Common Sense

I have tended to emphasize common sense as a basic source in attempting to philosophize or otherwise understand reality. Let me explain what I mean by the idea of common sense.

The basic idea is that something is common sense when everyone agrees that something is true. If we start with this vague account, something will be more definitively common sense to the degree that it is truer that everyone agrees, and likewise to the degree that it is truer that everyone agrees.

If we consider anything that one might think of as a philosophical view, we will find at least a few people who disagree, at least verbally, with the claim. But we may be able to find some that virtually everyone agrees with. These pertain more to common sense than things that fewer people agree with. Likewise, if we consider everyday claims rather than philosophical ones, we will probably be able to find things that everyone agrees with apart from some very localized contexts. These pertain even more to common sense. Likewise, if everyone has always agreed with something both in the past and present, that pertains more to common sense than something that everyone agrees with in the present, but where some have disagreed in the past.

It will be truer that everyone agrees in various ways: if everyone is very certain of something, that pertains more to common sense than something people are less certain about. If some people express disagreement with a view, but everyone’s revealed preferences or beliefs indicate agreement, that can be said to pertain to common sense to some degree, but not so much as where verbal affirmations and revealed preferences and beliefs are aligned.

Naturally, all of this is a question of vague boundaries: opinions are more or less a matter of common sense. We cannot sort them into two clear categories of “common sense” and “not common sense.” Nonetheless, we would want to base our arguments, as much as possible, on things that are more squarely matters of common sense.

We can raise two questions about this. First, is it even possible? Second, why do it?

One might object that the proposal is impossible. For no one can really reason except from their own opinions. Otherwise, one might be formulating a chain of argument, but it is not one’s own argument or one’s own conclusion. But this objection is easily answered. In the first place, if everyone agrees on something, you probably agree yourself, and so reasoning from common sense will still be reasoning from your own opinions. Second, if you don’t personally agree, since belief is voluntary, you are capable of agreeing if you choose, and you probably should, for reasons which will be explained in answering the second question.

Nonetheless, the objection is a reasonable place to point out one additional qualification. “Everyone agrees with this” is itself a personal point of view that someone holds, and no one is infallible even with respect to this. So you might think that everyone agrees, while in fact they do not. But this simply means that you have no choice but to do the best you can in determining what is or what is not common sense. Of course you can be mistaken about this, as you can about anything.

Why argue from common sense? I will make two points, a practical one and a theoretical one. The practical point is that if your arguments are public, as for example this blog, rather than written down in a private journal, then you presumably want people to read them and to gain from them in some way. The more you begin from common sense, the more profitable your thoughts will be in this respect. More people will be able to gain from your thoughts and arguments if more people agree with the starting points.

There is also a theoretical point. Consider the statement, “The truth of a statement never makes a person more likely to utter it.” If this statement were true, no one could ever utter it on account of its truth, but only for other reasons. So it is not something that a seeker of truth would ever say. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the falsehood of some statements, on some occasions, makes those statements more likely to be affirmed by some people. Nonetheless, the nature of language demands that people have an overall tendency, most of the time and in most situations, to speak the truth. We would not be able to learn the meaning of a word without it being applied accurately, most of the time, to the thing that it means. In fact, if everyone was always uttering falsehoods, we would simply learn that “is” means “is not,” and that “is not,” means “is,” and the supposed falsehoods would not be false in the language that we would acquire.

It follows that greater agreement that something is true, other things being equal, implies that the thing is more likely to be actually true. Stones have a tendency to fall down: so if we find a great collection of stones, the collection is more likely to be down at the bottom of a cliff rather than perched precisely on the tip of a mountain. Likewise, people have a tendency to utter the truth, so a great collection of agreement suggests something true rather than something false.

Of course, this argument depends on “other things being equal,” which is not always the case. It is possible that most people agree on something, but you are reasonably convinced that they are mistaken, for other reasons. But if this is the case, your arguments should depend on things that they would agree with even more strongly than they agree with the opposite of your conclusion. In other words, it should be based on things which pertain even more to common sense. Suppose it does not: ultimately the very starting point of your argument is something that everyone else agrees is false. This will probably be an evident insanity from the beginning, but let us suppose that you find it reasonable. In this case, Robin Hanson’s result discussed here implies that you must be convinced that you were created in very special circumstances which would guarantee that you would be right, even though no one else was created in these circumstances. There is of course no basis for such a conviction. And our ability to modify our priors, discussed there, implies that the reasonable behavior is to choose to agree with the priors of common sense, if we find our natural priors departing from them, except in cases where the disagreement is caused by agreement with even stronger priors of common sense. Thus for example in this post I gave reasons for disagreeing with our natural prior on the question, “Is this person lying or otherwise deceived?” in some cases. But this was based on mathematical arguments that are even more convincing than that natural prior.

