Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Can you prove that you love your wife?

My wife and I have been married for six and a half years. When I was deciding whether to propose to her, I had to ask myself a hard question, "Do I love her?"

"Do I love her" is a hard question because there aren't that many people in the world who can answer it. I couldn't look up the answer on Wikipedia or conduct a double-blind study using a control group. In fact, I am the only person who knows whether I love my wife. You might infer that it is likely that I love her based on my behavior, but my love-like behavior might be motivated by a fear of loneliness or physical attraction or a sense of duty. Only I know for sure whether I love her or not.

Significantly, science cannot answer for me whether I love my wife. Science is really good at answering lots of questions. But it can't answer this one and it is an important question because I have to decide how to act based on my answer.

Limitations of science

One of the dangers of the post-scientific revolution era is that we might worship science so fanatically that we lose sight of its limitations. Again, science is really good at answering lots of questions and is responsible for extraordinary improvements in quality of life over the past 500 years. But it would be a mistake to believe that science is the only source of knowledge or even that it is the best source of knowledge in all domains.

Credit: Jeff and Jan Cohen
Naseem Taleb points out that a major limitation of science is that it can't confirm a truth, it can only disprove a hypothesis. Until 1697, scientists believed that all swans were white. All the data supported this hypothesis. But in 1697, an explorer discovered black swans in Western Australia. This discovery conclusively disproved the "all swans are white" hypothesis. No amount of data could ever prove that all swans are white. But one instance of a black swan disproved it forever.

The scientific method is one of making hypotheses and then trying to disprove them. When we can't disprove a hypothesis, we call it a theory or occasionally, when we think it is very important, we call it a law. But science cannot prove any of these theories or laws. It can only claim that no one has yet disproved them and wait for someone else to try.

How do we know what we know?

David Eagleman is the man behind the Possibilianism movement. It is a sort of active agnostic philosophy. He claims that we know too much to accept any of the existing religious traditions, but we don't know enough to reject the idea of a supreme creator. In other words, we should entertain a broad field of possibilities that includes every possibility that we can conceive of (we are an alien experiment, we are living out God's dream, etc.) and then use the tools of science to test those possibilities.

I am intrigued by Possibilianism because it has such an honest epistemology (epistemology is a method of arriving at knowledge). Its epistemology is: We don't know much, but what we do know, we can confirm using science. It is an honest epistemology, but it is limiting.

Religious experiments

I think most Possibilians, including Eagleman, would acknowledge that we know some things that can't be known through the scientific method. One example is love for your wife. You know you love your wife even if you can't prove it scientifically.

A valid criticism that Possibilians could make of most religions is that they do not have a coherent epistemology. I'm not an expert on all religions, but when I have asked a Protestant, "How do you know to be a Protestant?" their answer has been, "The Bible tells me to be a Protestant." If I ask, "How do you know the Bible is true?" they answer by saying either, "The Bible says it is true" or "Archaeological evidence says that it is true." The first answer is circular and is of no help to a Buddhist who does not start with a traditional belief in the Bible. The second claim is not really true. There may be historical evidence to support some or all of the events in the Bible. But there is historical evidence that supports the events in the Quran and other sacred texts. How am I to decide which is true?

The epistemology of most other Western religions is similarly incoherent or non-existant. I don't mean this to be a criticism of those religions. Many, including Protestant Christianity, teach beautiful moral doctrines. But they don't have anything to offer the rationally skeptical Possibilians because they have no way of sharing the certainty of the traditional believer.

A suggestion for Possibilians

I have just one suggestion for Possibilians and rational skeptics of all kinds: keep an open mind. That might sound like an echo of exactly what Eagleman's Possibilians are doing, but Eagleman is actually saying, "Keep an open mind to things that can be proven or disproven by science." But there are other ways to know things. Science isn't the only way to find truth.

The virtue of science is that it creates collective knowledge. I can basically trust that experiments that purport to follow the scientific method and have been published in scientific peer-reviewed journals are accurate without repeating every single experiment myself. So, step-by-step we build collective knowledge that we can share with the whole human race. But I might know things that the scientific community doesn't know.

