More beliefs than reason

Posted on March 19, 2009


1st day

Thus far, the conference has been every bit as exciting as I expected it to be. It is a real pleasure to finally find myself talking to a group of people who are actually thinking about many of the same issues as I am. The group is primarily a mix of psychologists and philosophers, with a large admixture of anthropologists, neuroscientists and others. There are many people attending who are not giving talks, including a couple of people with whom I’d had previous e-mail contact with. In this way, I found myself sitting at lunch across from Ryan Mackay, whose paper I have previously commented upon via e-mail. Also, of course, I finally got to meet Bruce Hood in person.

Today’s talks all focussed on the issue of the origins of paranormal beliefs, with Bruce giving a short introduction to the day’s proceedings.  Listening to him, I was struck that he seems to be in need of Bill Wimsatt’s notion of generative entrenchment that I have been recently thinking about. I meant to talk to him about it at the bar but did not get around it. I’ll have to do so tomorrow. The first of the main talks was by Larry Braham, an archaeologist who looked at the evidence for prehistoric religious beliefs. The second talk was presented by Rita Astuti, an anthropologist who discussed her research into ancestral beliefs. There were a couple of things about her talk that I particularly liked. The first was how she traced the origin of those beliefs both in terms of how children come to have those beliefs and the relationship between belief and disbelief among the adults. The second was her examination of the difference between how anthropology and cognitive science approach the origin question and where those approaches fall short. The big talk for me today was the Paul Bloom one, however. Bloom is a psychologist who’s worked on children’s beliefs. Today’s talk considered why people tend to be common-sense creationists.  Bloom made a number of valuable points including the point that most people are not actually capable of stating what it is exactly that they believe in, regardless of whether they are creationists or believe in evolution. My own worry that most measures of beliefs in such matters are derived from questionnaire answers doesn’t undermine the basic point but it does cast doubt on what is meant by ‘belief’. A possible partial answer to Bloom is to also consider the rationality of beliefs at the level of a group rather than just that of the individual. The final talk concerned the neurological basis of paranormal beliefs and was presented by Peter Brugger.

I could write a lot more about all of these papers, as well as about the great discussion we had in the evening at the bar, but I have been up for almost 24 hours, having got up extra early to catch the plane to the UK.

2nd day

For me one of the big surprises staying at Trinity is that the whole place hasn’t been made wireless. Indeed, I do not have good internet access here. In effect, it is likely that I will only put information about the whole conference up on my blog at the end of the meeting. There is an Ethernet connection in my room but I gather that accessing the internet through it entails paying a significant amount.

Something that has become quite clear over the length of the second day is that there are really two very different groups of people attending. The first of these are researchers interested in questions of what beliefs and reason are like – people I would like to consider myself to be one of. The second group are parapsychology people whose focus is on trying to show that some supernatural phenomena are real. The reason for this is that the meeting is actually being funded by a fund that supports the second kind of research, apparently with the hope that getting a better understanding of what beliefs are like in general will help to show the truth of some of the parapsychological ones. The connection is that Bruce Hood looks at superstitious beliefs to try and understand how they form and what this says about the nature of human psychology. Of course, that is a kind of research that is undertaken at the meta level to the beliefs. It does not look into whether they are true so much as how people come to have them. At the same time – and this is a point that Simon Blackburn made today with regard to religious beliefs – the more you can give an adequate explanation for people having such beliefs that does not involve their being true, the less the existence of such beliefs calls for an explanation in terms of their truth. I think that like Bruce, I am working very much on this meta level – I am not concerned to show the falsehood of superstitions but simply to understand why people believe in them. None-the-less, my research has implications for their truth. Chris French, whom I first met a couple of years ago when I visited the Anomalous Psychology Research Unit, on the other hand is trying to do the meta level work while also investigating the truth or otherwise of individual claims.  It is this difference between Chris and I that, I think, really sat at the back of a discussion we had at lunch today on why it is that he thinks is worthwhile to sometimes work with parapsychologist, something that I do not really see much point in doing, myself. The point is that for me parapsychologists can only serve as study subjects rather than as co-researchers. This follows from my interest being at the meta level. My question about whether it is worthwhile to work with parapsychologists, in that case, becomes one of whether it is worthwhile to enquire into the truth of individual parapsychological claims. And, once again, I have to say that I doubt it. Chris’ point that we have to be open to the possibility that our naturalist assumptions are incorrect is true but doesn’t really cut any ice. The fact is that our cognitive resources are severely limited so we should not investigate all claims that might turn out to be true but, instead, must concentrate our efforts where they are most likely to yield significant returns. One can argue that investigating parapsychological claims is important in terms of their being popular in our culture and that to avoid the exercise becoming one of simply debunking it is important to include parapsychologists. However, I think such work only makes sense if one assumes a rationalist view of how people come to form their beliefs. That view seems to be profoundly incorrect, unfortunately, as witnessed by the lack of effect that actually showing various claims to be false has had upon their popularity. A far more ecological view of human belief seems to me to be appropriate. That is one that looks at what conditions lead to the formation of particular kinds of beliefs and, based upon this research, is capable of making recommendations for social changes that will effectively change public opinion. An ecological view, however, must be based upon solid research at the meta level. I had not meant to write so much about this particular exchange but this is an issue that I’d been thinking about and, as always, I like to think ‘on paper’.

