16 August 2023

Science, intuition and the "strange inversion of reasoning"

A few days ago I wrote about scientific thinking as an antidote to intuition. Not just an alternative to it, but something like the opposite of intuition. The intentional, energy-consuming move to a systematic deliberative mode of thought is utterly different from the easy and instantaneous nature of intuition.

Some of our intuitions are clearly built-in. Many of the famous failings of our intuitive System 1, described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, seem to be hard-wired. Some are perhaps the unavoidable result of trade-offs that buy speed and decisiveness at the expense of accuracy and completeness. Others might be adaptive despite being occasionally delusional: I'm thinking here of optimism bias. Some days we just need some good old optimism bias!

But some of our most famous intuitions are more complex and a bit harder to attribute to brain wiring or adaptive tricks. These are intuitions that seem to affect how we see the whole world, all of existence, all day. I think it's intuition (and nothing else) that makes us feel that something complex, that shows design, must have come from a designer. That a universe has to have a beginning, and therefore a "beginner." That a mind like ours must somehow come from a bigger mind somewhere else. That seemingly uncaused events must have had a cause. Which are all probably related to a sense that the universe is haunted.

I'm not sure that these intuitions are all universally human—some are likely to be deeply cultural. But the point is that well beyond our intution that the sun moves through the sky or that the earth can't be a spinning ball, there are intuitions about the very fabric of existence.

Evolution flies in the face of some of these, and Dan Dennett writes elegantly about the ways that evolution challenges ancient intuitions. His 2009 piece, Darwin's “strange inversion of reasoning”, is a great basic overview of those ideas. It's open access and not overly technical.

The phrase "strange inversion of reasoning" comes from an indignant religious opponent of evolution, writing just a few years after publication of The Origin of Species. This critic described Darwin as someone...

...who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all of the achievements of creative skill.

The Darwinian Theory of the Transmutation of Species, p. 295

In the 2009 paper, Dennett describes two cataclysmic "inversions" that Darwin brought to us:

1. Darwin replaced the "trickle-down" theory of creation, in which life proceeds "down" from a god or other superbeing, with "bubble-up creation":

When we turn to Darwin's bubble-up theory of creation, we can conceive of all of the creative design work metaphorically as lifting in Design Space. It has to start with the simplest replicators, and gradually ratchet up, by wave after wave of natural selection, to multicellular life in all its forms.

2. Darwin opened our eyes to what Dennett elsewhere calls "competence without comprehension," an inversion that Dennett links to the great Alan Turing:

Before Turing there were computers, by the hundreds, working on scientific and engineering calculations. Many of them were women, and many had degrees in mathematics. They were human beings who knew what arithmetic was, but Turing had a great insight: they didn't need to know this! As he noted, “The behavior of the computer at any moment is determined by the symbols which he is observing, and his ‘state of mind’ at that moment …”. Turing showed that it was possible to design machines—Turing machines or their equivalents—that were Absolutely Ignorant, but could do arithmetic perfectly. And, he showed that, if they can do arithmetic, they can be given instructions in the impoverished terms that they do “understand” that permit them to do anything computational. [...] A huge Design Space of information-processing was made accessible by Turing, and he foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence, a long series of lifting steps in that Design Space.

That second inversion is about human consciousness, but I think the basic idea is simple and more broad than just the human mind: the behavior of seemingly dumb replicators can add ... and add and add and add ... up to complexity and design and even the shocking miracle of the human mind.

If that's too reductionist for your taste, I understand, but my main assertion is simply this: we know evolution has accomplished the creation of design, and we don't need magic to explain it. This is, to quote Dennett, deeply counterintuitive. Because our sense that design has to come from a mind is deep intuition. It's much more than a flighty theory tossed out by some influential dingbat and subsequently fossilized in dogma or recorded wisdom. It's an intuition.

And I firmly believe that even these big deep intuitions, some of which partially constitute the foundations of vast systems of thought and belief, should be disrespected. Science should ignore them. Scientific thinking should put the intuition of a god-designer right next to the intuition of a stationary earth. Because ultimately, in my view, evolution is not a strange inversion of reasoning (or at least of reason). It's just a death blow dealt to another crude human intuition.

Image credit: The hand of God spans out heaven with a compass while surrounded by angels. Line engraving by Robert Pranker, ca. 1761. Wellcome Collection, public domain. 

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