Aug 15, 2013 | By

Uncertainty – More Data is Not Enough!

Today I read two articles in the online journal Nautilus:  Michael Tuts’ “Discovering the Expected”, which discusses the process physicists have used to validate the discovery of the Higgs Boson, and Amir D. Aczel’s “Chasing Coincidences”, which highlights our tendency to remember the unexpected.  The first article highlights the need to throw out the data that does not suit our purpose, and the second highlights how our unconscious attention throws out experience that does not contain meaning.  In each case, it is the patterns and relationships that are important.  But uncertainty is also significant from a metaphysical perspective.

The two articles both address the practical issues of dealing with very large data sets.  For the physicists at CERN, there is an abundance of data about the expected patterns of particle decay from the high-energy collisions produced.  This data needs to be identified and thrown out in order to allow the researchers to look for the needle in the haystack – the evidence of decay from the elusive and very rare Higgs Boson.  For the average human, there is an analogous process – we ignore the things that are normal or expected, but vividly recall the very unusual or unexpected event.  While the unusual event may be, statistically, a mere random occurrence, it will, never-the-less, grab our attention because it is something which has a meaning for us.

There are critical implications here in terms of how we draw conclusions from large data sets.  As the size of our data sets increase, causation takes on a curious ambiguity.  How do we know if something is random or the result of an unknown influence  – given the seemingly infinite range of statistical possibilities in the data set?  If we let our imagination run, and consider for example the large data set of all quantum events in our universe, the question gets quite profound.

To draw upon examples from the Axcel’s article, if a card player draws four aces three times in a row, I may conclude that the deck was stacked, even thought it is statistically possible for that result to be random. As a contrary example, it is possible (thought not probable) that an airline reservation agent knowingly put Mr. Axcel and Mr. Scott (who turned out to be a school friend of his wife) together on the plane flight where they, seemingly coincidentally, met.  The event may, in fact, not have been random.  How do we decide whether something is random – or caused by some agency at work?

This problem becomes more acute for very high consequence / very low probability events. How can we ever determine if the flap of a butterfly wing changed the course of a storm 1,000 miles away, or if the choice of a single human being changed the course of history?   How can we ever determine if miracles are real – as I discussed in “Are Miracles Real”

In the case of large data sets, such as, for example, the events in the world at large or the universe of all possible quantum events, the conclusion is that more data will not and cannot provide the answer to key questions about human life, including the question of the existence of God.  In practical terms, one cannot determine the truth of key conjectures about the world from more data.  And, as I have previously noted <>, in logical terms “Some true conjectures can never be proved.”

We have no proof, and we have no data.  All we have is faith.

“Anyone can, if he wishes, find support for the Divine idea in the sights of nature…….  Those who support the idea of nature admittedly see these facts, but because they have mentally rejected the idea of man’s heavenly state, they call these nothing but the workings of nature.”  Swedenborg, True Christian Religion #12.



3 Responses to “Uncertainty – More Data is Not Enough!”

  1. […] different evidentiary problem arises with more complex decisions. As explained in the post More Data is Not Enough, many questions are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty that serve as an insurmountable […]

  2. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    September 1, 2013 at 6:24 am George’s article is a nice synthesis of the two fascinating articles he cites, and it opens the cover of a very deep well. Aczel’s article speaks of coincidences (on a personal note, I choose a profession, orthopaedic surgery, largely dependent on diagnostic x-rays; strange that I was born in the same town, Wurzburg, Germany, where Roentgen made the discovery of x-rays). Tuts’ article is remarkable in several respects, not the least being the almost unimaginable complexity of the Atlas Project subatomic particle decay detector, not the mention the assembly of computers needed to gather an unthinkable volume of data. (Those who suppose that ambitious projects died with the Victorian Age are clearly wrong). Putting the three articles together (George’s, Aczel’s and Tuts’) what came to mind was a partial answer to a problem I had been pondering for quite some time, what is “intuition” and how does it work? Why are some folks so good at something (the Florentine word “sprezzatura” comes to mind) that others, with equal experience and training, find so difficult? Perhaps some folks have a way of storing data that only appears to be “discarding”, like archiving on a Kindle, but it’s always still there in a subliminal state, begging to be retrieved when the proper coordinates are reached if only in a tangentially related exercise. Maybe too, with a widening knowledge base, the number of pixels in our peripheral vision are enhanced. Then too, the Writings of Swedenborg are rather explicit in relating goodness and true intelligence, and that intuition is the spouse of intelligence. Reply

    • George Gantz says:

      My sense is that “Intuition” in many ways is an easier concept than “consciousness”. Both materialists and spiritualists could agree that there is a lot going on in the brain – as Justin Junge noted in the ISAS Forum session on the brain (link), the brain is the most complex object in the universe. Clearly, there is much going on physically in the brain that science has yet to fully understand, and we already know there is much going on in the brain that we are not aware of. It used to be theorized that only 10% of brain activity was purposeful because that’s the only part science could explain and link to conscious behavior. Today we know better – the other 90% is now recognized as a highly purposeful but subliminal set of complex processes involved in memory, learning, planning and perception. Intuition may fall into the category of below-conscious sorting, organizing, linking and processing that happens in the brain all the time without our awareness. Some people, due to inherited genetics, the robust expression of relevant genes at propitious points in the individual’s brain development, extensive practice and diligence, and concentrated attention or “inattention”, are far better at intuition than others. Significantly, some of the qualities that contribute to intuition are teachable. Two recent BQO articles are quite on point: “Can you learn to control your mind?“; “Can perseverance be taught?“. You might also find the recent Nautilus interview with cognitive scientist Jim Davies of interest: “How The Unlikely Drives Imagination“.
      This would seem to provide a complete answer to physicalists wishing to explain intuition, creativity, insight and inspiration, although it will be inadequate for those who have experienced or believe in transcendent influences on their thoughts, feelings, ideas and decisions.
      “Consciousness”, in contrast, is by its nature a higher order transcendent phenomenon that is not to be found in and cannot be adequately explained by the physical processes of the brain.

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