December 04, 2007

AMDP: "Dismissing God," by Donald Hoffman

Anti-Matters Dissection ProjectThe first "paper" comprised by Anti-Matters is Dismissing God by Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is currently a professor of Cognitive Science at UC Irvine. As this piece contains not a single citation, either in the body or in a separate Works Cited section, I'll take it at face value for what it is — an opinion piece. It contains nothing about research and makes no evidence-based arguments. What it does contain, however, are some almost unbelievable mischaracterizations of how science works, the goals of scientific investigation, and what amounts to a tremendous argumentum ad ignorantum. I'll begin at the beginning, with the abstract:

Debates between theists and atheists often hinge, naturally enough, on advances in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Here I contend that such advances, though relevant to the debate, cannot license deductively valid arguments for or against theism. I contend further that the central role of probability in evolutionary theory grants no inductive strength to arguments for or against theism. The Kolmogorov axioms of probability and the mathematical definition of a stochastic process suitably model mutation and selection; using this fact to conclude for or against theism requires, in either case, a leap of faith.
As any abstract should, this one lets us know what's coming. In this case, it's a strawman at the very least about evolutionary theory. Of course evolutionary theory grants no "inductive strength to arguments against theism." It isn't supposed to; evolutionary theory's purpose is to explain how diversity arose in living organisms. It isn't a religious theory and has nothing to do with arguments about theism. This is the typical theistic mischaracterization, though. The fact that we have found no need to invoke supernatural causation in order to explain biology isn't a statement about whether or not any given deity exists. We can simply say that no such entity was involved in the events leading to life as we now see it. Of course, this simple point doesn't sit well with Hoffman and he proceeds to go through some incredible twists and turns to come up with what is essentially a "god of the gaps" argument throughout this paper.

Hoffman then lists three instances of scientific investigation that have led to a natural explanation of physical phenomena, concluding the list by stating:
I will not try here to argue for or against the existence of God. I will simply observe that the three dismissals of God just scouted, despite their psychological appeal, do not survive a sober understanding of the scope and limits of science, the nature of human perception, and the modern theory of chance.
Dismissals of god? That's a rather interesting characterization; the choice of the word "dismissal" implies that these discoveries replaced something that came before them and, indeed, they did — arguments based upon assuming supernatural causation, generally from a religious basis. But these are two different things; investigation has led to predictive and repeatable information, whereas the religious model that preceded such investigation was simply a "best guess" based largely on analogy at best and nothing at all at worst. As we'll see in a moment, Hoffman is making an argument for the second case; the rest of his paper states that because human perception can be shown to be imperfect in some ways, that nothing can be known about reality. He manages to dismiss all empirical investigation by, in a convoluted manner, citing instances in which empirical investigation has demonstrated that perception can be incorrect, often in trivial ways and always in a manner which disregards the role of predictability and testability in scientific method.

I leave it to the reader to go over Hoffman's entire paper, but the sum of his argument lies in the following:
Research in the cognitive and neural sciences has made clear that our visual systems are not simply passive recorders of objective reality, but instead are active constructors of the visual realities we perceive. Each of us has within us a reality engine, which takes the images at the eyes and constructs three-dimensional worlds of objects, colors, textures, motions, and depth. What we see with each glance is not the world as it is objectively and as it would be even if there were no observers. Instead what we see is entirely our own construction.
Now, at this moment we have a major question before us. If our perception cannot make at least a good estimate of empirical reality, why should we rely on the results of "research in the cognitive and neural science?" How is it that this one little corner of reality escapes the same reconstructive process as any other bit of reality? He never answers this question; there's nothing offered anywhere in Hoffman's paper to explain why research in one area should be viable evidence for a phenomenon but that research in any other area can't result in a good explanation. Hoffman is locked immediately into an infinite regression from which there is no escape. If there can be no useful evidence, then one cannot posit that useful evidence exists for any specific thing, including the cognitive and neural sciences. If everything we perceive is "entirely our own construction," then we can never find reliable data to support or reject anything at all, including experiments conducted in the field of which Hoffman is particularly fond. While it is true that our own biases color our perception of reality to an extent, the whole point of scientific endeavor is to remove those very biases. In other words, science isn't something that is carried out by a single individual, complete with his or her own particular set of biases, but an ongoing process in which hundreds or thousands of investigators all bring something to the table. Because of this, the bias introduced by any one investigator can be found out and eliminated from the larger picture. Hoffman's contention in the light of this would seem to be that we all must have the same biases, but he offers no evidence of this and, indeed, his initial assertion that we can't really know anything precludes his doing so. This bit of information in itself would be an empirical, perceptually-derived fact, and Hoffman's whole argument is that such things don't exist. In Hoffman's world, such things are oxymorons. Reality exists beyond the scope of perception.

