Enhancing Our Truth Orientation

Why people hold opinions:

People will hold an opinion because they want to keep the company of others who share the opinion, or because they think it is the respectable opinion, or because they have publicly expressed the opinion in the past and would be embarrassed by a “U-turn,” or because the world would suit them better if the opinion were true (Whyte, 2004).

That's a quote that leads off Robin Hanson's paper called Enhancing Our Truth Orientation (pdf). If you're interested in issues of bias, truth, and particularly self-deception, it's required reading.

The opening sentence: "Humans lie and deceive themselves, and often choose beliefs for reasons other than how closely those beliefs approximate truth. This is mainly why we disagree. Three future trends may reduce these epistemic vices."

One trend that may reduce these epistemic vices is increased documentation and surveillance. It will soon be very inexpensive to video and audio record everything that happens in our lives. It is harder to lie or self-deceive when every word you have ever uttered has been recorded and time stamped.

Many bloggers voluntarily document their beliefs in a medium (the internet) that is public and permanent. A large repository of documented beliefs over time reduces the blogger's ability to self-deceive, and contradictions or hypocrisies are more easily exposed.

For example, a couple weeks ago I expressed my displeasure with the label "Spiritual but not religious." I described why I think it is a phrase too fuzzy for its own good. And yet, 3.5 years ago on this blog, I claimed the "spiritual but not religious" label for myself! I am forced to admit I've changed my mind.

Sure, disclosing your beliefs as you form them can leave you vulnerable, perhaps requiring embarassing about-faces, but ulitmately I think "intellectual transparency" of this sort leads to more honest living.

8 comments on “Enhancing Our Truth Orientation
  • Yesterday I discussed vaccination with a colleague who is opposed to it. Reason was on my side while emotion was on hers. I decided that when reason argues with emotion, emotion always wins. Why? Because emotion isn’t interested in listening to reason. The interesting thing is that *I* became dramatically emotional when she wouldn’t listen to any fact-based arguments. And, of course, neither of us changed our opinions.

  • That’s pretty interesting, but only if you assume that there is, in fact, such a thing as truth.

    It’s one thing to live intellectually honestly in knowing your own opinions, but another entirely to live thinking that your opinions somehow approximate ‘truth’.

  • Beliefs have always been transient and so are opinions that are its off-shoots. Tendency to define truth as something that is not amenable to review would make it dangerously inflexible. Mere recording of a previous opinion should not stand in the way of changing it later in the face of a stronger empirical argument. And that makes “Truth” immersible under given circumstances and if Ptolemy were a blogger, he can’t have revised his ancient notion of Earth as the center of universe (instead of the Sun) for fear of criticism.

    That said, there is always scope for a thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis for any postulate or *Truth* as you put. Every thing in existence is a unity of opposites, just as in electricity where you have a positive and negative charge. Atoms have protons and electrons. Stars are held together by opposing forces of gravity. Devoid of contradictions, there is no nature, no life.

    So bloggers can have a free-for-all:-)))

  • @Jude: reminds me of the Chris Rock line, “Men are at a disadvantage in an argument with women, because they feel a need to make sense.”

    @Grant: You should get out of the habit of using phrases like “in fact” if you don’t believe they mean anything.

    @Ben: I also recall that you used to be a supporter of self-deception, although I don’t know whether you ever documented it on your blog.

  • “Mere recording of a previous opinion should not stand in the way of changing it later in the face of a stronger empirical argument.”

    @krishna: Great point.
    @Ben: I used to call myself “Spiritual but not religious” and/or agnostic, too. Before that I called myself deeply religious. Now I’m comfortable admitting I’m an atheist, and it seems many others are, too, according to this:

  • Re entrepreneurs: it could be self-delusion, or it could be a calculated decision that it is worth the risk… or some of each. But I think “must” is too strong a claim.

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