Truth: a matter of usefulness?

Truth will set you free, they say. And freedom is usually deemed as good vibe.

We feel OK when there is no threat hanging over our heads. Evolution tells us that we have been programmed to feel good when we get out of trouble. When we feel safe, we feel good. That’s what emotions are done for: to make us recognise whether situations help us survive or not.

As our brain developed, we started to extend our evolutionary need of pattern-recognition to give meaning to seemingly unexplainable phenomenon: why does the sun rise at morning? Why do we have two legs and two arms? Why do we die?

 

Let’s make a stupid, innocent example: if my belief in aliens will suffice at making my existential fear a little lighter – we are not alone in the universe! – that may be an evolutionary advantage: I’ll feel more confident – I’ve understood something of the world! – and better equipped for the ultrasocial human environment. I may talk about my new discovery with such boldness, that I’ll eventually become a leader (before rejecting such hypothesis, think about any politicians’ champaign promises). I’ll have a lot of women to choose from – and who doesn’t like that? That will help the credence pass on to others, and become a shared evolutionary advantage.

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In such view, a belief is truthful in proportion to how useful it is, given usefulness to be the property of something to rise the likelihood of survivorship.

What’s the usefulness of believing in aliens, compared to that of those who don’t? What are the belief systems that support their claims, and what meaning do they assume under an evolutionary standpoint?

People who don’t believe in aliens are likely to be quite empiricists and skeptics, and their version of a useful belief system will probably be that of the scientific method, which has showed to be of great convenience over the last centuries: think of telephones, airplanes, and Sex and the City.

Those who believe in aliens, will probably be those who won’t look for detailed evidence for their account of the natural world. They are less likely to come up with great technological breakthroughs, but they will nevertheless share a long history of belief, which has shown to work pretty well for quite a long time – since the first Neanderthals buried their conspecifics. They may claim that belief helps to bond people, as religions have shown to be an evolutionary advantage for those communities which ended up being more close-knit. And their ultimate weapon will be the functioning of the brain itself – a rather attested belief-machine.

 

It is evident that we are facing a false problem. The issue is not whether to believe or not in general; it is undeniable that we could not make sense of the world without an ultimate, far from 100%-proven, set of theories. Belief is a slightly misleading word, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” What we are talking about here is a way of making sense of the world. The hard work has to be done to account for explanations that are useful and those that are not.

Let’s simplify and draw a line between a naturalistic and a supernatural framework.

Everybody will agree upon the fact that naturalism made us look deeper into physics and chemistry and biology, and a lot of modern facilities are a mere byproduct of their advance. Not so obvious may be to consider that after Nietzsche declared the death of God, people looked away from religion to find intellectual and existential meaning, but did not give up entirely on supernatural sophisms. The quest for ESP hasn’t ceased to exist; people spend a bagillion bucks on lottery – and if God is no more a subject of their prayers, luck took His (or Her) place; not to mention the surge of astrology, the popularisation of karma and the like, and the assault of alternative medicine.

 

The point is that our society is as it is – and it has therefore proved to be evolutionary resistant, at least up to this point, as full of naturalists and skeptics as of superstitious.

Social experiments as Communism have shown how dangerous might be to blindly get rid of religious belief. We still haven’t produced a society that exclusively relies on a genuinely naturalistic approach.

Using Nassim Taleb’s vocabulary, Nature-the-Big-Stressor still has to prove that a society exclusively made by naturalists is a better one.

As a promoter of rational thinking and Bayesian reasoning, I advocate that naturalism is the direction we should take, for the amount of evidence gathered until now supports this view of the universe.

How can I pretend that naturalism is the most useful one? Well, if an asteroid is going to destroy the Earth, and our only chance of survivor will be that of intercepting it with H bombs, than naturalism may be a concrete cause for the survivor of our species.

On the other hand, if the industrial revolution is going to bring about an unbearable global-warming, naturalism and technological advance won’t be celebrated as much as they are now.

 

Which of those scenarios are the most likely? How do we weight those probabilities? Can we even base our ontologies on such a slippery concept as probability?

A bayesian approach to science establishes that 100% truth can’t be reached: in the spectrum of overall probabilities, evidence will only shift the likelihood of one view over the other as new information becomes available.

Quantum mechanics takes probability a little further. Classical mechanics claims that, given exact information, the state of any object could be determined in an exact way – being technological advancement the only obstacle to its experimental measurement. In quantum mechanics, the prediction of a state can be nothing more than a “superposition” or a wave function – a probability density function of its possible positions. Here is how Sean Carroll describes the deal:

When we say that a quantum state is a superposition, we don’t mean “it could be any one of various possibilities, we’re not sure which.” We mean “it is a weighted combination of all those possibilities at the same time.” 1)Carroll, S. (2015) The Big Picture (Dutton) p.163

If probability is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of reality, it’s not such a crazy idea to rely on it to plan our future.

 

Poetic naturalism has been put forward by Carroll in his The Big Picture, to account for a comprehensive explanation of the universe. Its main feature is to establish physics as the fundamental theory, and every other property we observe, such as life, consciousness and morality, as emergent properties of the fundamental stuff the universe is made of. In it’s poetic essence, it describes those properties as useful ways of talking about specific matter configurations, for portraying something as “red” is much more useful (to us) to make sense out of that configuration, instead of listing all of its physical, minute characteristics. The fundamental explanation would always be available – at least in principle, given that perfect knowledge of its state could be obtained – but we get along much better with a new vocabulary.

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Interestingly, Carroll addresses the issue of believers and non-believers in the last part of the book, dedicated to the problem of morality:

The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. 2)Carroll, S. (2015) p. 430

He counts on caring as the main feature to define what a human being is; at that point, ontological differences of their belief systems become of second-order importance. The hint is that if we become too obsessed with the debate, we may forget to find a way of enhancing our human experience here on planet Earth. Each of these frameworks bring about certain consequences – as the physical inquiry made our lives easier through technological breakthroughs, and supernatural beliefs accounted for our evolution, and still do 3)for the role of supernatural beliefs in cooperative dynamics, see Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press) pp.307-309 . My hope is that we would be able to get along even better, without the help of any sort of supernatural belief. Only time, though, will sort out how the story will end. If we’ll lack to develop a new kind of caring to suffice for our existence (avoiding nuclear wars and the like), the debate will simply disappear with us.

We can argue about usefulness as a proper, true way of talking about the world. Utilitarianism has its own fallacies, since quantitative moral approaches aren’t sound to everyone, and can’t therefore aspire to constitute an objective ground. However, we can’t help but framing our beliefs so that we will be able to live on, and thus experience a tomorrow.

Poetic naturalism such as previously described won’t take any stance in favor of any kind of moral theory; it will instead promote a conversational approach as fundamental, for we are those who get to decide how to meaningfully talk about this unique feature of the universe, called human being.

References   [ + ]

1. Carroll, S. (2015) The Big Picture (Dutton) p.163
2. Carroll, S. (2015) p. 430
3. for the role of supernatural beliefs in cooperative dynamics, see Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press) pp.307-309