Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Vagaries of Interpretation, or: The Virtue of Doubt

I'd wager that just about any old Humanist - and definitely anyone likely to read this - could rattle off a whole list of reasons why this or that brand of theism is off its goddamned rocker. There's a million and ten reasons each for all million and ten religions, and in that sense, Humanism is atheistic in that it doesn't have any variant of theism woven into it. Whether or not there are gods is, quite frankly, immaterial: we Humanists are concerned with human lives, human values, human happiness, and human flourishing. Deities just don't matter, whether they exist or not.

Erm, wait - is Humanism a religion, though? Maybe, and maybe not. Religion, like faith, or god, or good, is a word that we humans have made up. It has no truly objective meaning, and so it means a great many things to a great many people. But systems of thought that I think we all could agree are religions share a very peculiar characteristic in common: they all tout faith as a virtue. How does Humanism compare to this? Well, Humanists could be fairly said to have faith in humanity, if by "have faith" we mean "place trust" or "find hope." But religious faith goes a step further and encourages belief beyond evidence and reason (whether good or bad, religious faith does in fact go beyond evidence and reason), and championing this sense of faith is something I think it fair to say that Humanism lacks.

In fact, I plan to argue that the cardinal virtue of Humanism is doubt.

This will rely quite a bit on judgment calls that ultimately come down to matters of emphasis and perspective, but it is precisely this particular way of looking at things that I think is most Humanistic. So let's take it from the top: why is doubt virtuous? On an aretaic analysis, we human beings are fallible and so ought to embrace this fallibility - we can do this by taking the opportunity to doubt ourselves whenever it arises. On a consequentialist analysis, every doubt confers a benefit, and so we ought to spread these benefits among our fellow humans whenever we can. And on a deontological analysis, we could say that we have a duty to doubt ourselves, because we are by nature fallible and placing absolute certainty on this or that idea is likely to be ruinous to us.

More importantly than any of this, to my mind, is the fact that doubt acknowledges the fundamental ambiguity of reality. It is one of the very first things we can really recognize about the world: reality is confusing. How confusing? So confusing. So confusing, in fact, that we can't even have second-order knowledge: even if we stumbled upon the One Truth of the Universe, we couldn't know that we know that we have it. This has been proven with math, but I plan on simply illustrating the point with pictures that look like math.

Formally, this principle is entailed by the Duhem-Quine thesis, which is the idea that:
...it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires one or more background assumptions (also called auxiliary assumptions or auxiliary hypotheses). The hypothesis in question is by itself incapable of making predictions. Instead, the consequences of the hypothesis typically rest on background assumptions from which to derive predictions. This prevents a theory from becoming conclusively falsified through empirical means if the background assumptions are not proven (since background assumptions sometimes involve one or more scientific theories). For instance, to "disprove" the idea that the Earth is in motion, some people noted that birds did not get thrown off into the sky whenever they let go of a tree branch. That datum is no longer accepted as empirical evidence that the Earth is not moving because we have adopted a different background system of physics that allows us to make different predictions.
So, yeah, hooray! We can't ever settle a question "once and for all, forever and always." Corollary to this is the idea that any finite set of data yields itself to infinite possible interpretations. However many interpretations are actually made are finite, they are "that many" and no more; but the possible interpretations for any finite set of data are, in principle, infinite. Let me show you what I'm talking about.

Suppose we have three data points, as follows:
What would you say is the best-fit line? Certainly, the most obvious one is this:
But doesn't this also fit the data?
And how about this?
Or this?
So, if we only have those three data points, how do we know which curve we're working with?

The short answer is: we don't. All of those interpretations explain the three points with perfect consistency. And the same holds true for any arbitrarily large (yet finite) set of data points. And no matter how much any one of us, or all of us, may know, we only have a finite set of data and no more than that. So how can we distinguish the possible interpretations from one another? How can we tell whether one is a better explanation than its counterpart?

Get more data points. Rule out inconsistent curves. And if you think you've got a better explanation than the most commonly accepted one, then make some predictions about data points that would be obtained on your interpretation, which would also rule out the competing status quo explanation, and then see if reality bears you out or not. In other words: do science. Test. Experiment. And fuel it with your doubt.

To carry this analogy to its appropriately awkward conclusion, faith-based traditions say, "Here is the data curve! Anything that you think doesn't fit, with your flawed mortal reasoning, is either the result of your failure to understand the perfection of the curve, or the imperfect nature of reality!" But here's the thing: even if we had a complete curve, and could demonstrate perfect correspondence at every single point, we would still need to doubt. Why?

Because what if the "received wisdom" says this:
But reality is this:
Or this?
Can we ever rule out those other possibilities? Or any permutations thereof? Or all permutations thereof?

We cannot, in the final analysis. Other interpretations will always, by necessity, be available. We must look. We must check. And so long as we must look and check, we must doubt. And so, in light of the facts that reality is under no obligation to conform itself to our expectations, and that there might always be some future discovery to upset even our most cherished beliefs of today, we must learn to walk in doubt. From doubt, we can learn humility, charity, respect, forgiveness, tolerance, and a whole host of other things that certainty would eschew. After all, if you're certain that you've got the right answer, then no deviation ought to be tolerated - but if you doubt, then deviations may not only be permitted, they may be embraced.

Walk in doubt, my friends. For if anything in this world is certain, it is that certainty is bunk.

This post was featured in the 46th Humanist Symposium.

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