Hoffman finds several ways to restate this same assertion, settling finally on:
The situation, then, is that the world we experience as our perceptual reality is in fact an elaborate construction on our part. It is something we perceive in the phenomenal sense, not the relational sense. And what we construct is critically dependent on the rules we employ in the reality creation process. Realities that are not licensed by our rules are realities that we are not equipped to experience.
In reaching this point, Hoffman has cited what he considers evidence from optical illusions and dreams. This still begs the question, though, of whether or not we all have the same rules, as he puts it, for what does and doesn't fit into our perceptual reality. Again, he never addresses this point, but we can venture a good educated guess. Hoffman himself notes in his bit on the "subjective Necker cube" that various observes "may" see the edges of the cube and "perhaps" see a cube floating there. But this depends on how one looks at the optical illusion, and this itself is one of these perceptual rules. If one looks first at the black disks, as I did, instead of at the whole image at once, the illusory edges don't appear. This is precisely because one then has a priori knowledge of the illusion; the game is up. In other words, my "rule" is to first look at the smaller parts of a phenomenon, while the "rule" of others may be to look at the whole first. This tells us that perception is indeed colored by bias, but that bias, when based upon previous knowledge, doesn't cloud our overall perception but, in fact, informs it. This is the very stuff of pareidolia; we look for patterns and, given biasing knowledge, might see a face where none exists... but our perception can itself be tested by reference to previous knowledge. In the case of pareidolia, we can examine the illusion more closely and look for components and symmetries. In the case of Necker's cube printed on a piece of paper, we could feasibly check chemically for whether there was any ink on the paper where we thought we'd seen one of the cube's edges.

Hoffman has run right off the rails, in fact. This is the second component of empirical investigation that he disregards in order to make the assertion that knowledge is impossible; we can use independent lines of evidence to support or reject a hypothesis. In the case of Necker's cube, we can forget all about whether or not we see a cube and instead see whether there is ink on the paper. The only recourse to such a test that Hoffman would have left is that the chemical test we run to see whether or not the ink exists will influence the outcome. Still, we can overcome even this objection. We can cut this piece of paper into hundreds of tiny bits and not tell those running our test for ink about what it used to be. Their perception or lack thereof of a cube doesn't exist at all; they are merely looking for ink on a small piece of paper with no bias as to what that ink used to figure. They will either find ink or they won't based purely on chemical laws, and so much for Hoffman's contention that his example is anything more than a convenient triviality used to disingenuously support what should, by now, be readily apparent as a ridiculous argument.

The poor and incomplete reasoning that riddles this article doesn't stop here, though. Another misguided assertion is hard on its heels:
One might be tempted to say this is so based on an evolutionary argument: Creatures
whose perceptions in the phenomenal sense were too divergent from reality in the relational sense were at a competitive disadvantage, and natural selection has made sure that those of us who have survived have a good match between our phenomenal perceptions and the relational reality.

But this is not a valid argument within the structure of evolutionary theory. What natural selection secures, according to this theory, is survival to reproduction, not perceptual truth.
I'm at a loss for words here, so at the risk of sounding like a middle schooler, all I can come up with is "Well, duh." What Hoffman has done here is the equivalent of stating that a cookbook tells us nothing about how to play golf. It gets worse, however, because Hoffman seems to be making the assumption that a solid perception of reality isn't necessary to survive to reproduction! He goes on to talk about roaches and how they don't perceive things in the same way as humans (no, really), which entirely misses the point. A cockroach must still have good enough perception to survive to reproduction, but the requirements are different because the nature of the organism and its environment are different. A cockroach with faulty chemosensory apparatus is less likely to pass on its genes than is one with flawless perceptual mechanics. In other words, natural selection doesn't state that there is some absolute measure to which all traits must conform, but that the trait that gives an organism the best adaptive edge to its environment in response to pressures will be more fit than one with a less adaptive trait. Fitness is relative, not absolute, which Hoffman is making it out to be. While it is true that the perceptual abilities of any given organism, including humans, is limited, this doesn't preclude the possibility that we can extend those abilities. For example, my hearing isn't good enough to discern what is being said in a room in Los Angeles while I sit here in Massachusetts. However, by using various technologies that amplify that conversation, convert them into electromagnetic waves, broadcast them through space, and then convert them back into sound, I can tune my radio to a given frequency and hear that conversation perfectly well. Moreover, I can meet a friend who lives in New York for lunch and while we had no prior knowledge of what the other heard on the radio, we can have a discussion about that conversation that took place in California and agree on its content well enough to be able to talk about it. If the conversation was about an advance in molecular biology but my friend told me it had been about ballet, I would think that something had gone wrong with either myself or my friend; I wouldn't need to jump to the conclusion that our limited sense of hearing had produced two entirely different realities, but this is exactly what is necessary to support Hoffman's contention. If my friend were constantly misperceiving reality in this way, having what most of us would deem wild hallucinations, the likelihood of successful reproduction would, indeed, go down for him. If he'd been having them since birth, the likelihood that he would have survived to reproductive maturity would be slight, indeed. He'd have long since walked out onto a highway and been flattened by a passing truck or had some similar fate. All in all, Hoffman has made another fantastically specious assertion in order to dismiss the possibility of our perception of anything like an empirical reality, which is the point he makes in the very next paragraph:
Indeed it is highly unlikely that objective reality resembles in any way the worlds of our phenomenal construction.
Indeed? I've yet to see an even remotely convincing argument here, let alone systematic argumentation that leads to what Hoffman perceives as an inevitable conclusion. So far, this all looks a lot more like what I might expect from a first year philosophy student than it does a legitimate discussion about science or theology.But a few paragraphs later, this all gets even worse:
What this does make clear is that the ability of science to understand objective reality is limited by the perceptual and cognitive endowments of our species. Those endowments have not evolved, according to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, to give us truth, just to give to us, as also to the roach, survival to reproduction.
Hoffman is demanding here that there be some scientific theory of truth on a biological basis. Why? Science looks for evidence and supports or rejects; it isn't designed to derive some singular, universal truth. In fact, I find it rather curious that someone whose whole argument is that we are prevented by the limitations of our perception from saying anything about objective reality can turn around and now state that there is some objective truth that isn't being properly accounted for in evolutionary theory! This is such a grand compounding of nonsense that I feel justified in saying that it may be one of the silliest, emptiest statements ever uttered by mankind. We can't know whether a cube printed on a piece of paper is real, we can't make judgments about the relatedness of species based on molecular data, but we can posit that there exists something beyond our perception? Upon what would we even base such an assertion? All we can say is whether or not there is evidence of some phenomenon. We see plenty of evidence that our perceptions have a sound relationship to reality because we share those perceptions and the knowledge drawn from them to some extent. We can use independent lines of evidence and remove bias from testing our ideas about the things we perceive. What apparatus perceives truth apart from perception? How shall we test for such a thing? We can find evidence for or against some particular thing being true, but there is no property of "truth" that exists like some shining Platonic form upon which "truths" are modeled. Hoffman wants to eject knowledge, it seems, in favor of something about which nothing at all can be said in order to make room for the existence of something he's going to call "God." In other words, he's not satisfied with a "god of the gaps" argument, as he started off his article telling us. That's not enough; he wants to turn the whole universe into one big gap and then posit deity.

