Speak with the vulgar.

Think with me.

Theory choice and God

with 3 comments

We have a lot of true beliefs. A few examples: there are dogs; every set has a power set; the universe is around 13 billion years old; it is generally wrong to torture children for fun; there are stars at space-like separation from us; a bus will go up First Avenue tomorrow. How did we get so many true beliefs about so many subjects?

First, how did we get our beliefs? The rough story is something like this: we have gathered evidence and formed hypotheses to account for that evidence, lending our belief to the hypotheses that best exemplify our theoretical values: fit, simplicity, power.

Second, why are so many of the beliefs we got this way true? It is easy to imagine creatures whose theoretical values are very bad guides to the truth. (Two versions: there could be people in a universe like ours who are defective theory-choosers—(e.g.) they favor the grue-theory over the green-theory; or there could be people with values like ours in a universe where (e.g.) emeralds are really grue.) So it sure looks like it could have been otherwise for us; why isn’t it? I see six main lines of response.

  1. Skepticism. The alleged datum is false: our theoretical values really aren’t a good guide to the truth. This would be very bad.

  2. Anti-realism. Somehow or another, our theoretical values constitute the facts in question. I assume this isn’t plausible for most of the subjects I mentioned.

  3. No reason. We’re just lucky. I think this response leads to skepticism (even though the problem didn’t start as a skeptical worry): if we find out there’s no reason for our theory choices to track the truth, then we shouldn’t be confident that they really do.

  4. Evolution. I’m sure this is part of the story, but it can’t be all of it. Selection might account for reliable theory-choosing about middle-sized objects of the sort our ancestors interacted with (I think Plantinga’s worries about this case can be answered); but this doesn’t account for our more exotic true beliefs about (e.g.) math, morality, cosmology, or the future. There could be creatures subject to the same constraints on survival as our ancestors (at whatever level of detail is selectively relevant), and yet who choose bad theories at selectively neutral scales and distances. Why aren’t we like them?

  5. Reference magnetism: certain theories are naturally more “eligible” than others; our beliefs are attracted to eligible theories; furthermore, the eligible theories are likely to be true. On the Lewisian version of this story, though, there is no reason why the last part should hold: we might very well be in a universe where the natural properties are distributed in a chaotic or systematically misleading way. In that case, reference magnetism would systematically attract our beliefs toward false theories. There might be a better non-Lewisian variant, where a property’s eligibility is somehow tied to its distribution, but I don’t know how this would go.

  6. Theism. Someone (I won’t be coy—it’s God) who has certain theoretical values is responsible both for the way the universe is, and also for the theoretical values we have. He made the universe as he saw fit, which means it has the kind of simplicity he likes; and he made us in his image, which means we like the same kind of simplicity. So when we judge Fness as a point in favor of a theory, this makes it likely that God favors Fness, which in turn makes it likely that the universe is F.

    (Why isn’t the fit perfect? The theist already needed an answer to the problem of evil—why the universe doesn’t perfectly fit our moral values; presumably that answer will also apply to our theoretical values.)

So it looks to me like the theist has a better explanation for an important fact than her rivals; this counts as evidence in theism’s favor.

Any good alternative explanations I’m missing?


Written by Jeff

February 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] a comment » I’ve been thinking more about the problem of fit I posted last week. Specifically, I’m trying to work out how a response appealing to […]

  2. […] The problem of fit and magnetic laws. AKA why when we pick a hypothesis are we so often right? (In Peirce this is termed the logic of abduction) […]

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