Where Can the Small Things Take You?

Where can the small things take you?

Responding to my last point on the distinction between magic and supernaturalism, doctor(logic) offered this:

When you make a voodoo doll, don’t you have to follow a recipe and include one of the victim’s hairs or possessions?

That would mean that there’s a very specific relationship between the actions of the voodoo practitioner and the pain or death of the victim. There are laws that control the magic. Voodoo is predictable. Scientifically falsifiable, even.

In contrast, prayer to God has nothing of the sort. Pray for a cardiac patient, and they’re as likely to die or recover as anyone else.

The defining characteristic of superstition is improper statistical sampling, and the amplification of bias. Superstition is all about creative interpretation of individual events, and assigning significance to events based on bias and emotion. It has nothing to do with relationship or mechanism.

There’s a whole worldview contained in there, and it’s one of the most characteristically defining worldviews of our age. It’s a view that takes it that except for mathematical knowledge, all knowledge of the world begins with particulars.

What do I mean by that, and what difference does it make? doctor(logic) has given us the illustration we need to explain it: voodoo. Those of us who have followed his comments know that he does not accept the existence of magic or the supernatural, so we can be quite sure that he does not believe in voodoo (except if there is some psychological impact associated with it, which is a different thing entirely). But here he suggests the following:

  • If statistical sampling were applied to voodoo in actual practice, and
  • If bias were removed from interpretation of the results, and
  • If a genuine, unbiased association were found between the practice of voodoo and its intended outcomes,
  • Then voodoo would be predictable, and
  • Then voodoo could be regarded as a real phenomenon, and presumably
  • Then work would have to be done to investigate the means by which it operates.

Statistical sampling is a matter of gathering particulars: actual individual instances, each measured one by one, in which voodoo practice* is attempted, and actual individual instances of its “success” or “failure.” These individual instances are collated and analyzed mathematically. If that analysis says something is going on, then the researcher lifts up his head and looks around, so to speak, to theorize possible larger explanations and connections. If there were some statistical correlation between voodoo practice and its outcomes, and if other confounding variables were weeded out, then we would have to think hard about some theory to explain it.

This is how doctor(logic) would handle voodoo as a matter of knowledge, if I read him correctly (and he’s been saying this sort of thing a long time). Those two processes—the gathering of many individual instances, and mathematical analysis—are at the basis of all knowledge of the world, according to this viewpoint. If it’s not statistical, it’s not about reality. But we have to recognize that for what it is: particulars upon particulars upon particulars, aggregated and collated and analyzed statistically. The world is known only through its small things.

This is not only about one commenter’s position. It seems to me this is characteristic of the natural sciences in general, and even of human sciences like psychology. The description of knowledge-generation I just gave could have come from my grad studies in industrial and organizational psychology, the science of human effectiveness on the job and in organizations. I/O psychology research and knowledge is all about statistical analysis of individual people and events, measured one by one by one. Small things, aggregated.

On this view, knowledge of small things leads to knowledge of larger things: general theories or laws regarding how nature operates. It never works the other way around: we never start with knowledge of larger things. And that leads me to several questions. These are not fully thought-out conclusions, but conversation starters instead.

  • Other than mathematical knowledge (based on axioms and logic) do the sciences ever start with anything other than particulars (small things)?
  • Is it possible that there is a method-to-result correlation here? That is, the sciences are infamously reductionistic in their conclusions with respect to matters like thought, design, and so on. Could their reductionist results be as much a product of method as it is of the reality being so studied?

I need to illustrate my next question before I ask it. A friend of mine once told me about a certain science-fiction story in which an earthling was trying to communicate with an alien. He pointed to a rock and said, “Rock.” The alien pointed and repeated, “Rock.” The earthling, excited by that success, pointed at it again and said, “Rock.” Unfortunately, this didn’t work for the alien. It thought, “How strange! There was ‘rock’ there a moment ago, so how could there be ‘rock’ there now? What was there has changed so much since then, in all of its deep molecular and energy structure; it no longer exists in the same state. If it was ‘rock’ before, it must be something other than ‘rock’ now. How can this other being so unaware of that?”

And then the earthling pointed at another object on the ground, and again said “Rock.” At this point the alien knew it was hopeless.

