It Is The Way It Seems To Be

As another approach to the issues in the last post, we might consider the meaning of the above phrase, “It is the way it seems to be.” What does “the way” modify in “it seems to be”?

If it modifies “seems,” then the meaning is: “In some way of seeming, something seems to be. In that way of seeming, it is.” And this is false, since it attributes a way of seeming directly to the being of things in themselves. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian truth in the previous post, and Kant rightly said that it would be a contradiction for things to be the way they seem in this sense.

If it modifies “to be,” then the meaning is: “Something seems to be in some way of being. In that way of being, it is.” And this is quite often true, although not in every case, since people can be misled. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian error in the previous post.

As I said there, Kant may not have clearly understood the distinction, or he may have accepted both the truth and the error. But his opinion is not important in any case. Nonetheless, we can see why even the Kantian truth is disconcerting to some people. Consider the above applied to an example. “The banana seems to be yellow.” In the natural understanding of this, “yellow” belongs with “to be,” so that the banana seems to actually be yellow, and there is nothing from preventing things from being the way they seem here: the banana seems to be yellow, and it is in fact yellow.

But we could reinterpret the sentence to discuss the way of seeming as such. Perhaps we should also rephrase the sentence, saying something like, “The banana seems yellowishly to be something,” where now “yellowishly” refers to something specific about the way of seeming, along the lines of qualia. In this case, it is quite impossible for the banana to be yellowishly, because this would mean that a way of seeming would be in itself a way of being — the situation Kant described as asserting that experience itself exists independently from experience.

Why might one still find the above disconcerting? Perhaps it is because if we ask “why does the banana seem to be yellow?”, one wishes to respond, “Because it is in fact yellow,” and the answer is quite appropriate. But if we ask, “Why does the banana seem yellowishly to be something?”, we cannot respond, “Because the banana is yellowishly,” because this is false, and likewise if we respond, “because the banana is yellow,” the response will seem inadequate. It does not fully explain why it appears yellowishly.

But this is quite correct, and in this respect Kant saw the truth. A yellow banana would not appear “yellowishly” to every animal, and thus “because it is yellow,” is in fact an inadequate explanation for its appearance, even if it is part of the explanation. Part of the explanation must refer to the animal as well. And Kant is quite right that we can make no distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities here. If we ask why a body appears to be extended, “because it is extended,” is a quite appropriate answer. But if we ask why a body appears extendedly to us, “because it is extended,” is part of the answer, but insufficient. Another part of the answer might be that we are extended ourselves, and the parts of our organs can receive parts of an image. Things might well seem extended to a partless intellect, but they would not seem extendedly.

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Thing In Itself

The last two posts might feel uncomfortably close to total skepticism. “Wait,” you might say, “doesn’t this seem to imply that we don’t know anything about the real world, but only about our experiences?”

We can consider a similar claim with a similar argument, taken from Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (§52c):

If I speak of objects in time and space, I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance, i.e. of experience as a distinct way of cognizing objects that is granted to human beings alone. I must not say of that which I think in space or time: that it is in itself in space and time, independent of this thought of mine; for then I would contradict myself, since space and time, together with the appearances in them, are nothing existing in themselves and outside my representations, but are themselves only ways of representing, and it is patently contradictory to say of a mere way of presenting that it also exists outside our representation. The objects of the senses therefore exist only in experience; by contrast, to grant them a self-subsistent existence of their own, without experience or prior to it, is as much as to imagine that experience is also real without experience or prior to it.

There could be a way of understanding this to say something true, but it is more easily understood as asserting something deeply erroneous. Kant may in fact have both the truth and the error in mind, or perhaps he is ambivalent concerning the correct interpretation.

Consider the distinction between the way things are known by us and the way things are in themselves. It is possible to fall into error by asserting that since things are known by us in a certain way, they must be that way in themselves. Thus we know things in a general way, and thus some Platonists might conclude that things exist in themselves in a general way, but this is an error.

But another way to fall into error would be to admit that our way of knowing is distinct from the way of being, and then to conclude from the fact that our way of knowing does not correspond precisely to the way of being, that our knowledge is false, or that we do not know at all. This is the deeply erroneous claim that Kant seems to be making above.