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Motivated Reasoning and the Kantian Dichotomy

At the beginning of the last post, I distinguished between error caused by confusing the mode of knowledge and the mode of being, and error caused by non-truth related motives. But by the end of the post, it occurred to me that there might be more of a relationship between the two than one might think. Not that we can reduce all error to one or the other, of course. It seems pretty clear that the errors involved in the Kantian dichotomy are somewhat “natural,” so to speak, and often the result of honest confusion. This seems different from motivated reasoning. Similarly, there are certainly other causes of error. If someone makes an arithmetical error in their reasoning, which is a common occurrence, this is not necessarily caused by either confusion about the mode of knowing or by some other motive. It is just a mistake, perhaps caused by a failure of the imagination.

Nonetheless, consider the examples chosen in the last post. Scott Sumner is the anti-realist, while James Larson is the realist. And if we are looking only at that disagreement, and not taking into account confusion about the mode of knowing, Larson is right, and Sumner is wrong. But if we consider their opinions on other matters, Sumner is basically sane and normal, while Larson is basically crazy. Consider for example Larson’s attitude to science:

In considering what might be called the “collective thinking” of the entire Western world (and beyond), there is no position one can take which elicits more universal disdain than that of being“anti-science.” It immediately calls forth stereotyped images of backwardness, anti-progress, rigidity, and just plain stupidity.

There are of course other epithets that are accompanied by much more vehement condemnations: terms as such anti-semite, racist, etc. But we are not here concerned with such individual prejudices and passions, but rather with the scientific Weltanschauung (World-view) which now dominates our thinking, and the rejection of which is almost unthinkable to modern man.

Integral to this world-view is the belief that there is a world of “Science” containing all knowledge of the depths of the physical world, that the human mind has the potential to fully encompass this knowledge, and that it is only in the use” of this knowledge that man sins.

It is my contention, on the other hand, that the scientific weltanschauung is integrally constituted by a dominant hubris, which has profoundly altered human consciousness, and constitutes a war against both God and man.

Stereotyped or not, the labels Larson complains about can be applied to his position with a high degree of accuracy. He goes on to criticize not only the conclusions of science but also the very idea of engaging in a study of the world in a scientific manner:

It is a kind of dogma of modern life that man has the inalienable right, and even responsibility, to the pursuit of unending growth in all the spheres of his secular activity: economic, political (New World Order), scientific knowledge, technological development, etc. Such “unending quest for knowledge and growth” would almost seem to constitute modern man’s definition of his most fundamental dignity. This is fully in accord with the dominant forms of modern philosophy which define him in terms of evolutionary becoming rather than created being.

Such is not the Biblical view, which rather sees such pursuits as reeking disaster to both individual and society, and to man’s relationship to Truth and God. The Biblical perspective begins with Original Sin which, according to St. Thomas, was constituted as an intellectual pride by which Adam and Eve sought an intellectual excellence of knowledge independently of God. In the situation of Original Sin, this is described in terms of “knowledge of good and evil.” It is obvious in the light of further Old Testament scriptures, however, that this disorder also extends to the “seeking after an excellence” which would presume to penetrate to the depth of the nature of created things. Thus, we have the following scriptures:

Nothing may be taken away, nor added, neither is it possible to find out the glorious works of God: When a man hath done, then shall he begin: And when he leaveth off, he shall be at a loss.” (Ecclus 28:5-6).

And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.” (Eccl 8:17).

For the works of the Highest only are wonderful, and his works are glorious, secret, and hidden.” (Ecclus 11:4).

For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men. And the suspicion of them hath deceived man, and hath detained their minds in vanity.” (Ecclus 3:21-26).

