Which Best Explanation? January 21, 2011

Which Best Explanation?

by Jesse Galef —

I rarely come across a source of interesting material as dense and extensive as Edge‘s World Question Center. I’ve been diving into their 2011 question: “WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?” Go take a look: One hundred sixty four intelligent people answering in quick essay format. Excuse me while I get a paper towel; I’m drooling.

I’m still going through them, but here’s a taste from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s answer Inference To The Best Explanation:

There is that judgmental phrase, the best, sitting out in the open, shamelessly invoking standards. Not all explanations are created equal; some are objectively better than others… We decide among the remainder using such criteria as: which is the simpler, which does less violence to established beliefs, which is less ad hoc, which explains the most, which is the loveliest. There are times when these criteria clash with one another.

Many of our most rancorous scientific debates — say, over string theory or foundations of quantum mechanics — have been over which competing criteria for judging explanations the best ought to prevail. So, too, have debates that many of us have been having over scientific versus religious explanations. These debates could be sharpened by bringing to bear on them the rationality-steeped notion of inference to the best explanation, its invocation of the sorts of standards that make some explanations objectively better than others, beginning with Peirce’s enjoiner that extraordinary hypotheses be ranked far away from the best.

It’s useful to recognize cases in which the same phrase — here, “best explanation” — is being used to mean different things at different times. Offhand, I’d say that when I call something the better explanation, I’m referring to the explanation’s ability to empower me to make correct predictions in as many situations as possible. If I’m wondering why water is falling from the sky, a story about petulant storm gods can be fun and poetic, but I’d consider one about low pressure systems better. When our instruments detect low pressure systems, I have a pretty good rate of success predicting that my feet will soon be wet.

Of course, a lot of confusion and apparent disagreement would be avoided if we would taboo the word ‘best’ in context and just say “You’re asserting that the storm gods explanation is more poetic and I’m asserting the low pressure systems explanation has more predictive power.”

Before you insist that this is a silly comparison, here’s a passage from Sean Carroll‘s answer, The Pointless Universe:

This view of the processes at the heart of the physical world has important consequences for how we come to terms with the social world. Human beings like to insist that there are reasons why things happen. The death of a child, the crash of an airplane, or a random shooting must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan. When Pat Robertson suggested that Hurricane Katrina was caused in part by God’s anger at America’s failing morals, he was attempting to provide an explanatory context for a seemingly inexplicable event.

Doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it? I want to spout off that Pat Robertson‘s explanation was worse, but I need to be clear about what standard I’m using to judge. Normative words like ‘best’ only make sense in context of the purpose – without defining what you’re trying to do with an explanation, it doesn’t make sense to use the word ‘best’.

When it comes to fitting into Robertson’s model of preexisting beliefs, the best explanation was that God was angry. But if we’re hoping to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, low pressure systems and poor preparation is objectively the best explanation.

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  • Sheridan

    What Sean Carroll is saying in a paragraph, I can say in four short words: “Life is a crapshoot.”

    That is the theory of the meaning of life according to Sheridan. 🙂

  • Eric

    Nice. A reference to lesswrong. I like it 🙂

  • ACN

    I’m reminded of Asimov’s words on various explanations here:

    Loosely paraphrased:

    “When people said the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people said the earth was a sphere, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is a sphere is as wrong as thinking it’s flat, you’re more wrong than both of them.”

  • Alexis

    We now welcome our new weather forecaster, a recent Discovery Institute graduate. “Thank you, and lets take a look at today’s predictions. It looks as though the breath of God will be blowing across the lake this morning, making it a bit choppy. The Coast Guard has issued a small craft warning til 4 p.m. Meanwhile we expect God to open the windows of the firmament this afternoon, making umbrellas a good idea if you expect to venture outdoors.”

  • Alexis

    I like Neil Postman’s books, particularly “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”.

  • The concept that some views are better or more valid than others is critical in overcoming the nonsense of “everyone’s view is valid (so you have to respect it).” Not all ideas are created equal, and it shouldn’t be considered disrespectful to point that out. Far too much of what should be considered pure opinion is presented as “equally valid” fact in our public discourse.

  • Rieux

    If I’m wondering why water is falling from the sky, a story about petulant storm gods can be fun and poetic, but I’d consider one about low pressure systems better.