Consider the meaning of the statement: “We know things as they are in themselves.” If we take the phrase, “as they are in themselves,” as expressing our mode of knowing adverbially, just as we might say “We know things in general terms,” and then intend to assert that our mode of knowing is the same as the mode of the being of the thing, then the statement that we know things as they are in themselves is surely false. For the meaning would be that the things exist in our knowledge in exactly the same way as they exist in themselves — thus for example it would be implied that our knowledge is not general but particular. But more precisely, it would imply that there is no distinction whatsoever between our knowledge and the thing. In other words, if we know a horse, our knowledge is actually a horse, physically and literally. And this is manifestly false.

From this we can see both the truth and the error. The truth is that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense, precisely because our knowledge is distinct from the thing known. And the error would be the conclusion that therefore we do not know things at all. Kant seems most clearly to assert the error when he says, “I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance.” The Kantian may insist that this follows necessarily from the truth that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense.

But it is easy to see why this is wrong. We do not know things “as they are in themselves” by having a mode of knowledge identical to the mode of their being. But this does not mean that there is anything that we do not know; in fact, having an identical mode of knowing and being would precisely mean not knowing at all, but being the thing instead. In other words, it does not follow that there is any knowledge that we are missing out on; on the contrary, knowing requires a specific mode of knowing which is different from the mode of being of the thing. It is not that the difference between mode of knowing and being implies that we do not know, but rather this difference is the very condition for knowledge to exist at all. Ayn Rand rightly said of this matter:

Even apart from the fact that Kant’s theory of the “categories” as the source of man’s concepts was a preposterous invention, his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.

Again, the Kantian may insist that perhaps we know the things. But again, we are just admitting we know the things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves. So even if we know all things, we do not know their mode of being. The response is that we can know both the things and their mode of being, but we know both according to our mode of knowing, not according to their mode of being. This is similar to knowing someone else’s mode of knowing; when you do this, you do not therefore know with their mode of knowing, but with your own. Likewise, when you know the mode of the being of things, you know not with their mode of being, but with your own mode of knowing.

How does this answer our original question? Okay, you might say, there is no proof that there is anything that we cannot know in principle. But in practice it seems clear that our knowledge is entirely superficial, and thus hardly seems to be knowledge at all.

There is a large difference, however, between the assertion, “Most of our actual knowledge is rather superficial,” and the skeptical assertion, “Our knowledge is superficial in principle, and it is therefore impossible to know things as they truly are.” The first assertion is largely correct, and the second is quite wrong. It is true that the understanding of things that we attain “automatically,” as it were, from common experience, is a superficial knowledge, and thus ordinary language about ordinary things expresses such a superficial knowledge. It does not follow that a deep knowledge of things is impossible. However, if someone does not actually have such a deep knowledge, they may also misunderstand what it would even be like to have such a knowledge; and thus for example they might suppose that it would be necessary to have a knowledge of “things in themselves” in the Kantian sense, which of course is impossible, since it would eliminate the distinction between the mode of knowing and the mode of being.

In fact, not only is it not a contradiction to assert that we can know things as they are, but it would be a contradiction to assert, “There is something which we cannot know in any way, even in principle.” For “there is something” purports to refer to the thing and assert its existence, and such reference and assertion, if true, would be a kind of knowledge. Ludwig Wittgenstein makes the similar point, “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.”

It is not, however, a contradiction to say that there are some things that we cannot know in some ways. And this is surely true.

Truth in Ordinary Language

After the incident with the tall man, I make plans to meet my companion the following day. “Let us meet at sunrise tomorrow,” I say. They ask in response, “How will I know when the sun has risen?”

When it is true to say that the sun will rise, or that the sun has risen? And what it would take for such statements to be false?

Virtually no one finds themselves uncomfortable with this language despite the fact that the sun has no physical motion called “rising,” but rather the earth is rotating, giving the appearance of movement to the sun. I will ignore issues of relativity, precisely because they are evidently irrelevant. It is not just that the sun is not moving, but that we know that the physical motion of the sun one way or another is irrelevant. The rising of the sun has nothing to do with a deep physical or metaphysical account of the sun as such. Instead, it is about that thing that happens every morning. What would it take for it to be false that the sun will rise tomorrow? Well, if the earth is destroyed today, then presumably the sun will not rise tomorrow. Or if tomorrow it is dark at noon and everyone on Twitter is on an uproar about the fact that the sun is visible at the height of the sky at midnight in their part of the world, then it will have been false that the sun was going to rise in the morning. In other words, the only possible thing that could falsify the claim about the sun would be a falsification of our expectations about our experience of the sun.