These scripture passages proscribe any effort by man which attempts to penetrate (or even be inquisitive and curious about) the hidden depths of God’s “works.” It is evident that in these scriptures the word “works” refers to the physical world itself – to all those “works of God that are done under the sun.” There is no allegorical interpretation possible here. We are simply faced with a choice between considering these teachings as divinely revealed truth, or merely the product of primitive and ignorant Old Testament human minds.

It is not merely that Larson rejects the conclusions of science, which he admittedly does. He also condemns the very idea of “let’s go find out how the world works” as a wicked and corrupting curiosity. I say, without further ado, that this is insane.

But of course it is not insane in the sense that Larson should be committed to a mental institution, even though I would expect that he has some rather extreme personality characteristics. Rather, it is extremely obvious that Larson is engaging in highly motivated reasoning. On the other hand, most of Scott Sumner’s opinions are relatively ordinary, and while some of his opinions are no doubt supported by other human motives besides truth, we do not find him holding anything in such a highly motivated way.

Thus we have this situation: the one who upholds common sense (with regard to realism) holds crazy motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters, while the one who rejects common sense (with regard to realism) holds sane non-motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters. Perhaps this is accidental? If we consider other cases, will we find that this is an exceptional case, and that most of the time the opposite happens?

Anti-realism in particular, precisely because it is so strongly opposed to common sense, is rare in absolute terms, and thus we can expect to find that most people are realist regardless of their other opinions. But I do not think that we will find that the opposite is the case overall. On the contrary, I think we will find that people who embrace the Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have more accurate opinions about detailed matters, and that people who embrace the anti-Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have less accurate opinions about detailed matters, despite the fact that the anti-Kantian side is right about the common sense issue at hand.

Consider the dichotomy in general. If we analyze it purely in terms of concern for truth, the anti-Kantian is interested in upholding the truth of common sense, while the Kantian is interested in upholding the truth about the relationship between the mind and the world. From the beginning, the anti-Kantian wishes to maintain a general well-known truth, while the Kantian wants to maintain a relatively complex detailed truth about the relationship between knowledge and the world. The Kantian thus has more of an interest in details than the anti-Kantian, while the anti-Kantian is more concerned about the general truth.

What happens when we bring in other motivations? People begin to trade away truth. To the degree that they are interested in other things, they will have less time and energy to think about what is true. And since knowledge advances from general to particular, it would not be surprising if people who are less interested in truth pay less attention to details, and bother themselves mainly about general issues. On the other hand, if people are highly interested in truth and not much interested in other things, they will dedicate a lot of time and attention to working out things in detail. Of course, there are also other reasons why someone might want to work things out in detail. For example, as I discussed a few years ago, Francis Bacon says in effect: the philosophers do not care about truth. Rather their system is “useful” for certain goals:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Meanwhile, Bacon does not himself claim to be interested in truth. But he desires “advantages and effects,” namely accomplishments in the physical world, such as changing lead into gold. But if you want to make complex changes in the physical world, you need to know the world in detail. The philosophers, therefore, have no need of detailed knowledge because they are not interested in truth but disputation and status, while Bacon does have a need of detailed knowledge, even though he is likewise uninterested in truth, because he is interested in changing the world.

In reality, there will exist both philosophers and scientists who mainly have these non-truth related concerns, and others who are mainly concerned about the truth. But we can expect an overall effect of caring more about truth to be caring more about details as well, simply because such people will devote more time and energy to working things out in detail.

On this account, Scott Sumner’s anti-realism is an honest mistake, made simply because people tend to find the Kantian error persuasive when they try to think about how knowledge works in detail. Meanwhile, James Larson’s absurd opinions about science are not caused by any sort of honesty, but by his ulterior motives. I noted in the last post that in any such Kantian dichotomy, the position upholding common sense is truer. And this is so, but the implication of the present considerations is that in practice we will often find the person upholding common sense also maintaining positions which are much wronger in their details, because they will frequently care less about the truth overall.

I intended to give a number of examples, since this point is hardly proven by the single instance of Scott Sumner and James Larson. But since I am running short on time, at least for now I will simply point the reader in the right direction. Consider the Catholic discussion of modernism. Pius X said that the modernists “attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy,” but as we saw there, the modernists cared about the truth of certain details that the Church preferred to ignore or even to deny. The modernists were not mistaken to ascribe this to a love of truth. As I noted in the same post, Pius X suggests that a mistaken epistemology is responsible for the opinions of the modernists:

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.

