Science, Non-Scientists, and the Mind-Killer
I’ve read several books about evolutionary theory, and they seem convincing to me. I’ve read Darwin. I’ve read Gould. I’ve read Dennett. In college, my physical anthropology textbooks made sense to me, although I admit I’ve forgotten their authors’ names. I haven’t read Dawkins, but I suspect I can do without him. I’m already quite convinced.
Now this is not always the case when I read about science. I’ve also read several books about relativity, and I’m not convinced. The stuff just makes no sense to me, and I sort of have to shrug and give up. Where my rational side agrees that evolution is correct, I’m taking relativity on the authority of others. You don’t really want to hear what my rational side says about relativity. It’s too embarrassing.
I strongly suspect that most non-scientists who say otherwise about relativity are either talking out their asses or else have turned relativity into a sort of well-boundaried micro-religion. They can’t explain it, but fie on you if you don’t believe. Now, plenty of people do not, in fact, believe it, and not because it is nonsensical to them, but because they have never tried to understand it — what they’ve heard about it gives them the howling fantods, and they give up before they try.
The thesis I’d like to suggest here is that where evolution seems rational to me, it could easily present problems to others in all the same ways that I have just outlined for relativity.
Evolution could become a micro-religion — something people don’t understand, but that they defend fiercely anyway. They’re for it, but they’re still not rational. Or it could be that evolution conflicts with their macro-religion, and as such, it gives them the creeps — but the creeps alone aren’t a reason to reject anything. Or maybe evolution conflicts with their politics. Or maybe it conflicts with both their politics and their religion, because it can be hard to tell just where the boundary lies. Or perhaps some people read about evolution and are ready to believe it, but they can’t make sense of it. The minds of others are the greatest mystery of all, are they not?
I’m reminded of a great (very short) essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky — “Politics is the Mind-Killer.” If you’re one of those people who doesn’t grok evolution, you’re out of luck, I’m afraid:
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation… When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!
If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality – but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.
Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy.
It’s sobering to read, particularly seeing as the mind-killer is my 9-5 job. (Those of you who are in it just for kicks have a lot less of an excuse, you know.) I do fight with this, every single day. I hope I’m fighting well. I can’t know for sure, and yet I can’t do otherwise. An existential dilemma.
In any case, what’s called for is charity, the principle of trying to understand your interlocutors in the best possible light. This is hard to do, especially under the influence of the mind-killer. When someone is wrong on the Internet, charity goes out the window. All that remains is immediacy, and the the glowering faces of the other tribe, and the scent of fresh blood in the air. This isn’t how the rational animal should fight, is it?
I fear what I’m saying here will be taken as an apology for creationism. I fear anything short of unconditional agreement would be, regardless of how interesting these questions of mindstate actually are. But explaining why a group of people (creationists, here) have gotten things terribly wrong is not a defense of them. It’s an indictment. It always will be. Still, people arrive at the question with baggage I don’t have, and bragging that I won the race when I didn’t have to carry any of their baggage is hardly sportsmanlike of me. Our allegiance should be to truth, not tribe.