Thursday, February 13, 2014

Are you a Believer?

Are You a Believer?

Someone asked me that question a couple of months ago.

A couple of months ago, I attended the Christmas Party at a fascinating shadow kind of organization which gives advice to the US government. I was invited because I met a fascinating and intelligent guy named Mike at an event downtown, who explained how his organization quietly gives advice to important folks in both parties of Congress. It’s not one of those places you read about in the newspapers, like Heritage or Marshall or Brookings; they want to keep it that way.

At the party, I briefly met a woman in a key position in a sister agency. “We are all believers here. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t believers. You are a believer too, aren’t you?”

But believer in what? She clearly WASN’T a believer in any version of the NSF peer review system.  (For all my skepticism, and awareness of how people do screw up the NSF system, I still do believe it can be very powerful and unique, if it is done right.)

In the late afternoon, after some wine, I was NOT at the peak of my intelligence. So I responded by saying: “Well, I don’t know. It depends on WHAT you are asking about. Belief in WHAT?” She just put on an enigmatic smile, and I think she said: “If you were a believer, you wouldn’t have to ask that.”  To this day, I do not know whether was referring to some version of Christianity, transhumanism, technology or he can-do spirit in general.

That night, at about 3AM, when my mental powers generally reach their peak, I realized that an honest answer might have been: “Madam, I am probably less of a believer than anyone you have ever met in your entire life, anywhere. I strive to live a life of freedom and of the scientific method, applied even to first person experience. At some level, I basically believe nothing.”

But today, as Luda turned on the TV for the Olympics, I saw  a (muted) TV commercial for the new movie “Believe,” by the producer of Gravity, which I reviewed before on this blog. “I have mixed feelings about this word ‘believe.’ On the one hand, I don’t do that. But form experience and analysis, I have drawn lots of conclusions and learned lots of things which I cannot really discuss at all with people unless THEY have at least some willingness to Believe. How can I start a conversation when I have to say: ‘Based on my understanding of the scientific method, you will have every reason to conclude, based on your own experience, that everything I am about to say is crazy?’”

But then I thought a bit more: “Of course, I don’t generally take that line of discussion. I DON’T ask people to ‘Just Be a Believer.’ Based on Greeley’s data, if they are reasonably intelligent people, I expect a high probability that THEY have had personal experience which should properly lead THEM to ask some pretty heavy questions, if they are sane and honest enough not to just repress their own personal experience. THAT’S the proper approach. “

As I type this, I am reminded of the mystic H. Spencer Lewis, who said that we should all be “walking question marks.” (And I remember much later meeting some kind of Jewish guy who said they say that in parts of HIS tradition.)

But – not being a Believer does not mean failing to learn from the experience of other human beings. That’s a tricky business, however. The rational approach is to learn what we can from the totality of the human database, with sophisticated filtering to make sense of it without throwing out information.  How to filter… is related to my other blog post today about prediction.

Best of luck…

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