Where the earthling saw similarity, the alien saw constant change and difference. Where the earthling saw and analyzed on the macroscopic level of visible and touchable hardness, color, texture, and so on, the alien saw and analyzed on the level of molecules. Where the earthling saw constancy across time, the alien saw massive change.** Which one of them was right? On what basis? How do we know what to aggregate? If the answer to that is based in some human mental process with no larger justification, then it is very contingent, and its reliability is suspect. Another kind of being might see reality very differently, and there’s no telling whether we or it have a better handle on what’s real or true. But if aggregating small things is the basis for all knowledge, and we don’t have a reliable way of knowing what or how can be aggregated, then the basis for all knowledge is highly suspect.

It’s not necessarily as hopeless as that, though, for science does offer an answer to that question: if you can correlate ’em, you are justified in aggregating ’em. If two events, objects, processes, or other phenomena have mathematical similarity, then you can call them similar in reality. With that as background I return to my bullet-formatted questions:

  • Isn’t there some function in the human mind that just knows that a rock is a rock, and knows it with high reliability, without mathematical analysis?
  • Could we even study anything on the level of particulars without prior knowledge of at least some generalities (and I’m not talking about logical/mathematical axioms)?
    If so, then not all knowledge is statistical, for statistical knowledge depends on a different, prior kind of knowledge.
  • If we approach all knowledge from the small end, looking for generalities through statistical analysis of particulars, what might we be missing in the form knowledge that can’t be gained by that method?
  • If there is a God, what is the likelihood we would find him by starting our search from the small end of everything? Could it be that if one insists on starting at that end, one is guaranteed to miss the potentially biggest reality of all?

Just some questions. I haven’t thought them through well enough to be sure of the answers, but I think there’s something there. If there’s a God, and the goal is to know him, can the small things take you there? I doubt it. And I doubt that starting from the small things is the only way for us to know what is real.

*There are probably errors in the popular conception of voodoo that this characterization calls to mind. I’ll grant that, and ask the reader to recognize that this is an illustration of a point about knowledge, not a treatise on voodoo; and the illustration is based on how voodoo is popularly conceived, not on how it is actually practiced or what its proponents actually believe.

**There are other interesting questions and inconsistencies to be considered in that exchange, like, did the alien actually hear the same word “rock” both times, and did it think the earthling was the same being from one moment to the next? But I didn’t read the story, and that’s not what matters here anyway.

Comments 14
  1. brgulker

    Tom,

    You might be interested in the work of Bruce McCormack as it relates to his studies of Kant and Barth. The trajectory that you’re proposing here reminds me a great deal of how Barth sought to overcome Kant’s paradigm shift in epistemology.

    I don’t have the time to flesh any of it out, but I thought I’d at least make you aware of Bruce’s name and work, if you’re not already.

  2. Bill

    Tom, you ask, if when searching for God, ”Could it be that if one insists on starting at that end, one is guaranteed to miss the potentially biggest reality of all? I think the answer is you might, you might not.

    It’s not outside of my personal experience that the little things did add up to the big thing. Looking at any number of details of human existence and searching for the best answer for each individually lead me to understand that there had to be something guiding the whole.

    The better explanations for the existence of things like reason, love, beauty, honor, morality and altruism point toward something outside of ourselves. That on top of that, the fact that everyone seems to posses these characteristics makes one wonder how the universality of these could come from something purely naturalistic. Certainly, taken as a whole, the combined and seeming universal existence of all of these things would seem to virtually rule out a purely naturalistic explanation.

    It seems a far greater leap of faith to maintain a belief that all these things arose through some natural explanation without a supernatural component. It might be an explanation but it simply isn’t the more reasonable approach. You can certainly get to the big picture by looking at the details.

    However, I don’t think the difference is the starting point or the methodology but whether you are truly open to accepting the best explanation even when it clashes with your own ego. That was certainly my challenge and surrendering one’s ego to a greater truth might well be beyond any methodogy.

  3. Justaguy

    Tom,

    Interesting questions of cognitive science and of epistemology.

    Bill,

    I think inherent in the methodology question was the closed system/open system thing. Your answer seems to confirm the proposition, as you stuck not to the data/system provided, but instead looked outside the data/system with which you were provided to ponder another system at work.

  4. Dave

    Hi Tom

    Oddly enough I have just begun reading a book, “Plato’s Theory of Knowledge” by F. M. Comfort (the link is a Google Books free preview with most of the book available online) and Plato, as well as many other Greek philosophers, apparently has much in common with the alien. They thought that all perception was in “flux” – that what you perceive changes from moment to moment and from person to person.