The first talk today was an example of parapsychology. The speaker, Donald West, has been involved with the UK parapsychology organisation that is somehow connected to the fund that has made this meeting possible. His main contention seems to have been that belief in parapsychological phenomena is so robust across time and individuals that it must reflect something real. Of course, I agree with him. My disagreement is that he thinks the underlying mechanism must be parapsychological whereas I think it is obviously psychological, a possibility that he does not seem to have really allowed to enter into his calculations, as made obvious by his way of talking about the choice being between a parapsychological explanation or no explanation at all. It makes me think that listening to the various speakers at this conference who have been giving psychological explanations may actually be quite a difficult experience for him. This, in turn, makes me wonder what future cooperation between the fund and Bruce will look like, if indeed there is any continuation.

The second speaker of the day was, perhaps, the most interesting one for me. Dennis Bray talked about single-celled organisms such as E. Coli and the complex ways in which they manage their interactions with their environment. Bray attempted to be controversial by arguing that we should think of the E. Coli as having, in some significant sense, beliefs. However, with the likes of Dan Dennett and Sue Blackmore in the room, the claim was not as radical as he might have imagined. It seems that most of the people agreed with the basic idea that in our efforts to understand human cognition we should focus much more on the connections between humans and other animals. The significance of taking Dennett’s intentional stance was something that got quite a bit of discussion in just this context. Importantly for me, Bray also pointed me to an e-lecture by Howard Berg on E. Coli that I will have to chase up in order that my future discussion of chemotaxis be better informed by actual science rather than philosophers’ version of it, something I have felt I have somewhat fallen into every time I’ve talked fairly abstractly about the behaviour of the paramecium.

The third speaker was, I found out to my pleasure, another Aussie. Zoltan Dienes currently works in the UK but comes from Adelaide and his talk concerned problems with different statistical methodologies as applied to measures of belief. His preference is for a Bayesian approach, an approach that seems fine to me when it is used as a statistical tool but highly problematic if it is thought to provide a sensible model of how people do or should reason. Having said that, I thought Zoltan’s presentation was the closest that anyone has ever come to convincing me to a Bayesian approach. Certainly, I share Zoltan’s worries concerning the standard statistical analysis.

Number four for the day was Nick Chater, who argued that part of the reason why we need to think of people as agents having free will is that otherwise we get into all sorts of game theory paradoxes. Having thought about this talk, I find myself somewhat unconvinced by it for much the same reason that I do not much like Bayesian views of human reasoning – it requires an overly rational view of human cognition. The thing is that real humans do not have much of a problem when it comes to paradoxes. They take them in their stride by simply ignoring them most of the time. What was good about the talk was that it provided another occasion for seeing that the participants were undecided upon the basic nature of the things being studied, i.e. beliefs, reason, free-will, etc. Time and again, discussions concerning what these things actually were flared up only to die down without any clear resolution. This seems to me to be quite significant in so far as much analytical philosophy assumes particular specific views concerning rationality or beliefs that are not borne out by any real consensus among the psychologists.

Simon Blackburn was the fifth speaker and his talk was, as usual, highly erudite in terms of his understanding of philosophy while at the same time being of clear relevance to more general issues, all while using the English language wonderfully. I really enjoy Simon’s talks and appreciate listening to him. What he said about Hume’s views on miracles is fairly much familiar to me but, none-the-less, it was good to have him spell some of the things out and point out the connections to paranormal or religious beliefs. I cannot believe that the people from the paranormal society found his talk easy to listen to. One particular phrase that stuck in my mind was his description of religious beliefs as the graffiti we paint on the blank wall of our ignorance.

By this stage of the day it was becoming hard to focus upon the talks – a problem that always occurs at conferences. After lunch and a couple of coffee breaks the amount of coffee one has drunk is never what it should have been. Either one has not drunk enough and is falling asleep or one has drunk too much and it is impossible to concentrate. Given a longer conference the space between those two possibilities grows smaller till it comes to be that both are actually the case. It was good, therefore, that the next talk was quite different. It concerned a novel method of entering information into the computer, using a programme known as Dasher. The presentation was done by David Mackay, who is a very good presenter and who managed to get everyone really quite interested in what he was saying even if the connection to the rest of the meeting was something of a reach.

