Monday, January 11, 2010

Unwarranted Consistency

Consistency for the sake of consistency is dangerous and misguided, but as a society we tend to value and reward it- journalists will dig up an ancient quote from a politician that conflicts with what he or she is saying currently, and accuse them of flip-flopping, as though they should forever act on that quote.

When it comes to beliefs you like, beliefs that benefit you, and especially beliefs expressed publicly, your ego and your character become caught up in the idea and it's no longer just about the strength of the idea, it's also about your reputation. When your ego becomes intertwined with an idea, your mind will start looking (conciously or not) for evidence to support that belief, and glossing over or dismissing evidence that contrasts with your belief. Ideas and only ideas should compete with one another to let the right one win, without the extra baggage that comes with the attached competing egos. The more invested you are in one idea, the more your mind becomes closed to other possibly conflicting ideas.

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes exactly what I want to convey in his Twelve Virtues of Rationality, so I'll let them speak for themselves:
The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.
The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims. For you cannot make a true map of a city by sitting in your bedroom with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper according to impulse. You must walk through the city and draw lines on paper that correspond to what you see. If, seeing the city unclearly, you think that you can shift a line just a little to the right, just a little to the left, according to your caprice, this is just the same mistake.
The fourth virtue is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider. If you first write at the bottom of a sheet of paper, “And therefore, the sky is green!”, it does not matter what arguments you write above it afterward; the conclusion is already written, and it is already correct or already wrong. To be clever in argument is not rationality but rationalization. Intelligence, to be useful, must be used for something other than defeating itself. Listen to hypotheses as they plead their cases before you, but remember that you are not a hypothesis, you are the judge. Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.
Separate you and your ideas and continually question those ideas. Act firmly on your beliefs but keep your mind open and evaluate all ideas fairly, based on the inherent quality of the idea, not based on what you or others believe in.

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