Humans can cultivate false beliefs

This is a followup to a post in which I give an answer to Peter Thiel’s favorite interview question: “Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.” My answer is that if we want to be rational, we shouldn’t aim to believe what’s true; rather, we should aim to believe what’s good for us to believe.

An objector might say: “You can’t control your beliefs. Changing a belief is not like changing a shirt. Humans are forced into their beliefs by the evidence and experiences that they’re confronted with.”

In this post I’ll respond to that objection.

We can voluntarily influence our own beliefs

Let’s start by making a distinction. Let’s say that humans can have two kinds of voluntary control: we can have direct voluntary control, or we can have indirect voluntary control.

If we have direct voluntary control, we can simply choose to perform an act, and the act will occur. For example, I can simply choose to lift my hand, and my hand will rise.

Indirect voluntary control refers to situations in which we can influence or control an outcome, but only by indirect means. A good example is falling asleep. I cannot simply choose to fall asleep and immediately do so in the way that I can choose to lift my hand. But I can indirectly cause myself to fall asleep by laying in bed while I’m tired and filling my mind with relaxing thoughts.

The original objection holds that it doesn’t make sense to talk about where to aim our belief because we don’t have a choice in the matter: we lack voluntary control.

When it comes to direct voluntary control, I grant the point. I can’t choose to believe that polar bears are green.

But we do have indirect voluntary control over our beliefs. Every experience we have influences our beliefs. And we can choose, to some extent, what experiences we’ll have. We can choose whether to research a question or not; we can choose whether to reflect on an issue or not; we can choose whether to engage in a conversation or not.

Further, we often know which way our beliefs are likely to change if we take a certain action. Recall the example of the omnicidal aliens who will destroy Earth unless you swallow a pill that will cause you to believe that polar bears are green.

In practice, the process of influencing our beliefs often happens with less conscious awareness. A person might feel that a certain thing is bad or dangerous, and so avoid it. Or he might feel that something else is good or pleasurable, and so seek it. Consider the culture within many religions that censors and stigmatizes ideas which might rot the faith of the believers.

In any case, it’s clear that we do have voluntary control over our beliefs. Since the path aimed at true belief sometimes diverges from the path aimed at beneficial belief, we can’t escape the obligation to choose an aim. In the next post, I’ll discuss why it matters that we get it right.


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