@ Loup's

Impossible? Like that would stop me.

April 2011

Belief, Respect, and Facts

Some opinions about facts aren't open to criticism. They are deemed personal, and as such no worse than opposite opinions. Attacking them is often considered rude, if not outright intolerant.

This essay is about why this should stop.

Truth is universal

We all live in the same world. Of course, each of us perceive it differently. We don't see the same things, we don't live in the same places, we don't meet the same people. Because of that and more, we don't hold the same beliefs. But there's only one reality. If a statement is true, it is so for everyone.

For instance, I happen to wear black socks at the time of this writing. Believe it or not, that's the reality, so "Loup was wearing blacks socks when he wrote this" is true for everyone, including you. Even if you believe I'm lying, I am wearing black socks. You can't be absolutely certain of this fact, but a fact it is.

Now imagine that to defuse a bomb nearby, you believe we have to cut the red wire, while I believe you have to cut the blue wire. Those two beliefs are mutually contradictory. Clearly, at least one of us is mistaken.

We should avoid false beliefs

You're there? Good. Now unscrew the front panel. Now do not drop it, it would trigger the bomb, and I would be sorry for your wife… Yeah, and the prez, too. you know I love your wife. Are you done? Perfect. Cut the blue wire… No, trust me, I know what I'm saying, it's blue. You're finished? Bill? Bill? Oh well.

Holding false beliefs is dangerous. It has consequences, sometimes innocuous, sometimes tragic. You never know until you correct a previously false belief. If you care about anything, one false belief can be enough to destroy it. Incidentally, that's basically why most of the time, lying is not nice.

Flaws in reasoning are even worse: they generate or sustain false beliefs. They are also more difficult to correct. Basically they're a reliable way to be wrong, which is potentially much more dangerous than any single wrong belief. If you find a flaw in your reasoning, eliminate it, then re-check your beliefs. If someone proposes you to adopt one, do not drink that cup, it's poisoned.

"I don't know" is a stance

Are my socks black? Think about it for 30 seconds, look at the evidence at your disposal, then answer honestly. There are 3 kinds of answers you might produce:

Note that all three answers share a common structure. They could all be phrased thus: "I estimate that the likelihood of your socks being black is X%". If X is close to 100%, you believe my socks are black. If it is close to 0%, you believe they're not. If X is, say, between 10% and 90%, then you're not sure. Anyway you're bound to choose a value for X, and that will be your stance. It is no less respectable than any other, provided you did your best to estimate the odds.

Disagreement is not intolerance

Say I'm 99% confident we should cut the blue wire, and you are 99.9% we should cut the red one. If we also know of each other's opinion, then we automatically strongly believe the other is mistaken. This is not intolerance. This is the direct consequence of our respective beliefs. If you weren't so sure I'm wrong, you wouldn't be so sure the red wire is the one to cut. This is a matter of consistency.

There is hope however: if we are both reasonable, don't have flaws in our reasoning, have roughly equal access to evidence, and honestly attempt to reach the truth together, then we will eventually agree. At least one of us will radically change his mind.

We human of course aren't that perfect. Most of the time, none of us will change his mind, which is quite frustrating. But we shouldn't change our minds just for the sake of being nice to others. Being nice helps, but when the goal is to find truth, reality isn't a democracy.

Anyway, let's say that halfway through such a quest, you are still 99.9% confident we should cut the red wire, but I am only 60% confident. It means two things:

  1. I changed my mind.
  2. We still disagree.

This time, the disagreement is not as strong, but still significant: you wouldn't hesitate to cut the red wire. For me, however it means 40% chance of blowing up the bomb, which is way too risky.

No exception

These rules apply to any question about facts, be it the color of my socks or the origins of our universe. For instance, is there a God?

Now answer for yourself. Is there a God? More realistically, what is your estimate of the likelihood that there is a God?. Don't style yourself as an atheist, believer, or agnostic. Assess the evidence at your disposal (science, scriptures, what you where told, anything you deem relevant), then give your number. Just bear in mind these sanity checks:

Try with other questions

Like I said, these principles can apply to any question about facts, even the most scary ones. Some worthy examples could be:

These are all yes or no questions about facts. Either the globe is warming or it isn't. Either our civilization will collapse soon, or it won't. Either there is an afterlife, or there isn't. You can't be absolutely certain of the answers of course, but you can estimate the odds, based on your partial knowledge.