As in the last post, however, this does not mean that the statement about the sun is about our expectations. It is about the sun. But the only thing it says about the sun is something like, “The sun will be and do whatever it needs to, including in relative terms, in order for our ordinary experience of a sunrise to be as it usually is.” I said something similar here about the truth of attributions of sensible qualities, such as when we say that “the banana is yellow.”

All of this will apply in general to all of our ordinary language about ourselves, our lives, and the world.

Truth and Expectation

Suppose I see a man approaching from a long way off. “That man is pretty tall,” I say to a companion. The man approaches, and we meet him. Now I can see how tall he is. Suppose my companion asks, “Were you right that the man is pretty tall, or were you mistaken?”

“Pretty tall,” of course, is itself “pretty vague,” and there surely is not some specific height in inches that would be needed in order for me to say that I was right. What then determines my answer? Again, I might just respond, “It’s hard to say.” But in some situations I would say, “yes, I was definitely right,” or “no, I was definitely wrong.” What are those situations?

Psychologically, I am likely to determine the answer by how I feel about what I know about the man’s height now, compared to what I knew in advance. If I am surprised at how short he is, I am likely to say that I was wrong. And if I am not surprised at all by his height, or if I am surprised at how tall he is, then I am likely to say that I was right. So my original pretty vague statement ends up being made somewhat more precise by being placed in relationship with my expectations. Saying that he is pretty tall implies that I have certain expectations about his height, and if those expectations are verified, then I will say that I was right, and if those expectations are falsified, at least in a certain direction, then I will say that I was wrong.

This might suggest a theory like logical positivism. The meaning of a statement seems to be defined by the expectations that it implies. But it seems easy to find a decisive refutation of this idea. “There are stars outside my past and future light cones,” for example, is undeniably meaningful, and we know what it means, but it does not seem to imply any particular expectations about what is going to happen to me.

But perhaps we should simply somewhat relax the claim about the relationship between meaning and expectations, rather than entirely retracting it. Consider the original example. Obviously, when I say, “that man is pretty tall,” the statement is a statement about the man. It is not a statement about what is going to happen to me. So it is incorrect to say that the meaning of the statement is the same as my expectations. Nonetheless, the meaning in the example receives something, at the least some of its precision, from my expectations. Different people will be surprised by different heights in such a case, and it will be appropriate to say that they disagree somewhat about the meaning of “pretty tall.” But not because they had some logical definition in their minds which disagreed with the definition in someone’s else’s mind. Instead, the difference of meaning is based on the different expectations themselves.

But does a statement always receive some precision in its meaning from expectation, or are there cases where nothing at all is received from one’s expectations? Consider the general claim that “X is true.” This in fact implies some expectations: I do not expect “someone omniscient will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “someone who finds out the truth about X will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “I will discover the truth about X and it will turn out that it was false.” Note that these expectations are implied even in cases like the claim about the stars and my future light cone. Now the hopeful logical positivist might jump in at this point and say, “Great. So why can’t we go back to the idea that meaning is entirely defined by expectations?” But returning to that theory would be cheating, so to speak, because these expectations include the abstract idea of X being true, so this must be somehow meaningful apart from these particular expectations.

These expectations do, however, give the vaguest possible framework in which to make a claim at all. And people do, sometimes, make claims with little expectation of anything besides these things, and even with little or no additional understanding of what they are talking about. For example, in the cases that Robin Hanson describes as “babbling,” the person understands little of the implications of what he is saying except the idea that “someone who understood this topic would say something like this.” Thus it seems reasonable to say that expectations do always contribute something to making meaning more precise, even if they do not wholly constitute one’s meaning. And this consequence seems pretty natural if it is true that expectation is itself one of the most fundamental activities of a mind.

