Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

What is people’s relation to the truth? I would say that most people are not insanely preoccupied by ideologies, and therefore do not think about such trivial topics. To them, “the truth” can mean a lot of things, even contradictory things. People who care about what’s true and what’s not see it quite differently. To them, there is a core issue at stake: how do we know what’s true? Knowing this, we can then reject inadequate methods. The hardest challenge, then, is to remain consistent and honest.

Is it really that important to know how to find the truth? Well, I think it may be mildly useful to divide truth into categories here. For instance, there are truths that are widely known and do not require any special ability to reason. Most of our practical, day-to-day truths are in this category. There are also truths that populate the technical and scientific fields. While these truths may be under fire depending on prevalent ideologies, all that matters is that those training to take the mantle of the discipline in question understand and uphold them.

Note that I am not saying that all propositions widely believed in these categories are automatically truths. There are plenty of propositions that are widely known, and propositions that are technical in nature, which are not truths. I am speaking here only of the truths (that is to say, of propositions acquired rationally).

And then there are abstract, non-technical truths. These truths are often just as crucial to human existence and human societies, but they are not widely agreed-upon. They tend to be of a philosophical nature, simply because “philosophy” is, generally speaking, the rubric under which we stuff everything that’s abstract but not scientific. Things like epistemology (how to know), morality (the standards upon which an individual’s actions should be evaluated), ethics (how the rules of society and its institutions should be constructed), politics (the study of power, its distribution, and its application), and the origins of human thought and behavior, are included under this label. Religion is another vast area of abstract, non-technical truths (unless you delve into the mechanics of specific doctrines in an inter-subjective manner, that is to say, assuming the doctrines are true, in which case they can become quite technical).

The first two categories are generally not problematic. We learn day-to-day truths through growing up and observing adults or being taught by them. We learn technical truths when we learn a trade or a field of study. We learn how to groom ourselves from our parents, and we learn algebra from our teachers and school books. While they may be prone to errors (especially in family structures and school systems, which have powerful intellectual distorting effects), neither of these methods are particularly complicated.

Abstract, non-technical truths are another thing entirely, because they are highly partisan and therefore difficult to consider dispassionately. Take religion, for example. Most of us are indoctrinated into following one religion or the other. The question of whether God exists, or whether God is a moral standard, is not merely an issue of fact but also a worldview issue: a person may be unwilling to look at a fact, or any fact, related to this question because doing so would put their worldview into question. Questioning one’s worldview creates mental insecurity and can be painful, and we seek to avoid pain (unless doing so creates the risk of more pain down the line).

This is not, by the way, an issue of “rational” versus “irrational,” or “reason” versus “faith.” It is perfectly rational, if you want to use that word, to seek to avoid pain. Actually, you’d probably call someone a fool or a masochist if they did otherwise. People only deconvert when the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing makes continuing to believe more painful than the alternatives. Again, it is a basic moral imperative that we seek to avoid pain, so this is not too surprising.

It is these abstract, non-technical truths that concern me on this blog, and which also concern a great number of people in some fashion. It seems humans have a thirst for universal, absolute truths about the human condition. Given that fact, how best can we arrive at any sort of truth within this area?

Well, I think that you have to maintain a strict separation between what you know to be true, on the one hand, and what you feel is true, what you want to be true, or what fits your pre-existing worldview, on the other hand. In general, any personal criteria for belief are unlikely to be valid, because it is very unlikely that universal, abstract truths have anything to do with your feelings or desires. The things which have to do with our feelings and desires are usually either personal or inter-personal. You may care about what you desire, but the laws of reality don’t.

Now, there are some people who think that subjective reasons for belief are valid because, after all, we are dealing with humans, and humans are moved by their feelings and desires. What they fail to realize is that there are two different things to talk about here: the thing being analyzed and our truths about the thing being analyzed.

This is a complicated point, so let me use a pretty clear-cut example, that of homeopathy. Homeopathy is clearly absolute, laughable nonsense, but there are enough people who believe in it to sustain a flourishing worldwide industry worth billions and billions of dollars. Most people who believe in some form of alternative medicine do so on the basis of their own subjective evaluation (“it worked for me!”) or on the basis of other people’s subjective evaluations. I acknowledge that this is the case. However, that does not mean that I must accept those evaluations as true, only that the other person believes they are true.

The fact that health is influenced by subjective factors does not mean that my evaluation of that fact itself must be subjective. My belief that “health is influenced by subjective factors” is based on scientific studies about the placebo effect, prayer, meditation, and other such methods. These methods take effect in the body in ways that we can analyze scientifically, without ever appealing to the subjective domain.

I hope this illustrates my point well enough. As a general rule, we must analyze subjective effects on material systems using our observations of those material systems, not with subjective evidence. Or more simply: what we know to be true must be separated from what we feel is true or what we want to be true. The fact that the material systems we are analyzing are human-run systems does not change that fact.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a great deal about theories of price, comparing STV (subjective theory of value, generally upheld by ancaps) and LTV (labor theory of value). To simplify, the STV holds that price of a product is whatever people agree upon as the worth of the product. This is pure illogic. But they arrive at this conclusion by observing that everyone values products at different levels, and that people buy or do not buy products based on how much they desire them. In short, the evidence is entirely subjective. But we know that’s not how prices work.

Even if that was how prices worked, that would not therefore mean that we should analyze prices subjectively, for desires still come from somewhere and that must be analyzed. You see a lot of that fallacy in pseudo-feminist analysis, where desire is held as primary and therefore outside of analysis. But desire cannot be primary, as our desires are constructed by the sort of society we live in and the context we personally live in. All you’ve done is drawn an arbitrary line and said “this far and no further, shall you look.” But this is likely to convince only the incurious or people whose worldview would be harmed by looking.

