We’ve been having heavy philosophical/epistemological discussions in the apartment thinktank, and I thought it would be a good exercise to condense some of the more relevant thoughts to words and put words to digital paper.
But first, I need a moment to mention that these discussions are what I’ll be missing most from my apartment-mates when we split off to all across the US soon. With our backgrounds drawn from the diverse socio-economic pool that is suburban Texas, we somehow still manage to have different opinions on everything that isn’t really important in a roommate arrangement (so things like Taylor Swift, games worth playing at 3AM, and pizza toppings we are required to agree upon… but God, politics, economic theory… nope) and that has made the past 4 years infinitely more interesting. I hope that in the future, even though we’ll be in different timezones, we can continue to argue about things like the relative merits of Starcraft 2 patch changes, whether trickle-down economics makes sense, and if historical Jesus could ride dinosaurs. Ah, the magic of the internet. And Facebook. Gotta plug Facebook.
Back to the topic at hand, I’ve realized a few things from these discussions, as well as from reading a great deal of lesswrong.com. One of the most applicable to my day-to-day social interactions is the concept of belief and truth. Whether the topic is religion, politics, or “Dustin, going with your friends to Japan this Summer is going to irradiate our potential grandchildren” (thanks, Mom), I often find that the discussion degenerates into a situation where neither party can understand why the other believes what they believe. Since I happen to think that the people I talk with are (mostly) logical, and (mostly) reasonable people, it was confusing to me why it is often very hard to understand the foundations of a person’s belief - how some evidence is just so very obvious to one party, but given no credence by the other.
Belief, according to Wikipedia, is “the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true”. So far so good, but unfortunately, Truth is far less well defined. In fact there’s an entire freaking list of ways one can define truth. Reading through that list, I’m sure you can think of a few people in your life who subscribe to different criteria for truth, whether consciously or unconsciously.
For example, mother dearest frequently tells me of wacky Taiwanese health ideas that I should most definitely follow to fix my terrible vision or help me live a longer/more prosperous life. Appealing to scientific studies in this situation did not help me much during my childhood, and I would be forced to stare at trees in between computer sessions to “let my eyes rest”. It did not matter to her how numerous or widely accepted the studies are - fundamentally, she believed those things because her friends all believed in them or it was something “everyone knew (in Taiwan)”. Arguments of scientific (Pragmatic) basis do not shift her belief indicators.
Another example is religious discussion. Religion is a touchy subject for most, as no matter how much you talk, the probability that you reach consensus is close to nil. An atheist’s requirement for scientific proof of God seems ridiculous to most theists, precisely because the basis of theistic truth is by the Revelation criteria (“Because God said so”), or by the Intuition criteria (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”). And similarly, describing the love and compassion of your favorite diety or the beauty of the physical world is not going to impact the beliefs of a rationalist who judges by Correspondence or Pragmatism. Neither party is going to be able to agree on who is right, and who is wrong - because their definitions of “rightness” and “wrongness” are completely different.
It’s important to note here that the definition of truth is something that each person defines for themselves. Arguing for someone to change their truth definition is a circular process that, as far as I can see, is futile. It may be worth my time to explore truth-criteria-criteria, but for now that’s an avenue I’ve yet to explore.
So, next time you find yourself in a heated debate - take the time to consider the other party’s truth criteria. Agreeing to disagree is not rational, but you can do even better by agreeing that the conclusions you would make would be the same with their definition of truth.
Thoughts, comments, critiques are appreciated.