As I noted there, epistemology is not the foundation for anyone’s opinions, and was not the foundation for the opinions of the modernists. But on the other hand, Pius X may be seeing something true here. The “agnosticism” he describes here is basically the claim that we can know only appearances, and not the thing in itself. And I would find it unsurprising if Pius X is right that there was a general tendency among the modernists to accept a Kantian epistemology. But the reason for this would be analogous to the reasons that Scott Sumner is an anti-realist: that is, it is basically an honest mistake about knowledge, while in contrast, the condemnation of questioning the authenticity of the Vulgate text of 1 John 5:7 was not honest at all.

Truth and Expectation II

We discussed this topic in a previous post. I noted there that there is likely some relationship with predictive processing. This idea can be refined by distinguishing between conscious thought and what the human brain does on a non-conscious level.

It is not possible to define truth by reference to expectations for reasons given previously. Some statements do not imply specific expectations, and besides, we need the idea of truth to decide whether or not someone’s expectations were correct or not. So there is no way to define truth except the usual way: a statement is true if things are the way the statement says they are, bearing in mind the necessary distinctions involving “way.”

On the conscious level, I would distinguish between thinking about something is true, and wanting to think that it is true. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that insofar as we have an involuntary assessment of things, it would be more appropriate to call that assessment a desire:

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.

Angra was quite surprised by this and responded that “That statement gives me evidence that we’re probably not talking about the same or even similar psychological phenomena – i.e., we’re probably talking past each other.” But if he was talking about anything that anyone at all would characterize as a belief (and he said that he was), he was surely talking about the unshakeable gut sense that something is the case whether or not I want to admit it. So we were, in fact, talking about exactly the same psychological phenomena. I was claiming then, and will claim now, that this gut sense is better characterized as a desire than as a belief. That is, insofar as desire is a tendency to behave in certain ways, it is a desire because it is a tendency to act and think as though this claim is true. But we can, if we want, resist that tendency, just as we can refrain from going to get food when we are hungry. If we do resist, we will refrain from believing what we have a tendency to believe, and if we do not, we will believe what we have a tendency to believe. But the tendency will be there whether or not we follow it.

Now if we feel a tendency to think that something is true, it is quite likely that it seems to us that it would improve our expectations. However, we can also distinguish between desiring to believe something for this reason, or desiring to believe something for other reasons. And although we might not pay attention, it is quite possibly to be consciously aware that you have an inclination to believe something, and also that it is for non-truth related reasons; and thus you would not expect it to improve your expectations.

But this is where it is useful to distinguish between the conscious mind and what the brain is doing on another level. My proposal: you will feel the desire to think that something is true whenever your brain guesses that its predictions, or at least the predictions that are important to it, will become more accurate if you think that the thing is true. We do not need to make any exceptions. This will be the case even when we would say that the statement does not imply any significant expectations, and will be the case even when the belief would have non-truth related motives.

Consider the statement that there are stars outside the visible universe. One distinction we could make even on the conscious level is that this implies various counterfactual predictions: “If you are teleported outside the visible universe, you will see more stars that aren’t currently visible.” Now we might find this objectionable if we were trying to define truth by expectations, since we have no expectation of such an event. But both on conscious and on non-conscious levels, we do need to make counterfactual predictions in order to carry on with our lives, since this is absolutely essential to any kind of planning and action. Now certainly no one can refute me if I assert that you would not see any such stars in the teleportation event. But it is not surprising if my brain guesses that this counterfactual prediction is not very accurate, and thus I feel the desire to say that there are stars there.

Likewise, consider the situation of non-truth related motives. In an earlier discussion of predictive processing, I suggested that the situation where people feel like they have to choose a goal is a result of such an attempt at prediction. Such a choice seems to be impossible, since choice is made in view of a goal, and if you do not have one yet, how can you choose? But there is a pre-existing goal here on the level of the brain: it wants to know what it is going to do. And choosing a goal will serve that pre-existing goal. Once you choose a goal, it will then be easy to know what you are going to do: you are going to do things that promote the goal that you chose. In a similar way, following any desire will improve your brain’s guesses about what you are going to do. It follows that if you have a desire to believe something, actually believing it will improve your brain’s accuracy at least about what it is going to do. This is true but not a fair argument, however, since my proposal is that the brain’s guess of improved accuracy is the cause of your desire to believe something. It is true that if you already have the desire, giving in to it will improve accuracy, as with any desire. But in my theory the improved accuracy had to be implied first, in order to cause the desire.