Hoffman now goes on to make a bunch of assertions about probability theory that, taken only in conjunction with the nonsense he's given up to this point, leaves room for God as a controlling entity behind what we perceive to be random events (e.g., mutation, roulette). There's no need to go into this in detail, however. Suffice it to say that Hoffman spends a few paragraphs dismissing the notion of probability theory, because if there's no such thing as randomness, then all probabilities are 1.

His concluding paragraph is precious, though:
...There is no evidence from the sciences or elsewhere that logically compels belief or disbelief in God. It is elementary in the philosophy of science that no matter how much data one collects, there will always be infinitely many theories compatible with that data, and that make contradictory predictions about the outcomes of new experiments. It is because the theories of science are not logically dictated (although surely influenced) by the facts that scientific theory building is such an interesting and nontrivial enterprise. The atheist, then, can marshal an array of evidence that there is no God, and the theist that there is. In neither case can the evidence logically prove the claim. Both choices are, equally, a step of faith.
See what I mean? Of course nothing in the sciences compels belief or disbelief in anything at all. Science doesn't deal in beliefs; it's not the role of science to dictate belief but to discover evidence. Without all of Hoffman's earlier contentions, which I think have been thoroughly disproven not just by my own arguments but by hundreds of years of investigation, his statement that scientific theories are not logically dictated vanishes like an ice cube in an oven. For the rest of the world, however, scientific theories are logically dictated because they must fit the facts, things which Hoffman would like to tell us don't exist or at least can't be discerned. Science doesn't "marshal evidence" that God doesn't exist, it simply doesn't find an empty space which can be logically filled only by supernatural agency, whether that agency be God, gods, leprechauns or intelligent and animated heaps of pasta. By dismissing the possibility of our perceiving anything objective about the universe, though, Hoffman allows himself the luxury of equating two very different kinds of evidence, because clearly the evidence (not against the supernatural but for natural explanations being sufficient) presented by science and the evidence (not for how things are but against dissent from a priori conclusions based on traditional beliefs) espoused by religion. Clearly, this is a dismissal of logic itself; arguments from authority (religion) are fallacious, whereas arguments based upon valid and/or cogent assertions based, in turn, upon what is objectively known are not.

Here, then, is my review of this first paper from Anti-Matters. It turns out to be nonsensical; this is the kind of thing that some college student might have concocted while under the influence of certain potently mind-bending ergotamines. "Dude, how do we know that we both see green the same way? Wow!" There are no citations provided for the reader to follow up and see even whether the way in which Hoffman has used the work of others mentioned in his paper is valid. I have not attempted to do so, but I certainly have my doubts about this. The reader will note, however, that instead of the usual Literature Cited section that one sees at the end of a paper in a legitimate peer-reviewed journal there is a page of self-referential information about Anti-Matters, encouraging readers not to investigate further the claims in this paper but, instead, to simply go and read some more woo.

This isn't a very auspicious start to my dissection of Anti-Matters, is it? I suspect that the guano will be piled deeper and deeper as I go forward in examining the articles here. Tomorrow, I shall break out both scalpel and intellectual snorkel and attempt to wade into the next article.

Sphere: Related Content