Tag Archives: probability

How Do You Know?

Episode 5: How Do You Know?

We live in an age that craves precision and certainty. Even information can be measured scientifically. Yet, it is precisely in an environment polluted by disinformation and cluttered with junk information that there is the greatest need to ask: how do I know what I think I know?
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We’re born with instinct and we quickly develop an ingrained trust of our senses and other faculties. We naturally believe that reality is what our eyes show us. For, how else can we know how to act in a given situation, unless it’s clear what the situation is? Yet, reality is not naturally clear. We see things a definite way because ambiguous perception would be useless, leaving us confused, wavering in doubt. We trust our feelings because they provide an instant assessment and prompt us to ready-made behavior, especially when delay could be fatal. But precisely because of this haste, perception, instinct, and feeling can be wrong. Fortunately, we have reason as well. But how reliable is reason?
One likes to think that logical thinking leads to truth. That is because the truths of logic are independent of particular facts, which are always subject to doubt. However sure the steps of logical reasoning might be, they are merely stepping stones from presumed facts to action. They are only reliable if we know where to put our foot in the first place. To arrive at certainty, you must begin with certainty. Much of our reasoning is now done for us by computers, which are logic machines. But like us, their output is only as reliable as their input.
Logic forces the issue of certainty, because it is based on language rather than on reality. Logical propositions are statements framed to be either true or false. By formulating statements that way, reason misleads us to believe that we can know things to be clearly one way or another. We are even trained in school to answer “true or false” questions on examinations. But only statements are true or false, not reality itself. At a given time and place, it may seem that either it’s raining or it’s not. But when you step outdoors and feel a single droplet on the skin of your face, is it then raining or not? The question may only matter if you are trying to decide whether to take your umbrella, or even whether to go out at all. And that is the crux of the matter: the point of certainty is to decide, to know what to do next.
You may be familiar with the frustrating limitations of public surveys, which ask you to rate your degree of accord with various propositions. In effect, these are “multiple choice” questions, also familiar from school days. Expanding the number of categories beyond simply true or false may seem like an improvement, but in fact all categories are arbitrary divisions. In the case of surveys, our replies are used by others to make decisions that matter to them. Perhaps such information is reliable to the extent that people actually behave in ways that correspond to how they answer questions on surveys. But, haven’t you felt that the questions are misleading in the first place, and wished you could give more nuanced answers? In some ways, the public survey is an apt metaphor for our own internal thought processes. We query ourselves in order to decide some issue that could require action. How we reason, the questions we pose, the options we imagine, and the sort of answers we expect are all shaped by language—our self-talk. We tend to think in words, which means in propositions and categories.
The digital age reflects this inborn propositional thinking. The essence of digital processing is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘either/or’. In logic, by convention there is no ground between true and false. But true and false are artificially sharp categories designed to generate the certainty upon which to act decisively. In many cases this works and serves us well. Even if we cannot predict the weather perfectly, we can send spacecraft millions of miles to rendezvous precisely to a location as elusive as the proverbial needle in a haystack. The mathematics based on this convention, and digital computers in particular, enable us to do this because the truths of mathematics, as of logic, are certain by definition. Yet, no plan or theory ever corresponds perfectly to reality, which is always more nuanced and may include surprises. Calculations are no more accurate than the data on which they are based. If you start with a false assumption, only by sheer luck can you arrive at a true conclusion.
Probability and statistics compensate for the limitations of conventional reasoning, as it applies to the naturally ambiguous real world. The probability that it will rain in the next minute refers to similar situations in the past, of which a record has been kept. If it rained in 60 out of 100 past situations where similar conditions prevailed, then it is fair to claim there is a “60% chance” that it is about to rain now. Yet, even statistics deals with definable events, which are presumed either to have happened or not. (Was it indeed raining in each of those 60 cases? By what criterion?) Any formal reasoning depends on concepts, operations, and conditions that are clearly defined to begin with. Thought aims toward clarity, but also presupposes it.
Statements can be true or false; reality is just what it is. Certainty is a state of mind, not a state of the world. We hope to feel certain, especially when we need to act, because being wrong (or failing to act) can have dire consequences. Yet, however certain we feel, mistakes are possible. Sometimes (but not always, of course) it is better to do nothing than to act prematurely. In some situations, especially when time allows, it is wise to question what the situation actually is, because the reality is never as clear and simple as we like it to be. There is room for a middle ground between true and false, which are categories that unrealistically presuppose well-defined situations. Yet, navigating the no-man’s-land between true and false is psychologically challenging. Remaining in doubt goes against the fundamental instinct to be decisive and ready to act. Not acting in that instance requires a different sort of action: to take the stance of unknowing, which insists on taking time to question appearances.
They say that seeing is believing. But believing can take the place of seeing. One speaks of believing one’s own eyes, but we are hardly called upon to believe what is readily apparent to the senses. Verbal claims are another matter. Apart from statements of what is immediately given in experience, one must decide whether to believe the claims that others make. These may be claims about their own experience, but often they are hearsay, or about concepts and abstractions that have little to do with immediate experience and a lot to do with emotions. Language itself makes unreason possible. The bottom line is that you can be controlled when you can be led to believe a claim despite the evidence of your senses and common sense. It’s a form of hypnosis, the power of suggestion. Inherent in language is the power to deceive—not only by outright lying but also by creating a parallel world. That may have served society when people had to be tricked into behaving properly. It also serves to entertain us: the willing suspension of disbelief. In the modern era, however, belief has become the bane of demagoguery, social media and divisive politics, which are platforms for bad behavior.
Conspiracy theories are akin to religious beliefs. They allow the insider to be special, provocative, in the know, even to feel saved. Belief serves to provide identity, status, and belonging, as though within a tribe or cult. It polarizes and divides society. Political extremism flourishes in times of uncertainty, when there is a glut of information, of divergent voices clamoring for attention, overwhelming one’s confidence in the ability to make sense of them or to know what to believe.
Unlike the testimony of your senses, verbal claims—by political leaders, newscasters, and social media—provoke belief or disbelief, unless one simply ignores them. Whether true or false, they direct attention—sometimes away from the real issues. Either way, one’s energies are channeled to sort them out in the terms in which they are presented. It is easier to believe a claim than to reject it, which requires an effort that goes against our social instinct to be agreeable. It is even harder to think in one’s own original terms. These are the downsides and liabilities of our human wondrous human capacity to communicate, to express our thoughts and feelings in symbols. Belief is how we talk ourselves into things that we know in our bones cannot be true and may not even be relevant. Believers do not have to come up with their own vision, their own claims about reality, their own sense of what is important, their own story. They simply sign up to someone else’s story.
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Music by John Nemy. Production by John Humphrey, Eureka Web Design.