The answer is that you have many desires for things other than belief, which at the same time give you a motive (not an argument) for believing things. And your brain understands that if you believe the thing, you will be more likely to act on those other desires, and this will minimize uncertainty, and improve the accuracy of its predictions. Consider this discussion of truth in religion. I pointed out there that people confuse two different questions: “what should I do?”, and “what is the world like?” In particular with religious and political loyalties, there can be an intense social pressure towards conformity. And this gives an obvious non-truth related motive to believe the things in question. But in a less obvious way, it means that your brain’s predictions will be more accurate if you believe the thing. Consider the Mormon, and take for granted that the religious doctrines in question are false. Since they are false, does not that mean that if they continue to believe, their predictions will be less accurate?

No, it does not, for several reasons. In the first place the doctrines are in general formulated to avoid such false predictions, at least about everyday life. There might be a false prediction about what will happen when you die, but that is in the future and is anyway disconnected from your everyday life. This is in part why I said “the predictions that are important to it” in my proposal. Second, failure to believe would lead to extremely serious conflicting desires: the person would still have the desire to conform outwardly, but would also have good logical reasons to avoid conformity. And since we don’t know in advance how we will respond to conflicting desires, the brain will not have a good idea of what it would do in that situation. In other words, the Mormon is living a good Mormon life. And their brain is aware that insisting that Mormonism is true is a very good way to make sure that they keep living that life, and therefore continue to behave predictably, rather than falling into a situation of strongly conflicting desires where it would have little idea of what it would do. In this sense, insisting that Mormonism is true, even though it is not, actually improves the brain’s predictive accuracy.

 

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.

 

 

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.

Blaming the Prophet

Consider the fifth argument in the last post. Should we blame a person for holding a true belief? At this point it should not be too difficult to see that the truth of the belief is not the point. Elsewhere we have discussed a situation in which one cannot possibly hold a true belief, because whatever belief one holds on the matter, it will cause itself to be false. In a similar way, although with a different sort of causality, the problem with the person’s belief that he will kill someone tomorrow, is not that it is true, but that it causes itself to be true. If the person did not expect to kill someone tomorrow, he would not take a knife with him to the meeting etc., and thus would not kill anyone. So just as in the other situation, it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which false belief one will hold, here it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which true belief one will hold: one that includes someone getting killed, or one that excludes that. Truth will be there either way, and is not the reason for praise or blame: the person is blamed for the desire to kill someone, and praised (or at least not blamed) for wishing to avoid this. This simply shows the need for the qualifications added in the previous post: if the person’s belief is voluntary, and held for the sake of coming true, it is very evident why blame is needed.

We have not specifically addressed the fourth argument, but this is perhaps unnecessary given the above response to the fifth. This blog in general has advocated the idea of voluntary beliefs, and in principle these can be praised or blamed. To the degree that we are less willing to do so, however, this may be a question of emphasis. When we talk about a belief, we are more concerned about whether it is true or not, and evidence in favor of it or against it. Praise or blame will mainly come in insofar as other motives are involved, insofar as they strengthen or weaken a person’s wish to hold the belief, or insofar as they potentially distort the person’s evaluation of the evidence.

Nonetheless, the factual question “is this true?” is a different question from the moral question, “should I believe this?” We can see the struggle between these questions, for example, in a difficulty that people sometimes have with willpower. Suppose that a smoker decides to give up smoking, and suppose that they believe they will not smoke for the next six months. Three days later, let us suppose, they smoke a cigarette after all. At that point, the person’s resolution is likely to collapse entirely, so that they return to smoking regularly. One might ask why this happens. Since the person did not smoke for three days, it should be perfectly possible, at least, for them to smoke only once every three days, instead of going back to their former practice. The problem is that the person has received evidence directly indicating the falsity of “I will not smoke for the next six months.” They still might have some desire for that result, but they do not believe that their belief has the power to bring this about, and in fact it does not. The belief would not be self-fulfilling, and in fact it would be false, so they cease to hold it. It is as if someone attempts to open a door and finds it locked; once they know it is locked, they can no longer choose to open the door, because they cannot choose something that does not appear to be within their power.

