The Unicorn Hypthesis (redux)

I hate to leave a loose end dangling, so just for the sake of completeness, let’s take one more look at the Loser’s Compromise and the Unicorn Hypothesis. The point of the original post was to demonstrate that we can’t justify our beliefs on the grounds that they are merely as consistent with the facts as some other hypothesis (or explanation or world view). We did this by setting up a scenario in which the consequences we would expect from one hypothesis (that world affairs are under the clandestine control of self-effacing magical unicorns) work out to be the same as the consequences we would expect from a contrary hypothesis (that humans are in control of their own governments).

I think we did that rather well, but one commenter disagrees.

No, what we’ve achieved is another silly, impertinent scenario, if nothing else, simply because a single sample is seldom sufficient. Here, you offer two hypotheses each with a single consequence that both permit. So, of course I agree with you that “there’s no reasonable basis for concluding, even provisionally, that we’re being secretly controlled by a one-horned oligarchy.”

It’s a classic example of misdirection and dodging the issue, so I thought it would be worth a bit of attention.

The commenter would like to disagree with the point I am making, but to do that he needs to deal directly with the facts I’ve presented. That’s a bit of a problem, because my facts don’t really give him any grounds for complaint. The Unicorn Hypothesis does indeed imply the same consequences as the Autonomy Hypothesis, and makes it very clear, even to him, that merely predicting a similar set of consequences gives us no grounds for calling the conclusion justified. Rather than admit that it’s a good example of the flaw, therefore, he tries to make it sound like a flawed example. He does this by making a stink about an issue that isn’t even part of the topic under discussion.

Your UH differs very, very significantly from your GH. Think about the GH for a moment – my intense distaste for it aside – its depth of scope and definition at least theoretically allows for a decent subset of nuanced consequences in more than one area of reality – you have lists of things we’d expect to see in several different areas of reality were the subject of your GH to exist in actuality. OTOH, think about this UH for moment. The only consequence we can reliably deduce is that if the subjects of your UH exist, we should see tensions and crises. Problem is, the singular prediction of the UH is an absurdly high-order abstraction, nothing near the nuanced, myriad abstractions of your GH in predictive or explanatory power.

We’ve been discussion what it takes for a conclusion to be “justified,” and in particular whether it’s reasonable to call a conclusion “justified” on the grounds that (in one’s opinion) the evidence is consistent with the belief. There has been no debate on the topic of whether there’s a requirement for the hypothesis to predict “nuanced” conclusions, or to make predictions in more than one area of reality, or to have “lists” of a certain minimum number of items. These are purely ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment requirements made up for the sole purpose of giving the Unicorn Hypothesis something to fail.

The reason I call this a classic example of misdirection is because the commenter is essentially arguing that, in order to lead to valid conclusions, a hypothesis needs to meet a certain number of other criteria besides or in addition to the criterion of c0nsistency with the evidence. In other words, the commenter is actually conceding the point that we can’t justify our conclusions solely on the grounds that we’ve managed to make them predict the same consequences as some other hypothesis. Yet, perversely, though he reinforces my point, he phrases his concession in such a way as to make it sound like he’s actually proved me wrong.

Notice, he calls it “another silly, impertinent scenario,” even though he has to grudgingly concede that “of course I agree with you.” He does not like the conclusion he is forced to agree with, so he tries to make it sound like an outlier, a special case that does not apply to any other circumstance. If you can’t beat it, isolate it! And, when we look at his arguments, it’s easy to see that he’s straining for pretexts on which to base his rejection.

Consider his initial claim that “a single sample is seldom sufficient.” That’s generally a true principle, but it applies to the actual evidence you collect in order to evaluate your hypothesis, not to the hypothesis itself. The scope of evidence for the Unicorn Hypothesis is the whole human history of world affairs, at the local, regional, national and international level. That’s way more than one sample: entire encyclopedias have been written on the history of politics. Even the relatively short history of the United States, from the 13 colonies to the present day, would take multiple semesters to cover in high school or college.

So we’re far from dealing with a mere “single sample” in the case of the Unicorn Hypothesis. There’s a huge body of evidence that it’s consistent with. But our commenter has an alternative way to try and make the same objection apply: he says the Unicorn Hypothesis is capable of only a single prediction. “The only consequence we can reliably deduce is that if the subjects of your UH exist, we should see tensions and crises,” he writes. But once again, this is a spurious objection.

