Bread. January 2007
Man at faregate refutes creationism
As I was passing through the faregates of City Hall metro station on my
way out, I noticed 2 silver-haired guys trying unsuccessfully to enter.
They tapped their farecards on their respective card-readers, but both
gates refused to open.
They tried again; still the gates wouldn't open.
I noticed that their cards were green, indicating that they were single-trip tickets. That fact and their being Caucasian suggested that they were probably visitors to Singapore. Most of us resident here would use stored-value tickets, suitable for multiple journeys.
"May I help you?" I
asked one of them.
"Yes, please. Why doesn't it work?"
I took one of the green cards and held it to the card reader. The display said "No value".
Hmm, that's strange. Was the vending machine that dispensed the cards faulty? They would have put money into the machine, and the machine should have issued them cards with the requisite value encoded.
Then a thought occurred to me.
"Have you used this card before?" I asked the perplexed man.
"Yes, and it worked perfectly this morning."
"So did mine," the other guy said.
I then explained to them that the cards they were holding were single-trip tickets, which would have been exhausted after their first ride. When they purchased them, the machine encoded a certain value into them that would have enabled their first journey. However, the exit gate at the destination deducted the value from the cards; that's why the gates would not open this time.
But what has this got to do with creationism? Be patient.
* * * * *
Overhearing their accent, I figured they were new arrivals from China, perhaps from the Northeast. They were tall, slim, very fair and yes, attractive. But they didn't seem to know how to read the various signs that might provide them with answers.
They approached a middle-aged couple for help. Watching from a distance, I could make out that the 2 women didn't get the answer they needed. Perhaps they were not able to name their destination in any comprehensible way.
One of them then pointed to the end of the platform. She appeared to be telling her friend that they should wait there, where the head of the train would be. Then I overheard the other say something about asking; I gathered the idea was to ask the driver for directions. But which of the 2 sides would see the first train arrive?
So they cleverly waited in the middle of the platform until a train sped in on one side. Then they ran along the platform to the head of stopping train, hoping to ask the driver for directions. When they got there, however, they found to their dismay that the train was driverless.
* * * * *
It must have been the 2nd or 3rd day in London, while I was still a greenhorn, when I found myself in a relatively deserted, above-ground station somewhere on the outskirts. As a train pulled in, I got up from my bench and waited at one of its doors.
It didn't open. I looked left and right. There were two little old ladies 2 or 3 carriages away and somehow they were presented with an open door, enabling them to board. But my door stayed resolutely shut, as did all other doors.
I thought of making a dash for their door, but it was a bit too far away. (And on hindsight, the little old ladies might have been alarmed to see an "oriental" charging at them.)
The train pulled out, and I was left on the platform feeling rather foolish to be caught at the wrong spot.
Is it the practice that at low-traffic stations, only certain doors would open? Would that be analogous to how, at off-peak, trains would run with fewer than the usual number of carriages, which in turn meant that one had to avoid waiting at the extreme ends of platforms? But if only certain doors would open, how would one know which door to wait at?
Fortunately, between that train and the next, some other people joined me on the platform. When the next train pulled in, I made it a point to keep close to them; they would know how things worked and where to stand. Specifically, I stayed behind a guy in blue overalls -- a plumber or electrician with his toolkit -- and observed him closely. When the train stopped in front of us, he reached out to a button beside the door and pressed it. Abracadabra.
Downtown, at high-traffic stations, the doors open automatically, but at quieter stations, you have to activate them.
* * * * *
In each of the three situations, the subject was outside his home turf and encountering something new. Even so, the subject thought he understood how things would work, only to find that his supposition was wrong.
Why did he even have a supposition?
There is a very natural human tendency, when encountering something new, to reach for an analogy from his known world: This looks like what I have seen before; I should be able to expect that it will behave in the same way.
Prior to that London Tube experience, train doors had always opened automatically for me. Here is a train. Here is a door. Ergo, it shall open.
But it doesn't.
The 2 young women from China might never have used urban railways before. If they had, they would know that asking drivers for directions is simply not the done thing. You can do that with bus drivers, but train drivers are isolated in their cabs; usually, you can't even get to talk to them. What more of computer-driven driverless trains.
They seemed to have used the analogy of bus transport (or maybe trams) when faced with a metro.
The 2 silver-haired Americans unable to get past the faregates tried to explain away their embarrassment. "Oh, we thought these were like those cards that allow you access to your office," one of them said.
