Recognizing checkmate


in Psychology, Rants, Science

There comes a time in most games of chess (those not doomed to end in a draw) where one king can no longer evade the opposing forces and stands checkmated. This position can be expressed with mathematical precision and is undeniable for anyone who accepts the current rules of the game.

Nothing quite so clear-cut exists when it comes to logical arguments, but there can be cases where it comes close. For instance, if there are two theories about what is causing some effect, testing can be used to develop strong confidence about which cause explains it. If my computer will not turn on and the problem could be either that the hard drive has been removed or there is no electricity, I can undertake trials to determine the cause. I can check that the power cord is plugged in. I can test the socket by putting something else into it. I can open up the computer case. I can try booting from a DVD or a network drive.

Similarly, it is possible to forcefully rebut a logical argument on the basis of logic itself. This mostly applies to very narrow computer-science-type problems, but it is still worth recognizing. For instance, we can evaluate self-contained logical statements like: “Object X is either part of Group A or Group B. It is part of Group A. Therefore, it is not part of Group B.”

More often, we combine logic with factual claims about the world. The patient cannot be having an allergic reaction to the antibiotics, because they have not been administered yet. My keys cannot be in my apartment, because they are here in my hand. The atomic bomb cannot detonate, because the plutonium pit has been removed.

To me, it seems that there are some large and important questions where we have basically achieved checkmate, when it comes to how certain we can be that one perspective is correct and another is not. For example, the claim that the universe is 6,000 years old is demonstrably false. The case is closed. We know the universe to be billions of years old. The same goes for the fact that evolution takes place.

Less certain, but still very close to checkmate, are positions including: “The Earth’s climate is being altered by human activities.”.

Then there are positions that are very certain, but which involve less concrete claims, such as: “There is no evidence the universe was created by a sentient being.” and “There is no evidence of any kind of divine being that cares about human behaviour.”. The only real rebuttal to these arguments is that people have strong feelings or intuitions that contradict them, but feelings are neither logic nor evidence.

Ultimately, it is important to keep proving and re-proving claims that we believe to be true. Oftentimes, we find that we were basically right but that there was more complexity than we expected. Other times, we discover that we have been more comprehensively wrong. Awareness of our own fallibility is a critical part of the advancement of knowledge.

At the same time, we should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed with uncertainty, especially when it is those last lingering wisps of uncertainty that remain alive only because people have strong feelings about a subject. Every human decision involves dealing with some level of uncertainty, and yet it is demonstrably the case that it is better for people to act once they have done their due diligence than it is for them to dither forever while evaluating evidence and arguments. When one is in checkmate, the only sensible thing to do is to accept it and start thinking about what the lessons of the game have been. It is frustrating for me – then – that there are still vast numbers of people who believe that the planet is 6,000 years old, all the world’s land animals were once on one big boat, every organism was created in its current form and doesn’t change, or that all the climate change we are observing is caused by natural forces. How can we continue to improve humanity’s understanding of the world when there are people who will never accept that they have been checkmated, no matter how many times you point out the pieces blocking every possible avenue of escape for their king?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 10, 2011 at 8:38 am

Incidentally, I suspect one reason why chess has been so popular for so long is because it is a rich source of metaphors. Thinking about chess problems seems to involve parallel thinking about related problems in other domains.

R.K. March 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm

‘Checkmate’ may be a misleading analogy. Unlike positions on a chess board – where both the situation and the rules are completely clear – in the real world there is always uncertainty about the facts and about how to rank different arguments.

. March 12, 2011 at 12:29 am

I have been following the debate between those who are religious and those who self-identify as atheists. It is an interesting debate, especially for myself who would identify as an agnostic, which for me means that I simply believe in faith.

In many ways, faith — unseen, intangible and completely subjective — may be compared to love and empathy. I think the majority of people can agree on that. So why is it that someone who is incapable of love is a psychopath and someone who is incapable of empathy is a sociopath, but someone who is incapable of faith is an atheist?

