Friday, October 23, 2009

What makes sense

I can't control what I believe is true. If you walked up to me and paid me a large sum of money to believe that the sky is red, I might say "Okay, the sky is red", but inside I would be believing the sky is blue and lying to you for the money. Now, perhaps you have lots of photographs showing the sky to be red, and some sort of spectroscopy device or whatever scientific instrument you want to use (I am not a real scientist, just a computer one) saying that the sky is red. These would be some fascinating things to show me, I assure you, but then I would look up at the sky and see the color blue and I would go on believing that the sky is blue. I would also believe that you have rudimentary photo-editing skills, and your scientific instruments need recalibration.

The problem with all this is that the same story is applicable to my saying the sky is red and you saying the sky is blue. None of this has really helped us agree on the truth about the color of the sky. Additionally, if someone thinks the sky is red, I might suggest they also think that water and the two Gs in the Google logo are red. So it is really not the best example. One thing, though, that I get out of the little story I just made up, is that I am probably going to believe what I think is true, regardless of what you say is true. Could you convince me that I'm wrong? I wonder, sometimes. If everyone told me the sky was red, would I decide my eyeballs were broken? But if a doctor said my eyeballs were broken, I bet I'd believe him. But I still don't think I'd be choosing to believe something, I would be choosing to trust someone who I trust to know what they're talking about, and that choice would change my beliefs. Maybe you could give me a very convincing argument that the sky was red. You could say that the argument changed my beliefs, because it made so much sense to my mind, but I still don't think there's a lot of choice involved in that. If you claim to be actively choosing to believe something, that sounds like you're choosing that which doesn't make as much sense to you as some alternative. Maybe this is what my friend Alex calls "Intellectual Dishonesty".

At the same time, however, I can choose how much of what voices I listen to, and maybe that's related to what influences my beliefs. I think I already know this, though. Unsurprisingly, I tend to choose things which reinforce some of my views, but I also make an effort to hear the opposition too, albeit in a lesser amount. I think this is a good plan. Of course I do; it makes sense to me!


Alex said...

Yes, that's pretty much what I mean by intellectual dishonesty. Also, I mostly listen to voices that I'm ambivalent about, a few I agree with, and a few I disagree with. Very nice exposition of the idea of belief versus knowledge.

David said...

Above, you said that you would trust doctors, and that the choice would change your beliefs. Would you trust the Dean of the Harvard Medical School?

Has it changed your beliefs?