The person unlucky enough to be today’s final speaker was Daniel Wolpert. His talk concerned, quite appropriately I thought, the question of how we manage to cope with noise in our sensory data. Once again, he was someone whose presentation style was very adept. Despite being really quite worn out by this stage I think that I managed to understand most of what he was saying. I do not recall if it was in the discussion of his talk but at one point someone described parapsychology as the science of noise – an apt title, I thought.

The day ended with the conference dinner and an after dinner presentation by Richard Wiseman. Richard went through a number of magic tricks all the while explaining how he manages to do what he does and what this tells us about human cognition. A very effective method of making the point, I have felt ever since seeing a somewhat similar though less effervescent presentation a few years ago at a philosophy and psychology conference in Lund.

Tomorrow is another half-day, with four talks, each of which I am very much looking forward to. Right now, though, it is sleep that looks most attractive.

3rd day

Indeed, the third day has proved to be the best.

Sue Blackmore began the day by telling us about how she has gone from being a strident believer in the paranormal to being a convinced sceptic. Quite clearly, what has taken her along this road is a commitment to proper testing methodology in excess of that possessed by most individuals who get involved with the paranormal.

Her autobiographical introduction set things up for the remaining speakers, the first of whom was Nick Humphrey. Even though I had not known him before this meeting I was very much looking forward to his talk as he’d asked numerous very good questions over the period of the whole meeting. I was not disappointed. His talk on the placebo effect did the valuable job of explaining the role the placebo effect may be playing and how we could reasonably understand why it evolved. The main problem he pointed out with the placebo effect is that it seems peculiar that the body would wait for an external signal to use its own means to heal itself. His explanation was that the body tends to carefully marshal its resources on the basis of estimates of future needs so as to ensure that reserves remain in case of emergencies. In that situation, various clues might come to change the body’s estimate of how much of a reserve it requires, with the result that extra resources are thrown at dealing with a particular infection. The account, of course, is highly abstract and in sore need of evidential support but it seems like a plausible starting point.

Following the talk on the placebo, we had Dan Wegner giving a talk on how it is that people determine whether particular events have been caused by their own wills. The point Wegner made was that the process by which we recognise mental causation is much the same as that by which we recognise physical causation and, therefore, is subject to the same kinds of problems. He then went on to describe a set of experiments he’d carried out to test this hypothesis.

The final talk was based on a paper that Dan Dennett is writing with Ryan Mackay, a paper which I have previously commented upon in this blog. It is clear that Dan and Ryan have done a lot of work on it since the last time I’d seen it but I was somewhat sorry to see that they have not taken into account Simon’s bounded rationality approach which, I really think, would make their points much clearer and more powerful. A very interesting point that was made during discussion was that it now seems likely that the backward facing glial cells in the eye may actually be functional rather than due to historical constraints. The idea is, I gather from the discussion, that they actually manage to focus the incoming light. Yet another thing to chase up in the literature. Another comment that I found very telling was Nick Chater’s, who felt that error management theory does not make any sense since it is only rational to properly update probabilities using Bayes’ rule. One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tolens, however: people are not natural Bayesians and this is just more evidence for that.

Following the talks, Bruce, Sue and Horace Barlow started a general discussion of what the meeting had achieved. The point I made was that, despite the title of the meeting, not much was actually said during it concerning reason – a notion that seems to lie at the back of much of what was discussed.

At the end of the whole conference Sue Blackmore asked whether anyone was interested in going punting on the Cam. Almost everyone, however, was in a hurry to get their transport home so that, in the end, it was just her, the Dennetts and myself that ended up spending the afternoon having a pleasant trip down the river. At least it was pleasant for me when I was not the one doing the actual punting. It may not, perhaps, take that much strength or skill to control the boat using a pole on what is a very slowly flowing river. Even so, I found myself quite worried that my own novice efforts will lead to everyone on the boat ending up in the drink. And I’d rather not be remembered in philosophical lore as the one who’d almost drowned Dennett or Blackmore.

Overall, I am every bit as glad to have come to this meeting as I expected. Most of the papers I saw weren’t doing anything that really went far beyond what I’d already learned. Even so, they did help me to clarify certain ideas. At the same time, a couple of the papers presented things that were really novel to me. More important, I think, was the opportunity to meet some of the people whose work I’d been interested in for a long time and with some of whom I’d corresponded for years. Given my relative isolation in Poland, this is invaluable.