Here is what you need to know about me.

This matters to me:  whether or not I believe what is true.

People are generally very concerned that what they believe is true.* Unfortunately, in my experience this often manifests as, having “figured out” what is true, people then set out to prove that what they believe is true. Often this is by cherry-picking information which agrees with them, ignoring or discounting information which contradicts them, and by using rhetorical tricks to make it impossible for other people to disagree that [any given thing] is true. (As though, if you can only convince people, that makes the thing that you believe true. If only you can muster enough belief, you can surely bend reality to your will….) Sometimes this is a conscious process, such as in politics. Sometimes it’s not conscious at all and people really don’t think they’re doing this. Ideally, although one almost always starts with some view as to how things are, this view would be rationally altered in the light of supporting or contradicting evidence — a process of Bayesian reasoning. What I’ve just described, though, is called “motivated reasoning” — as Steve Hoffman once put it, “Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.”

I’m very wary of it. I don’t want to do this, myself — but I know how easy it is, how completely natural — humans do this, it’s quite probably our default form of reasoning and happens below the level of awareness. But I see and have seen it leading down blind alleys and into delusions. At its most benign, it’s still a good way to end up doing things wrong and dealing with reality ineffectually. There are so many easy cognitive biases, though; it often requires a counterintuitive way of thinking to avoid these, since these errors ARE a part of our intuition.

The overwhelming consensus of evidence is that there is an objective, physical reality, which exists entirely independently of me. I might not see all of it, know what all of it is, or understand it entirely, but it will still be what it is. It depends on my view, my understanding, or even my existence, not at all. It is inevitable that I should have beliefs about it based on what I *do* know. What concerns me is that my beliefs should conform to the actual reality as closely as possible.

…Even when I really don’t like it.

I have even occasionally been known to change my views when presented with convincing evidence. I hope I never lose that. I do have a stringent set of criteria for “convincing”, however. Personal anecdote pretty much never cuts it — and if you understand what you just read in this post, you’ll get why. Personal experience is always direct and immediate and convincing to the person who experienced it — but it is so easy for the brain to fool itself, or for us simply to make mistakes or mistaken attributions, that conglomerate experience tells me we need something externally verifiable.

Does that make me cold, passionless, unromantic? I’ve been accused of all of those. Unromantic I might own up to, but that is a longstanding thing; as for the rest, nope. It doesn’t. It does mean I want externally verifiable evidence, because I’m kind of hard-nosed that way. But it has nothing at all to do with my capacity to feel joy, love, pain, sorrow, rage or any other of those celebrations and woes of life.

And that is what you need to understand about me. Work with that, and we will get on fine.


*(I’ve met a few people who genuinely didn’t care whether what they believed was true or not, but these are rare. Some people profess not to care, but talk to them a while and you’ll see that really, they do.)

Advertisements