The Pliny Wheel

Considering the volumes of whale dung spewed into the media and cyberspace, how on earth can a reasonable person sort through even a part of it, in search of objective reality. I’m not talking about assessing a car or a new TV or deciding on a court case. (My rule for marketing claims is simple - they are lying and I leave it at that. In the case of lawyers it’s similar. They are being paid to ignore large parts of the truth in order to prevail.) I’m talking about weighing bigger ideas. I don’t claim to have the answer but I will share some of the approach I take to learning new ideas. Ian called it a Pliny Wheel. I kind of liked that for some reason...

In truth, I don’t always start this process in the same spot. Sometimes I start with the source, sometimes the prior art and sometimes basic plausibility. No matter where I start, I always try to address each of these filters unless the idea gets destroyed early on.

Prior art: Most brilliant insights aren’t very original. They may be new to the person shouting the revelation, but frequently the ideas have been proposed before in one form of another. Based upon the similarity of this ‘new idea’ to the old, you can usually use the same tools that were effective in bashing the old idea in the first place. Or at least this lets you evaluate whether anything truly new is being presented in reference to past discussions. It’s no accident that patent claims follow a similar order.

If it was refuted before, semantic changes aren’t likely to result in an appreciably better argument, so I tend to move on in that case. Prior art isn’t just the idea itself - it’s also the framework of the arguments used in defense of the new idea. Flawed logic, hackneyed arguments or accusations of bias by the inventor against his or her skeptics, usually are nothing more than another attempt to put lipstick on an old pig that didn’t pass muster before. The Emperor’s new cloths approach is used often in defense of bad ideas, but just because it’s an effective marketing ploy doesn’t make it legitimate. If you have to insult the intelligence or cognitive skills of a skeptic, in order to make your point, then it’s probably not a good one in the first place.

The best red flags are accusations against the scientific method, the refuge of metaphysics, insinuations that deniers are too concrete in their thinking, or denials of the need (or even better, the possibility) for empirical confirmation. When I encounter any of these I usually press reset. There are times that the prior art is less valid. Such as when major knowledge was unearthed in the intervening period. But that’s not too common.

Dealing with the concept of any of the disembodied mind collection of ideas is an example of using prior art. There are many variations (including most established faiths) but all require the existence of a mind without form or underlying structure and cognition absent any time framework. Since all actual minds that have ever been observed (outside of religious texts, new age treatises, or science fiction) have an underlying structure, the proponent must show how this one is different before it can be seriously considered. Claiming that such thing ‘just is’, is nothing more than a religious argument that elevates personal revelation to the level of empirical assessment - an equality that does not exist. Absent objective evidence of such a thing, the prior art pretty much lays it to rest.

This approach saves time considering anything Deepak Chopra has to say in light of the discounted ideas of the hippie physicists of the 70’s, for example, who claimed that LSD took them somewhere other than along the route of normally closed neuropathways...

Reliability of the Source: Sometimes authoritative sources like the Lancet make huge mistakes publishing crap like Andrew Wakfield’s self-serving nonsense, but their track record is still better than most. Experts with well disclosed relationships and a reputation for intellectual honesty carry more weight with me than some dime store philosopher out to sell a book. I put sincerity here as well. A scam artist or political operative probably didn’t change his spots when he or she had that new revelation. More likely they just refined their schtick through trial and error. Careful and broad use of this filter would have nipped LDS and scientology in the bud.

I try to be kind to sincere ideas, but sometimes you just have to conclude that the sincere person is either sincerely stupid or sincerely deluded. At that point it’s best to smile and walk away. I learned long go in the ED to not try to talk anyone out of a perfectly good delusion.

Plausibility: If you come up with an idea that violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics there are three possibilities: One you are a genius of unprecedented proportions who has completely overturned centuries of physics; two, you have identified an arena of knowledge beyond any silly constraints of objective reality; or three, you are wrong. Considering the Second Law’s track record, I’d lean toward number 3. The enlightened will often accuse one of Naive Evidentialist Epistemology, when you make such arguments but although there are many instances and inconsistencies in the claims of people who take that offensive approach, we’ve yet to see a single example of a violation of the precepts of the Second Law. Most people aren’t crazy enough to attack such laws directly, so they tend to make guerrilla attacks and then disperse into the jungles of metaphysics, where anything is possible, and you cannot prove that it isn’t. Strangely, the metaphysical realm consistently fails to show itself beyond the confines of the biased individual mind. Anything that is vital to existence, yet never can be shown to affect the universe in any measurable way, is probably a fantasy. There’s simply no point in arguing the merits of fantasy outside of a book club. Everything that has ever been shown to actually exist, has been shown to exert a force, leave a trace, impart energy at some level, etc. Don’t trot out semantics to try and discredit this claim. Words like consciousness, mind, emotion, etc. are all just that - words. Words created to describe objective processes before humans knew that the underlying natural processes even existed.