    The underlying aggregate was the foundation of Plato’s theory of “forms” because Plato, being a smart guy, understood that there must be something underneath the particulars through which we are able to understand the aggregate. I haven’t reached that point in the book yet but do have a vague aquaintance with the philosophy from other sources. I also find it quite interesting that Plato and others held to a version of reincarnation which he uses to justify our “hidden” knowledge of the forms, of which the particulars are imperfect instantiations.

  5. Bill

    Justaguy,

    It seems your reply echoes a question that gets asked a lot in the evolution area. Do you analyze data and go wherever it leads or are you constrained to stay within the context of your present understandings? I’ve been taught that it is the very definition of science to follow the evidence wherever it leads but that idea seems to be increasingly challenged.

    In this context though, where the very point of the exercise is to determine whether natural causes are a sufficient explanation, how does one justify not looking at all the alternatives. Of course, some would say that is true in the area of the study of evolution but that would be a different discussion.

  6. Justaguy

    Bill,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I’ve been taught that it is the very defintion of science to follow the evidence wherever it leads…how does one justify not looking at all the alternatives?

    There are prerequisites to what you have described – both of your personal experience, and what you wish for science.

    At the very least, one must have the ability to consider alternative frameworks – perhaps the alien in the story did not possess such an ability. Many of us process information quite differently from others.

    Secondly, one must have the awareness of the alternative theories – and more than that – a reasonable familiarity with those theories. One could easily apply Tversky and Kahneman’s description of the “availability bias” here. What they demonstrated was that people recalled what was most familiar to them; what was most “present” in their memory (I’m definitely keeping this part short.) So, it likely follows that the more one is exposed to a particular paradigm, the more readily one will summon this paradigm to interpret stimuli.

    Lastly (but certainly not the exhaustive “lastly”), the degree to which one considers an alternative paradigm as an/the explanation is undoubtedly positively correlated to the degree to which one merits the alternative paradigm. (E.g., I’m not going to blame tiny guys with blowtorches as the reason I got toast out of bread this morning, as I believe there are reasons that are more plausible – that whole electricity thing, for instance.)

    I notice most problems arising from the inertia of #2 informing on #3. For instance, a Marxist friend of mine just doesn’t get how I don’t see how everyone is being exploited for the capitalist overlords, and I have difficulty understanding how he could ignore the fact that not only has no communist society ever succeeded, but that those in those societies were actually much worse off than before.

  7. SteveK

    It’s a view that takes it that except for mathematical knowledge, all knowledge of the world begins with particulars.

    This view doesn’t work because it means we don’t have knowledge before we have knowledge of particulars. For example, we can’t know X (as opposed to Y) until we know everyhing about X’s particulars.

    Well, did we fail to really know trees are trees and not dogs before knowing their particulars? Do we even know all their particulars now? If not, can anyone really say they know the aggregate tree and dog today? Do particulars have particulars and must we know them first? Come on!

  8. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Those two processes—the gathering of many individual instances, and mathematical analysis—are at the basis of all knowledge of the world, according to this viewpoint. If it’s not statistical, it’s not about reality.

    I would disagree with this. The small things and the particulars are important. Indeed, they are the reality. What we are talking about are inferences to larger patterns of particulars.

    Suppose a person sees a bush spontaneously burst into flames. His observation is a brute fact that he has to accept, inasmuch as it is an observation. It is a lone particular. He may be imagining the event, or it may be real, but, either way, he accepts that he seems to see it. This is true for everyone.

    However, when a superstitious person attaches “significance” to the brute fact of the burning bush, he’s not limiting his attention to this one particular. The “significance” of the event is alleged to apply to a whole range of particulars, albeit vaguely.

    For example, a superstitious person might interpret the burning bush as a sign that he should act in a certain way in order to appease the gods. If he does so, there would be a lot of implicit assumptions that would go into his attachment of significance. The superstitious person would be assuming that gods exist, that the gods have well-defined intentions with respect to our behavior, that the gods prefer to send obscure signs instead of stating their case plainly in the person’s native tongue, and, perhaps, that the gods will act to harm the the person if he doesn’t comply. I don’t think all these assumptions are justified by the lone particular, i.e., the sight of the burning bush.

    Again, the problem arises when people make inferences to larger patterns from a lone particular. That can’t be done without statistics. In order to make inferences about patterns across many particulars, you need to pool and analyze a lot of particulars. Without statistics, you have no idea whether the lone event is really significant of a larger pattern.

  9. SteveK

    DL,

    Again, the problem arises when people make inferences to larger patterns from a lone particular. That can’t be done without statistics. In order to make inferences about patterns across many particulars, you need to pool and analyze a lot of particulars. Without statistics, you have no idea whether the lone event is really significant of a larger pattern.

