Where can the small things take you?
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.