Nonetheless, the precision that can be contributed in this way will never be an infinite precision, because one’s expectations themselves cannot be defined with infinite precision. So whether or not I am surprised by the man’s height in the original example, may depend in borderline cases on what exactly happens during the time between my original assessment and the arrival of the man. “I will be surprised” or “I will not be surprised” are in themselves contingent facts which could depend on many factors, not only on the man’s height. Likewise, whether or not my state actually constitutes surprise will itself be something that has borderline cases.

Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.

 

 

Predictive Processing

In a sort of curious coincidence, a few days after I published my last few posts, Scott Alexander posted a book review of Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty. A major theme of my posts was that in a certain sense, a decision consists in the expectation of performing the action decided upon. In a similar way, Andy Clark claims that the human brain does something very similar from moment to moment. Thus he begins chapter 4 of his book:

To surf the waves of sensory stimulation, predicting the present is simply not enough. Instead, we are built to engage the world. We are built to act in ways that are sensitive to the contingencies of the past, and that actively bring forth the futures that we need and desire. How does a guessing engine (a hierarchical prediction machine) turn prediction into accomplishment? The answer that we shall explore is: by predicting the shape of its own motor trajectories. In accounting for action, we thus move from predicting the rolling present to predicting the near-future, in the form of the not-yet-actual trajectories of our own limbs and bodies. These trajectories, predictive processing suggests, are specified by their distinctive sensory (especially proprioceptive) consequences. In ways that we are about to explore, predicting these (non-actual) sensory states actually serves to bring them about.

Such predictions act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting the flow of sensation that would result were you to move your body so as to keep the surfboard in that rolling sweet spot results (if you happen to be an expert surfer) in that very flow, locating the surfboard right where you want it. Expert prediction of the world (here, the dynamic ever-changing waves) combines with expert prediction of the sensory flow that would, in that context, characterize the desired action, so as to bring that action about.

There is a great deal that could be said about the book, and about this theory, but for the moment I will content myself with remarking on one of Scott Alexander’s complaints about the book, and making one additional point. In his review, Scott remarks:

In particular, he’s obsessed with showing how “embodied” everything is all the time. This gets kind of awkward, since the predictive processing model isn’t really a natural match for embodiment theory, and describes a brain which is pretty embodied in some ways but not-so-embodied in others. If you want a hundred pages of apologia along the lines of “this may not look embodied, but if you squint you’ll see how super-duper embodied it really is!”, this is your book.

I did not find Clark obsessed with this, and I think it would be hard to reasonably describe any hundred pages in the book as devoted to this particular topic. This inclines to me to suggest that Scott may be irritated by such discussion of the topic that comes up because it does not seem relevant to him. I will therefore explain the relevance, namely in relation to a different difficulty which Scott discusses in another post:

There’s something more interesting in Section 7.10 of Surfing Uncertainty [actually 8.10], “Escape From The Darkened Room”. It asks: if the brain works to minimize prediction error, isn’t its best strategy to sit in a dark room and do nothing forever? After all, then it can predict its sense-data pretty much perfectly – it’ll always just stay “darkened room”.

Section 7.10 [8.10] gives a kind of hand-wave-y answer here, saying that of course organisms have some drives, and probably it makes sense for them to desire novelty and explore new options, and so on. Overall this isn’t too different from PCT’s idea of “intrinsic error”, and as long as we remember that it’s not really predicting anything in particular it seems like a fair response.

Clark’s response may be somewhat “hand-wave-y,” but I think the response might seem slightly more problematic to Scott than it actually is, precisely because he does not understand the idea of embodiment, and how it applies to this situation.

If we think about predictions on a general intellectual level, there is a good reason not to predict that you will not eat something soon. If you do predict this, you will turn out to be wrong, as is often discovered by would-be adopters of extreme fasts or diets. You will in fact eat something soon, regardless of what you think about this; so if you want the truth, you should believe that you will eat something soon.

The “darkened room” problem, however, is not about this general level. The argument is that if the brain is predicting its actions from moment to moment on a subconscious level, then if its main concern is getting accurate predictions, it could just predict an absence of action, and carry this out, and its predictions would be accurate. So why does this not happen? Clark gives his “hand-wave-y” answer:

Prediction-error-based neural processing is, we have seen, part of a potent recipe for multi-scale self-organization. Such multiscale self-organization does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, it operates only against the backdrop of an evolved organismic (neural and gross-bodily) form, and (as we will see in chapter 9) an equally transformative backdrop of slowly accumulated material structure and cultural practices: the socio-technological legacy of generation upon generation of human learning and experience.

