Warranted Belief And Psychological Demands

If we were simply minds designed to assess truth, life would be easy. We could simply test and adopt the evidential heuristics and algorithms that provide the most predictive successes, apply these tools to the evidence for and against a given proposition, then simply assign a probability to the truthfulness of that proposition. There would be no default position of belief or disbelief. There would be no bivalent conclusion of belief or disbelief. Everything would be comfortably a matter of epistemological probabilities that had no bearing on our survival.

However, we find ourselves active agents in a world in which we are driven to survive and secure happiness for ourselves and those we love. We find ourselves emotional beings that are very much disturbed by uncertainty. We are driven to “know”.

This drive to “know” is what pulls us away from proper probabilistic positions on the truthfulness of claims, and compels us to claim “knowledge” that a proposition is either true or untrue. While this bivalent approach to truth destroys our credibility as effective assessors of epistemological probabilities, it is nonetheless fully human.

This human impulse to default to the artificial and epistemologically distorted categories of “true” or “untrue” is a very good fit for humans who must make continual decisions to secure survival and happiness in a dynamic world. We are not simply minds designed for the assessment of truth. We are minds designed (by natural selection) for survival and the maximization of happiness. Survival and happiness are goals that are not always best served by probabilistic epistemology.

For example, small mammals living within the habitat of larger prey are better served by irrational jitters than they are by the ability to assess the probabilities that the odd movement in the grass is merely the wind. The mind is, in this case, not merely an epistemological tool independent of the context it is assessing. That mind’s survival depends on the prompt choice of a discrete action, and the more fear-based choice more often results in a longer reproductive life. Emotions that distort proper epistemological assessment have been essential to our survival.

Another example is romantic love. Nearly all young couples shrug off statistical reports that suggest most marriages end in an unpleasant divorce, and irrationally arrive at the confidence that their own marriage is immune to such a fate. They are unable to separate their emotional selves from an honest assessment of the odds.

So what can we say about this state of affairs? Presumably all of us reading these words are human, complete with the full range of emotions that distort our more rational and probabilistic assessments of truth, and pull us into the discrete categories of “belief” and “disbelief”. Would we be better off if we could divest ourselves of our emotions and assess life wholly rationally? It is unlikely. An emotionally detached human can hardly be said to be human, and reaching a state of perfect rationality is itself a dubious project.

However, this is not a bivalent choice. We do not need to decide to either remain a prisoner of our subjective emotions or to attempt to approximate objective rationality. These are not exclusive of each other. But how is this possible?

Most of us have played some sport. A sport is based on artificial rules. To someone who does not understand the rules of baseball, the jubilant celebrations of one side of the stadium, and the dejected expressions on the other side of the stadium after a series of actions involving a ball and a wooden stick are not rational. There is no difference in the objective states of existence for the spectators. Yet is is a subjective game that allows us to enjoy irrational belief that our team is superior to the other, or that the world is a better place if our team wins. However, if there were to be an earthquake in the middle of the game, all these subjective mental games would, without difficulty, quickly dissipate as minds revert to assessing the most probable way to survive the earthquake. Of course, some minds may default to the panic that in the past kept us out of the range of predators, and in some cases, this panic may produce superior results. However, it seems that a more rational approach to most decisions humans must make in life produces superior objective results.

I said “objective results” above for a reason. Very often temporary subjective results are deemed a fair exchange for superior objective results later on. One example is that of lottery tickets. The subjective hope and excitement some humans derive from purchasing and scratching lottery tickets is considered superior to the objective amount of money saved if they did not engage in such an activity. The objective odds are ignored and exchanged for the temporary thrill of the game.

I’ve also seen friends marry a partner who was, quite obviously to everyone else, a disaster waiting to happen. I also have taken on romantic interests that I objectively assessed as very risky to my emotional equilibrium. Nothing is objectively gained from a roller coaster ride, yet millions buy tickets, ride and scream every year.

It all comes down to understanding our composite selves. We have the ability to objectively assess our worlds correctly to a high degree. On the other hand, we are also compelled by our emotions to play subjective games in life that provide us with subjective pleasures.

In my experience, placing the subjective self upon the substrate of the more rational self is the best solution. Know the odds, but take calculated and informed risks. Objectively assess and understand the world, then, upon full knowledge of that world, play all the games that fulfill our emotional needs.

Those who fear their emotions and pursue an inactive life of mere objective truth forfeit a wonderful subjective existence. On the other hand, those who fail to develop the ability to objectively assess the propositional probabilities in the world become slaves and victims of their emotions. Brash emotional choices unattenuated by clear rational assessment often result in the unexpected termination of all games.

So I recommend first laying down the objective substrate of a rational probabilistic epistemology. This will define healthy parameters for the subjective games you choose to play. Then play all the games you’d like in the confidence that you are maximizing the enjoyment of your existence.


2 thoughts on “Warranted Belief And Psychological Demands

  1. 4riozs says:

    Nice post. It makes alot of sense. I think I’m trying to find balance in this area. I can be either too serious or too careless in my actions. It’s hard to find a middle ground. Also after leaving Christianity, I no longer know what is true and what isn’t. I liked what you said about marriages falling apart. I think that for too long I have had this mentality that everything was black and white.

    “On the other hand, those who fail to develop the ability to objectively assess the propositional probabilities in the world become slaves and victims of their emotions.”

    I think this is a good statement. It makes alot of sense to me. On either end of the spectrum we need to be, overly serious, or “reckless”- we have to pay attention, we have to be aware.

  2. Thanks 4riozs,

    Yes, without religion handing to us what is “true”, we are forced to take more personal responsibility for uncovering truth. But it’s actually a lot of fun!

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