Saturday, June 25, 2011

What If False Beliefs Benefit You?

A rarely questioned assumption of Enlightenment ideals is that being correct in one's beliefs is at least as important as being happy, and that they are almost always the same thing. This is an interesting assumption, because the few ways we can approach this question often suggest otherwise. Happiness in the aggregate is usually explored with questions about the effect of wealth, health, family, and self-determination; even individually, we usually talk about happiness set points. In some cases where we compare groups of people who do have differences in happiness (depressed vs. non-depressed people), depressed people are actually more accurate in developing beliefs about certain things, in particular their own attributes and performance. On the other hand, there are studies showing that optimists, while their beliefs may in the present be inaccurate, do to some extent "make their own luck". If there really is a trade-off to be made, how do we decide how to make it?

There is a really interesting post at Philosophical Disquisitions called "The Virtues of False Belief Puzzle" (H/T Common Sense Atheism). In it John Danaher reviews the criticism that Stich has made of Bishop and Trout. The particularly interesting thing is that the discussion exposes another conflict: we atheists (and introspective types in general, academically trained or otherwise) tend to over-focus on input. That is, we're concerned much more about the input side of our beliefs – on how the world as we experience it makes us feel, and the accuracy of the beliefs we form about it, compared back to the world – than we are about the output, or the effectiveness of decisions and actions we take as a result. Danaher thinks Stich's objection that self-fulfilling optimism can be false is strange; it is, if we remember the point of beliefs, i.e. their effect.

Any capacity that our central nervous systems evolved to represent the world accurately was selected only insofar as it caused future actions that resulted in a survival advantage. We can't be surprised that the African savannah didn't produce a perfect and unbiased proposition-generating machine. It produced something that was just barely good enough to get away from snakes and lions, find food, and compete with conspecifics for resources and mates. So it's strange indeed that we so often think of beliefs in isolation from what they actually do. Then again, giving the effect of beliefs primacy over their accuracy exposes a very slippery slope.

Two more thought experiments about this, here and here.

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