    In that specific context, I think you should seriously consider the possibility that a horde of disgruntled math students is hiding on the roof tossing buckets of water (or at least you can hope it’s water) on you in retaliation for all the nasty homework you assign.

    Rain… or revenge? I’d say there’s a testable hypothesis in there.

    Wait… this is Jesse’s post, not Hemant’s. Oh, well. The image was too tempting to pass up.

  • Great post Jesse-it simply comes down to knowing the criteria underlying the discussion.

    So much more gets communicated if people know the primary reason for the communication. Your post is a good example of doing what you’re writing about.

  • Bob

    @Everyday Atheist:

    Edward R. Murrow once said, “It is foolish to think that there are two equally reasonable and valid sides to every argument.”

    What today’s media has done is avoid the ‘illusion’ of bias in favor of not rendering judgment at all, yet even in a purely objective world, there are things that are true and things which are false. To call out falsehood is not automatically an indication of bias.

  • Richard Wade

    Very good post, Jesse. Well thought out and nicely expressed. Thanks for the link to that interesting resource, as well as for increasing my awareness that people may have differing criteria for what is the preferable explanation to them. I agree it would make for more intelligent conversations to avoid claiming the top of the hill with the term “best,” and instead use adjectives or descriptive phrases that justify our preferences, such as your example, “has more predictive power.”

  • I’m curious as to why the two explanations can’t coexist. Why explaining the natural invalidates the supernatural – this is one of the things I find most baffling about you atheists.

    You don’t go to a musical performance and assume no composer just because you can describe the mechanics of the instruments.

    Sure, you don’t need to appreciate the composer to understand the music, nor do you need to believe in the supernatural to explain the natural – but understanding the natural has no bearing on understanding the supernatural unless there are contradicting claims.

    If I say “God sends rain” and “competing pressure systems cause rain” – I don’t necessarily think the two are mutually exclusive.

    In which case the possibility of the supernatural can occasionally be a good and valid explanation.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I’m curious as to why the two explanations can’t coexist. Why explaining the natural invalidates the supernatural – this is one of the things I find most baffling about you atheists.

    @Nathan: You’re right! Explaining lightning by static charges is no reason to push out the explanation that Zeus lobs lightning bolts from the sky!

    To Zeus Astrapaios (Lightning Maker). I call the mighty, holy, splendid, light, aerial, dreadful-sounding, fiery-bright, flaming, ethereal light, with angry voice, lighting through lucid clouds with crashing noise. Untamed, to whom resentments dire belong, pure, holy power, all-parent, great and strong: come, and benevolent these rites attend, and grant the mortal life a pleasing end. Amen.

  • ACN

    I agree!

    If I say “Ra gives us light from his sun-disk” and also say “the sun is a ball of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion principally into helium, one of the by-products of which is visible light” those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive!

    All silliness aside, what exactly do you mean by “supernatural” anyway? Do you mean “beyond nature”/”not a part of observable reality”? If so, without observable reality as a basis point I don’t think anyone knows how one could measure, define, perceive, or even interact with something supernatural.

    Do you mean something that violates the laws of nature? This too is tricky. It contains an implicit assumption that the laws of nature are known in their entirety that someone might be able to discern when they are being violated. We do not have a comprehensive understanding of the natural laws of the universe, and thus cannot meaningfully determine what events violate those laws.

    (Just to be a nudge, I’ll point out that your deity has been supremely unhelpful in working out what these natural laws are. He was content to use thousands of pages to discuss the various horrific things he did to other middle eastern inhabitants, but couldn’t be bothered to write down one useful thing about science, medicine, or mathematics.)

    The dirty secret of this word, “supernatural”, is that it lacks meaning.
    For something to be beyond nature, it would have to have no interaction with nature, so any events in this realm would be veiled away from our meaningful knowledge. We cannot, however, exclude the possibility that events which are described as miraculous, things that are unusual but occur in the natural world, are possible. The question then becomes not whether such an event is supernatural, but rather if it happens at all. If it happens, it is not supernatural because it takes place in the observable universe, and should be reclassified as “presently unexplained”. It it does not occur, it should be reclassified as “fiction”.

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