Friday, September 3, 2010

Thinking about intuition - some short notes

Reading about man and other apes

I recently read De Waal's Tanner lecture "Morality and the social instincts : continuity with other primates". It seems a fairly useful introduction to to the notion that our emotions are the product of evolutionary processes, and not only the "nasty" emotions like jealousy, shame, fear, guilt, disgust etc. but also - and in particular - those nice emotions that help us get along with others are, too, products of a process that isn't particularly "nice" - in de Waal's own words
The ... error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures
while the lecture itself is rather thin on technical detail - it contains, primarily, results from de Waals own work - its great virtue is as a source for new intuitions. I've not read much else of de Waal's but I imagine that if it is anything like this paper / lecture it can be an extremely useful tool in bridging the gap that exists within our imagination between us and our closest animal relatives.

Dennett notes, quite rightly, in his introduction to his book Darwin's dangerous idea is that people are seldomly swayed by arguments. Following him, I would guess that those of us who believe that evolution explains the origin of species were not knocked down by the clean logic of it (and it is a beautiful logic) but, when first presented with the idea most likely found that it fit our intuitions about the way things were,
"yes, that seems to ring true, it kind of fits, doesn't it?"

No doubt our eyes grew wider and wider with shock and awe as we came to realise the full implications of evolutionary theory, about just how much it explains, but on first contact with it we most likely had an intuition that there was something right about it. We had, with some luck, been prepared to receive this startling insight by a lucky confluence of reading, observation, thinking ("my cat has eyes and ears just like mine"), and our parents (and, failing that, hopefully teachers and friends), so that when the day came, we recognised that this was something worth closer attention, and, for some of us, further study.

De Waal's work helps us develop new intuitions about our relationship with animals by showing us the ways in which his non-human primate friends engage in behaviour that is remarkably close to the kinds of behaviour that we see as being essentially human. Consider his discussion of "consolation behaviour"

Consolation is defined as reassurance and friendly contact directed by an uninvolved bystander to one of the combatants in a preceding aggressive incident. For example, a third party goes over to the loser of a fight and gently puts an arm around her shoulders. Consolation is not to be confused with reconciliation, which seems mostly self-interested, such as by the imperative to restore a disturbed social relationship. The advantages of consolation for the actor remain unclear. The actor could probably walk away from the scene without any negative consequences.
What could be more "human" than walking over to someone who has just been handed their ass, putting one's arm around their shoulder's and telling them that everything is going to be alright?
The more we're exposed to this kind of story, the more difficult we find it to see there being an unbridgable gap between human and animal.

This is the kind of thing I have in mind when I speak about it being a source of new intuitions, in this case, intuitions about the - false - absolute human/animal distinction.

Most of us are in desperate need of new intuitions, because the ones that come standard aren't that great.

Against naive intuition

A while back I had the distinct displeasure of watching Ray Comfort on Pat Robinson's show.

One thing you'll notice about Ray Comfort is that whenever he argues against atheism, or evolutionary theory, he appeals to our "common sense" intuitions about how things work.

For example, his appeal to the design argument for the existence of a god - sure, when we're faced with some complex artifact, like a computer or a car, we intuit that said artifact would have been designed and built by some reasonably intelligent person (or, at least, something possessed of active intelligence). So it's natural, when faced with something as complex at a cat or a cow, for us to have the same kind of intuition - "Of course it was designed, look how complicated it all is, that could never come about by chance".

The problem is, though, that in a lot of cases, our intuitions, our common sense about how things hang together is just plain wrong. If we take a look at some of the most important scientific discoveries, we see the extent to which our intuitions fail to correspond to the way things are. Things like space(-time) being curved or the strange ways that subatomic particles go about their daily routines. For anything other than our experience world of "medium sized dry goods" - operating at a time scale of minutes, days, hours, years, decades, even centuries - our intuitions begin falling apart.

And in the case of complex living beings needing a creator, our intuitions are, again, dead wrong regardless of how right our intuitions feel.

Smarter intuitions

This brings us back to my first point - our naive intuitions stand in need of some serious straightening out - we need to find good sources of new intuitions.

In a perfect world we would all get a good few years of quality science education under our belts before we are unleashed on a world that is, no doubt, sick of our misunderstanding the way it hangs together (like me, with my constant personification).

Failing that, we turn to our best popularizers of science.

Now, an intuition isn't just "knowing a fact", it's more about that fact having taken hold of you, and structuring the way you see things. In this way, educating our intuitions is a lot more difficult than preparing ourselves for an exam.
And it is at this task where the best science writers shine.

The finest example of intuition education that I have ever come across is to be found in the first few chapters of Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker.
In it he describes a computer program that allows one to build up "creatures" - biomorphs - through selection. You start with a simple critter and are presented with a few variations of this "parent" biomorph. You can then select which "child" will survive to become the next parent of the next generation of biomorphs (each of which will vary in their own way from their parent). With this process of random variation and selection in place (is this beginning to sound familiar?) one can actually force the development of these creatures down a certain path of development. One can select biomorphs to look like, for example, crabs - at every generation one would just need to select the biomorph that most looks like a crab, and after a few generations you have what can reasonably pass for a graphical representation of said crustacean.

The point is that through this process of playing around with biomorphs, one gets a kind of wax-on-wax-off education of our intuitions. And when one is presented with the fact of evolution, it just doesn't run up against one's common sense, because you've already got a feel for how something complex could be built up in little steps. It feels more plausible because your intuitions have been well prepared for it.

I don't want to use this post to speculate on how well or badly our naive intuitions affect high level decision making policy, but one can only guess - but one thing is certain, if we are making decisions that are informed by misleading "common sense" intuitions, we have a duty to reeducate our intuitions.