To start to bring this larger picture into focus, the first point to notice is that explicit, fast timescale processes of prediction error minimization must answer to the needs and projects of evolved, embodied, and environmentally embedded agents. The very existence of such agents (see Friston, 2011b, 2012c) thus already implies a huge range of structurally implicit creature-specific ‘expectations’. Such creatures are built to seek mates, to avoid hunger and thirst, and to engage (even when not hungry and thirsty) in the kinds of sporadic environmental exploration that will help prepare them for unexpected environmental shifts, resource scarcities, new competitors, and so on. On a moment-by-moment basis, then, prediction error is minimized only against the backdrop of this complex set of creature-defining ‘expectations’.”

In one way, the answer here is a historical one. If you simply ask the abstract question, “would it minimize prediction error to predict doing nothing, and then to do nothing,” perhaps it would. But evolution could not bring such a creature into existence, while it was able to produce a creature that would predict that it would engage the world in various ways, and then would proceed to engage the world in those ways.

The objection, of course, would not be that the creature of the “darkened room” is possible. The objection would be that since such a creature is not possible, it must be wrong to describe the brain as minimizing prediction error. But notice that if you predict that you will not eat, and then you do not eat, you are no more right or wrong than if you predict that you will eat, and then you do eat. Either one is possible from the standpoint of prediction, but only one is possible from the standpoint of history.

This is where being “embodied” is relevant. The brain is not an abstract algorithm which has no content except to minimize prediction error; it is a physical object which works together in physical ways with the rest of the human body to carry out specifically human actions and to live a human life.

On the largest scale of evolutionary history, there were surely organisms that were nourished and reproduced long before there was anything analagous to a mind at work in those organisms. So when mind began to be, and took over some of this process, this could only happen in such a way that it would continue the work that was already there. A “predictive engine” could only begin to be by predicting that nourishment and reproduction would continue, since any attempt to do otherwise would necessarily result either in false predictions or in death.

This response is necessarily “hand-wave-y” in the sense that I (and presumably Clark) do not understand the precise physical implementation. But it is easy to see that it was historically necessary for things to happen this way, and it is an expression of “embodiment” in the sense that “minimize prediction error” is an abstract algorithm which does not and cannot exhaust everything which is there. The objection would be, “then there must be some other algorithm instead.” But this does not follow: no abstract algorithm will exhaust a physical object. Thus for example, animals will fall because they are heavy. Asking whether falling will satisfy some abstract algorithm is not relevant. In a similar way, animals had to be physically arranged in such a way that they would usually eat and reproduce.

I said I would make one additional point, although it may well be related to the above concern. In section 4.8 Clark notes that his account does not need to consider costs and benefits, at least directly:

But the story does not stop there. For the very same strategy here applies to the notion of desired consequences and rewards at all levels. Thus we read that ‘crucially, active inference does not invoke any “desired consequences”. It rests only on experience-dependent learning and inference: experience induces prior expectations, which guide perceptual inference and action’ (Friston, Mattout, & Kilner, 2011, p. 157). Apart from a certain efflorescence of corollary discharge, in the form of downward-flowing predictions, we here seem to confront something of a desert landscape: a world in which value functions, costs, reward signals, and perhaps even desires have been replaced by complex interacting expectations that inform perception and entrain action. But we could equally say (and I think this is the better way to express the point) that the functions of rewards and cost functions are now simply absorbed into a more complex generative model. They are implicit in our sensory (especially proprioceptive) expectations and they constrain behavior by prescribing their distinctive sensory implications.

The idea of the “desert landscape” seems to be that this account appears to do away with the idea of the good, and the idea of desire. The brain predicts what it is going to do, and those predictions cause it to do those things. This all seems purely intellectual: it seems that there is no purpose or goal or good involved.

The correct response to this, I think, is connected to what I have said elsewhere about desire and good. I noted there that we recognize our desires as desires for particular things by noticing that when we have certain feelings, we tend to do certain things. If we did not do those things, we would never conclude that those feelings are desires for doing those things. Note that someone could raise a similar objection here: if this is true, then are not desire and good mere words? We feel certain feelings, and do certain things, and that is all there is to be said. Where is good or purpose here?

