Spooky Action at a Distance

Albert Einstein objected to the usual interpretations of quantum mechanics because they seemed to him to imply “spooky action at a distance,” a phrase taken from a letter from Einstein to Max Born in 1947 (page 155 in this book):

I cannot make a case for my attitude in physics which you would consider at all reasonable. I admit, of course, that there is a considerable amount of validity in the statistical approach which you were the first to recognize clearly as necessary given the framework of the existing formalism. I cannot seriously believe in it because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance. I am, however, not yet firmly convinced that it can really be achieved with a continuous field theory, although I have discovered a possible way of doing this which so far seems quite reasonable. The calculation difficulties are so great that I will be biting the dust long before I myself can be fully convinced of it. But I am quite convinced that someone will eventually come up with a theory whose objects, connected by laws, are not probabilities but considered facts, as used to be taken for granted until quite recently. I cannot, however, base this conviction on logical reasons, but can only produce my little finger as witness, that is, I offer no authority which would be able to command any kind of respect outside of my own hand.

Einstein has two objections: the theory seems to be indeterministic, and it also seems to imply action at a distance. He finds both of these implausible. He thinks physics should be deterministic, “as used to be taken for granted until quite recently,” and that all interactions should be local: things directly affect only things which are close by, and affect distant things only indirectly.

In many ways, things do not appear to have gone well for Einstein’s intuitions. John Bell constructed a mathematical argument, now known as Bell’s Theorem, that the predictions of quantum mechanics cannot be reproduced by the kind of theory desired by Einstein. Bell summarizes his point:

The paradox of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen was advanced as an argument that quantum mechanics could not be a complete theory but should be supplemented by additional variables. These additional variables were to restore to the theory causality and locality. In this note that idea will be formulated mathematically and shown to be incompatible with the statistical predictions of quantum mechanics. It is the requirement of locality, or more precisely that the result of a measurement on one system be unaffected by operations on a distant system with which it has interacted in the past, that creates the essential difficulty. There have been attempts to show that even without such a separability or locality requirement no “hidden variable” interpretation of quantum mechanics is possible. These attempts have been examined elsewhere and found wanting. Moreover, a hidden variable interpretation of elementary quantum theory has been explicitly constructed. That particular interpretation has indeed a grossly non-local structure. This is characteristic, according to the result to be proved here, of any such theory which reproduces exactly the quantum mechanical predictions.

“Causality and locality” in this description are exactly the two points where Einstein objected in the quoted letter: causality, as understood here, implies determinism, and locality implies no spooky action at a distance. Given this result, Einstein might have hoped that the predictions of quantum mechanics would turn out to fail, so that he could still have his desired physics. This did not happen. On the contrary, these predictions (precisely those inconsistent with such theories) have been verified time and time again.

Rather than putting the reader through Bell’s math and physics, we will explain his result with an analogy by Mark Alford. Alford makes this comparison:

Imagine that someone has told us that twins have special powers, including the ability to communicate with each other using telepathic influences that are “superluminal” (faster than light). We decide to test this by collecting many pairs of twins, separating each pair, and asking each twin one question to see if their answers agree.

To make things simple we will only have three possible questions, and they will be Yes/No questions. We will tell the twins in advance what the questions are.

The procedure is as follows.

  1. A new pair of twins is brought in and told what the three possible questions are.
  2. The twins travel far apart in space to separate questioning locations.
  3. At each location there is a questioner who selects one of the three questions at random, and poses that question to the twin in front of her.
  4. Spacelike separation. When the question is chosen and asked at one location, there is not enough time for any influence traveling at the speed of light to get from there to the other location in time to affect either what question is chosen there, or the answer given.

He now supposes the twins give the same responses when they are asked the same question, and discusses this situation:

Now, suppose we perform this experiment and we find same-question agreement: whenever a pair of spacelike-separated twins both happen to get asked the same question, their answers always agree. How could they do this? There are two possible explanations,

1. Each pair of twins uses superluminal telepathic communication to make sure both twins give the same answer.

2. Each pair of twins follows a plan. Before they were separated they agreed in advance what their answers to the three questions would be.