Mark Forster, in Chapter 1 of his book Do It Tomorrow, previously discussed here, talks about similar issues:

However, life is never as simple as that. What we decide to do and what we actually do are two different things. If you think of the decisions you have made over the past year, how many of them have been satisfactorily carried to a conclusion or are progressing properly to that end? If you are like most people, you will have acted on some of your decisions, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that a large proportion will have fallen by the wayside.

So a simple decision such as to take time to eat properly is in fact very difficult to carry out. Our new rule may work for a few days or a few weeks, but it won’t be long before the pressures of work force us to make an exception to it. Before many days are up the exception will have become the rule and we are right back where we started. However much we rationalise the reasons why our decision didn’t get carried out, we know deep in the heart of us that it was not really the circumstances that were to blame. We secretly acknowledge that there is something missing from our ability to carry out a decision once we have made it.

In fact if we are honest it sometimes feels as if it is easier to get other people to do what we want them to do than it is to get ourselves to do what we want to do. We like to think of ourselves as a sort of separate entity sitting in our body controlling it, but when we look at the way we behave most of the time that is not really the case. The body controls itself most of the time. We have a delusion of control. That’s what it is – a delusion.

If we want to see how little control we have over ourselves, all most of us have to do is to look in the mirror. You might like to do that now. Ask yourself as you look at your image:

  • Is my health the way I want it to be?
  • Is my fitness the way I want it to be?
  • Is my weight the way I want it to be?
  • Is the way I am dressed the way I want it to be?

I am not asking you here to assess what sort of body you were born with, but what you have made of it and how good a state of repair you are keeping it in.

It may be that you are healthy, fit, slim and well-dressed. In which case have a look round at the state of your office or workplace:

  • Is it as well organised as you want it to be?
  • Is it as tidy as you want it to be?
  • Do all your office systems (filing, invoicing, correspondence, etc.) work the way you want them to work?

If so, then you probably don’t need to be reading this book.

I’ve just asked you to look at two aspects of your life that are under your direct control and are very little influenced by outside factors. If these things which are solely affected by you are not the way you want them to be, then in what sense can you be said to be in control at all?

A lot of this difficulty is due to the way our brains are organised. We have the illusion that we are a single person who acts in a ‘unified’ way. But it takes only a little reflection (and examination of our actions, as above) to realise that this is not the case at all. Our brains are made up of numerous different parts which deal with different things and often have different agendas.

Occasionally we attempt to deal with the difference between the facts and our plans by saying something like, “We will approximately do such and such. Of course we know that it isn’t going to be exactly like this, but at least this plan will be an approximate guide.” But this does not really avoid the difficulty. Even “this plan will be an approximate guide” is a statement about the facts that might turn out to be false; and even if it does not turn out to be false, the fact that we have set it down as approximate will likely make it guide our actions more weakly than it would have if we had said, “this is what we will do.” In other words, we are likely to achieve our goal less perfectly, precisely because we tried to make our statement more accurate. This is the reverse of the situation discussed in a previous post, where one gives up some accuracy, albeit vaguely, for the sake of another goal such as fitting in with associates or for literary enjoyment.

All of this seems to indicate that the general proposal about decisions was at least roughly correct. It is not possible to simply to say that decisions are one thing and beliefs entirely another thing. If these were simply two entirely separate things, there would be no conflict at all, at least of this kind, between accuracy and one’s other goals, and things do not turn out this way.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We can formulate a number of objections to the thesis argued in the previous post.

First, if a belief that one is going to do something is the same as the decision to do it, another person’s belief that I am going to do something should mean that the other person is making a decision for me. But this is absurd.

Second, suppose that I know that I am going to be hit on the head and suffer from amnesia, thus forgetting all about these considerations. I may believe that I will eat breakfast tomorrow, but this is surely not a decision to do so.

Third, suppose someone wants to give up smoking. He may firmly hold the opinion that whatever he does, he will sometimes smoke within the next six months, not because he wants to do so, but because he does not believe it possible that he do otherwise. We would not want to say that he decided not to give up smoking.

Fourth, decisions are appropriate objects of praise and blame. We seem at least somewhat more reluctant to praise and blame beliefs, even if it is sometimes done.

Fifth, suppose someone believes, “I will kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30 PM.” We will wish to blame him for deciding to kill Peter. But if he does kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30, he held a true belief. Even if beliefs can be praised or blamed, it seems implausible that a true belief should be blamed.

The objections are helpful. With their aid we can see that there is indeed a flaw in the original proposal, but that it is nonetheless somewhat on the right track. A more accurate proposal would be this: a decision is a voluntary self-fulfilling prophecy as understood by the decision maker. I will explain as we consider the above arguments in more detail.

In the first argument, in the case of one person making a decision for another, the problem is that a mere belief that someone else is going to do something is not self-fulfilling. If I hold a belief that I myself will do something, the belief will tend to cause its own truth, just as suggested in the previous post. But believing that someone else will do something will not in general cause that person to do anything. Consider the following situation: a father says to his children as he departs for the day, “I am quite sure that the house will be clean when I get home.” If the children clean the house during his absence, suddenly it is much less obvious that we should deny that this was the father’s decision. In fact, the only reason this is not truly the father’s decision, without any qualification at all, is that it does not sufficiently possess the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, in the example it does not seem to matter whether the father believes what he says, but only whether he says it. Second, since it is in the power of the children to fail to clean the house in any case, there seems to be a lack of sufficient causal connection between the statement and the cleaning of the house. Suppose belief did matter, namely suppose that the children will know whether he believes what he says or not. And suppose additionally that his belief had an infallible power to make his children clean the house. In that case it would be quite reasonable to say, without any qualification, “He decided that his children would clean the house during his absence.” Likewise, even if the father falsely believes that he has such an infallible power, in a sense we could rightly describe him as trying to make that decision, just as we might say, “I decided to open the door,” even if it turns out that my belief that the door could be opened turns out to be false when I try it; the door may be locked. This is why I included the clause “as understood by the decision maker” in the above proposal. This is a typical character of moral analysis; human action must be understood from the perspective of the one who acts.

In the amnesia case, there is a similar problem: due to the amnesia, the person’s current beliefs do not have a causal connection with his later actions. In addition, if we consider such things as “eating breakfast,” there might be a certain lack of causal connection in any case; the person would likely eat breakfast whether or not he formulates any opinion about what he will do. And to this degree we might feel it implausible to say that his belief that he will eat breakfast is a decision, even without the amnesia. It is not understood by the subject as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of giving up smoking, there are several problems. In this case, the subject does not believe that there is any causal connection between his beliefs and his actions. Regardless of what he believes, he thinks, he is going to smoke in fact. Thus, in his opinion, if he believes that he will stop smoking completely, he will simply hold a false belief without getting any benefit from it; he will still smoke, and his belief will just be false. So since the belief is false, and without benefit, at least as he understands it, there is no reason for him to hold this belief. Consequently, he holds the opposite belief. But this is not a decision, since he does not understand it as causing his smoking, which is something that is expected to happen whether or not he believes it will.

In such cases in real life, we are in fact sometimes tempted to say that the person is choosing not to give up smoking. And we are tempted to this to the extent that it seems to us that his belief should have the causal power that he denies it has: his denial seems to stem from the desire to smoke. If he wanted to give up smoking, we think, he could just accept that he would be able to believe this, and in such a way that it would come true. He does not, we think, because he wants to smoke, and so does not want to give up smoking. In reality this is a question of degree, and this analysis can have some truth. Consider the following from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VIII, Ch. 7-8):

Finally, in the very fever of my indecision, I made many motions with my body; like men do when they will to act but cannot, either because they do not have the limbs or because their limbs are bound or weakened by disease, or incapacitated in some other way. Thus if I tore my hair, struck my forehead, or, entwining my fingers, clasped my knee, these I did because I willed it. But I might have willed it and still not have done it, if the nerves had not obeyed my will. Many things then I did, in which the will and power to do were not the same. Yet I did not do that one thing which seemed to me infinitely more desirable, which before long I should have power to will because shortly when I willed, I would will with a single will. For in this, the power of willing is the power of doing; and as yet I could not do it. Thus my body more readily obeyed the slightest wish of the soul in moving its limbs at the order of my mind than my soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone its great resolve.

How can there be such a strange anomaly? And why is it? Let thy mercy shine on me, that I may inquire and find an answer, amid the dark labyrinth of human punishment and in the darkest contritions of the sons of Adam. Whence such an anomaly? And why should it be? The mind commands the body, and the body obeys. The mind commands itself and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved and there is such readiness that the command is scarcely distinguished from the obedience in act. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet though it be itself it does not obey itself. Whence this strange anomaly and why should it be? I repeat: The will commands itself to will, and could not give the command unless it wills; yet what is commanded is not done. But actually the will does not will entirely; therefore it does not command entirely. For as far as it wills, it commands. And as far as it does not will, the thing commanded is not done. For the will commands that there be an act of will–not another, but itself. But it does not command entirely. Therefore, what is commanded does not happen; for if the will were whole and entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. It is, therefore, no strange anomaly partly to will and partly to be unwilling. This is actually an infirmity of mind, which cannot wholly rise, while pressed down by habit, even though it is supported by the truth. And so there are two wills, because one of them is not whole, and what is present in this one is lacking in the other.

St. Augustine analyzes this in the sense that he did not “will entirely” or “command entirely.” If we analyze it in our terms, he does not expect in fact to carry out his intention, because he does not want to, and he knows that people do not do things they do not want to do. In a similar way, in some cases the smoker does not fully want to give up smoking, and therefore believes himself incapable of simply deciding to give up smoking, because if he made that decision, it would happen, and he would not want it to happen.

In the previous post, I mentioned an “obvious objection” at several points. This was that the account as presented there leaves out the role of desire. Suppose someone believes that he will go to Vienna in fact, but does not wish to go there. Then when the time comes to buy a ticket, it is very plausible that he will not buy one. Yes, this will mean that he will stop believing that he will go to Vienna. But this is different from the case where a person has “decided” to go and then changes his mind. The person who does not want to go, is not changing his mind at all, except about the factual question. It seems absurd (and it is) to characterize a decision without any reference to what the person wants.

This is why we have characterized a decision here as “voluntary”, “self-fulfilling,” and “as understood by the decision maker.” It is indeed the case that the person holds a belief, but he holds it because he wants to, and because he expects it to cause its own fulfillment, and he desires that fulfillment.

Consider the analysis in the previous post of the road to point C. Why is it reasonable for anyone, whether the subject or a third party, to conclude that the person will take road A? This is because we know that the subject wishes to get to point C. It is his desire to get to point C that will cause him to take road A, once he understands that A is the only way to get there.

Someone might respond that in this case we could characterize the decision as just a desire: the desire to get to point C. The problem is that the example is overly simplified compared to real life. Ordinarily there is not simply a single way to reach our goals. And the desire to reach the goal may not determine which particular way we take, so something else must determine it. This is precisely why we need to make decisions at all. We could in fact avoid almost anything that feels like a decision, waiting until something else determined the matter, but if we did, we would live very badly indeed.

When we make a complicated plan, there are two interrelated factors explaining why we believe it to be factually true that we will carry out the plan. We know that we desire the goal, and we expect this desire for the goal to move us along the path towards the goal. But since we also have other desires, and there are various paths towards the goal, some better than others, there are many ways that we could go astray before reaching the goal, either by taking a path to some other goal, or by taking a path less suited to the goal. So we also expect the details of our plan to keep us on the particular course that we have planned, which we suppose to be the best, or at least the best path considering our situation as a whole. If we did not keep those details in mind, we would not likely remain on this precise path. As an example, I might plan to stop at a grocery store on my way home from work, out of the desire to possess a sufficient stock of groceries, but if I do not keep the plan in mind, my desire to get home may cause me to go past the store without stopping. Again, this is why our explanation of belief is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one explicitly understood by the subject as such; by saying “I will use A, B, and C, to get to goal Z,” we expect that keeping these details in mind, together with our desire for Z, we will be moved along this precise path, and we wish to follow this path, for the sake of Z.

There is a lot more that could be said about this. For example, it is not difficult to see here an explanation for the fact that such complicated plans rarely work out precisely in practice, even in the absence of external impediments. We expect our desire for the goal to keep us on track, but in fact we have other desires, and there are an indefinite number of possibilities for those other desires to make something else happen. Likewise, even if the plan was the best we could work out in advance, there will be numberless details in which there were better options that we did not notice while planning, and we will notice some of these as we proceed along the path. So both the desire for the goal, and the desire for other things, will likely derail the plan. And, of course, most plans will be derailed by external things as well.

A combination of the above factors has the result that I will leave the consideration of the fourth and fifth arguments to another post, even though this was not my original intention, and was not my belief about what would happen.