Take religious or spiritual experiences as an example. We have a great deal of language and labels for episodes of supposed self-transcendence. But pump enough serotonin into the right areas of the brain and anyone will have a spiritual experience. Does that mean that serotonin is ‘grace’? Or is grace a label we apply to the perception caused by an over abundance of serotonin? It makes a difference. If serotonin is the footprint of God’s hand in our mind, then it stands to reason that we can find the trigger that stimulates it. If the Holy Spirit sneaks in at night and injects serotonin into the brains of the chosen people we should be able to tell. If it proves (as it already has, of course) to be nothing more than variability in a natural process without any evidence of external control, then what? Unfortunately not much. Just means that the Holy Spirit is very stealthy and on to the ways of scientists. It’s not a coincidence that taking drugs that stimulate these centers or similar pathways, leads to spiritual experiences. The fact that we can mimic such experiences with drugs should have ended the debate about it being anything other than a natural process. Of course it hasn’t. People still take drugs to experience a ‘spiritual awakening’ and others still go to church. Some clever tribes do both. That it’s nothing more than a drug induced alteration in our perceptions doesn’t phase too many people. After all it seems so real. And what could be false about a drug induced experience? Is it more likely that these experiences are merely an example of how neurotransmitters or their analogs can be used to affect our sensory processing using known biological mechanisms, or is it more likely that these drugs really carry us to the spirit world, otherwise invisible?

The adherents of the new idea will often accuse you of being narrow minded, or unable to grasp realities beyond the objective. But they usually won’t explain to us mere mortals how something that can’t be seen, tested, detected, or even be found to be a necessary element in any rational description of reality, is useful or relevant. If it’s invisible to methodical observation, how can it be important?

A lot of these arguments take the form of conceptual Escher paintings - clearly wrong but hard to pin down specifically why, at a glance. Our old friend the ontologic argument is a useful example of logic run amok. God exists because things exist and things must have a cause therefore God exists. It’s logical in a way (assuming you don’t question the assumptions too closely), but clearly troubling. (Bertrand Russell observed, it is much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them.) Entire careers have been made running around in circles defending it. These defenders seem nonplused by the obvious follow-up question of ‘if things need a cause, how did God come to be”. Smugly answering that such a question can only come from a naive slave to naturalism and that ‘God just is’, negates the argument that everything needs a cause which is the cornerstone of their argument. If God can just be, why not a universe? They smile and roll their eyes. How could we be so silly to suggest such a thing. Only God needs no reason. Everything else needs one. But if God is an exception to this rule why not something that has far less form in the first place? They don’t see that, which seems odd. Or maybe not.

Coherence: I’m not talking about a Michelle Bachmann speech, but rather does the idea fit with known facts. Facts being the operative word. Not lore, not perception, not personal experience, not intuition, not one’s sense of purpose, not some slick lawyer’s summation, but cold empirical facts. If an idea requires that everything else we are pretty sure of, in fact, be wrong, then it’s probably nonsense. Coherence is of course closely tied to plausibility. To be plausible most ideas need to fit into a known framework. Coherence across multiple domains is one of the strongest supports for evolution, for example. Facts are unpopular because they are often inconvenient, limit the scope of what is possible, and tend to keep raising their little heads despite all our hand waving and covering of our ears. The good news I suppose is that reality is not affected by our perceptions merely our ability to successfully navigate it. The facts of evolution will still be valid long after there are no humans to debate it. Only our ability to possibly affect our own fate is in question.

Bias: Cognitive bias is so rampant and well described, that I must admit that I discount any personal experience or perception as a rational model of reality. Uncontrolled and corroborated experiences are in my mind too subject to bias to put any stock in them. The scientific method has become popular and vital in no small part because it addresses these biases in order to assess reality.