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.


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  2. I'm more familiar with the concept of meta-beliefs as "second-order beliefs" in the literature. I mention this because it is suggestive of Tolkein's concept of "secondary belief" in "secondary worlds" -- worlds which may resemble our own (existing) world, but which have been concocted by a literary imagination and which can be accessed and enjoyed only by a consciousness possessing the sufficient capacity for irony. See also "suspension of disbelief". I think you'd welcome the discussion of the use of irony to access the imagined worlds of Conan Doyle, Tolkein, and Lovecraft -- without concomitant and damning compromise of one's rationality -- in the recent OUP title, "As If." Let me know if you'd like me to get my copy into your hands.


    In the example of your mother, you propose that a strict epistemic consistency would have been inconsistent (natch) with your mother's imagining of her husband and dog in heaven. But this can be shown not to be the case, if we observe that the rational imagining of a counterfactual state A' is consistent with simultaneous belief in the actually prevailing state A, if and only if the rational imagining is accompanied (and modified by; endorsed by?) the meta-belief or second-order belief A'* that "belief A' is like belief A in relating certain subjects and predicates corresponding to prevailing world conditions, but also unlike belief A because it is not true."

    In other words, the knowledge that belief A' =/= belief (not)A, is carried by belief A'*. One will see that there is no epistemic contradiction to resolve, if one is sufficiently attentive to the actual contents of one's beliefs. Otherwise, one may well be confused by the resemblance of A', A, and (not)A.

    This noncontradiction can be more easily identified if one's case addresses belief states that are not themselves so sophisticated (read: compound). E.g.:

    (Belief B) is a true statement about prevailing world facts: "I like chocolate ice cream more than I like vanilla."

    (Belief B') is a counterfactual statement about what I can rationally imagine to be the case: "I like vanilla ice cream more than I like chocolate*."

    (Belief (not)) is an untrue statement which does not describe world facts, and which is not identical to (Belief B'): ""I like vanilla ice cream more than I like chocolate."

    (Belief B'*) is a true statement about one specific prevailing world fact, that is, the nature of (Belief B'): "(Belief B') resembles (Belief B) in relating flavors of ice cream to my preferences, but also unlike (Belief B because it is not true."

    So it is a conditional system (which is just as we'd expect from a cacophonous epistemic system like that we see in the human mind). (Belief B') is dependently or conditionally true, in view of the nature of related (Belief B'*). I think it is close to a standard definition, that beliefs whose truth value depend upon other beliefs (which themselves depend upon empirical validation) may be properly called "second-order" or "meta-" beliefs.

    The "rational" friends you would seek to supply with good reasons for accommodating "emotional" beliefs, I'd say are actually themselves hamstrung by a hobgoblin. It isn't an epistemic crime to entertain counterfactuals, or to enjoin imaginary worlds, or enjoy a little rational enchantment. Durkheim's phrase for this kind of rigid pseudo-rationality was "the iron cage." God save us (natch) from rationality without irony.

  3. A few years back my Mother took an class for fun where she met (name changed) a guy named Matt. They became friends even though he's kind of an asshole. And it just so happens that even though they met in America, Matt lives in Kyoto, on the other side of the planet, only an hour away from me. He was just home for a visit and happened to meet Mom.

    Matt opens a business in Japan and invites me the "daughter of his personal ball buster" (my mother) to the grand opening party. I meet him, and instantly don't like him. I think he's a dick, (as does mom, but she enjoys his company anyway). But at the open house I meet my now close friend Joe, and never see Matt again. But now I have my awesome friend Joe.

    Sometimes I look back on the impossiblness of my mother meeting a douche bag in America (the kind of person she almost never tolerates), befriends him, then I meet him because he actually lives an hour away from me in Japan and that leads me to a great friendship. And I think, wow, meeting this ass got me a great friend, it's like we're all connected or meant to be or something. The stars aligned for me.

    Do I think that this really happened? Mmmm, not really. I have no proof either way, so I crack it up to a coincidence. But it's still nice to think that the world allowed an asshole to do a good deed indirectly and intervened on my behalf to give me a cool friend. It makes me feel better, and it doesn't do any harm to muse over it.

    What would cause harm is if that friendship then started to become a negative experience and I used the strange way of our meeting to justify staying in a self destructive friendship. Because obviously "We were meant to meet for some reason". So I have to "stick it out".

    Not really the same as your story. But I think a mild attachment to the "story" we make is fine. Life is hard, and short, and denying the self of the pleasure of fantasy for comfort is pointless if it makes the process of living easier. It's when the fantasy REPLACES the reality of the situation that bothers me.

    I think that thinking of a negative situation illustrates this beautifully. There is a super bitch at work, that I can't stand. She's vicious, and everyone around her says behind her back that "one day she'll get hers", for being such a vicious person. Will she really? No idea. But thinking it doesn't hurt anyone and it makes us feel better. It's the going out and buying the cyanide yourself to uphold the idea that she's "getting what she deserves" that takes it too far. The positive version of this holds the same principle. You're mom fantasizing about her husband and dog waiting in heaven makes her feel better and does no one harm. It's the going out and joining a church so she can join them that has potential side effects. Changing actions to fit the fantasy = bad. Having a fantasy = good / neutral.

  4. You shouldn't conflate the products of instrumental reasoning and emotional rationalizing, they seem two entirely separate realms of information and decisions. That is, when reasoning about a dead loved one, you should probably use different systems of thought to determine how you feel about them and the instrumental reality of their remains.

    To project the memory of a loved one into a warm, imaginary place is not the same as to deny the physics of what they've left behind.