Thursday, September 22, 2011

The beauty of faith and the wisdom of doubt

There’s a new study out in the latest issue of the journal Nature that says people are overconfident because it has evolutionary benefits. The study’s authors have stated, with confidence, that in the evolutionary scheme of things, in all competitive situations where there is doubt about the outcome of a contest, overconfidence is the best strategy.
I always take ‘studies’ with a pinch of salt. Given the right funding, I can confidently state that a study can prove anything. I’ve read studies that ‘prove’ that moderate drinking is good and bad, that vegetarianism is good and bad, that this food or that food makes us fat, or doesn’t, and so on.
Why, there are even studies that say human beings are responsible for global warming, and others that confidently say this is all hot air!
It seems to me that a lot of researchers are having a lot of fun proving everything and their opposites. I hope someone will fund me to study this hypothesis.
There may be something to this overconfidence study, though.
The key point in favour of overconfidence is that it propels people to attempt feats they would otherwise give up on even before starting. It makes people attempt the barely possible, and even the impossible. In many instances they perish in the attempt. In some, they succeed, and thereby make history.
The grandest stories of human achievement and endeavor are made of such stuff. If the adventurers and explorers of yore had not given in to overconfidence, they wouldn’t have pointed their rickety wooden ships at the open and uncharted seas, and set sail, guided by instinct and the stars.
That they did worked to their favour, and arguably, to ours.
A similar spirit, buoyed with a faith in divine powers, inspired and enabled our ancestors to build the great structures they did. It seems incredible to imagine that the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and all the great cathedrals of Europe were built before machines as we know them had been invented. They were all made with human and animal labour, and the most basic tools.

Today we have so much by way of technology, but nowhere in the world do we see marvels of architecture like the ones of old. In India, especially, we only see variations of ugliness and mediocrity.
A part of the failing is because of lack of vision and imagination. A part is due to lack of the kind of royal purses that enabled those ventures. And a part is probably due to lack of that spirit of overconfidence, and an erosion of faith.
Anyone who so much as suggested building a new Taj Mahal in today’s day and age would be laughed at as mad, find NGOs campaigning against them for wastage of money, and wake up to find the Income Tax and CBI at their doors.
We live in practical times. Our thoughts are of taxes and hikes, not earth and heaven.
Even practical people, however, tend to suffer from a particular delusion that affects the majority of humankind.
It is well known that most people think they are right all the time. Psychologists have been noting this for years. They even have a word for it. It’s called ‘overestimation’.
Overestimation applies especially to beliefs. We all tend to believe that our views and values are the most correct, or the theories we subscribe to, the best.
This is where overconfidence can start to go seriously wrong. It’s one thing to build a Taj Mahal or set sail upon an unknown sea. It’s another to embark upon a witch hunt.
The people who wanted to burn Galileo Galilei at the stake (he was let off but spent his remaining life in house arrest) were probably good folks with firm conviction. They truly believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and decided that Galileo, who said the sun was the centre, was a heretic. Galileo made his own position worse by supporting his fellow scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ view that the earth moves around the sun.
In the event, it turned out that the folks who had such confidence in their beliefs - the same people who built the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of Florence, and supported artists from Michelangelo down - were wrong. 
And so it goes. Even today, most of the troubles in the world are on account of people’s certainty that they are right.
The worst examples of this can be seen in fundamentalists of all hues.
For example, Osama bin Laden was a good man in his own way. He followed a certain code of conduct and fought for it in his own way.
His problem was that he believed only his way was right, and every other way was wrong. He was prepared to kill or die for it.
That didn’t do the world, or him, much good.
There may be great value in confidence and overconfidence, but there is at least equal merit in doubt.

Honest doubt is what makes science possible. It enables questioning of strongly held beliefs, and allows for modification of those beliefs over time. In science, a theory is true only until it is proved false, or partially true. That happens with even the best of theories. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation was held to be universally true, until Einstein’s came along.
The scientific way has brought us far. It has made life much, much better for most of humankind. It has literally brought us from darkness into light.
Yet there are unintended consequences.
The scientific worldview has diminished faith. A consequence of this is that it has diminished nearly all human endeavor to the utilitarian.
Our natural reflex now is to reduce all activity to accounts of profit and loss. We only do things for comfort and material gain.
And so we are left with a world that has all the beauty and grandeur of a balance sheet.

1 comment:

Imran said...

We live in practical times. Our thoughts are of taxes and hikes, not earth and heaven.-- good one