Two Kinds of Truth Seekers
There seem to be two kinds of truth seekers out there.
There are those who use their desires as an epistemological compass; whichever idea about the universe sounds the most appealing is deemed to be the most accurate. They judge the quality and validity of tests against their beliefs by whether or not the results give them the answers they want to hear. New information is evaluated on the basis of its alignment with the reality they favor rather than on its inherent strength or merit.
You’ve probably guessed that I don’t think such people really have much interest in truth, as vehemently as they claim to. What they’re after rather is one very specific and exclusive truth, and if it doesn’t hold up they’ll bolster it as needed.
But we can’t be too hard on them. I do this, you do this, and everyone else does this. The question is, how bad do we let ourselves get about it?
This is one of many cases where our neurology is working against us and a measure of self-discipline is required. Cognitive bias is an adversary that we never rid ourselves of. I know of no way to subdue it completely and still possess a human brain, but, life does get easier when we begin to gain some control over it.
The second approach — the appropriate approach — to truth seeking is to not care in the least what the answers to your questions will be. All possible realities should remain equally acceptable to you.
We’re eternal souls created by a divine intelligence? Great. We’re deterministic automata that will one day be reduced to fertilizer? Great. We’re self-aware nodes in a colossal computer simulation? Great. The universe is just the dream of a sleeping dragon and we’ll all blink out of existence when he wakes? Great. All great.
How you feel about any one of these realities should have nothing to do with your willingness to accept it as true, if that happens to be what all the evidence eventually points to. The moment you favor one over the other, you awaken that bias. You start to slip into the trap of overvaluing the information you like and undervaluing the information you don’t, and that’s a very bad place to be.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. At first, it feels wrong to stop caring. A voice in the back of your head keeps saying, “If you stop caring, you’ll believe anything! You’ll be lead astray!” But you find that it’s the exact opposite that happens. You discover the beauty and purity of a bottom-up approach to knowledge rather than top-down. You allow your experiments to do what they were always meant to do: reveal, not confirm. You let conclusions naturally and neutrally form from evidence rather than looking for evidence that supports the most seductive conclusions. You stop putting the cart before the horse.
And it should be clear that desire adds no productive value to the acquisition of truth. Using an example above, if it’s true that I don’t have a soul, would my desire to have one influence its presence or lack thereof? Will I gain any extra eternalness by believing in it over someone who doesn’t? Desire can lead me to a belief that’s more comforting or uplifting, and if I was satisfied with false beliefs that would be fine. But to someone who sees veracity as worthwhile in its own right, desire seems to just create more problems than it solves and should probably be put aside in this endeavor.
In the future, try paying attention to how you come to your own beliefs while keeping these two approaches in mind. Be aware of how you assimilate new information that caters to your beliefs and desires versus information that doesn’t. Do you jump to conclusions before the evidence leads you there because the conclusions are indicative of a universe you prefer to live in? Do you dismiss evidence against your conclusions because you want to hold on to the universe they grant you? If so, what do you really gain from this?
You’ll be surprised how often you catch yourself doing it if you really watch for it.
Truth is discovered, not preordained.
I don’t have any more important message to convey with this blog than that one.
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- 04.16.08 / 11pm
- Belief & Knowledge