Many of us would be familiar with those cards too. A decade ago, they were magnetic cards that we'd have to swipe through a channel, but nowadays they can also be contactless cards with the same technology as metro farecards. The only differences: door control cards almost always require the users to key in a code via the numeric pad, and the cards can be used an infinite number of times.
These 2 guys probably came from a city that didn't have a metro system, and when faced with a farecard and an access gate in Singapore, they simply operated on the basis of what they were familiar with -- their office system.
Most times, analogy works. It is the most efficient way to test and overcome a new situation, quickly and with the least preparatory effort. Instead of spending time investigating how a new system operates, we apply a known hypothesis and see whether the results validate that hypothesis. If it does, we achieve a practical result instantly, saving us the trouble of poking around the thing.
But efficient does not mean infallible. As seen in all three examples described above, sometimes the new situation is not analogous to the nearest equivalent that we know of. One has no choice then but to investigate from first principles, the way I had to watch other commuters carefully on the London platform.
We are confronted with new situations almost every day, and testing whether they are analogous to what we know from elsewhere is something we do routinely. We're seldom even conscious of the cognitive process involved. However, there is one Big One, that, far from demonstrating how smart humans are as a species, only serve to demonstrate our limitations: an inordinate number of people cling to the idea of a creation story.
This is particularly so in the United States, where, as reported by the New York Times, "in a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement 'human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals'."  Here is an economy that is dependent on science and technology, but half its people remain scientifically illiterate. Moreover, this stubborn illiteracy is being actively spread by its fundamentalist churches to other parts of the world.
Two facets of our human nature make us prone to such seduction. The first is that we're a story-telling species: we want to make sense of our surroundings, and we generally like to do that with a narrative. Nothing is more mellifluous than the sound of our own voice. The second is that we're a tool-using species: our immediate environment is made by ourselves to suit us. We build our homes, we move around in vehicles we have designed, we plant our farms and gardens and we stock them with animals that we have chosen. As tool-users, our mode of thinking tends towards one of using direct, purposeful intervention to engineer our environment.
Our tendency therefore, in attempting to explain the larger world, is to use an analogous narrative to explain how it was created. We thus tend to see the world as being designed and built intentionally and with forethought, albeit on an enormous scale, by some super-dude. There is also the unspoken assumption that the whole point of all that enterprise was to make a world that suits us.
On top of being consonant with our biases, creation stories often contain great drama, making them even more attractive emotionally. However, when we have to test the creation model against reality, in order to obtain a meaningful result, as anybody working in science -- from molecular genetics to astronomy -- has to, you instantly get negative feedback. The metaphorical faregate will not open. One's assumption about how the system operates, and how it came to be, cries out to be questioned. Hence, for the last 2 centuries, inquiring minds have been devoted to figuring out the natural world from first principles.
We now know, in a general way, even if there are lots of details yet to be discovered, that it came about through evolution. Evolution is just as powerful a process, if not more so, than design-guided construction. Evolution is basically an iterative process that responds to feedback, and as such, it develops and adapts to its environment through natural selection. Over a vast number of iterations, it can get extremely elaborate and well-adapted to its function, to the extent that we mistake the end-result as something designed by a conscious mind.
Farmers have employed this process to enhance their animal breeds or crops for millennia, though in place of natural selection, human selection is involved. Tropical fish breeders do the same today. But I will point to something that every parent has seen with his own eyes: the way his child acquires language. That too is an iterative process with feedback. Within 3 years, meaningless babble is shaped by trial and error into a rich vocabulary, well adapted to his linguistic environment, but not to any other.
Language itself is not designed, but evolved. And when you think about the flexibility, nuance, creativity and adaptability (including cross-pollination with other languages) that we take for granted in our use of language, you must be mad to think that, for all our intelligence, we could ever design any language from scratch, but without the possibility of further evolution, that would serve as well. This humbling thought must surely undermine any tendency to think of purpose-built design as the most powerful process available.
Yet, story-telling is part of human nature. As is tool-using and purposeful action, while on the other hand iterative processing remains relatively alien to our conscious mind. That being the case, it is no surprise that the creation stories we spin are analogous to the way we design and construct our immediate surroundings: Things come to be in their final form in a single bound, with ascribed meaning and purpose. But as we've seen, analogy is not always correct; sometimes the gates to understanding won't yield to it.
© Yawning Bread