Defense Against The Dark Arts: Case Study #1

Re­lated to: The Power of Pos­i­tivist Think­ing, On Seek­ing a Short­en­ing of the Way, Crowley on Reli­gious Experience

An­noy­ance wants us to stop talk­ing about fancy tech­niques and get back to ba­sics. I dis­agree with the philos­o­phy be­hind his state­ment, but the prin­ci­ple is sound. In many ar­eas of life—I’m think­ing mostly of sports, but not for lack of al­ter­na­tives—mas­tery of the ba­sics beats poorly-grounded fancy tech­niques ev­ery time.

One ba­sic of ra­tio­nal­ity is pay­ing close at­ten­tion to an ar­gu­ment. Dis­sect­ing it to avoid rhetor­i­cal tricks, hid­den fal­la­cies, and other Dark Arts. I’ve been work­ing on this for years, and I still fall short on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tors have started em­pha­siz­ing case stud­ies in their cur­ricula. In­stead of study­ing ar­cane prin­ci­ples of dis­ease, stu­dent doc­tors co­op­er­ate to an­a­lyze a par­tic­u­lar pa­tient in de­tail, en­nu­mer­ate the prin­ci­ples needed to di­ag­nose her ill­ness, and pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to any er­rors the pa­tients’ doc­tors made dur­ing the treat­ment. The cases may be rare trop­i­cal in­fec­tions, but they’re more of­ten the same ev­ery­day dis­eases com­mon in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, forc­ing the stu­dent doc­tors to always keep the ba­sics in mind. We could do with a tra­di­tion of case stud­ies in ra­tio­nal­ity, though we’d need safe­guards to pre­vent de­gen­er­a­tion into poli­ti­cal dis­cus­sion.

Case stud­ies in medicine are most in­ter­est­ing when all the stu­dent doc­tors dis­agree with each other. To that end, I’ve cho­sen as the first case a state­ment that re­ceived six­teen up­votes on Less Wrong, maybe the high­est I’ve ever seen for a com­ment. I don’t mean to in­sult or em­barass ev­ery­one who liked it. I liked it too. My cur­sor was already hov­er­ing above the “Vote Up” but­ton by the time I start­ing hav­ing sec­ond thoughts. But it de­serves dis­sec­tion, and its pop­u­lar­ity gives me a ready re­sponse when some­one says this ma­te­rial is too ba­sic for ‘mas­ter ra­tio­nal­ists’ like our­selves:

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to In­dia to be en­light­ened. After see­ing that the na­tion claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowl­edge was full of hunger, ig­no­rance, squalor, poverty, prej­u­dice, and dis­ease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for en­light­en­ment.

This anec­dote is short, witty, flat­ter­ing, and ut­terly opaque to rea­son. It bears all the hal­l­marks of the Dark Arts.


I ad­mit I am not a dis­in­ter­ested party here. The state­ment was in re­sponse to my claim that In­dian yoga was a suc­cess­ful tech­nique for in­duc­ing ex­otic and oc­ca­sion­ally use­ful men­tal states. I don’t like be­ing told I’m wrong any more than any­one else does. But here I don’t think I am. I see at least five fal­la­cies.

First, a hid­den as­sump­tion: if A is su­pe­rior to B, A can­not learn any­thing from B. This as­sump­tion is clearly false. I know brilli­ant sci­en­tists whose spel­ling is atro­cious. I ac­knowl­edge that these peo­ple are much smarter than I am, but I still cor­rect their spel­ling. Any­one who said “Dr. A should not be learn­ing spel­ling from Yvain, Yvain should be learn­ing sci­ence from Dr. A” would be miss­ing the point. If Dr. A wants to learn spel­ling, he might as well learn it from me. And best of all if we both learn from each other!

A re­lated fal­lacy would be that Dr. A is so much smarter than the rest of us that he should not care about spel­ling. But if spel­ling is im­por­tant to his work (per­haps he’s writ­ing a jour­nal ar­ti­cle) he needs to do ev­ery­thing he can to perfect it. If he could spell cor­rectly, he would be even fur­ther ahead of the rest of us than he already is. The goal isn’t to be­come a bit bet­ter than your peers and then rest on your lau­rels. The goal is to be­come as skil­led as nec­es­sary.