The truth here is that good and being are convertible. The objection (to my definition and to Clark’s account) is not a reasonable objection at all: it would be a reasonable objection only if we expected good to be something different from being, in which case it would of course be nothing at all.

Minimizing Motivated Beliefs

In the last post, we noted that there is a conflict between the goal of accurate beliefs about your future actions, and your own goals about your future. More accurate beliefs will not always lead to a better fulfillment of those goals. This implies that you must be ready to engage in a certain amount of trade, if you desire both truth and other things. Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that self-deception, and therefore also such trade, is either impossible or stupid, depending on how it is understood:

What if self-deception helps us be happy?  What if just running out and overcoming bias will make us—gasp!—unhappy?  Surely, true wisdom would be second-order rationality, choosing when to be rational.  That way you can decide which cognitive biases should govern you, to maximize your happiness.

Leaving the morality aside, I doubt such a lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen.

Second-order rationality implies that at some point, you will think to yourself, “And now, I will irrationally believe that I will win the lottery, in order to make myself happy.”  But we do not have such direct control over our beliefs.  You cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.  You might be able to believe you believed it—though I have just made that more difficult for you by pointing out the difference.  (You’re welcome!)  You might even believe you were happy and self-deceived; but you would not in fact be happy and self-deceived.

For second-order rationality to be genuinely rational, you would first need a good model of reality, to extrapolate the consequences of rationality and irrationality.  If you then chose to be first-order irrational, you would need to forget this accurate view. And then forget the act of forgetting.  I don’t mean to commit the logical fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, but I think Orwell did a good job of extrapolating where this path leads.

You can’t know the consequences of being biased, until you have already debiased yourself.  And then it is too late for self-deception.

The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.

There are several errors here. The first is the denial that belief is voluntary. As I remarked in the comments to this post, it is best to think of “choosing to believe a thing” as “choosing to treat this thing as a fact.” And this is something which is indeed voluntary. Thus for example it is by choice that I am, at this very moment, treating it as a fact that belief is voluntary.

There is some truth in Yudkowsky’s remark that “you cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.” But this is not because the thing itself is intrinsically involuntary. On the contrary, you could, if you wished, choose to treat the greenness of the sky as a fact, at least for the most part and in most ways. The problem is that you have no good motive to wish to act this way, and plenty of good motives not to act this way. In this sense, it is impossible for most of us to believe that the sky is green in the same way it is impossible for most of us to commit suicide; we simply have no good motive to do either of these things.

Yudkowsky’s second error is connected with the first. Since, according to him, it is impossible to deliberately and directly deceive oneself, self-deception can only happen in an indirect manner: “The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.” The idea is that ordinary beliefs are simply involuntary, but we can have beliefs that are somewhat voluntary by choosing “blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.” Since this is “willful stupidity,” a reasonable person would completely avoid such behavior, and thus all of his beliefs would be involuntary.

Essentially, Yudkowsky is claiming that we have some involuntary beliefs, and that we should avoid adding any voluntary beliefs to our involuntary ones. This view is fundamentally flawed precisely because all of our beliefs are voluntary, and thus we cannot avoid having voluntary beliefs.

Nor is it “willful stupidity” to trade away some truth for the sake of other good things. Completely avoiding this is in fact intrinsically impossible. If you are seeking one good, you are not equally seeking a distinct good; one cannot serve two masters. Thus since all people are interested in some goods distinct from truth, there is no one who fails to trade away some truth for the sake of other things. Yudkowsky’s mistake here is related to his wishful thinking about wishful thinking which I discussed previously. In this way he views himself, at least ideally, as completely avoiding wishful thinking. This is both impossible and unhelpful, impossible in that everyone has such motivated beliefs, and unhelpful because such beliefs can in fact be beneficial.

A better attitude to this matter is adopted by Robin Hanson, as for example when he discusses motives for having opinions in a post which we previously considered here. Bryan Caplan has a similar view, discussed here.