First of all, there’s no rule that says a valid hypothesis has to make more than one prediction. Let’s compare the Uniform Acceleration Hypothesis (which says that gravity accelerates all masses equally) with the Proportional Acceleration Hypothesis (which says that gravity accelerates objects in proportion to their mass). The Uniform Hypothesis makes one prediction: that a heavy object and a light object will fall at the same speed (apart from friction or air resistance) and the Proportional Hypothesis makes the equally singular prediction that the heavier object will fall faster than the lighter one (again, apart from friction and air resistance).

You don’t need for either hypothesis to make more than one prediction in order to test which of the two is closer to the truth. I remember watching a film in my high school science class showing a feather and a hardball being dropped inside a giant, airless glass cylinder. They both fell at the same speed, consistent with the Uniform Acceleration Hypothesis (and incidently confirming Galileo’s experiment on the Tower of Pisa). A single predicted consequence is just fine, provided it predicts different results for different hypotheses.

Secondly, the Unicorn Hypothesis does indeed make several “nuanced” predictions. For example, in the hypothesis, the unicorns do not hate us, nor have any particular desire to inflict undue suffering on us. They simply want to keep us too distracted to look for unicorns. This implies that world affairs will sometimes produce results that benefit mankind, like emancipating and enfranchising slaves and women. Too much bad news might arouse human suspicions, you see. But they have no particular love for mankind either, so they have no qualms about letting us endure atrocities and disasters, as long as it keeps our minds preoccupied with world affairs.

Another consequence is that the unicorns can’t be too obvious about how they exert their control, so the real causes for wars and conflicts will have to be complex and subtle, with humans believing that they are freely exercising their own sovereignty and control. The best institution for creating this kind of situation is democracy, where people can be influenced in subtle ways, and manipulated politically, all while wholeheartedly believing that they are free and are governing themselves. Thus, we can predict, based on the Unicorn Hypothesis, that democracy will tend to spread and gain power (at least in areas that are less subject to traditional, tyrannical forms of rule).

Further examples are left as an exercise for the reader, but the point is that our commenter accused the Unicorn Hypothesis of implying only a single consequence simply because he didn’t want to find more than one. There are plenty there to be found if we’re willing to look, but what he was looking for was an excuse to reject the whole scenario. It led to a conclusion he could not adequately deny, so he sought to find some pretext for discrediting it.

But the real genius of this argument is the way it opens up whole new cans of worms for us to argue about, like whether or not the Unicorn Hypothesis is really similar enough to the Gospel Hypothesis to make this example applicable. How similar does it need to be? How do we measure similarity? What constitutes a “nuanced” prediction? How much nuance is needed? How many different areas of reality need to be covered? What constitutes “covering” an area of reality? What constitutes an “area” of reality?

We could argue for months, or years, about these and a host of other tangential topics, and never get back to the main point of the post, which was that we can’t justify our beliefs solely on the grounds that they seem “consistent” (to us) with the evidence. And that, I think, was at least the subconscious goal of the tactic of “agreeing” while simultaneously trying to make it sound like he was disproving my point.

My point is that rationalization—the art of convincing ourselves that the evidence is consistent with our beliefs—is not a valid means of justifying what we believe in. It is too easy for us to be satisfied with low expectations regarding what supports our beliefs, and unreasonably high standards regarding what contradicts our beliefs. We’re to prone to believe, with little justification, that the evidence matches what we want to believe in. We need to test our beliefs, using techniques like comparing the Myth Hypothesis with competing hypotheses to see which matches the facts better than the alternatives.

We can know the truth, but we have to want to know the truth. If we don’t want to know the truth, then the Loser’s Compromise is waiting to serve us. And we can make whatever bogus objections we like in order to defend it.

 
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Posted in Loser's Compromise, Unapologetics. 21 Comments »

21 Responses to “The Unicorn Hypthesis (redux)”

  1. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    It’s weird just how desperate and ridiculous the objections are getting… someone’s focus would appear to be wearing thin.

  2. cl Says:

    DD,

    I think we did that rather well, but one commenter disagrees.

    Did you mean to say, at least one commenter disagrees?

    Regardless, the AH/UH as currently defined holds nowhere near the predictive powers of the MH/GH. Agree or disagree? (cl)

    Agree. (John Morales)

    I don’t know if John’s changed his mind since, but I certainly wasn’t the only commenter who thought your AH/UH missed the mark. The UH is not even falsifiable.

    It’s a classic example of misdirection and dodging the issue, so I thought it would be worth a bit of attention.

    It wasn’t misdirection or dodging the issue. It was my honest response to your post.

    ..there’s no rule that says a valid hypothesis has to make more than one prediction.

    Of course not – but shouldn’t hypotheses be falsifiable? Don’t hypotheses increase in strength and usefulness to the extent to which they do so? Then by this criteria – as I pointed out and John Morales agreed – aren’t the GH and the MH much stronger and more useful than the AH/UH?

