2018-02-22 (last updated: 2018-02-25) epistemology

Most beliefs we hold are inherited, not evaluated

Update: Only after writing this did I discover that David Foster Wallace
explains this much better than I could have in his speech, "This is Water."
(found via: Peter Attia's newsletter)

For someone like me, who has no formal training in mathematics or logic, writing is the next best thing for applying any standard of rigor to my beliefs.

And perhaps counterintuitively, that’s a hard standard to come by. Why?

Because most of the beliefs we hold are never personally validated. They’re never scrutinized nor challenged nor elaborated nor assessed for their veracity. They’re simply assumed to be true.

At first glance, it’s almost an absurd proposition. Surely we hold our beliefs because we think they’re true.

But I’m not arguing that our beliefs are false. Nor am I saying that they’re true. Rather, they were never even checked to begin with.

OK - what do I mean? Many of our core beliefs - the things we most firmly hold to be true - have escaped critical examination our entire lives. Let’s take an example:

You need to get a job.

Many people (rightly or wrongly) believe this to be true. You, like I, probably believe this is true. You do actually need to get a job.

But where did that belief come from? Did you come up with that yourself - the inevitable conclusion of a methodical and exhaustive line of reasoning? Probably not.

In all likelihood, that belief was given to you. From family, from social norms, from school, from the media. Which is totally, absolutely and fundamentally OK. There was actually a period of time when we didn’t have beliefs that were given to us - the time before language - and suffice it to say, it was not a very satisfying or fulfilling existence. We’re much better off being given beliefs than figuring out the whole world for ourselves.

The problem is not that we’re given beliefs; rather, it’s that we never vet them to begin with. How many times did you question anything you were taught in college? “This is how you calculate a p-value.” “This is how you analyze a company’s strategy.” “This is how you do a discounted cash flow model.” We’re taught: given this framework, how do you apply it? But seldom do we question the framework’s validity itself.

Moreover, we were conditioned for something else: that we need not second-guess the opinions of people in positions of authority, be they parents or teachers or managers[1]. These are people whom, for the most part, we didn’t choose.

This is a sobering realization, but also an edifying one: just who are you to say that your beliefs are more right than anyone else’s? Did you examine every one of them, as well as their underlying assumptions? And don’t other people - especially the people who are “wrong” - also have their own parents and teachers and managers who they unconditionally trust?

Now, I’m not a complete truth relativist: the side closest to science virtually always has the upper-hand. But not everything can be conveniently and exclusively evaluated using science, such as ethics or politics or human behavior. And until they can, I think a greater skepticism of our own beliefs can make us much more compassionate and understanding and tolerant. Most importantly, it can move us beyond the adversarial “I’m right/you’re wrong” dichotomy and into the more open-minded, more inviting and more genuinely curious “let’s figure it out” mindset.

interrogating our beliefs #

What would happen if we did check our beliefs?

You need to get a job.

You may arrive at something like this:

Not bad. Until you see where we started - we started with the conclusion. We assumed we needed a job and rationalized it by saying it would make us happy.

Here’s a genuine question: if you started in reverse - “I want to be happy” - would you ever on your own land on needing to get a job? Quite possibly, but I bet you haven’t tried.

You’d probably also discover a lot more nuance:

This already seems much more fruitful than the dismissive “you need to get a job.”

the danger of unchecked beliefs #

On the other hand, you probably noticed that this doesn’t seem so bad:

The argument is backwards, but it seems true enough, so who cares what some armchair philosopher thinks?

In fact, “true enough” is actually good enough, which is why we can delay introspection for such a long time. There’s no immediate harm in working a job, and there’s no immediate harm in believing practically any story.

The problem with unchecked beliefs is when they are finally forced to confront reality (if ever). Either they conform or they don’t.

Here’s what could go wrong: you actually believed that story because it produced no immediate harm. You ended up working for several decades and you saved up some money. But by the time you turn 65, ready to retire and enjoy the fruits of your labor, you discover you also needed something else: your health. That ship, however, has sailed.

This is admittedly a contrived example but the point remains: you can’t just pick any story because it is “true enough.” You can’t just close your eyes, cross your fingers and say “things will work out.” Stories are only true enough until they aren’t, at which point it may be too late.

There’s a feeling for when fairytale confronts reality: betrayal. We feel betrayed that we were told that buying things would make us happy, or getting that loan to go to university would be worth it, or getting a job meant everything would be okay (à la 2007), or working hard is all you need to make it. Betrayal is the feeling when “true enough” reaches its expiration date.

identity #

There’s an interesting implication of all this: if you didn’t choose your beliefs, just how much of your identity did you choose? Did you choose to be conservative or liberal, or atheistic or religious, or skeptical or dogmatic? Or were these also just given to you?

I think a fascinating realization is that for the most part we didn’t choose any of this. I consider myself left-leaning and have built a formidable patchwork of beliefs to support that view. But what if I started out being right-leaning: wouldn’t I have similarly built a web of beliefs to support that view instead?

Our identity stands on fairly tenuous grounds. There’s no reason for it besides the fact that it just happened to be given to us.

And yet, there is nothing we defend more fervently than our identity. We become viscerally hostile to anyone who challenges our worldview; we evade introspection in fear of what we may find. It takes a lot of courage to question your own identity, because who knows which beliefs you may be forced to confront - and potentially - discard?

Instead, we continue to live a life of epistemic ignorance. The identity we were given is the one we’re keeping.

You can clearly see this by example: some of our beliefs are so unassailable - so unambiguously true - that to even question them would be categorically repugnant. Their validity is incontrovertible, their examination “off-limits.” Would you ever question the validity of something like diversity (or lack thereof)?

Some stones are better left unturned. If that example wasn’t repelling enough for you, I’m sure you can think of some particularly egregious events in history for which you will tolerate no shades of grey - there is simply one way of viewing things: either right or wrong, good or evil.

Now I’m not saying you need to critically examine every core belief you hold - beyond the sheer effort required, you would probably be insufferable - but the refusal to introspect helps explain why some people stick with patently “wrongheaded,” ideologically driven beliefs for so long.

That is, “wrongheaded” from our perspective - they’d very well say the same thing about us. Insert your religious, political, sociocultural view here.

keeping it small #

The solution I’ve arrived at for this dilemma is to keep your identity small. Keeping your identity small means you “let as few things into your identity as possible.” You don’t have many beliefs you hold onto tightly - instead they are weakly held. Because as you onboard more opinions and labels and convictions, your identity grows big, fat and unwieldy. It becomes inflexible to change and liable to contradiction.

For most of us - myself included - we have pre-packaged, cookie-cutter identities, shaped by where we grew up and what TV shows we watched and who our friends were. We didn’t choose most of that. And so we find ourselves spread too thin across too many beliefs that we could have never realistically validated ourselves.

I encourage taking the reins back.

Eagerly jettison prior beliefs at the slightest hint of stronger evidence. Embrace uncertainty in what we think we know. And avoid labels which only strengthen the already elaborate box constraining our thinking.

We should be radically challenging what we know, and inviting opportunities for others to challenge our beliefs as well. Gradually then, using a healthy dose of reason and self-reflection, we can rebuild the foundation of our beliefs and carve anew our own identity.