Once we have a clear view of this matter, we can use this to minimize the loss of truth that results from such beliefs. For example, in a post linked above, we discussed the argument that fictional accounts consistently distort one’s beliefs about reality. Rather than pretending that there is no such effect, we can deliberately consider to what extent we wish to be open to this possibility, depending on our other purposes for engaging with such accounts. This is not “willful stupidity”; the stupidity would to be engage in such trades without realizing that such trades are inevitable, and thus not to realize to what extent you are doing it.

Consider one of the cases of voluntary belief discussed in this earlier post. As we quoted at the time, Eric Reitan remarks:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

Here, Reitan is proposing that someone believe that “a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil” for the purpose of having “the sense that their lives have positive meaning.” If we look at this as it is, namely as proposing a voluntary belief for the sake of something other than truth, we can find ways to minimize the potential conflict between accuracy and this other goal. For example, the person might simply believe that “my life has a positive meaning,” without trying to explain why this is so. For the reasons given here, “my life has a positive meaning” is necessarily more probable and more known than any explanation for this that might be adopted. To pick a particular explanation and claim that it is more likely would be to fall into the conjunction fallacy.

Of course, real life is unfortunately more complicated. The woman in Reitan’s discussion might well respond to our proposal somewhat in this way (not a real quotation):

Probability is not the issue here, precisely because it is not a question of the truth of the matter in itself. There is a need to actually feel that one’s life is meaningful, not just to believe it. And the simple statement “life is meaningful” will not provide that feeling. Without the feeling, it will also be almost impossible to continue to believe it, no matter what the probability is. So in order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to believe a stronger and more particular claim.

And this response might be correct. Some such goals, due to their complexity, might not be easily achieved without adopting rather unlikely beliefs. For example, Robin Hanson, while discussing his reasons for having opinions, several times mentions the desire for “interesting” opinions. This is a case where many people will not even notice the trade involved, because the desire for interesting ideas seems closely related to the desire for truth. But in fact truth and interestingness are diverse things, and the goals are diverse, and one who desires both will likely engage in some trade. In fact, relative to truth seeking, looking for interesting things is a dangerous endeavor. Scott Alexander notes that interesting things are usually false:

This suggests a more general principle: interesting things should usually be lies. Let me give three examples.

I wrote in Toxoplasma of Rage about how even when people crusade against real evils, the particular stories they focus on tend to be false disproportionately often. Why? Because the thousands of true stories all have some subtleties or complicating factors, whereas liars are free to make up things which exactly perfectly fit the narrative. Given thousands of stories to choose from, the ones that bubble to the top will probably be the lies, just like on Reddit.

Every time I do a links post, even when I am very careful to double- and triple- check everything, and to only link to trustworthy sources in the mainstream media, a couple of my links end up being wrong. I’m selecting for surprising-if-true stories, but there’s only one way to get surprising-if-true stories that isn’t surprising, and given an entire Internet to choose from, many of the stories involved will be false.

And then there’s bad science. I can’t remember where I first saw this, so I can’t give credit, but somebody argued that the problem with non-replicable science isn’t just publication bias or p-hacking. It’s that some people will be sloppy, biased, or just stumble through bad luck upon a seemingly-good methodology that actually produces lots of false positives, and that almost all interesting results will come from these people. They’re the equivalent of Reddit liars – if there are enough of them, then all of the top comments will be theirs, since they’re able to come up with much more interesting stuff than the truth-tellers. In fields where sloppiness is easy, the truth-tellers will be gradually driven out, appearing to be incompetent since they can’t even replicate the most basic findings of the field, let alone advance it in any way. The sloppy people will survive to train the next generation of PhD students, and you’ll end up with a stable equilibrium.

In a way this makes the goal of believing interesting things much like the woman’s case. The goal of “believing interesting things” will be better achieved by more complex and detailed beliefs, even though to the extent that they are more complex and detailed, they are simply that much less likely to be true.

The point of this present post, then, is not to deny that some goals might be such that they are better attained with rather unlikely beliefs, and in some cases even in proportion to the unlikelihood of the beliefs. Rather, the point is that a conscious awareness of the trades involved will allow a person to minimize the loss of truth involved. If you never look at your bank account, you will not notice how much money you are losing from that monthly debit for internet. In the same way, if you hold Yudkowksy’s opinion, and believe that you never trade away truth for other things, which is itself both false and motivated, you are like someone who never looks at your account: you will not notice how much you are losing.