Sunday, August 26, 2012

What to believe?

The reason that I want to move from a critique of beliefs to a critique that includes meta beliefs is that it is occasionally possible to hold beneficial beliefs that you know to be untrue. Parables and moral tales are things that you can "believe in" but not hold to be true.

For example: My mother lost her second, and much beloved, husband to cancer several years ago. He was the mostly rigorously demonstrated "good soul" I have ever met and his name was Rudy. She lost the dog they had together about a year later. She had been a very sweet dog by the name of Ally. In the aftermath of Ally's passing my mother said something really profound to me. She said something like "I had a dream last night where Rudy and Ally where together in heaven; and it gives me a great sense of peace to think of them together like that . . . Of course all that's horseshit, but still its nice to think about."

She was going to emotionally believe that her husband and dog were together in heaven. A heaven she did not believe existed. A mind more afflicted with hobgoblins would take one of two naive routes. One is to expunge the idea from you mind and deny yourself the solace of a harmless fiction. The other would be to take this same desire for superficial consistency and let the emotional solace of the belief drive you into the arms of a religion who's world view contained such a heaven for your loved ones to exist in.

What my mother did was emotionally sophisticated, but according to the rules of logic and meaning that I learned at Tufts it was intellectually inept. And it is this conflict that I would like to address. Are we to hold ourselves to "rationalism" to the point where we deny ourselves the comfort of stories? Do we trust ourselves so little that we see "Just So" stories as the top of a slippery slope towards fundamentalism?

Part of why I want to have a conversation about meta beliefs is that it gives us a way to talk about emotional sophistication in a way that just discussing belief denies us. In order to describe the state of my mothers beliefs you need a subtler set of categories than theist/atheist/agnostic. Using the idea of meta-beliefs makes that possible. Those beliefs that have a positive emotional impact but have crazy intellectual implications can be believed and not believed at the appropriate levels.

The pie in the sky goal here for me is to produce a set of intellectual rules that would make emotionally sophisticated stances intellectually palatable to my more rigorous friends.

I would love to get some criticism here as I want this idea persuasive, and don't worry about my feelings about my mom or whatever.

There is no god

There is no god but reality, and its prophet is science.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


I have given up caring what people believe. I now only care about their meta-beliefs (and their behavior). That is to say that, basically, I now care if people are willing to change their minds or not.

Most people's beliefs are so poorly informed that even taking them at their own word is problematic. This may be controversial, but consider what evidence your coworkers have for the following list of beliefs if they hold them: "the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance", "evolution is true", "e=mc²", or "Jesus is the son of god". The point here is that most people, most of the time, have never seen first hand evidence for most of what they "know". What they Do have is judgement and experience, it is that judgement that I now consider my litmus test.

I want to get away from considering peoples beliefs, that's not whats difficult. What's hard is knowing how to choose what to believe. Did we evolve to be monogamous? Are people inherently good, whatever that might mean? Should we have a higher marginal tax rate? How to decide these kinds of things strikes me as enormously more interesting, and actually worthy of consideration.

What are your meta-beliefs? How do you decide what to believe?