll find that trying to convince someone of your conclusions, especially the non-intuitive ones, without them going through a similarly long argument chain, is near impossible if they haven't even started on a similar road you took. In the process of trying to explain why you believe your conclusion, you inevitably have to move down to a further level on the inferential chain and create a link from that level to your conclusions. At science conferences, a presenter might do this by starting off with a general set of facts the layman wouldn't be expected to know, but most people in the presenter's field should, and create a link from that point to his presentation's conclusion. A single step such as that has an inferential distance of 1, and has two levels. Now if the same presenter is trying to explain it to a layman, there may be any number of levels below the first that he started with his colleagues, and he now has to go through those first.

But it gets even worse, because the inferential chain is really a graph. There may be some "hierarchy" to it, as in you need to accept certain ideas on the graph before you can move to a different area of the graph with its own network of ideas, so you can consider it a chain with each link being a graph, but that's only valid for strongly hierarchical models.

Now imagine the difficulty that presenter might have trying to explain his conclusions to a layman. Many ideas, or "nodes", in the graph need to be visited and agreed upon or at least understood before he can move up an inferential level. If he's uncertain where the layman's initial knowledge lies, he'll most likely start at a level too high. And so the layman asked him to explain X, suddenly the presenter is explaining Y, Z, W... None of which the layman really understands, and the presenter only realizes this once he gets to W which is reinforced by Y, so he drops down a level to start explaining A, B, C...repeat. This is understandably confusing for the layman, and if the layman is predisposed to not liking the general thrust the presenter is heading for already, he may start shutting out everything. Then he'll accuse the presenter of constantly changing the subject and being dishonest when the presenter is just trying to bring the layman up to a level where understanding X in reasonable terms is even possible.

It's even worse for the presenter when the inferential graph isn't completely hierarchal. He may start explaining Y, then realize he needs to first explain Z, then realize he needs to first explain W, then realize if he could explain P, that would help in explaining W, then realizes that he needs to explain O to explain P, then realizes he needs to explain Y to explain O, and he goes in circles. When the presenter gets far enough away from the layman, he forgets his exact path, and forgets that some nodes on the graph such as P, while useful in helping to understand Z which helps to understand Y, didn't come until after he already understood Y. Again the layman is confused. A layman keen on arguing to win rather than arguing to get at truth will start the Who-Can-Spot-the-Logical-Fallacy war. "Circular reasoning", "appeals to authority", "appeals to consensus", "rationalizing", etc. etc. Don't even mention personal attacks. "Confused", "Confusing", "Unorganized" are nice ones. "Crackpot" is a slightly mean one.

Religion is a topic that for some is only one inferential step away from atheism, for others it's several. In my opinion, if you're going to try and convince a religious person to go for atheism, you need to go all out. And if you lose, give up and hope they come around on their own, because in my experience the inferential gap only becomes larger and larger after all the classical arguments have been laid down and the sides haven't changed. If you find yourself talking about the nature of "evidence", you've already lost trying to convert the theist. If you don't do a superb job explaining to them the nature of evidence and getting them to agree with you, you may even actually hurt their chances of coming around to atheism on their own.

Here's an example dialog of a short inferential distance conversion from theism to atheism.

8 year old: God is cool. Jesus was like a super hero, he had all these powers and helped people! He was so kind, amazing, I really admire him. I love him.

Jaded 19 year old brother: Who is Jesus?

8 year old: Jesus is the son of the God.

Brother: Why do you believe in God?

Mom: Bob, shut up!

8 year old: Hmm, I know mom's hiding something if she acts like that. What's she hiding? Why doesn't she want me to question my belief in God? Why do I believe in God anyway? Well, a lot of adults believe in God and have told me all these nice stories. A lot of them swear by the power of prayer. But I've been praying for my friend's brother to overcome his mental illness for quite a few years now, but he's still locked up in the insane asylum. Maybe God's like Santa, just a nice set of stories that make people feel nice... Huh, I don't really believe in God as an actual thing anymore.

In this case the presenter is the Brother. The kid was reasonably bright already and understood the value in asking the question Why do I believe what I believe? Once that connection had been made, between his ideas about God and Questioning his ideas about God, the end conclusion was he changed his ideas about God.

Here's another example of a futile attempt.

Bob: Christianity is false, atheism is correct, it's just the simple truth.

Joe: Truth? A lot of people disagree with you, what you said is frankly insulting.

Bob: (Oh crap, I gotta explain the nature of insults in relationship to facts now because I don't think I'm being insulting.) No, it's not insulting. It's a statement of fact. If people are insulted by facts, that's their problem, the facts themselves aren't insulting. If I said something like "Your Mom's a whore", which is probably untrue and I have no way of knowing anyway, that's insulting.