    But the real genius of this argument is the way it opens up whole new cans of worms for us to argue about, like whether or not the Unicorn Hypothesis is really similar enough to the Gospel Hypothesis to make this example applicable.

    I disagree that there’s any “genius” to this argument, and I didn’t think the AH/UH was similar enough to make the example applicable. Also, I didn’t call the AH/UH silly because I “can’t beat it,” I called it silly because like the larger discussion over the GH/MH, it proves nothing. I wish you would honestly consider the option that perhaps your entire series to date is little more than an rhetorical exercise that proves nothing, as anyone can knock down a God of their own making. OTOH, if garnering further support from atheists and skeptics is the goal, then you’re doing just fine.

    And that, I think, was at least the subconscious goal of the tactic of “agreeing” while simultaneously trying to make it sound like he was disproving my point.

    I didn’t agree because I really think subconsciously that the underlying principle of your argument is cogent. I agreed because – again – much like the larger discussion about the MH/GH – you’ve presented an example that is so extremely caricatured and silly that anybody with half a brain in their head would have to agree.

    My point is that rationalization‐the art of convincing ourselves that the evidence is consistent with our beliefs—is not a valid means of justifying what we believe in.

    I agree, and I feel no need to “convince myself” that the evidence is consistent with my beliefs.

    We can know the truth, but we have to want to know the truth.

    Indeed. I want to know the truth, and this is just another reason I’m not an atheist.

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..but shouldn’t hypotheses be falsifiable?”

    I think that you’re on to something there! Or are you exempting religious hypotheses?

  4. cl Says:

    pboyfloyd,

    Whether an hypothesis is religious or not has no bearing on its requirements.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    cl —

    So it seems to me that you do agree that our beliefs are not actually justified just by being consistent with the facts, correct? In other words, even though the Unicorn Hypothesis achieves the goal of predicting the same set of consequences as the Autonomy Hypothesis, the vast body of evidence which is consistent with the Unicorn Hypothesis fails even provisionally to justify belief in unicorn overlords, correct? And that’s a principle that’s generally applicable to a wide range of hypotheses that “justify” someone’s beliefs merely by managing to be consistent with the evidence, correct?

    After all, you are attempting to refute my example by appealing to general principles that ought to apply to all hypotheses, and not just to the specific case of the Unicorn Hypothesis, correct? That means that the requirements that the UH fails to satisfy are general requirements, right?

    So in other words, in order for belief in the Christian God to be justified, we need a hypothesis that supplies all the elements that the Unicorn Hypothesis is lacking, right?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    By the way, perhaps you should let John speak for himself as to whether or not the Unicorn Overlords post achieves the goal of demonstrating the point it was intended to make. I think you asked him about rather a different question, based on what you quoted above.

  7. cl Says:

    Here’s a related post that sprang from a real-world example.

    DD,

    So it seems to me that you do agree that our beliefs are not actually justified just by being consistent with the facts, correct? (emph. mine)

    Of course. I’ve never argued otherwise. Whether or not they are consistent with the facts, our beliefs are rationally justified if and only if we’ve arrived at them rationally.

    In other words, even though the Unicorn Hypothesis achieves the goal of predicting the same set of consequences as the Autonomy Hypothesis, the vast body of evidence which is consistent with the Unicorn Hypothesis fails even provisionally to justify belief in unicorn overlords, correct?

    Sure – if we start with the assumption that unicorn overlords are silly to believe in, or that they require extraordinary evidence – but what do you think a computer would say, and why?

    After all, you are attempting to refute my example by appealing to general principles that ought to apply to all hypotheses, and not just to the specific case of the Unicorn Hypothesis, correct?

    In science, unfalsifiable hypotheses refute themselves.

    ..perhaps you should let John speak for himself as to whether or not the Unicorn Overlords post achieves the goal of demonstrating the point it was intended to make.

    My comment was sufficiently prefaced with: “I don’t know if John’s changed his mind since…”

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Sure – if we start with the assumption that unicorn overlords are silly to believe in, or that they require extraordinary evidence – but what do you think a computer would say, and why?

    Why would we need to assume that the Unicorn Hypothesis is silly in order to reach the conclusion that it is silly? Didn’t you say you agreed that our conclusions are only rational if we arrive at them rationally? Doesn’t it fall short of being a rational conclusion because it fails to achieve anything more than a Loser’s Compromise? Wouldn’t it be irrational to say that we have to assume our conclusion in order to reach it?

    In science, unfalsifiable hypotheses refute themselves.

