The Dunning-Kruger Effect Writ Large

Readers of the Healthymemory blog should be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect from previous posts. The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the phenomenon of people thinking they know much more about a topic than they actually know, compared to the knowledgeable individual who is painfully aware of how much he still doesn’t know about the topic in question.

In the blog post “The Antithesis of the Enlightenment” HM wondered how people would rate the following statement by David Deutsch,
“Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”
HM’s own response was, “HM would say that this is an empirical question so we don’t know yet.”

HM was answering on two levels. The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that the more knowledgeable one is, the more uncertain one is of his knowledge. This is certainly true for HM. Since graduating from high school, his learning has informed him of how much more he does not know. He expects this to continue to the end of his lifetime. Moreover, even within his supposed areas of expertise, there is a limit to what he can know and grasp. Much of what HM knows and believes is based on what true experts know. Moreover, HM thinks one should never be certain. Any belief can be overturned with better data or better arguments.

Homo sapiens is constrained by limitations in attentional processing in short term memory. Long-term memory is malleable, and changes over time. So human physiology constrains cognitive abilities. As Daniel Goleman described in his book, Emotional Intelligence, we have a nervous system adapted to performance to the world of early humans were dangers were omnipresent. This can still be seen in the daily violence reported in the news, and in our propensity for warfare, even when it is realized that todays weapons could make homo sapiens extinct.

In the general area of science, there seems to be overconfidence in how much we know. At the turn of the 19th century, some prominent physical scientists apparently thought that virtually everything was known. By 1905 Einstein published his special theory of relativity, to be followed ten years later by his general theory of relativity. And by the mid-twenties quantum physics came on the horizon. We can never know what might be just around the corner.

Unfortunately, science is often viewed as competing with the concept of God, without appreciating how limited current science is. Specific religious beliefs are not required for a belief in God. There are more parsimonious accounts available for all religions, and one of the tenets of science is to accept the most parsimonious explanation. Nevertheless, if someone finds comfort in a religion, that person should not be denied that comfort. The exception to this is when the individual tries to impose his religious beliefs or laws that come from those religious beliefs onto others.  Judge not, that ye be not judged should always be remembered. Live your religious beliefs, but let others live their own beliefs whether they are religious or not. Unfortunately some churches are heavily involved in politics, and wield an unhealthy political influence. Moreover, they are tax-exempt. Any church that is engaged in or that encourages their congregations to vote or work in a political area, should have their tax-exemptions revoked.

The mathematician Blaise Pascal made what HM regards as a compelling justification for a belief in God. Although he made his justification in a different context, the basic form of the argument holds. His argument was in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. He argued that the benefits of believing needed to be weighed against the costs of not- believing. If someone does not believe, and God does exist, then the consequences could be frightening. However, if you believe, and God does not exist, you would never know. And during one’s lifetime one would have the comfort in believing in a just and merciful God. As HM never is certain about anything, this logic compels him to believe in God. And that belief is comforting, even should it be wrong.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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