How to filter bad beliefs

A six step guide to weeding out truth from nonsense

A few posts back I made the case that beliefs don’t matter as much as the process in which you acquire them. This is not a problematic conclusion to anyone with any semblance of common sense, the logic being that even if your beliefs prove to be wrong, you will have been wrong for all the right reasons and also that in the long run, you are likely to have more beliefs proved right than in the case you adopt them arbitrarily. But just how do we go about choosing our beliefs? Is there a set of principles that we can use to weed out the good beliefs from the bad ones?

I believe there is. Read on to find out:

Step 1: Can your belief pass the Truth Demon test?

One of my favorite pieces of philosophical wisdom in recent months has been this article by Keith Frankish which describes the Truth Demon, a very simple thought experiment that everyone can use to test just how strongly you are committed to a belief. In summary and in slight variation to the original, imagine there is a Truth Demon that will torture you for eternity if the certain belief in question is wrong. Take god, for example. If you had to bet your soul’s eternal torment on whether god exists, I suspect that not only atheists but a large share of believers would bet against his existence. Why? Because there’s no real negative payoff in believing in god in real life. Pascal’s Wager even argues that this is a logical, rational choice. However, imagine if we modified the decision matrix to assume an infinite loss if you believed in him wrongly. Suddenly you need to be really, really convinced. The Truth Demon fits in neatly to what mathematician Nassim Taleb calls the “silent risk” of not taking payoff into account.

The beauty of the Truth Demon is that it is a reflective exercise: you don’t have to “prove” your answer to the Truth Demon in public because you could easily be lying. By you can’t lie to yourself. It also accommodates beliefs that you are not entirely convinced off, just convinced enough that you would bet against the risk of eternal torment (as an economist, nearly everything I know about my own discipline I could not demonstrate with 100% certainty). If your belief passes the Truth Demon test, congratulations, you can stop here. You are genuinely convinced by it and are not self-deceiving yourself. It does not necessarily guarantee that you’re right though; I would worry if anyone passes the Truth Demon test on, for example, flat earth theory or young Earth creationism. But at least you are starting from a point of honesty.

Didn’t pass the Truth Demon test? Read on.

Step 2: Are you materially profiting from your belief?

This one is easy, and obvious. If you are materially profiting from your belief then you have a huge stake in its outcome, one that may easily swamp any genuine intention to find out the truth behind it. It is no surprise, for example, that many business leaders and tech titans are libertarians. Libertarianism, after all, justifies their material wealth, legitimizes how they obtained it, and decries as morally wrong any government efforts to constrain their further wealth accumulation. As such, these people have no incentive to challenge the basic premises of libertarianism even when they could be wrong (newsflash: they are). It is a well known fact that many people start off their young political lives as broadly left-leaning but gradually grow more conservative as they grow up. Having accumulated some assets during their lifetime, it is obvious that one becomes more reluctant to give them up. Once again, the “silent risk” makes itself present here; your payoff influences the outcome. And it’s not just libertarians, it’s televangelists, multi-level marketers, the lobby industry, etc. It’s ubiquitous in modern life, and one can reasonably conclude that in most of these cases it’s the people at the top who know that they are lying, and the people at the bottom the ones convinced it’s true.

If you didn’t pass the Truth Demon test and you materially profit from your belief, you’re not just self-deceiving yourself: you are a veritable charlatan. This knowledge is obviously not going to convince you otherwise, since you’ve probably convinced yourself that greed is good. Hopefully one day you will find the wisdom to be better.

Step 3: Are you proselyting your belief?

So you still believe in unicorns. In your 30s. You know clearly that you would not pass the Truth Demon test if you claimed they were real. You are not making money out of unicorns. So what’s the harm? Well, nothing insofar as you keep your belief in unicorns to yourself. On the other hand, if you actively trying to start a unicorn religion and spread this nonsense to others, then we have a problem. Unfortunately, many of the most preposterous beliefs we have are actively proselytized and given the ease in which someone like you adopted it, it will be easier still to convince others. There will always be someone stupider and more gullible, and more worryingly, more malicious. This is not to say that even not proselyting your beliefs is morally ok. A recent New York Times article described the story of Tony Hovater, a man with seemingly the most normal, middle-class family life you could imagine, except for the fact that he was a neo-Nazi Trump supporter. Even assuming that a man like this would not go out to neo-Nazi rallies (which he did) or talk to anyone else about his beliefs (he also was open about it), the fact that he would probably go out and vote in favor of people who shared his beliefs does mean that it’s really rare to find a belief that one can keep to one’s self.

Quite simply put, if you have a belief that fails the Truth Demon test, you shouldn’t be in the business of spreading untruth. If you are, this should be a pretty big warning sign that at least, you should keep it to yourself. But even better, discard it altogether.

Step 4: Is your social life dependent on your belief?