    That is a general principle that applies to all hypotheses and not just to the Unicorn Hypothesis, correct?

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Indeed. I want to know the truth, and this is just another reason I’m not an atheist.

    I have documented the real-world facts that any reasonable person can verify for themselves and that demonstrate that reality is more consistent with the Myth Hypothesis than with the Gospel Hypothesis. This constitutes a reasonable basis for rejecting the truth claims of Christianity.

    What have you found in the real world that would reasonably justify deciding against atheism?

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:
    ..perhaps you should let John speak for himself as to whether or not the Unicorn Overlords post achieves the goal of demonstrating the point it was intended to make.

    My comment was sufficiently prefaced with: “I don’t know if John’s changed his mind since…”

    Your disclaimer was not sufficient to account for the discrepancy between the topic John actually addressed (“does the UH have predictive powers similar to the GH?”) and the topic you used his comment to rebut (“does the UH demonstrate that it’s not enough just to be consistent with the evidence?”).

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    By the way, a computer would say whatever it was programmed to say, but if it was programmed to compare differential hypotheses and select justified conclusions based on superior consistency with the evidence, I believe that in the case of the Unicorn Hypothesis it would say that there was insufficient grounds for concluding that the UH was true. No prior assumptions would be necessary regarding whether or not it was “silly” to believe in unicorn overlords.

  12. cl Says:

    Wow, you really blew it, DD… let’s see if anyone else picks up on it, although I doubt they will, because many people who comment here are too on your nuts to see clearly.

  13. Hunt Says:


    What have you found in the real world that would reasonably justify deciding against atheism?

    Come on cl, it’s time for you to put out a positive argument instead of sitting on the sideline taking pot shots. It’s scary out on the field because you will suddenly find yourself wearing a bull’s-eye.

  14. John Morales Says:

    Wow, a flurry of activity after a lull! :)

    cl, please remember I tend to be somewhat literal.
    I consider both that “the AH/UH as currently defined holds nowhere near the predictive powers of the MH/GH [cl]” and that the AH/UH well illustrates “whether we are “justified” in reaching conclusions whose sole virtue is that they have been contrived to “predict” the exact same consequences as some other hypothesis. [DD]“. I have not changed my mind on either.

    Please remember what the UH states: that the Unicorns are “using their magical powers to “fix” the visible, verifiable evidence to be perfectly consistent with the consequences that would result from the non-existence of unicorns.” Not surprisingly (to me, anyway), this is quite similar to a hypothesis stated by some theists, known as the Omphalos hypothesis .

    Next,

    [cl] … shouldn’t hypotheses be falsifiable? Don’t hypotheses increase in strength and usefulness to the extent to which they do so?

    Well, sort of.
    Falsifiability is important (though only necessary for scientific hypotheses*), but predictive power, scope of application etc. are important discriminants.

    BTW, cl, how is the Christian god-hypothesis falsifiable? Or do you not consider its existence and putative effects on the world as a hypothesis, but instead as a presupposition?


    * e.g. in a social science context, for example, some hypotheses may not be falsifiable; yet a ranking system between multiple social behaviour hypotheses can still be empirically established. But this is a digression.

  15. Deacon Duncan Says:

    You know, when we start seeing things that no one else can see, that’s typically not a good sign…

  16. Lifeguard Says:

    Sounds to me like Cl agrees with DD’s broader point that consistency with the facts, taken alone, is insufficient to justify accepting a hypothesis (although, strictly speaking, one doesn’t “accept” a hypothesis, but tests it), but he doesn’t quite like the Unicorn Hypothesis, since he feels the God Hypothesis is a qualitatively different animal.

    So the real question is, what is the original post about?

    If it’s JUST about whether or not consistency with the evidence standing alone is sufficient to justify a hypothesis, then I agree that Cl is unjustifiably quibbling a bit, although, if that’s the case, it’s likely because he may feel that the Unicorn Hypothesis is being subtley set up to serve as a kind of straw man doppleganger for the God Hypothesis.

    So maybe the real question here is what else does the God Hypothesis offer beyond mere consistency with the evidence?

  17. Arthur Says:

    …let’s see if anyone else picks up on it, although I doubt they will, because many people who comment here are too on your nuts to see clearly.

    Why miss an opportunity to be insulting, when you can combine it with a cute little dance around what your actual point is?

  18. cl Says:

    Typical. I figured everybody would focus on me as opposed to the elephant in the room.