This brings me to the last point, which is that we should strictly separate what we know to be true and what fits our worldview. Now, to a certain extent it is impossible to follow this principle becaue of our cognitive biases, but this should not stop us from trying to correct this state of affairs as much as possible.

First, we must acknowledge that the ideologies we believe in all have tensions and contradictions. This is true of the most absurd ideologies and the most reasonable ideologies, the main difference being that the tensions and contradictions in the former are clearly visible to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minuite, while the tensions and contradictions in the latter are less obvious and require more effort to see. No matter what you believe, it is important that you seek out those tensions and contradictions, and try to resolve them. This is a good exercise because it forces you to look at your system of thought from outside of it, and it stimulates change and growth.

Second, we must read the best counter-arguments we can find, the most credible opponents, and try to answer them. I say “the best,” because there’s obviously a lot of nonsense objections to all sorts of things. For instance, an antinatalist shouldn’t waste his time answering a hundred variants of “why don’t you just kill yourself?”, and I wouldn’t expect a feminist to waste her time answering “you must be really ugly and incapable of getting a man.” We should go for arguments which are at least sophisticated. In some cases this is very difficult. Finding sophisticated objections to anti-childism is impossible because, as far as I know, they simply do not exist. Likewise for the pro-abortion position. In other cases, like atheism or socialism, finding sophisticated objections is not too difficult (but still harder than finding stupid objections, which are legion in any case).

2 thoughts on “Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

  1. Jean-Philippe March 28, 2017 at 20:05 Reply

    There is an ancient and honorable school of thought which argues that, all things considered, we are better off dead. The Greek lyric poet Theognis put it bluntly, “Best of all things–is never to be born / never to know the light of sharp sun. But being born, then best to pass quickly as one can through the gates of Hell and there lie under the massive shield of earth.”

    The great tragedian Sophocles echoed Theognis a century later: “Not to be born surpasses thought and speech. The second best is to have seen the light. And then to go back quickly whence we came.”

    But it wasn’t just the poets. Herodotus, the Father of History, has a memorable scene where the Persian king Xerxes laments the brevity of life, only to be corrected by his uncle, Artabanus, “Short as it is, there is not a man in the world, either here or elsewhere, who is happy enough not to wish–not once only but again–to be dead rather than alive. Troubles come, diseases afflict us; and this makes life, despite its brevity, seem all too long.”

    Similar sentiments can be found in many other authors from Homer to Bacchylides to Aristotle. To the Greeks the gods had the good life (earthly pleasures + immortality), while humans were left to suffer. To live, they thought, means to be vulnerable (and sooner or later, everyone will be wounded). So the only person you could safely pronounce happy was the one already tucked away in his tomb. Once born, we find life almost irresistibly habit-forming, but the same is true of other narcotics.

    Plato was highly suspicious of poets and playwrights, but in his own way he repeats their judgment. In the Phaedo Socrates tells his disciples that the philosopher’s job is to liberate and separate the soul from the body. In other words, the sooner you’re dead and free from this illusory world of appearance, the better. Socrates speculates happily about the Beyond, and feels no regrets upon leaving his wife, children, and friends behind when he drinks the hemlock.

    But, and this is crucial, seeing life as futile does not necessarily mean experiencing it as unrelieved misery. Against the background of life’s futility, in fact, its pleasures might take on a peculiar intensity. As Pindar wrote: “Man’s life is a day. What is he? What is he not? A shadow in a dream Is man: but when God sheds a brightness. Shining life is on earth. And life is sweet as honey.”

    It seems that for many Greeks knowing life was pointless paradoxically allowed them to relax and enjoy it. This insight is confirmed by studies that show dying patients who expect from death nothing but extinction are less anxious and unhappy than those who anticipate an afterlife–and a terrifying Day of Judgment.

    So the bitter wisdom of the Greeks proves in the end to be not so bitter after all. And not so uniquely Greek, either. In the Old Testament Ecclesiastes (supposedly written by Solomon) says: “It is a sorry business that God has given men to busy themselves with. I have seen all the deeds that are done here under the sun; they are all emptiness and chasing the wind.” But Ecclesiastes does not advise despair, much less suicide. Like the Babylonians before him and the Romans after him, he counsels: “There is nothing better for a man to do than to eat and drink and enjoy himself in return for his labors.”

    And the moral of the story? There’s no scientific way to prove whether life is worth living. We can’t very well hold “exit interviews” at all deathbeds and tabulate the results. But believing that life is a bad bargain may not itself be such a bad way to live. At least it spares one the disappointment of hoping for too much and then being cruelly disappointed. Hope, for Hesiod as for Albert Camus, is a curse rather than a blessing. In writing his Myth of Sisyphus, which extols the joys of living without hope, Camus pointedly cites Pindar: “Seek not, my soul, the life of the immortals; but enjoy to the full the resources that are within thy reach.”

    So if you asked the ancient Greeks–some of them, anyway–if they thought life had a purpose, they might well answer, “No, but we can do without one.”

    They were tough-minded, cold-eyed, provocative people, those Greeks.

  2. John Doe March 29, 2017 at 07:42 Reply

    Reactionaries love to appeal to emotion and ignorance and then project it all onto the so-called “SJW’s.” They’re the ones saying that facts don’t care about feelings when the so-called “SJW’s” should be saying that to them.

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