The same-question agreement that we observe does not prove that twins can communicate telepathically faster than light. If we believe that strong locality is a valid principle, then we can resort to the other explanation, that each pair of twins is following a plan. The crucial point is that this requires determinism. If there were any indeterministic evolution while the twins were spacelike separated, strong locality requires that the random component of one twin’s evolution would have to be uncorrelated with the other twin’s evolution. Such uncorrelated indeterminism would cause their recollections of the plan to diverge, and they would not always show same-question agreement.

The results are understandable if the twins agree on the answers Yes-Yes-Yes, or Yes-No-Yes, or any other determinate combination. But they are not understandable if they decide to flip coins if they are asked the second question, for example. If they did this, they would have to disagree 50% of the time on that question, unless one of the coin flips affected the other.

Alford goes on to discuss what happens when the twins are asked different questions:

In the thought experiment as described up to this point we only looked at the recorded answers in cases where each twin in a given pair was asked the same question. There are also recorded data on what happens when the two questioners happen to choose different questions. Bell noticed that this data can be used as a cross-check on our strong-locality-saving idea that the twins are following a pre-agreed plan that determines that their answers will always agree. The cross-check takes the form of an inequality:

Bell inequality for twins:

If a pair of twins is following a plan then, when each twin is asked a different randomly chosen question, their answers will be the same, on average, at least 1/3 of the time.

He derives this value:

For each pair of twins, there are four general types of pre-agreed plan they could adopt when they are arranging how they will both give the same answer to each of the three possible questions.

(a) a plan in which all three answers are Yes;

(b) a plan in which there are two Yes and one No;

(c) a plan in which there are two No and one Yes;

(d) a plan in which all three answers are No.

If, as strong locality and same-question agreement imply, both twins in a given pair follow a shared predefined plan, then when the random questioning leads to each of them being asked a different question from the set of three possible questions, how often will their answers happen to be the same (both Yes or both No)? If the plan is of type (a) or (d), both answers will always be the same. If the plan is of type (b) or (c), both answers will be the same 1/3 of the time. We conclude that no matter what type of plan each pair of twins may follow, the mere fact that they are following a plan implies that, when each of them is asked a different randomly chosen question, they will both give the same answer (which might be Yes or No) at least 1/3 of the time. It is important to appreciate that one needs data from many pairs of twins to see this effect, and that the inequality holds even if each pair of twins freely chooses any plan they like.

The “Bell inequality” is violated if we do the experimental test and the twins end up agreeing, when they are asked different questions, less than 1/3 of the time, despite consistently agreeing when they are asked the same question. If one saw such results in reality, one might be forgiven for concluding that the twins do have superluminal telepathic abilities. Unfortunately for Einstein, this is what we do get, consistently, when we test the analogous quantum mechanical version of the experiment.

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Self Reference Paradox Summarized

Hilary Lawson is right to connect the issue of the completeness and consistency of truth with paradoxes of self-reference.

As a kind of summary, consider this story:

It was a dark and stormy night,
and all the Cub Scouts where huddled around their campfire.
One scout looked up to the Scout Master and said:
“Tell us a story.”
And the story went like this:

It was a dark and stormy night,
and all the Cub Scouts where huddled around their campfire.
One scout looked up to the Scout Master and said:
“Tell us a story.”
And the story went like this:

It was a dark and stormy night,
and all the Cub Scouts where huddled around their campfire.
One scout looked up to the Scout Master and said:
“Tell us a story.”
And the story went like this:

It was a dark and stormy night,
and all the Cub Scouts where huddled around their campfire.
One scout looked up to the Scout Master and said:
“Tell us a story.”
And the story went like this:
etc.