One thing is material benefit, but human beings also risk being socially attached to a belief, particularly those that create a community. Religion is a clear example, given that it congregates people in a systematic, periodical way. While many people are able to keep their non-religious social lives separate from their religious ones, there are others (usually the more radical among them) that have the majority of their social attachments within said congregation, which means discarding the belief would come with huge costs that many people would not be willing to bear. This is understandable. We are a social species and we cannot live without human bonds, particularly with those people who we have shared beliefs with. Probably nothing has done more to destroy friendships in recent years than political polarization and it’s not hard to see why: big beliefs like religion and politics aren’t just ideas, they are world views and moral frameworks, and we might realize that someone who doesn’t share them doesn’t inhabit the same moral universe than we do.

The solution here, like all good investments, is to never put all your eggs in one basket. If you have few or no friends outside your Sunday church buddies, your tech bro network peers or your progressive political activist colleagues, then you’re at significant risk of never being able to challenge the beliefs that bind you. Worst still is joining social groups that actively discourage you from interacting with others outside their circle. This is one of the most effective tools that cultists and abusers use to keep people under their control. So in a nutshell, diversify your social life. And if your old friends stop liking you because you’ve changed your mind, they may not have been truly good friends in the first place.

Step 5: Do you have a reputational interest in your belief?

This is one is trickier than material and social benefit, and it’s less obvious that it’s “wrong” per se, but rather part of our natural human psychological tendency to avoid admitting that we are wrong. The more you have held a belief, the harder it is to let go of it because of the embarrassment involved in “flip-flopping”. It is sad that society sees flip-flopping in such a bad way; to me it is a greater sign of intellectual fortitude to have your beliefs evolve or in some cases discard the disproven ones altogether. Society makes it so hard to embrace belief change that when it does happen, it goes off like a thermonuclear bomb. Famously, 2004 US presidential candidate John Kerry was lambasted for flip-flopping on his initial support of the Iraq War. He lost. Conservatives and libertarians who are embarrassed of their past left-wing beliefs, are usually more hard-line compared to conservatives that embraced it from the start. The recent phenomenon of being “red-pilled” is often the way in which young people embrace the alt-right, people who previously would have considered themselves progressives but then become vitriolically opposed to them. And of course, there’s the Bible-thumping Born Again Christians who are much more radical than those who grew up with a milder strain of Christianity.

At this stage, the “silent” risk still applies even if it’s more subtle, and more due to reputation and self-image than anything else. It’s not hard to be wrong, and to be open about it. It may even be liberating. Try it once, and see for yourself. It’s not the end of the world!

Step 6: Do you hate certain people so much that you will believe anything that goes against what they believe in?

This may be the last of the steps but by no means is it the least important of the six. In fact, in the increasingly toxic and polarized political atmosphere we live in, many people’s beliefs may not be so much shaped by what appeals to them but rather, by the beliefs of the people that they most strongly oppose. Take, for example, the recent opposition to so-called “social justice warriors” that has pushed many young people into far right fringes on everything related to social views (opposition to feminism, minority rights), economic policy (opposition to welfare and other redistribution polices), and history (opposition to “white guilt” over  slavery or colonialism, embracing of anti-Semitic conspiracies). While it is true that many of these people may have already held many right-leaning views, many more were probably just hooked by a few and eventually decided to embrace most of them. The left, of course, is not immune to this syndrome. The hardcore defense of despicable regimes like the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro is a case in point. The Venezuelan regime, after all, is vocally anti-American and anti-capitalist, which fits neatly into many leftists’ foreign policy and economic world views.

The more you hate your enemy, the more likely your beliefs will be defined by opposing everything they stand for. After all, the idea that there may be an overlap between these beliefs is probably a revolting thought. And yet it’s very easy to see what this is a terrible way constructing a belief system since it precludes any objective effort at balancing out the pros and cons of any side of a debate. The fact that much of our political debate now takes place on social media does nothing to alleviate this problem, and the fact that the loudest voices tend to come from the extremes of the spectrum makes it increasingly easy to see any conservative as a closet white supremacist and any left-winger as a closet communist. Once again, the Truth Demon test can help weed out those beliefs that we are truly committed to and those that we simply adopt out of contrarianism. Or else we end up being the Twitter idiot who denies climate change just to “OWN the libtards!”. Don’t be that idiot.

Never set anything in stone

The best way to be intellectually satisfied is not never fix your beliefs in stone. That way, you won’t have to break them up when they become too burdensome to carry. Sometimes it is necessary to sail against the wind of what we feel is wrong but know is right; the fear of letting others down, of feeling embarrassed at ourselves for believing the wrong things, etc. All these feelings the product of over-investing in beliefs. Hopefully this 6-step guide will help you realize whether you are self-deceiving yourself and consequently, why you seem to feel this is perfectly fine. It’s never too late to change. After all, perhaps when you die it won’t be god but the Truth Demon blocking your way to eternal bliss.

Edit 12/9/18: Added a sixth step which in retrospective should have been an obvious one!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *