Wednesday, May 30, 2012


The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.
Robert Todd Carroll

There are times when evidence and logic persuade, and minds are changed. But those instances rarely extend to beliefs that are heavily laden with emotion and meaning. Beliefs that underlie a person's worldview - what I call "weight-bearing" beliefs - are particularly unlikely to be changed by evidence or reason.

In fact, beliefs that bear important weight in a person's identity or meaning structure are likely to be strengthened by contrary evidence, in a cognitive phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Hearing bad things about your political party makes you support it more. Evidence that your cult leader is a fraud (such as a predicted cataclysm failing to arrive) makes you even more loyal to him. This is only surprising to the degree that we conceive of reasoning as a tool for discovering the truth. The backfire effect is entirely predictable from the modern view that reason's function is almost purely social.

Unfortunately, the most interesting, important epistemic problems are precisely those that are wrapped up in emotion, those in which beliefs underlie meaning structures and identity. Suicide, birth, and the meaning of life are such problems. None of us humans (myself of course included) can approach these problems without beliefs we already strongly hold warping our investigation, selecting the facts that must be explained by the theory and those which may be ignored (largely unconsciously), and even determining whether a conclusion feels logical or absurd.

Even when it seems to all of us that a question has a correct answer, we are likely to continue to disagree as to what the correct answer is. As for the important questions, it is not a matter of updating on the right facts. Questions about the meaning and/or desirability of life are, for practical purposes, like theological arguments: solutions carry with them a higher degree of uncertainty than is felt by the holder of the belief.

To the extent that we care about truth, evidence of an epistemic peer who disagrees with us should cause us to have greater uncertainty in our previous belief. Ironically, in reality, disagreement seems to cause us to hold our belief with even more certainty than before. Our natural mental processes seem to be serving purposes other than the pursuit of truth, and often purposes in direct opposition to truth.

Uncertainty is an important part of our picture of the world. It has important consequences: the more uncertain we are in our conclusions, the less drastic action may be justified by them. If we are less than absolutely sure of our conclusions, we should avoid, for instance, excommunicating, exiling, imprisoning, torturing, or killing based on these conclusions. Unfortunately, uncertainty is cognitively difficult to maintain; our minds, it seems, do not have a natural uncertainty function, and tend to reduce complexity to comfortable certainty. Nature has its own reasons why certainty should be comfortable for us, and they are not necessarily our deepest reasons. They are not necessarily based on compassion, charity, and love for the expanding circle; least of all are they based on love of truth. Our squirrel brains treat disagreement as a fight in which we might use all kinds of underhanded tactics in order to win, including molding our actions and policies toward supporting our preferred view of reality.

Since maintaining appropriate uncertainty is not natural to us, if we want to behave charitably and rationally, we must consciously cultivate uncertainty where appropriate. More importantly, we must attend to the real-world consequences of this uncertainty by avoiding the natural tendency to use acts and policies as weapons in support of our beliefs. Given our limited capability for undestanding the world, a just world is one in which no one is forced to suffer for beliefs he doesn't hold. It is fine, I think, to admire the emperor's majestic outfit, but it is a grave mistake to imprison those who claim not to see it.

In sum:

(Charity response)
Disagreement Uncertainty Charity in acts and policies respecting uncertainty
(Fight response)
Disagreement Greater certainty Weaponization of acts and policies to promote our side's view


  1. You may find this interesting:

    1. Yes! That's exactly what I'm talking about re: the "modern view" that reason is social in function, rather than truth-seeking.

    2. Sister Y,

      You are absolutely right about people not changing their minds about things that are threatening to their worldview. For example, I have been puzzled for years by what motivates creationists to keep insisting they are right, despite overwhelming evidence otherwise. I finally realized the reason they hate the concept of evolution so much is because evolution explains what life is all about in a very fundamental way that is extremely threatening to their worldview of humanity being special and being the entire purpose of the universe.

    3. "Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments."

      Breaking news: scientists discover new particle made entirely out of pointless debates, call it "forumite".

      (Don't want to be facetious, but seriously, was "reason is for winning arguments" ever in doubt or not obviously the correct answer? Have they never seen a 150-page thread full of massive, well-argued and cross-referenced posts arguing that Star Wars isn't actually sci-fi? Have they *been* on the internet before?!)

  2. That reason is for winning arguments - for convincing others and not being convinced oneself - was, at least implicitly - I don't know if also explicitly - the view in the antiquity. Then reason took something of a vacation for a bit over a millenium, and when it was rediscovered in the context of the development of science, and especially after the enlightenment, people did think that it was for discovering the truth.

    And within evolutionary science, it's a perfectly valid question to ask whether human reasoning abilities were promoted because they helped create more accurate, and useful, representations of the world, or for some other reasons. So I don't see how the answer could have been obvious in any way. People pointlessly arguing about Star Wars tells you exactly nothing about it.

  3. That NY Times piece does a poor job of explaining the ATR (and unfortunately includes comments by Narvaez, who has demonstrated an exasperatingly persistent inability to understand the theory). Besides the Edge interview with Mercier, referred to above by Francios Tremblay, his response to the NY Times piece and his web page are worth checking out.

    The basic point about the theory, it seems to me, that regularly gets misunderstood is that reasoning has an *evaluative* function, which connects it to truth-seeking, but that this feature is primarily directed outward at the arguments of others, whereas its *argument-production* function primarily works in the service of confirmation bias.

    1. Whoops: that first link should be this one.

  4. I wonder, though, whether listeners evolving to stop listening isn't exactly what has happened. I must admit that I haven't read the article, but my impression is that the default behavior of humans is: if you don't have an opinion about p and are told that p, then believe p (or be at least very ready to do so); if you have an opinion about p and are told anything contrary, ignore it. That is, listeners do still listen, but they don't listen to arguments.

    So I don't think Mercier's attempt to summarize the theory as "reason is for collective and not individual pursuit of truth" is particularly helpful.

    I'll shut up now and say no more without reading the source, though. Just felt like irresponsibly throwing these thoughts in.

  5. OFF TOPIC: Sorry but I've got no other outlet for this.

    I've just been told that my sister is pregnant and I'm feeling horrendously guilty about not saying enough about my own longstanding resentment about my existence. My Depression and her predisposition to stress don't point to happy-outcome genetics. The mother of the husband seems to have experienced Depression and he might have had a brief spell of it himself.

    Lots of people she knows have been getting married and having kids and the circle of friends has depleted. This seems to have comprised the sense of belonging she once had.

    I've long counted my sister as the main reason I continued to exist. She has never spoken fondly of her friends experiences of motherhood and I hoped this would count for something.

    I don't know how to handle this. For years I have assumed that I would probably have to discontinue myself if this ever happened: I have given myself a decade or so to do something worthwhile with my life (before the health risks of middle age become too scary) and I don't want to mess up a child's psychology by later severing any attachment it might have formed with me or alter any attachments it might form with(my sister)the mother... I don't know if I can really uproot myself from where I live and turn myself into a family dis-owner because that isolation can be enough to spur the drive for death I would spare people from.

    I really don't want to have to make these kinds of decisions right now. I suppose I'll have to see what the next few months bring.

    Sorry for hijacking the thread for my own personal issues.


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