In this form, the story obviously exists, but in its implied form, the story cannot be told, because for the story to be “told” is for it to be completed, and it is impossible for it be completed, since it will not be complete until it contains itself, and this cannot happen.

Consider a similar example. You sit in a room at a desk, and decide to draw a picture of the room. You draw the walls. Then you draw yourself and your desk. But then you realize, “there is also a picture in the room. I need to draw the picture.” You draw the picture itself as a tiny image within the image of your desktop, and add tiny details: the walls of the room, your desk and yourself.

Of course, you then realize that your artwork can never be complete, in exactly the same way that the story above cannot be complete.

There is essentially the same problem in these situations as in all the situations we have described which involve self-reference: the paradox of the liar, the liar game, the impossibility of detailed future prediction, the list of all true statementsGödel’s theorem, and so on.

In two of the above posts, namely on future prediction and Gödel’s theorem, there are discussions of James Chastek’s attempts to use the issue of self-reference to prove that the human mind is not a “mechanism.” I noted in those places that such supposed proofs fail, and at this point it is easy to see that they will fail in general, if they depend on such reasoning. What is possible or impossible here has nothing to do with such things, and everything to do with self-reference. You cannot have a mirror and a camera so perfect that you can get an actually infinite series of images by taking a picture of the mirror with the camera, but there is nothing about such a situation that could not be captured by an image outside the situation, just as a man outside the room could draw everything in the room, including the picture and its details. This does not show that a man outside the room has a superior drawing ability compared with the man in the room. The ability of someone else to say whether the third statement in the liar game is true or false does not prove that the other person does not have a “merely human” mind (analogous to a mere mechanism), despite the fact that you yourself cannot say whether it is true or false.

There is a grain of truth in Chastek’s argument, however. It does follow that if someone says that reality as a whole is a formal system, and adds that we can know what that system is, their position would be absurd, since if we knew such a system we could indeed derive a specific arithmetical truth, namely one that we could state in detail, which would be unprovable from the system, namely from reality, but nonetheless proved to be true by us. And this is logically impossible, since we are a part of reality.

At this point one might be tempted to say, “At this point we have fully understood the situation. So all of these paradoxes and so on don’t prevent us from understanding reality perfectly, even if that was the original appearance.”

But this is similar to one of two things.

First, a man can stand outside the room and draw a picture of everything in it, including the picture, and say, “Behold. A picture of the room and everything in it.” Yes, as long as you are not in the room. But if the room is all of reality, you cannot get outside it, and so you cannot draw such a picture.

Second, the man in the room can draw the room, the desk and himself, and draw a smudge on the center of the picture of the desk, and say, “Behold. A smudged drawing of the room and everything in it, including the drawing.” But one only imagines a picture of the drawing underneath the smudge: there is actually no such drawing in the picture of the room, nor can there be.

In the same way, we can fully understand some local situation, from outside that situation, or we can have a smudged understanding of the whole situation, but there cannot be any detailed understanding of the whole situation underneath the smudge.

I noted that I disagreed with Lawson’s attempt to resolve the question of truth. I did not go into detail, and I will not, as the book is very long and an adequate discussion would be much longer than I am willing to attempt, at least at this time, but I will give some general remarks. He sees, correctly, that there are problems both with saying that “truth exists” and that “truth does not exist,” taken according to the usual concept of truth, but in the end his position amounts to saying that the denial of truth is truer than the affirmation of truth. This seems absurd, and it is, but not quite so much as appears, because he does recognize the incoherence and makes an attempt to get around it. The way of thinking is something like this: we need to avoid the concept of truth. But this means we also need to avoid the concept of asserting something, because if you assert something, you are saying that it is true. So he needs to say, “assertion does not exist,” but without asserting it. Consequently he comes up with the concept of “closure,” which is meant to replace the concept of asserting, and “asserts” things in the new sense. This sense is not intended to assert anything at all in the usual sense. In fact, he concludes that language does not refer to the world at all.

Apart from the evident absurdity, exacerbated by my own realist description of his position, we can see from the general account of self-reference why this is the wrong answer. The man in the room might start out wanting to draw a picture of the room and everything in it, and then come to realize that this project is impossible, at least for someone in his situation. But suppose he concludes: “After all, there is no such thing as a picture. I thought pictures were possible, but they are not. There are just marks on paper.” The conclusion is obviously wrong. The fact that pictures are things themselves does prevent pictures from being exhaustive pictures of themselves, but it does not prevent them from being pictures in general. And in the same way, the fact that we are part of reality prevents us from having an exhaustive understanding of reality, but it does not prevent us from understanding in general.

There is one last temptation in addition to the two ways discussed above of saying that there can be an exhaustive drawing of the room and the picture. The room itself and everything in it, is itself an exhaustive representation of itself and everything in it, someone might say. Apart from being an abuse of the word “representation,” I think this is delusional, but this a story for another time.

Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.

 

 

Statistical Laws of Choice

I noted in an earlier post the necessity of statistical laws of nature. This will necessarily apply to human actions as a particular case, as I implied there in mentioning the amount of food humans eat in a year.

Someone might object. It was said in the earlier post that this will happen unless there is a deliberate attempt to evade this result. But since we are speaking of human beings, there might well be such an attempt. So for example if we ask someone to choose to raise their right hand or their left hand, this might converge to an average, such as 50% each, or perhaps the right hand 60% of the time, or something of this kind. But presumably someone who starts out with the deliberate intention of avoiding such an average will be able to do so.

Unfortunately, such an attempt may succeed in the short run, but will necessarily fail in the long run, because although it is possible in principle, it would require an infinite knowing power, which humans do not have. As I pointed out in the earlier discussion, attempting to prevent convergence requires longer and longer strings on one side or the other. But if you need to raise your right hand a few trillion times before switching again to your left, you will surely lose track of your situation. Nor can you remedy this by writing things down, or by other technical aids: you may succeed in doing things trillions of times with this method, but if you do it forever, the numbers will also become too large to write down. Naturally, at this point we are only making a theoretical point, but it is nonetheless an important one, as we shall see later.

In any case, in practice people do not tend even to make such attempts, and consequently it is far easier to predict their actions in a roughly statistical manner. Thus for example it would not be hard to discover the frequency with which an individual chooses chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

Telephone Game

Victor Reppert says at his blog,

1. If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10\60, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or
expanded [too] rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible.
2. (An accuracy of one part in 10 to the 60th power can be compared to firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target.)

The claim seems a bit strong. Let x be a measurement in some units of the strength of “the inital explosion of the big bang.” Reppert seems to be saying that if x were increased or decreased by x / (10^60), then the universe would have either collapsed immediately, or it would have expanded without forming stars, so that life would have been impossible.

It’s possible that someone could make a good argument for that claim. But the most natural argument for that claim would be to say something like this, “We know that x had to fall between y and z in order to produce stars, and y and z are so close together that if we increased or decreased x by one part in 10^60, it would fall outside y and z.” But this will not work unless x is already known to fall between y and z. And this implies that we have measured x to a precision of 60 digits.

I suspect that no one, ever, has measured any physical thing to a precision of 60 digits, using any units or any form of measurement. This suggests that something about Reppert’s claim is a bit off.

In any case, the fact that 10^60 is expressed by “10\60”, and the fact that Reppert omits the word “too” mean that we can trace his claim fairly precisely. Searching Google for the exact sentence, we get this page as the first result, from November 2011. John Piippo says there:

1. If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10\60, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded [too] rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible. (An accuracy of one part in 10 to the 60th power can be compared to firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target.)

Reppert seems to have accidentally or deliberately divided this into two separate points; number 2 in his list does not make sense except as an observation on the first, as it is found here. Piippo likewise omits the word “too,” strongly suggesting that Piippo is the direct source for Reppert, although it is also possible that both borrowed from a third source.

We find an earlier form of the claim here, made by Robin Collins. It appears to date from around 1998, given the statement, “This work was made possible in part by a Discovery Institute grant for the fiscal year 1997-1998.” Here the claim stands thus:

1. If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible. [See Davies, 1982, pp. 90-91. (As John Jefferson Davis points out (p. 140), an accuracy of one part in 1060 can be compared to firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target.)

Here we still have the number “1.”, and the text is obviously the source for the later claims, but the word “too” is present in this version, and the claims are sourced. He refers to The Accidental Universe by Paul Davies. Davies says on page 88:

It follows from (4.13) that if p > p_crit then > 0, the universe is spatially closed, and will eventually contract. The additional gravity of the extra-dense matter will drag the galaxies back on themselves. For p_crit, the gravity of the cosmic matter is weaker and the universe ‘escapes’, expanding unchecked in much the same way as a rapidly receding projectile. The geometry of the universe, and its ultimate fate, thus depends on the density of matter or, equivalently, on the total number of particles in the universe, N. We are now able to grasp the full significance of the coincidence (4.12). It states precisely that nature has chosen to have a value very close to that required to yield a spatially flat universe, with = 0 and p = p_crit.

Then, at the end of page 89, he says this:

At the Planck time – the earliest epoch at which we can have any confidence in the theory – the ratio was at most an almost infinitesimal 10-60. If one regards the Planck time as the initial moment when the subsequent cosmic dynamics were determined, it is necessary to suppose that nature chose to differ from p_crit by no more than one part in 1060.

Here we have our source. “The ratio” here refers to (p – p_crit) / p_crit. In order for the ratio to be this small, has to be almost equal to p_crit. In fact, Davies says that this ratio is proportional to time. If we set time = 0, then we would get a ratio of exactly 0, so that p = p_crit. Davies rightly states that the physical theories in question cannot work this way: under the theory of the Big Bang, we cannot discuss the state of the universe at t = 0 and expect to get sensible results. Nonetheless, this suggests that something is wrong with the idea that anything has been calibrated to one part in 1060. Rather, two values have started out basically equal and grown apart throughout time, so that if you choose an extremely small value of time, you get an extremely small difference in the two values.

This also verifies my original suspicion. Nothing has been measured to a precision of 60 digits, and a determination made that the number measured could not vary by one iota. Instead, Davies has simply taken a ratio that is proportional to time, and calculated its value with a very small value of time.

 

There is a real issue here, and it is the question, “Why is the universe basically flat?” But whatever the answer to this question may be, the question, and presumably its answer, are quite different from the claim that physics contains constants that are constrained to the level of “one part in 1060.” To put this another way: if you answer the question, “Why is the universe flat?” with a response of the form, “Because = 1892592714.2256399288581158185662151865333331859591, and if it had been the slightest amount more or less than this, the universe would not have been flat,” then your answer is very likely wrong. There is likely to be a simpler and more general answer to the question.

Reppert in fact agrees, and that is the whole point of his argument. For him, the simpler and more general answer is that God planned it that way. That may be, but it should be evident that there is nothing that demands either this answer or an answer of the above form. There could be any number of potential answers.

Playing the telephone game and expecting to get a sensible result is a bad idea. If you take a statement from someone else and restate it without a source, and your source itself has no source, it is quite possible that your statement is wrong and that the original claim was quite different. Even apart from this, however, Reppert is engaging in a basically mistaken enterprise. In essence, he is making a philosophical argument, but attempting to give the appearance of supporting it with physics and mathematics. This is presumably because these topics are less remote from the senses. If Reppert can convince you that his argument is supported by physics and mathematics, you will be likely to think that reasonable disagreement with his position is impossible. You will be less likely to be persuaded if you recognize that his argument remains a philosophical one.

There are philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and this blog has discussed such arguments. But these arguments belong to philosophy, not to science.

 

 

 

 

Bias vs. Variance

Scott Fortmann-Roe explains the difference between error due to bias and error due to variance:

  • Error due to Bias: The error due to bias is taken as the difference between the expected (or average) prediction of our model and the correct value which we are trying to predict. Of course you only have one model so talking about expected or average prediction values might seem a little strange. However, imagine you could repeat the whole model building process more than once: each time you gather new data and run a new analysis creating a new model. Due to randomness in the underlying data sets, the resulting models will have a range of predictions. Bias measures how far off in general these models’ predictions are from the correct value.
  • Error due to Variance: The error due to variance is taken as the variability of a model prediction for a given data point. Again, imagine you can repeat the entire model building process multiple times. The variance is how much the predictions for a given point vary between different realizations of the model.

Later in the essay, he suggests that there is a natural tendency to overemphasize minimizing bias:

A gut feeling many people have is that they should minimize bias even at the expense of variance. Their thinking goes that the presence of bias indicates something basically wrong with their model and algorithm. Yes, they acknowledge, variance is also bad but a model with high variance could at least predict well on average, at least it is not fundamentally wrong.

This is mistaken logic. It is true that a high variance and low bias model can perform well in some sort of long-run average sense. However, in practice modelers are always dealing with a single realization of the data set. In these cases, long run averages are irrelevant, what is important is the performance of the model on the data you actually have and in this case bias and variance are equally important and one should not be improved at an excessive expense to the other.

Fortmann-Roe is concerned here with bias and variance in a precise mathematical sense, relative to the project of fitting a curve to a set of data points. However, his point could be generalized to apply much more generally, to interpreting and understanding the world overall. Tyler Cowen makes such a generalized point:

Arnold Kling summarizes Robin’s argument:

If you have a cause, then other people probably disagree with you (if nothing else, they don’t think your cause is as important as you do). When other people disagree with you, they are usually more right than you think they are. So you could be wrong. Before you go and attach yourself to this cause, shouldn’t you try to reduce the chances that you are wrong? Ergo, shouldn’t you work on trying to overcome bias? Therefore, shouldn’t overcoming bias be your number one cause?

Here is Robin’s very similar statement.  I believe these views are tautologically true and they simply boil down to saying that any complaint can be expressed as a concern about error of some kind or another.  I cannot disagree with this view, for if I do, I am accusing Robin of being too biased toward eliminating bias, thus reaffirming that bias is in fact the real problem.

I find it more useful to draw an analogy with statistics.  Biased estimators are one problem but not the only problem.  There is also insufficient data, lazy researchers, inefficient estimators, and so on.  Then I don’t see why we should be justified in holding a strong preference for overcoming bias, relative to other ends.

Tyler is arguing, for example, that someone may be in error because he is biased, but he can also be in error because he is too lazy to seek out the truth, and it may be more important in a particular case to overcome laziness than to overcome bias.

This is true, no doubt, but we can make a stronger point: In the mathematical discussion of bias and variance, insisting on a completely unbiased model will result in a very high degree of variance, with the nearly inevitable consequence of a higher overall error rate. Thus, for example, we can create a polynomial which will go through every point of the data exactly. Such a method of predicting data is completely unbiased. Nonetheless, such a model tends to be highly inaccurate in predicting new data due to its very high variance: the exact curve is simply too sensitive to the exact points found in the original data. In a similar way, even in the more general non-mathematical case, we will likely find that insisting on a completely unbiased method will result in greater error overall: the best way to find the truth may be to adopt a somewhat simplified model, just as in the mathematical case it is best not to try to fit the data exactly. Simplifying the model will introduce some bias, but it will also reduce variance.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has a demonstrably perfect method of adopting the best model, even in the mathematical case. Much less, therefore, can we come up with a perfect trade-off between bias and variance in the general case. We can simply use our best judgment. But we have some reason for thinking that there must be some such trade-off, just as there is in the mathematical case.

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.