    Knowledge of the significance of particulars are themselves larger pattern inferences of other particulars. A bush is an pattern inference from the particulars of the bush. I don’t need to take statistical data to know the larger pattern inference when I first gaze upon it. It’s significance is immediately apparant to me as I notice it as something unique and not something resembling static on a TV screen, which I know has no significance whatsoever. You’re trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps here.

  10. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    In answer to more of your questions…

    Isn’t there some function in the human mind that just knows that a rock is a rock, and knows it with high reliability, without mathematical analysis?

    The point is not that we do the analysis explicitly, right?

    A rock is a pattern in our experience. For example, we learn about 3-dimensional objects before we learn about rocks. Most babies (in the West) aren’t learning about objects in space from rocks, but from rattles or wooden bricks. We can look at an object, walk (or crawl) around it, tap it with our knuckles, throw it, lift it, etc. We learn to recognize these things with lots and lots of particulars. Each view of the brick from each possible viewpoint is a particular. Looking at it from above is different from looking at it from the side, etc.

    So a vast amount of particulars goes into our ability to recognize the position of a 3-d object in space. Similarly, there would be countless particulars that feed into our ability to recognize textures and compositions.

    It may seem like a simple particular when we see a rock, but that belief derives from thousands (or maybe millions) of other more primitive particulars we have experienced in the past.

    I think the key point is this: if we can recognize an extended pattern, we ought to be able to do so statistically, at least in principle. Take any case of recognition which we consider uncontroversial and reliable. In that case, we could (if we wanted) make a statistical case for the same knowledge.

    Steve and Bill like to laugh at me for saying this applies to love or friendship. What they really mean is that they would think my life sad if I had to keep a ledger or a lab book to track the particulars that lead to my inference that, say, my girlfriend loves me. Of course, I don’t do this. However, I don’t think it is in doubt that I could do this, and the ledger would largely back up my sense of the situation.

    Even then, there are many cases in which people probably ought to keep ledgers!! There are people who fail to notice the caring acts of their spouses, and wrongly assume that they are not loved or wanted.

    Can you think of a situation in which you think our intuition ought NOT be backed up by a statistical analysis?

    Could we even study anything on the level of particulars without prior knowledge of at least some generalities (and I’m not talking about logical/mathematical axioms)?
    If so, then not all knowledge is statistical, for statistical knowledge depends on a different, prior kind of knowledge.

    Can you explain this further? I described above how the particular of a rock is based on particulars of sense experiences from infancy. However, sense experiences don’t need statistical analysis because they stand alone. The things that need statistical analysis are the implications of sense experiences.

    (BTW, I say sense experiences, but I would go even more general than this, and say “subjective thought experiences”. A friend of mine who is an expert on Kant would say I mean Kantian Judgment, which is a sort of appearance, more general than a sensation or thought.)

    If we approach all knowledge from the small end, looking for generalities through statistical analysis of particulars, what might we be missing in the form knowledge that can’t be gained by that method?

    Non-contradiction and induction, i.e., reason. You can’t use statistics to prove these things because that would be circular. You have to assume these things are true. Okay, you don’t have to, but if you don’t, you can’t rationally conclude anything or support any beliefs at all.

    If there is a God, what is the likelihood we would find him by starting our search from the small end of everything? Could it be that if one insists on starting at that end, one is guaranteed to miss the potentially biggest reality of all?

    I’m sure that some aspects of God could not be seen via statistics. For example, no matter how long you wait for God to die, you’re not going to get certain proof that he’s eternal. You can’t prove the strong negatives. You might also have difficulty proving Jesus was the son of God, or that there is a trinity. However, we have no problem detecting intentionality and agency among our fellow humans. Why should God be any different?

  11. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    Where the earthling saw similarity, the alien saw constant change and difference. Where the earthling saw and analyzed on the macroscopic level of visible and touchable hardness, color, texture, and so on, the alien saw and analyzed on the level of molecules. Where the earthling saw constancy across time, the alien saw massive change.** Which one of them was right? On what basis? How do we know what to aggregate?

    “Rock” is a symbol for a human mental abstraction that itself belongs to a hierarchy of abstractions, including “object” (and “hard”, “mineral”). We define the abstraction “object” by convention as something smallish which doesn’t appear to change dramatically at the macro level. Communication with the alien would only be possible if the alien was also capable of “macro” observation (in addition to molecular/atomic observation), in which case we might eventually reach an agreement on the symbol “object” and subsequently on “hard”, “mineral” and finally on “rock”. So this isn’t a question of who’s right so much as a question of observations and definitions.