Joe: Tides go in, tides go out. You have no way of knowing. Therefore it's insulting because you can't prove it's a fact. God is the real thing.

Bob: (Tides go in...the hell?) I can explain the tides, but even if I couldn't, that doesn't mean you can jump to saying God did it.. It could have been Thor...

Joe: Mythology please.

Bob: (Wait, he doesn't recognize the equivalence of myth and religion?) Myth and religion are the same things. People once believed in Thor in the same way as you believe in God, but those people have died out and when studying those cultures, it's important to study the culture's sense of mysticism, or religion, and we've branded that study mythology...

Joe: Religion is myth? That's insulting.

Bob: (...Wait, so I thought we got past the problem that 1) facts aren't insulting and 2) religion is myth.) But religion is myth, it's a fact, and facts aren't insulting, same thing as religion is false being a fact...

Joe: You already said that. Are you calling me stupid?

Bob: (Ugh.) No, you're not stupid.

Joe: Yet you say something's a fact and not insulting when clearly you haven't proved it's a fact. And you can't prove the non-existence of something.

Bob: (Oh jeeze not this again.) Yes you can. Modus tollens. If P then Q implies if Not Q, then Not P. So if you say unicorns exist as P, therefore we'll find fossil records as Q, and I show that there are no fossil records, that implies not P, or that there are no unicorns. Also, absence of evidence is evidence of absence..

Joe: Evidence? I asked for proof.

Bob: (...This is going to make me sound stupid isn't it.) Um... What's your definition of proof? (If it's logical or mathematical proof, I just showed you can. If it's scientific proof, I can go more into what evidence means... If it's plausible proof, I can make a rhetorical story that sounds nice... If it's legal proof...hmm, I should think about that one...)

Joe: (..Uh oh, I haven't thought of that.) We're out of time!

The case here is that the question of Why do I believe what I believe? isn't part of Joe's thought process. The virtue of that question is at least one inferential level above Joe, and so when faced with something that opposes his beliefs, his first response is taking offense. You may know some religious people who just break down and cry if you try to get them to question their belief. You may know some people who just can't discuss the idea of a 60 year old marrying a 10 year old girl. The very thought of it leads to their emotions taking complete control. The emotions aren't to blame, I think it's perfectly reasonable to get repulsed by such things, but I don't think that's a reason to either forbid discussing it or an excuse to be incapable of discussing it.

Suppose Joe responded to the last question, however, with "scientific proof." Now Bob has to go into the nature of evidence, and then into the nature of Probability Theory, and math shuts people's brains down so good luck with that, and then to Information Theory, and then to the formal form of Occam's Razor, and when he gets to Occam's Razor Bob will shrug and say "I can't justify Occam's Razor without appealing to Occam's Razor which my human brain seems built to like intuitively, I can't do any better right now." at which point Joe says "AHA! Atheism relies on Faith too."

And all of this is just for a relatively tame subject like religion! Imagine beliefs that require undergraduate degrees at minimum for most people to grasp! Imagine flat-out unintuitive-to-the-layman beliefs like quantum mechanics! Imagine both of them combined like some of the recent game-changing computer science work!

There are a lot of beliefs over at Less Wrong I've come to accept, either through the arguments there or my own prior/post research, and many of them at an intuitive level. But trying to explain those, in a sensible order, trying to account for pre-requisites, trying to not sound like a total crackpot, is incredibly difficult. I believe one of my grandmothers isn't going to be alive much longer, but considering she's racist, sexist, strongly religious, and not very technical-minded, I don't even want to attempt trying to convince her to sign up for cryonics. Even to "normal", atheist, high-frequency internet users and even programmers, the idea of "You're going to get your head chopped off after you're declared dead, preserved in liquid nitrogen, and hope that one day you'll be able to be revived as a mind on a machine or with a new body?" Yeah, crackpot alert, even if you get to the point where it's not freezing in the sense that damaging ice crystals form or that "hope" is about 5-20% probability. The inferential chain for coming to believe that is pretty long and detailed, and not a subject for this post.

This post just gets out some of my frustration with trying to explain things, and is also an excuse for why my blogging rate has gone down. Every time I try and blog about something more philosophical-leaning than of immediate practical use, I instantly see all the pre-requisite posts I should blog about first, and so I have multiple posts lined up but only parts of each finished.

Posted on 2011-08-14 by Jach

Tags: philosophy, rant, teaching


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cliveb August 19, 2011 06:01:55 PM By way of inference you're close to some algorithmic break through solving BI directly from unstructured data? Perhaps using Monte Carlo tree search...

Just a SWAG!
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