I am not trying to toss around accusations and say there is something fundamentally wrong with atheists. But what if it is not a choice? What if some people are just naturally inclined towards faith, and some are not?

I was raised in an atheist household but feel the need to have faith. I suspect many others are raised in religious households and spend their lives knowing they just do not feel faith in their heart.

An analogy: Two children in a sandbox. One is naturally inclined towards blue, the other towards red. The child with the blue truck can explain how great blue is, why it is the best choice, and why everyone should learn to love blue. The child who favours red may be inclined to play along with the blue child due to schoolyard pressures, but his natural tendency is towards red. Pretend as he might, the red truck will always be more appealing to him.

Likewise, an atheist can hear about religion, he can understand it, he can even try to believe it, but in the end he simply cannot jump on board. While the agnostic, who can understand the atheist’s arguments and even agree with some, cannot give up the propensity towards belief. My idea is this: becoming an atheist or a believer does not come down to logic or science or religion. What if the natural capacity for faith is innate? True faith, like love — which cannot be measured or even described, but is known by its keeper — cannot be reasoned away. You either have it or you do not.

. March 18, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Dr Principe wants to rehabilitate alchemy. He believes that most alchemists were respectable seekers after knowledge and that they were working with well constructed (if ultimately misguided) theories. The reputation of the alchemists, he reckons, was deliberately undermined by gentleman amateurs who were trying to give the emerging science of chemistry the social respectability it needed to sit at the academic high table.

The work of Dr Principe, though, also serves as a useful reminder to modern scientists that even the most cherished theories need to be treated with constant scepticism. This is because, as the alchemists found out, it can be all too easy to see in your results what you want to see, rather than what is actually there.

. April 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Neither, on the other hand, can the difficulties of the question be so promptly disposed of, as sceptical philosophers are sometimes inclined to believe. It is not enough to aver, in general terms, that there never can be any conflict between truth and utility; that if religion be false, nothing but good can be the consequence of rejecting it. For, though the knowledge of every positive truth is an useful acquisition, this doctrine cannot without reservation be applied to negative truth. When the only truth ascertainable is that nothing can be known, we do not, by this knowledge, gain any new fact by which to guide ourselves; we are, at best, only disabused of our trust in some former guide-mark, which, though itself fallacious, may have pointed in the same direction with the best indications we have, and if it happens to be more conspicuous and legible, may have kept us right when they might have been overlooked. It is, in short, perfectly conceivable that religion may be morally useful without being intellectually sustainable: and it would be a proof of great prejudice in any unbeliever to deny, that there have been ages, and that there are still both nations and individuals, with regard to whom this is actually the case. Whether it is the case generally, and with reference to the future, it is the object of this paper to examine. We propose to inquire whether the belief in religion, considered as a mere persuasion, apart from the question of its truth, is really indispensable to the temporal welfare of mankind; whether the usefulness of the belief is intrinsic and universal, or local, temporary, and, in some sense, accidental; and whether the benefits which it yields might not be obtained otherwise, without the very large alloy of evil, by which, even in the best form of the belief, those benefits are qualified.

. April 24, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Swindle (chess)

In chess, a swindle is a ruse by which a player in a losing position tricks his opponent, and thereby achieves a win or draw instead of the expected loss. It may also refer more generally to obtaining a win or draw from a clearly losing position. I. A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld distinguish among “traps”, “pitfalls”, and “swindles”. In their terminology, a “trap” refers to a situation where a player goes wrong through his own efforts. In a “pitfall”, the beneficiary of the pitfall plays an active role, creating a situation where a plausible move by the opponent will turn out badly. A “swindle” is a pitfall adopted by a player who has a clearly lost game. Horowitz and Reinfeld observe that swindles, “though ignored in virtually all chess books”, “play an enormously important role in over-the-board chess, and decide the fate of countless games”.

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