Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exactly the Conundrum We Fear

We (rationalists) have sometimes asked: what if there are at least some cases where irrationality is in fact optimizing? If you think the relationship between happiness, truth and morality is clear-cut, you have more in common with most theists than you do with many atheists. And yet, to suggest that having true beliefs is not always beneficial to the believer is unpleasant for rationalists to contemplate. Try to ask this of fellow atheists/rationalists and you will more often than you might expect get a knee-jerk response of the variety "There's no conflict. Change the subject." This is understandable: it cuts directly at the principles of the Enlightenment.

But this shouldn't even be surprising. Our brains are not generalized truth-telling devices, they're the result of billions of years of a short-sighted process that favors some kinds of cognition over others. Those over-represented cognitive pathways will likely relate to aspects of game theory manifested in the particular path-dependent quirks of our own biological history, and in fact, irrationality is one of those game theory strategies. I'm not even talking about cases like rejecting free money out of anger - that's irrational in the short-term, but over the long-term it has benefits (that is, most games are played over many, many cycles, which is something that it's difficult to take into account during finite game theory experiments in controlled settings; in fact, when players know that there's a last cycle and when it is, it badly distorts the game, especially as the final round approaches; it would distort it badly for the whole game if humans were rational with respect to the individual game, but that's another discussion.) I'm talking about performing better at tasks because of superstitions, and a recent study shows that it's measurably true. (The article is gated even for my university so here's the Lifehacker post where I first saw it.) This accords with studies that show optimism has a positive impact on performance, and that optimists are probably more clueless than pessimists or depressed people about their ability to affect outcomes. I say this as an incurable optimist - but my optimism probably has to do more with my makeup and upbringing than any choice I make when I wake up int he morning. I'm happy to not look under my own hood if that optimism is probably helping me.

So what do we do? Like the basis of morality, this is one of those major problems of rationalism that it's time we tackled head on, out in the open, and stopped worrying that we're giving political ammunition to theists. In any event, lately there seems to be a profusion of heuristics blogs (the suddenly trendy You Are Not So Smart) joyfully telling us where our brains are bent, but not how to accommodate this knowledge so as to bring our beliefs into focus, even a little, or even if this is possible. In a discussion at bloggingheads.tv, Will Wilkinson talked about the "computational" difficulty of the human mind's holding beliefs while knowing them to be far less than 100% certain. For my part, if I do have to choose between happiness (or task performance) and true beliefs - again, the possibility of this is the rationalist's nightmare - then I'm not at all sure I know how I would decide, or even if it is possible, given the limitations that conflict implies, to "decide". It strikes me that the solution will again have to do with the difference between individual beliefs - yes, I think people should be allowed to believe in Jesus and four-leaf clovers - and policy - no, I don't think Christianity or cloverism should be requirements to hold public office.


TGP said...

The confidence boost from a lucky pair of socks may be harmless or even beneficial, but it's a short, slippery slope to burning witches.

Is the Pope's miter just the ultimate rally cap for Jesus?

As rational beings it's important to draw the line between psychological side effects and supernatural belief.

I wonder also in the lucky ball experiment if they checked to see if the lucky ball was actually lucky. i.e. were the balls all equally balances and worn? n.b. I know jack-all about golf, but I know that golf balls are some pretty heavily engineered little orbs. Also, clubs are all different and often sized for the golfer. It just seems like golf has an awful lot of variables to control. As an armchair scientist, maybe free throws on an indoor basketball hoop would have been a little easier.

Michael Caton said...

The distinction between psychological side effects and supernatural belief is exactly the important thing. Here's another conundrum: imagine a chronically sick person who's convinced that she's been given a great cutting-edge medicine to cut down on her pain, and because the placebo effect is real, she may report substantially less pain. A well-meaning person tells her that in fact she was just given tap water, and the person's pain perception returns to previous levels. Was that an ethical act? Because it's just telling the truth I think it probably is, but I admit I don't have a strong argument for why.

TGP said...

First, what's the standard medical ethics position on the use of placebos? I understand the use of a placebo in an experimental setting to maintain a control group. I'm not so sure about prescribing one to a patient who is paying for medical care.

A placebo isn't a necessarily a supernatural cure. It's a deception. The doctor knows it's a sugar pill and does not believe otherwise.

Why not prescribe a pain killer if the pain is real?

Michael Caton said...

The only time I know of that giving placebo is ethically acceptable is in a clinical trial, when a) the patient is informed there's a chance they're getting placebo and makes the decision to participate with that in mind, AND b) the condition is not one that will progress irrevocably or cause immediately greater suffering to the patient without being treated (i.e. if placebo is given).

TGP said...

So it pretty much comes down to: It's not OK to deceive a patient, even if the deception has a beneficial side-effect.

That puts, placebos, prayer, homeopathy, and voodoo in the same basket with lucky underwear.

Michael Caton said...

Who told you about my lucky underwear!!?!?

TGP said...

Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Caton, the answer we were looking for was a riff on the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups commercial:
"You got your voodoo in my lucky underwear! You got your underwear in my voodoo! The two great tastes that taste great together..."

We also would have accepted:
"Putting all that other woo in the basket only makes the homeopathy stronger."

We have a lovely copy of our home game for you as a parting gift.