I might know that I love my wife and children and that I find Hemmingway novels beautiful. Those are personal, individual pieces of knowledge. I can't share them scientifically, but that doesn't mean I don't know them.

Maybe one day a Possibilian will come to know something outside of the scientific method. Maybe she will be able to share it with other Possibilians (through a method we haven't discovered yet) and maybe she won't. But she'll still know.


  1. This is very interesting and well-written. My only concern is, do Possibilians even believe that we, ourselves, can know if we really love our wives? Even our own love isn't really testable.

  2. This is well written, but I think only takes a wincing and weak crack at the scientific view. I am, myself, a science driven thinker, but no science driven thinker would rely upon a system of investigation of the natural world without examining that system for its own limitations. Let us then understand the basis of science, which is a method, not a monolithic body of absolutely correct knowledge (it in fact invites all to legitimately topple its findings at any time!): science traces effects of specific causes until it can establish a regular and reliable link between the two (if A, then B), and then adds that little formula to our shared knowledge base. That approach relies heavily on the notions of a chain of cause and effect moving reliably through space-time...and the idea that everything has a cause, and no effect is causeless - each effect becomes a cause for something else, and that cause and effect couplet begets a new effect, and so on and so on...so, in theory, then, one could, knowing everything, run the film backwards, and trace the chain of effect-cause-effect-cause back through time (and space). But here is the rub in that logical system: either, the tracing back through time will lead to an original cause (that itself is without a precursor, and so lies outside the system of cause and effect) if time has a beginning, or the chain itself is without cause and lies outside the limits of the cause and effect sub-universe - i.e., is without cause. In each of the only two possibilities of that system, the origin of that system lies outside its own rule set. And our minds, evolved to understand and deconstruct within the cause and effect chain of space-time really cannot grasp the source of everything that is the acausal supra-Universe from which this little sub-set bubble is derived. This is embodied in computer theory as Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, but it applies equally here as more specifically laid out above. Interestingly, the descriptions of some "gods" have been something akin to "[he/she/it] who is without origin". As it relates to religion, I cannot accept the specificity assigned to whatever that power is: it wants me to wear my hair this way, eat toast on Tuesdays, and hate X people who are unclean and deserve smiting. Nah. That just cannot be right. But, do I think we reach the same point of wonder and have different approaches to dealing with those limits (one camp simply fills in the blank, the other continues to seek leverage further into the mystery, for to stop short WOULD be the only sin), you bet. SO I find the sneering of Richard Dawkins just rude and elitist. He could reach out to those minds, but instead chooses to beat them for amusement. I also find the violent and hateful actions of religious zealots the world over absolutely repulsive (be it terrorism, sexism, or abuse of the LGBT community). There is a HUGE swath of the truth that not only do we not know, we may not be ABLE to know (see religions that say you cannot know the name of god, cannot render {His] image, etc).

    But there are leaks between the larger Universe that we would have to call random from our perspective. And randomness may in fact be the creative force in this subset Universe - and our relationship to that force MAY be special, And MAY relate to things like love as well. If love cannot be deconstructed fully using cause and effect space-time analysis, it MAY be a remnant of the larger force, which those in the religious camp would then ascribe to the holy...to God. So, the notion that love is divine, a derivation and a connection to the divine may not be so far off...even when assessed by science and logic...it is an effect without a specific cause or cause-set.

  3. In an odd sense, I am a Possibilian. I do not have to "believe" or "disbelieve" in Love. I have experienced it. Sure, I can come up with evolutionary explanations, or talk about Oxytocin...but the fact is, one can also argue that there is no evolutionary advantage to most of our higher function emotions...depression and suicide can hardly be useful evolutionary adaptations, yet are common enough and possible for any of us. No. I have experienced love. Of my father, my son, my wife.Can one not know what one has felt? I know that same argument would tumble freely from the lips of someone religious about their faith. And that does not bother me. Have at it! But do not extrapolate more from that feeling than is in fact there. If you saw a personage or heard a voice that spoke to you, that is more likely a sign of mental illness than of a connection to a feeling that is the correlative of an underlying knowable experience...a cause (perhaps one even without a cause itself). N'est-ce pas?