    The alien naturally aggregates molecules and energy because that, apparently, is its default observation capability, while we aggregate large-scale observations because that is our default capability (at least in this example). And that is the answer to your question: at the most basic level, we simply aggregate observations, no more, no less.

    If there is a God, what is the likelihood we would find him by starting our search from the small end of everything?

    That sounds like Christianity to me; that is, no one can become a Christian without observation. You have to aggregate verses, then chapters, then books of the Bible to understand what Christianity is. The Bible itself is a record of many observations. Observation of the particulars of others’ Christian experiences is aggregated into a larger view of what one should expect. The abstractions of sin, redemption, forgiveness must be learned bottom-up, if not from Christians then as part of early learning of language and social customs. Nothing you can know about being a Christian can be top-down unless it’s by Divine Revelation (which I understand is rare these days), as far as I can tell.

    But let me make sure I’m not confusing learning about a religion with actually experiencing that religion. Learning about music and actually hearing it are two different things, and one does not need to learn anything about music to truly enjoy music. But if one wants to make any objective truth claims about music, not just the experience of music, they have to reference particulars of auditory science, music theory or history for there to be any sense to it.

    So I’m not sure what a top-down search for God means.

  12. Mark

    Tom,

    I’m agnostic, and I’ve often encountered versions of this ‘particulars’ argument. Granted, it’s an intelligent enough *sounding* argument, but for me it simply opens up a host of questions that, so far, no believer has offered satisfying answers or methods to satisfy those questions.

    If, as you suggest, we cannot find god in the particulars, then where exactly can we find it? And if this method doesn’t adhere to the modes of verification that science utilizes (that has served us so well in so many fields), then how are we to know when we have the real McCoy? “I just know” seems so inferior. And why do so many believers relish the illusion of finding god in particulars, such as prayer healing and burnt toast, when it is clear that those do not work? To me, it is believers that promote this idea more than scientists. And yet, when every known attempt to subject the supernatural to materialistic evaluation demonstrates the null hypothesis, believers are quick to offer special circumstances to the event, creating an endless and infinitely complex structure. To me this appears to be nothing but a distraction and an unwillingness to set some standard for what is and is not real.

    When reduced, your argument is basically this: god exists, but I can’t explain how I know nor how you’ll know when you know. You’ll just “know”.

    My personal experiences and relationships with Christians, not to mention my own 20+ years of Christian belief tell me that people believe in gods simply because they want to believe. There is ample evidence in the world to create legitimate skepticism of supernatural gods of all kinds, yet this evidence is hardly a factor in the vast majority of humankind that adheres strongly to such belief. And this paradigm is no different than any other supernatural modality, be it astrology or Dianetics. “God” may exist, but if it does, I’ve yet to hear a plausible argument for it that cannot be trumped by an argument for some other “god”.

  13. Mark

    I also wanted to comment on this “rock” analogy. While it’s an entertaining story, it fails to convey the message it was meant to convey. This human vs. alien interpretation of the rock represents a failure to communicate and nothing more. Had the experiment continued, I have no doubt that the alien, presumably being extremely intelligent since he did bother to develop the necessary technology to come here in the first place, would have eventually gleaned the intentions of the woefully dull human with which he was trying to communicate. After all, there’s more than one way to describe a rock!

    The human could have been trying to point out different types of rock, or different sizes or even ages, not to mention mold growing on the rocks. Concluding that the human was trying to convey the molecular, even atomic, structure of a rock *might* have occurred to the alien, but I doubt it would have been limited to that. Let’s just assume the alien would have had a little more patience with it’s slow counterpart and continued to build his vocabulary before rushing to such judgment.

    So how do we know what to aggregate? Well, when a question is originally posed, we typically don’t have much to go on. And there’s some talent to properly identifying an hypothesis, but it hardly matters because as time progresses, so does our knowledge and this is reflected in the continuation of questioning and subsequent answers. Your argument short changes the process, cuts it’s legs out from under it. Our current human concept of reality might be insufficient, but imagine how much more accurate it is now as opposed to the first human being who wondered why this giant fireball keeps coming across the sky and disappearing periodically. Experience is inherently subjective. That’s why science was invented, as a way to tease the objective out of what was once only subjective.

Comments close automatically after 120 days. Comment numbering may be incorrect due to a temporary bug.