Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Truth and Action

What do I want to do? Which of my beliefs can I depend on with sufficient confidence to base my plans on them? Action needs truth. But sometimes the only way to find truth is trial and error.

I am pretty average, and I am vulnerable to the same biases, influences, and mental traps that send many into error. So if I know something general about people, it should apply to me too. And I must apply my skepticism to everything, including skepticism itself.
Where do our beliefs come from? Why do we sometimes change our minds suddenly, other times gradually, others not at all? We may respond to reason and evidence, but psychology throws some doubt on that. It is possible that our emotions influence our beliefs, or that unconscious brain processes may be at work, honed by evolutionary forces during our hunter-gatherer past to keep us viable as a part of a tribe, but ill suited to our lives as global infovores.
Even the wise, the good, and the powerful can be influenced or flim-flammed, so I'd better not get overconfident. Everyone can probably think of smart people or saintly types who agree with them on some controversial issue. We may find it more difficult to admit that the other side of some serious controversy also has a few brains and saints. I do not believe that anyone can truthfully say "Everyone who disagrees with me must be stupid or evil." Bias and influence lay traps for everyone, and even if I succeed in avoiding one trap, I need to watch out for the next. And if no one is exempt from these dangers, some of society's most central beliefs may be wrong.
Philosophy and psychology each describe some of the belief traps we trigger. Religion, politics, and economics sprout controversial beliefs for us to test. This is not a polite dinner party.
Join my cult. My cult has no charismatic leader. It does not demand that you donate your worldly fortune or labor or deny your family. My cult believes that we can challenge our beliefs, can train ourselves to resist dishonest influence, communicate fairly and honestly, and make space for those who disagree with us.
Action requires confidence. Wisdom requires doubt. Life requires us to balance them.

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