The er­ror is an in­ter­est­ing var­i­ant of the halo effect: that any­one su­pe­rior at most things must be su­pe­rior at all things.

Se­cond, the state­ment as­sumes that In­dia is a sin­gle mono­lithic en­tity with or with­out spiritual wis­dom. But even the most gush­ing Ori­en­tal­ist would not study at the feet of a call-cen­tre worker in Ban­ga­lore. What­ever spiritual wis­dom may ex­ist in In­dia, it will be be­lieved by a small frac­tion of In­dian re­li­gions, be prac­ticed by a small frac­tion of the be­liev­ers, and be mas­tered by a small num­ber of the prac­tion­ers. And if Crowley is to be be­lieved, it will be un­der­stood by a small frac­tion of the mas­ters.

Com­pare the ques­tion: if Amer­ica is so good at sci­ence, why does it have so many cre­ation­ists? Well, be­cause the peo­ple who are good at sci­ence aren’t the same ones be­liev­ing in cre­ation­ism, that’s why. And the peo­ple who are good at sci­ence don’t have enough power in so­ciety to do any­thing about the cre­ation­ism is­sue. This does not re­flect poorly on the truth-value of sci­en­tific the­o­ries dis­cov­ered by Amer­i­cans.

I’m not one of those fal­lacy clas­sifi­ca­tion nuts, but for com­plete­ness’ sake, this is a fal­lacy of com­po­si­tion.

Third, the state­ment as­sumes that spiritual wis­dom makes peo­ple less poor and squalid. The con­verse of this state­ment cer­tainly isn’t true—be­ing rich and san­i­tary doesn’t give you any spiritual value, as large seg­ments of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion have spent the past three hun­dred years am­ply demon­strat­ing. Peo­ple com­monly in­ter­pret spiritual wis­dom as con­fer­ring a dis­dain for ma­te­rial goods. So we wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect to see a lot of ma­te­rial well-be­ing in a spiritu­ally wise so­ciety.

Part of this is a prob­lem with the defi­ni­tion of “spiritual wis­dom”. It can mean any­thing from “be­ing a moral per­son who cares about oth­ers” to “be­ing wise and able to make good de­ci­sions” to “hav­ing mas­tery of cer­tain men­tal tech­niques that pro­duce awe-in­spiring ex­pe­riences” Un­der the first and sec­ond defi­ni­tion, a spiritu­ally at­tained coun­try should be a nice place to live. Un­der the third defi­ni­tion, not so much. Crowley en­dorses the third defi­ni­tion, and be­lieves that most spiritu­ally wise peo­ple dis­miss the mun­dane world as un­wor­thy of their at­ten­tion any­way. But this con­tra­dicts our usual in­tu­itions about “spiritu­al­ity” and “wis­dom”.

This is a failure of defi­ni­tion, and it’s why I pre­fer “high level of mys­ti­cal at­tain­ment” to “spiritu­ally wise” when dis­cussing Crowley’s the­o­ries.

Fourth, this is hardly a con­trol­led ex­per­i­ment. In­dia is his­tor­i­cally, ge­o­graph­i­cally, racially, re­li­giously, cli­ma­tolog­i­cally, and cul­turally differ­ent from the West. At­tribut­ing a cer­tain failure to re­li­gious causes alone is highly du­bi­ous. In fact, when we think about it for a while, cram­ming a billion plus peo­ple into a swel­ter­ing malar­ial flood plain, di­vid­ing them evenly be­tween two re­li­gions that hate each other’s guts, then split­ting off the north­west cor­ner and turn­ing it into a large pop­u­lous nu­clear-armed arch-en­emy that de­clares war on them ev­ery cou­ple of decades is prob­a­bly not a recipe for suc­cess no mat­ter what your spiritu­al­ity. All we can say for cer­tain is that In­dia’s spiritu­al­ity is not suffi­ciently won­der­ful to over­come its other dis­ad­van­tages.

