Slate Star Codex on Creationism and the Outside View

Scott Alexander at the Slate Star Codex blog has reviewed Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I’ve read substantial excerpts from the book (on the new Less Wrong site, lesserwrong.com), and the book will be interesting to anyone interested in epistemology and/or game theory, in particular, Pareto-suboptimal Nash Equilibria and how to escape them. More about that in future posts.

One of the topics in SSC’s review is epistemology, particularly how evolutionists (that includes me) can judge that their belief in evolution is better-founded than creationists’ belief in creationism. SSC grapples (as does the book) with something called the Outside View. Briefly, this is when you try to look at your judgments as if you were an objective third party, from a distance. E.g., you may think you’re a better-than-average driver, but apparently most people do, so maybe you’re just biased. After all, it’s a fact that a significant proportion of people who think they’re better-than-average drivers are wrong. Maybe you’re one of them.

But if you think in terms of the outside view you can get yourself all knotted up. SSC goes off the rails here:

I believe in evolution. But about half of Americans believe in creation. So either way, half of people are wrong about the evolution-creation debate. Since I know I’m in a category, half of whom are wrong, I should assume there’s a 50-50 chance I’m wrong about evolution.

SSC admits this is a “pathological” application of the Outside View. Yes, it is, but why? Because there has been no evidence put forward.

But surely the situation isn’t symmetrical? After all, the evolution side includes all the best biologists, all the most educated people, all the people with the highest IQ. The problem is, the true Outside Viewer can say “Ah, yes, but a creationist would say that their side is better, because it includes all the best fundamentalist preachers, all the world’s most pious people, and all the people with the most exhaustive knowledge of Genesis. So you’re in a group of people, the Group Who Believe That Their Side Is Better Qualified To Judge The Evolution-Creation Debate, and 50% of the people in that group are wrong. So this doesn’t break the fundamental symmetry of the situation.

But fundamentalist preachers and pious people are not evidence about the world, nor is Genesis. Evolution is about the world. Any given book may or may not be about the world. What is evidence about the world? The world! This is really just obvious. Now I guess someone could respond with, “Oooooh, no it’s not!” But note that kind of rejection of evidence rejects everything. If I can’t trust what my eyes tell me about the world, then I can’t trust what they tell me the words are in the Bible, either. I also can’t trust them when they tell me that this dude has a degree in Theology hanging on his wall. And I can’t trust my ears when creationists tell me, “All the most pious Genesis scholars are on our side,” etc. See, the fantastic thing about bullshit is that if you push it hard enough, it destroys itself.

SSC mentions a true psychological case study known as the Three Christs Of Ypsilanti, in which three men in a mental hospital all thought they were Jesus:

…imagine that when Schizophrenic A was confronted with the other Christs, he protested that he had special evidence it was truly him. In particular, the Archangel Gabriel had spoken to him and told him he was Jesus. Meanwhile, Schizophrenic B had seen a vision where the Holy Spirit descended into him in the form of a dove. Schizophrenic A laughs. “Anyone can hallucinate a dove. But archangels are perfectly trustworthy.” Schizophrenic B scoffs. “Hearing voices is a common schizophrenic symptom, but I actually saw the Spirit”. Clearly they still are not doing Outside View right.

But if you can’t trust your senses, you can’t trust anything. This gets us to radical skepticism a la Rene Descartes and David Hume, etc. See above remarks on pious Genesis scholars, etc. (Note: Phil Collins was their drummer. Har!)

And in particular, if you can’t trust your senses, you have no reason to believe that there are two other people hanging around near you who also think they’re Jesus. So you have no need to engage with the intellectual problem they pose. There is no intellectual problem they pose.

(I’ve included more on the Three Christs Of Ypsilanti at the end of this post.)

So overall, when SSC worries,

…half of people are wrong about the evolution-creation debate. Since I know I’m in a category, half of whom are wrong, I should assume there’s a 50-50 chance I’m wrong about evolution

…he’s fretting for no reason. Creationists have basically no evidence on their side. If they really are saying “People who are pious accept creationism” as evidence for creationism – I’ve never heard that one before – just point out that a person’s adherence to a religion has nothing to do with the soundness of their judgments about the factual topic of evolution. Things like junk DNA, the blind spot in the human eye, and bacteria developing antibiotic resistance are relevant evidence. Creationists’ opinions about these things are not evidence. Evolutionists’ opinions aren’t evidence either. Why even discuss people’s opinions as if they’re evidence?

It’s as if SSC is saying, “I am wearing a green sweater. But there’s a creationist wearing a green sweater too. So either way, half of all the people wearing green sweaters are wrong about creationism vs. evolution!” Um… what? This isn’t even a thing. And it’s just as relevant as saying, “A lot of creationists feel subjectively certain about creationism, just as I feel subjectively certain about evolution. So there’s a 50% chance that I’m wrong!” Dude, NO. Your evidence for evolution is not that you feel pretty certain about it. Your evidence is the fossil record, etc.

Indeed, this totally puts the cart before the horse. We feel pretty certain about evolution because of the evidence for it. The feeling of near-certainty is not itself the evidence!

In this sense, I think the Ypsilanti Jesus example, where all the evidence is “I just know,” really has drawn people off on a tangent about the outside view. It’s an unfortunate side detour, that has wasted the time of people like SSC and not really produced much else, other than that one semi-amusing blog post on LiveJournal.


More on the Three Christs Of Ypsilanti:

Another SSC quote:

The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti is a story about three schizophrenics who thought they were Jesus all ending up on the same psych ward. Each schizophrenic agreed that the other two were obviously delusional. But none of them could take the next step and agree they were delusional too… They should have said “At least 66% of people in this psych hospital who believe they’re Jesus are delusional. This suggests there’s a strong bias, like a psychotic illness, that pushes people to think they’re Jesus. I have no more or less evidence for my Jesus-ness than those people, so I should discount my apparent evidence – my strong feeling that I am Him – and go back to my prior that almost nobody is Jesus.”

Note it’s important that each one’s “evidence” for his being Jesus was entirely a mystic feeling that he was Jesus. But that’s not evidence. More on that in a second.

SSC also links to this sorta famous (in rationalist circles) piece about Jesus, which I linked to above:
http://squid314.livejournal.com/324957.html

The idea, if you don’t want to click through, is that Satan doesn’t bother trying to tempt Jesus with worldly power or whatever. He just says, “Look, dude, of all the people who think they’re Jesus, what are the odds that you’re actually Him?” I don’t buy this argument, because the entire assumption is that Jesus has some divine epistemological uber-magic that is a source of complete certainty. But anyway, in the story Jesus doesn’t fall for it; he just pushes Satan off a cliff. LOL. (Also, Jesus could simply work a miracle – say, levitating a mountain or whatever – to reassure Himself that he’s Him, granting the weird assumption that He’d need to re-assure Himself. And how could there be thousands of dudes thinking they’re Jesus while Jesus’s life is still going on? He has to enter the historical record first. Satan claims he’s showing Jesus the future, but why believe the Father of Lies? All right, whatever, getting off topic.) The point is, whatever you think of this story, a fundamental point within it is that Jesus’s only evidence for being Jesus is that he feels subjectively certain that he is. That’s also the case for the Three Christs of Ypsilanti; it is fundamental to both that the only evidence for Jesus-ness is “I have a special feeling.”

But DUDE. Our evidence for evolution is not that we have a special feeling about it. It’s the fossil record, etc., etc., etc.

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