Uncertainty in Explanations

Suppose you have a glass of water sitting on the edge of a table.  Then suppose you bump the table, after which the glass falls to the floor and shatters.

What caused the glass to shatter?

A person might answer that question in a lot of different ways, but let’s consider 2 hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1:  The impact from bumping the table caused the glass of water to fall, which subsequently caused it to shatter
Hypothesis 2:  It was God’s will

How do I know which hypothesis is more likely correct?  After all, depending on when in history you asked this question, or to whom you asked this question, you would get a variety of responses.

One of the benefits we get from living in a secular age is that we have reliable ways to investigate to discover truth.  So an obvious way to investigate Hypothesis 1 is to try to do it again.

Put a glass of water on the edge of the table – the same place it was the first time, bump into the table, and observe whether the glass falls and shatters.  Repeat that test 100 times, and if you are able to observe the glass shattering during any one of those 100 observations, then the hypothesis is, at the very least, sound.  Your confidence in whether the first hypothesis is good increases as the number of times the glass shatters approaches 100.

Suppose, that after running that experiment 100 times, you’re able to successfully get the glass to fall and shatter 100% of the time.  Does that mean you can be certain that bumping the table caused the glass to fall and shatter the first time you did it?  No.  It doesn’t.  It could have been an earthquake or aliens shooting sound waves or any number of other things, including God’s will.

What is the implication of this uncertainty?  To me, this means that we live in a random and chaotic world, where the things we consider, and the decisions we make, are a function of probability and historical empiricism; therefore, our success in the decisions we make are often a function of how well we’ve gauged these probabilities.

The flip side of this implication is that we can optimize our decision making heuristics, yet still be wrong, because there are many phenomena that do not occur at a 100% frequency.

For instance, if I’m flipping a coin, and I’ve flipped 3 heads in a row, I know that the probability of flipping another head is 6.25% (.5 ^ 4).  Yet, because coin flip probabilities are mutually exclusive, the actual probability of me flipping a coin and getting heads is 50%.

So which is it:  6.25% or 50%?  The answer is both.

This seems like a paradox, but what it really is is an artifact of living in a complicated and probabilistic world.

The good bet is to bet on tails, but that’s about as much as we can optimize our heuristic (without getting into some pretty heavy physics matters).

Coming back to the glass of water on the table, consider the other hypothesis:  it’s God’s will.

Can I test that?  Can I repeat that?  As far as I can figure, the best way I can test it would be similar to the other test – put a glass of water on the table and see if God wills it to fall again – or ask God to make it fall; pray a lot, or something like that.

Regardless of your test results, it still could be the case that it was God’s will, and not the bump impact, that caused the water to fall, but the best tool humans have for optimizing these decision-making heuristics is by relying on the most likely explanation, given observational frequency and logical soundness.

One of the things that occurred to me when I was in my early 20s is that uneducated, illiterate people who lived 2000 years ago might not have had the wherewithall to assess why one explanation of some phenomenon would be better than another, particularly in matters that were, at the time, not well-understood, such as weather patterns or plagues.

In fact, there are very good reasons to believe that such a population did not have the intellectual toolset to assess such matters.

Had the bible been written by a collection of authors who understood the rigor that can be applied to test hypotheses, it might make for more compelling evidence.  But then again, those writers might have not written such fantasy if they had a better working knowledge of the natural world, and the probabilities we observe within it.

I’ve noticed that very zealous religious people use this uncertainty and lack of complete insight into the universe’s natural workings as their evidence for God.

But to me, our inability to apply the perfect heuristic to probabilistic phenomena is simply evidence that we don’t know everything, and that events do not occur at 100% frequency.

In other words, appealing to the supernatural to explain why natural phenomena are the way they are cannot be logically or empirically justified, and the proof of that is in the supernatural explanation’s lack of predictive power.

Consider the glass of water on the table.  Even though I couldn’t be 100% certain that bumping into the table caused the glass to shatter the first time, I can assess the probability that the glass of water will fall and shatter the next time the table is bumped, and it seems to me this predictive capacity is as important as its ability to guess what happened in the past.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

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