Peo­ple who like Latin call this cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

Fifth, this equiv­o­cates the heck out of the word “en­light­en­ment”. Com­pare “en­light­en­ment” mean­ing the set of ra­tio­nal val­ues as­so­ci­ated with New­ton, Descartes, and Hume, to “en­light­en­ment”, mean­ing gain­ing im­por­tant knowl­edge, to “en­light­en­ment”, mean­ing achiev­ing a state of nir­vana free from wor­ldly de­sire. The West is the ac­knowl­edged mas­ter of the first defi­ni­tion, and In­dia the ac­knowl­edged mas­ter of the third defi­ni­tion. The anec­dote’s claim seems to be that since the West is the ac­knowl­edged mas­ter of the first type of en­light­en­ment, and could teach In­dia some use­ful things about poli­tics and eco­nomics in the sec­ond sense of en­light­en­ment, In­dia can’t teach the West about the third sense of en­light­en­ment...which would make sense, if the types of en­light­en­ment were at all re­lated in­stead of be­ing three differ­ent things called by the same name.

This is a fal­lacy of equiv­o­ca­tion.

Just be­cause I can point out a few fal­la­cies in a state­ment doesn’t make it worth­less. Spiritual wis­dom doesn’t always cor­re­late with de­cent liv­ing con­di­tions, but the lack of de­cent liv­ing con­di­tions is some ev­i­dence against the pres­ence of spiritual wis­dom. Like­wise, a coun­try’s suc­cess or failure doesn’t always de­pend on its re­li­gion, but re­li­gion is one of many con­tribut­ing fac­tors that does make a differ­ence.

Still, five fal­la­cies is a lot for a two sen­tence anec­dote.

I don’t think we all liked this anec­dote so much be­cause of what­ever tiny core of use­ful­ness man­aged to with­stand those five fal­la­cies. I think we liked it be­cause it makes a good way to shut up hip­pies.

Hip­pies are always go­ing on about how su­pe­rior In­dia is to the West in ev­ery way be­cause of its “spiritu­al­ity” and such, and how many prob­lems are caused by “spiritu­ally bankrupt” Western sci­ence. And here we are, peo­ple who quite like Western sci­ence, rol­ling our eyes at how stupid the hip­pie is be­ing. Doesn’t she re­al­ize that Western sci­ence gives her all of the com­forts that make her life bear­able, from drink­able wa­ter to lice-free cloth­ing? And this anec­dote—it strikes a blow for our team. It makes us feel good. We don’t need to look to In­dia for en­light­en­ment! In­dia should look to us! Take that, hip­pie!

But re­versed stu­pidity is not in­tel­li­gence. Just be­cause the hip­pie is wrong about In­dia, doesn’t mean we have to be wrong in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. It might be use­ful to share it with this hy­po­thet­i­cal hip­pie, just to start her think­ing. But it’s not some­thing we can se­ri­ously en­dorse.

Nor do I ac­cept the defense that it was not speci­fi­cally posted with the con­clu­sion “There­fore, ig­nore Crowley’s views on yoga.” Merely plac­ing it di­rectly be­low an ar­ti­cle on en­light­en­ment from In­dia is a dec­la­ra­tion of war and a hi­jack at­tempt on the train of thought. Say­ing “I hear peo­ple of Afri­can de­scent have a higher vi­o­lent crime rate” is not a neu­tral act when spo­ken right be­fore a job in­ter­view with a black per­son.

Defense Against the Dark Arts needs to be­come to­tal and au­to­matic, be­cause it is the foun­da­tion upon which the com­pli­cated ra­tio­nal­ist tech­niques are built. There’s no point study­ing some com­plex Bayesian ev­i­dence-sum­ming manuever that could de­ter­mine the ex­pected util­ity of study­ing yoga if an anec­dote about Steve Jobs can keep you from even con­sid­er­ing it.

How do you know you have mas­tered this art? When the statements

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to In­dia to be en­light­ened. After see­ing that the na­tion claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowl­edge was full of hunger, ig­no­rance, squalor, poverty, prej­u­dice, and dis­ease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for en­light­en­ment.

and

For com­plex his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, the av­er­age Westerner is richer than the av­er­age In­dian. There­fore, there is min­i­mal pos­si­bil­ity that any In­dian peo­ple ever dis­cov­ered in­ter­est­ing men­tal tech­niques.

sound ex­actly al­ike.