    Hunt,

    Denying DD’s positive claims does not entail that I need to put forth my own. The question is whether or not DD’s Evidence Against Christianity is cogent and I’ve built a pretty good case that it is not. Although folks are reluctant to admit it, DD is on the ropes in that regard. Also, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been wearing a bulls-eye around here for months. Incidentally, you seem cool and reasonable to me. If you sincerely want to know why I believe what I believe, spend time on my blog. This thread isn’t the place for that.

    John Morales,

    I felt I was within reason to note your objection and wasn’t necessarily claiming you thought the AH/UH was 100% bunk. I know what the UH states. Although I really have no idea of everything you envision when you use the phrase, I’ll take a risk – no – “The Christian God Hypothesis” is not falsifiable.

    Lifeguard,

    Sounds to me like Cl agrees with DD’s broader point that consistency with the facts, taken alone, is insufficient to justify accepting a hypothesis (although, strictly speaking, one doesn’t “accept” a hypothesis, but tests it), but he doesn’t quite like the Unicorn Hypothesis, since he feels the God Hypothesis is a qualitatively different animal.

    I always did agree that there is more to justification than just consistency with facts. That’s a fools argument. I challenge your assertion of why I dislike the UH. It’s not because I feel it’s a different animal than the God Hypothesis – and by “God Hypothesis,” do you mean DD’s GH?

    If it’s JUST about whether or not consistency with the evidence standing alone is sufficient to justify a hypothesis, then I agree that Cl is unjustifiably quibbling a bit, although, if that’s the case, it’s likely because he may feel that the Unicorn Hypothesis is being subtley set up to serve as a kind of straw man doppleganger for the God Hypothesis.

    Of course it is. That’s what ULFSM arguments are – rhetorical devices to make believers look silly. They work damn well, too, because most people don’t really think things through.

    Still, I’m curious why you say “If it’s JUST about whether or not consistency with the evidence standing alone is sufficient to justify a hypothesis, then I agree that Cl is unjustifiably quibbling a bit.” How so?

    Arthur,

    Why miss an opportunity to be insulting, when you can combine it with a cute little dance around what your actual point is?

    How many more times do you think I should repeat myself? Echoes are not arguments. I can’t help it if people can’t or won’t see where DD’s badly gone wrong. I’ve pointed it out several times.

  19. Arthur Says:

    Ah. So you didn’t mean what you actually said. But why say it, in that case? You’ve been complaining about all the typing.

    And oh! I’d forgotten all about that Relative Popularity Argument of yours. “God’s evidentiary advantages over ULFSM justify believers in leaving the NULL position.” Powerful stuff.

    PS What does “on his nuts” mean? I don’t live in a hip skateboarding town. Oh, and what’s “butthurt”?

  20. Lifeguard Says:

    Cl:

    Yes, I meant DD’s “GH.”

    DD quoted you as saying “Your UH differs very, very significantly from your GH. Think about the GH for a moment – my intense distaste for it aside – its depth of scope and definition at least theoretically allows for a decent subset of nuanced consequences in more than one area of reality – you have lists of things we’d expect to see in several different areas of reality were the subject of your GH to exist in actuality. ”

    The differences you stated above are precisely what I mean when I stated that you feel the GH is a totally different kind of animal than the UH. Your position is that the two are qualitatively different in terms of the “subset of nuanced consequences” that the GH contains as opposed to the UH.

    As for unjustifiable quibbling… I can certainly think of a more polite way to analogize what DD is talking about here, but I think the analogy itself, when used solely for establishing a point that you and DD apparently agree on, doesn’t strike me as particularly unsound or off base.

    Again, that’s assuming the analogy is only being used to establish the point that the consistency of two competing hypotheses with the facts presented is an insufficient basis for claiming that the hypotheses have equal merit.

    My assertion was essentially that you don’t believe that’s the SOLE purpose of the analogy, and I think your characterization of it as a rhetorical device may back me up here. If you object to it as a RHETORICAL device, then it doesn’t seem to me that you are asserting that the analogy is logically flawed or somehow insufficient for the purpose DD purports to have introduced it.

    DD, for his part, seems to think you are addressing the rhetorical aspects of his analogy as an attempt to make the analogy seem inadequate to establish the point he was trying to make (which, if I’m reading all of this stuff correctly you guys seem to agree on).

  21. John Morales Says:

    cl,

    Although I really have no idea of everything you envision when you use the phrase, I’ll take a risk – no – “The Christian God Hypothesis” is not falsifiable.

    I asked in response to your rhetorical question “… shouldn’t hypotheses be falsifiable? Don’t hypotheses increase in strength and usefulness to the extent to which they do so?”, on the basis that Christians find the hypothesis compelling, lack of falsifiability notwithstanding. Clearly, such is not an important discriminant for them.