Priors in the supernatural

A friend of mine recently told me the following anecdote.

Years back, she had visited an astrologer in India with her boyfriend, who told her the following things: (1) she would end up marrying her boyfriend at the time, (2) down the line they would have two kids, the first a girl and the second a boy, and (3) he predicted the exact dates of birth of both children.

Many years down the line, all of these predictions turned out to be true.

I trust this friend a great deal, and don’t have any reason to think that she misremembered the details or lied to me about them. But at the same time, I recognize that astrology is completely crazy.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we can evaluate our de facto priors in supernatural events by consulting either real-world anecdotes or thought experiments. For instance, if we think that each of these two predictions gave us a likelihood ratio of 100:1 in favor of astrology being true, and if I ended up thinking that astrology was about as likely to be true as false, then I must have started with roughly 1:10,000 odds against astrology being true.

That’s not crazily low for a belief that contradicts much of our understanding of physics. I would have thought that my prior odds would be something much lower, like 1:1010 or something. But really put yourself in that situation.

Imagine that you go to an astrologer, who is able to predict an essentially unpredictable sequence of events years down the line, with incredible accuracy. Suppose that the astrologer tells you who you will marry, how many kids you’ll have, and the dates of birth of each. Would you really be totally unshaken by this experience? Would you really believe that it was more likely to have happened by coincidence?

Yes, yes, I know the official Bayesian response; I read it in Jaynes long ago. For beliefs like astrology that contradict our basic understanding of science and causality, we should always have reserved some amount of credence for alternate explanations, even if we can’t think of any on the spot. This reserve of credence will insure us against jumping in credence to 99% upon seeing a psychic continuously predict the number in your heads, ensuring sanity and a nice simple secular worldview.

But that response is not sufficient to rule out all strong evidence for the supernatural.

Here’s one such category of strong evidence: evidence for which all alternative explanations are ruled out by the laws of physics as strongly as the supernatural hypothesis is ruled out by the laws of physics.

I think that my anecdote is one such case. If it was true, then there is no good natural alternative explanation for it. The reason? Because the information about the dates of birth of my friend’s children did not exist in the world at the time of the prediction, in any way that could be naturally attainable by any human being.

By contrast, imagine you go to a psychic who tells you to put up some fingers behind your back and then predicts over and over again how many fingers you have up. There’s hundreds of alternative explanations for this besides “Psychics are real science has failed us.” The reason that there are these alternative explanations is that the information predicted by the psychic existed in the world at the time of the prediction.

But in the case of my friend’s anecdote, the information predicted by the astrologer was lost far in the chaotic dynamics of the future.

What this rules out is the possibility that the astrologer somehow obtained the information surreptitiously by any natural means. It doesn’t rule out a host of other explanations, such as that my friend’s perception at the time was mistaken, that her memory of the event is skewed, or that she is lying. I could even, as a last resort, consider that possibility that I hallucinated the entire conversation with her. (I’d like to give the formal title “unbelievable propositions” to the set of propositions that are so unlikely that we should sooner believe that we are hallucinating than accept evidence for them.)

But each of these sources of alternative explanations, with the possible exception of the last, can be made significantly less plausible.

Let me use a thought experiment to illustrate this.

Imagine that you are a nuclear physicist who, with a group of fellow colleagues, have decided to test the predictive powers of a fortune teller. You carefully design an experiment in which a source of true quantum randomness will produce a number between 1 and N. Before the number has been produced, when it still exists only as an unrealized possibility in the wave function, you ask the fortune teller to predict its value.

Suppose that they get it correct. For what value of N would you begin to take their fortune telling abilities seriously?

Here’s how I would react to the success, for different values of N.

N = 10: “Haha, that’s a funny coincidence.”

N = 100: “Hm, that’s pretty weird.”

N = 1000: “What…”

N = 10,000: “Wait, WHAT!?”

N = 100,000: “How on Earth?? This is crazy.”

N = 1,000,000: “Ok, I’m completely baffled.”

I think I’d start taking them seriously as early as N = 10,000. This indicates prior odds of roughly 1:10,000 against fortune-telling abilities (roughly the same as my prior odds against astrology, interestingly!). Once again, this seems disconcertingly low.

But let’s try to imagine some alternative explanations.

As far as I can tell, there are only three potential failure points: (1) our understanding of physics, (2) our engineering of the experiment, (3) our perception of the fortune teller’s prediction.

First of all, if our understanding of quantum mechanics is correct, there is no possible way that any agent could do better than random at predicting the number.

Secondly, we stipulated that the experiment was designed meticulously so as to ensure that the information was truly random, and unavailable to the fortune-teller. I don’t think that such an experiment would actually be that hard to design. But let’s go even further and imagine that we’ve designed the experiment so that the fortune teller is not in causal contact with the quantum number-generator until after she has made her prediction.

And thirdly, we can suppose that the prediction is viewed by multiple different people, all of whom affirm that it was correct. We can even go further and imagine that video was taken, and broadcast to millions of viewers, all of whom agreed. Not all of them could just be getting it wrong over and over again. The only possibility is that we’re hallucinating not just the experimental result, but indeed also the public reaction and consensus on the experimental result.

But the hypothesis of a hallucination now becomes inconsistent with our understanding of how the brain works! A hallucination wouldn’t have the effect of creating a perception of a completely coherent reality in which everybody behaves exactly as normal except that they saw the fortune teller make a correct prediction. We’d expect that if this were a hallucination, it would not be so self-consistent.

Pretty much all that’s left, as far as I can tell, is some sort of Cartesian evil demon that’s cleverly messing with our brains to create this bizarre false reality. If this is right, then we’re left weighing the credibility of the laws of physics against the credibility of radical skepticism. And in that battle, I think, the laws of physics lose out. (Consider that the invalidity of radical skepticism is a precondition for the development of laws of physics in the first place.)

The point of all of this is just to sketch an example where I think we’d have a good justification for ruling out all alternative explanations, at least with an equivalent degree of confidence that we have for affirming any of our scientific knowledge.

Let’s bring this all the way back to where we started, with astrology. The conclusion of this blog post is not that I’m now a believer in astrology. I think that there’s enough credence in the buckets of “my friend misremembered details”, “my friend misreported details”, and “I misunderstood details” so that the likelihood ratio I’m faced with is not actually 10,000 to 1. I’d guess it’s something more like 10 to 1.

But I am now that much less confident that astrology is wrong. And I can imagine circumstances under which my confidence would be drastically decreased. While I don’t expect such circumstances to occur, I do find it instructive (and fun!) to think about them. It’s a good test of your epistemology to wonder what it would take for your most deeply-held beliefs to be overturned.

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