Reason and the First Person -- evolutionary development and probability estimation

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, the third for chapter 18, can be found here.]

[This entry continues chapter 18, "Atheism and the Justification of Non-Justification Ability". It also continues the fictional dialogue started in chp 17.]

(Picking up from the end of the previous part...)

Reed (the theist): I find myself curious to know... excuse me, "desiring to be told"... what types of usage this principle of behavior exhibited itself in, among us humans when we first developed.

Chase (the atheist): When we first developed as a species per se, we had the legacy of billions of years of environmental conditioning and mutation from previous species, having honed our inherited instincts to such a pitch, that we were in a position to respond to certain types of stimuli, in such ways that we would consequently behave in fashions most probably suitable to succeed and survive.

R: And we call this response today, or our reflections on and expressions of this response, "the estimation of probability".

C: Correct: which doesn't keep us from erroneously attaching more meaning to the event than is actually happening, but that type of result is probably unavoidable. Certainly the existence of such further beliefs about the event are themselves self-consistent with the theory.

R: So far, it does seem that way. What types of "probability estimation" did non-rational causation kit us up with?

C: It kitted us up with the ability to instinctively "assess" probability on the order of, say, being gored by a buffalo if we shoot an arrow at it, being struck by lightning if we shelter under a lone tree in a thunderstorm, or drowning if we try to swim across a river.

R: Which are risks, and situations, commensurate with our ability to efficiently replicate: to Feed, Fight, Flee and (ahem) Find-a-mate for spreading these genetics through the species pool.

C: Of course. The whole process runs on that provision, you might say.

R: And we had the legacy of billions of years, and perhaps hundreds of ancestor species, passing on these behaviors to us?

C: Obviously the precise behavior sets would vary according to the complexity of the entity and the actual characteristics of the environment. But, yes.

R: And these same principles are still in play today?

C: Yes, although they have taken different applied forms.

R: Are all my perceptions of "relative probability" accurate?

C: I dare say most of them are, but not all of them.

R: So, you’re saying it's possible to tell which of them are intrinsically more accurate than others.

C: ... Well...

R: I say this, because you yourself have been appealing to all sorts of probability statements in this dialogue, which is why I brought up this topic in the first place. You can tell which probability estimates are intrinsically accurate enough to be useful--come to think of it, you've implied this a few times already in your discussion about how our perceptions of probability developed!

C: ...Yes, that seems correct. Probably.

R: If I said the hypothetical success of all those hundreds of prior species seemed rather improbable to me, what would you say?

C: That you are misjudging the improbability because you are looking at it from the wrong angle.

R: No, I am misperceiving the improbability. Real judgment has nothing to do with it, under your current theory.

C: Whatever. It's still from the wrong angle.

R: Please explain.

C: Non-rational causation, behaving through mutation and natural selection, has equipped our brains with a subjective consciousness of risk and improbability suitable for creatures with a lifetime of less than one century. That is the type of "impression of probability" you are automatically perceiving, which is why you find it difficult to assess the reliability of, I admit, extremely improbable situations which nevertheless took place over much-more-extremely-long periods of time. Your subjective judgment of what seems like a good bet, is therefore irrelevant to what actually is a good bet.

R: What is the correct way of perceiving the situation?

C: Let me use an imaginary example. If on some planet there are creatures with a lifetime of a million centuries, their perception of comprehensible "probability" will be such that they will reflect better the timespan involved in the gradualistic development of natural species.

R: Are you saying these aliens will have developed under different principles than us?

C: No, not ultimately different principles; although the expression of the principles will of course reflect their environment. To that extent, their physiologies could be radically different. This, in fact, would be why their perception of comprehensible probability would be so different under my example.

R: So we've got "us" as a species, and "the aliens" as a species. Both of our species are wired up by the same general processes to subjectively assess probability in similar fashions but with drastically different ranges.

C: Right.

R: And the aliens, being very long-lived, would have the correct point-of-view regarding probability estimates concerning such long stretches of time and circumstance. Therefore their perceptions would reflect reality more accurately on this topic.

C: Correct. ... Why are you laughing?

R: Are you an alien with a lifetime of a million centuries?

C: ... Excuse me?

R: Let me rephrase the question. Do you perceive yourself to be an alien who has lived a million centuries?

C: Your pitiful sense of humor seems to be reasserting itself...

R: I am entirely serious; and I will continue asking the question until I get an answer.

Next up: the problem with not being a million-century-old alien! (Or even with being one...)


Jason Pratt said…
Yes, Chase has appealed to Richard Dawkins' infamous "million-century-old alien" example, from The Blind Watchmaker (1996 revised edition).

It's admittedly a ludicrous example, but Mr D. was quite correct on one thing: it does accurately represent how the logical math of his instinctive-probability-assessment theory turns out. And it serves as a good gateway to drilling down to the core problem involved in trying to justify non-justification ability.

(Yay for Mr. D Science Theater 3000! {g})


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