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On Possiblities and Beliefs

This was originally a post on my blog, but since it's about to expire, I thought I'd post it here. Lacking proper research and citations, it may be quite reasonably regarded to be armchair philosophy. However, I feel I have raised some good points here. Comments, suggestions and criticisms are welcome.

"Is everything possible?” – A question I’ve recently had to grapple with. In this article, I try to answer this question in as much detail as I can muster. So, go to the loo if you need to, then get yourself some snacks from the kitchen, and start reading.

Firstly, I acknowledge that there is a theoretical possibility of a lot of things. No, I will not say that EVERYTHING is possible, because that “everything” would include logical contradictions, of which there is no possibility. For example, if A is not equal to B, there is no possibility of B being equal to A.

As a more relevant example, I know for a fact that there is no possibility of the existence of an omnipotent entity in the universe, because omnipotence as a concept is logically contradictory. (E.g. Can this omnipotent entity create a rock that it itself cannot lift?)

Moving on, it is also true that not all possibilities are created equal. Some appeal to our intuition; others don’t. Some are falsifiable; others aren’t. The way the scientific method works is examining a falsifiable possibility from every possible angle and trying to prove it wrong. If a hypothesis withstands this scrutiny, only then can it be regarded as a scientific theory, which is akin to a fact or reality.

The reason scientists avoid the word “fact” is because of this very acknowledgement of alternative possibilities. There is a possibility, however small, that the scientific theories we have today will be replaced or revised in the future. This does not in any way discount their value. These scientific theories are the closest approximation to reality that the human civilization has been able to work out so far.

The next issue is about belief and its roots. Why do we believe what we believe? Now, while it is true that what we choose to base our beliefs on is entirely a personal preference, it is also true that there must be a correct and rational way to approach this problem. We can’t go around believing everything that “could be true” or “possible”, because we’d then have to believe even in the most absurd nonsense, simply because this nonsense is a “possibility”.

So, this then calls for a filtering mechanism to sort out these possibilities into things that ought to be believed and things that can safely be disbelieved. One way is to use our intuition. If a possibility appeals to our already existing beliefs, or in other words, our intuition, we might be tempted to believe this new possibility as well. This is a little thing called “confirmation bias”. The obvious problem with this approach is that human intuition is unreliable. Eventually, what you may consider true may be absolute nonsense to somebody else. In such a scenario, how do we know who is correct – the believer or the disbeliever? How do we distinguish the nonsense from the legitimate possibilities?

These problems, therefore, can only be solved by a universal and correct approach to shape our beliefs. Fortunately, we already have a simple approach that works. This approach is based on the idea that the only rational decision is to withhold belief on any “possibility” until such a time as sufficient evidence is provided to allay all doubts. One simply disbelieves in every new possibility until it is justified by enough evidence. I’ll be the first to point out that it does not mean we stop exploring these possibilities. If a possibility is explore-worthy, we fully explore it. I’ll talk more on this later.

How does a “possibility” become justified after a thorough exploration? Well, again, we invoke the scientific method. You start with a possibility that appeals to your intuition. It seems to you that this may be how the universe works, but you’re not sure. If your possibility is falsifiable, you form a hypothesis with your new possibility. If it’s not falsifiable, you put it with all the other unfalsifiable possibilities – that is, in the waste bin.

Now, you go about testing your brand new hypothesis. Your basic assumption should be that the hypothesis is false. And you try to prove that it is false from every possible angle. Now, if it is actually a valid hypothesis, it will not succumb to your attempts, and will provide sufficient evidence to support itself. Finally, through repeated observations, you come to the conclusion that your hypothesis is either true or false. If it’s true, you publish it in a scientific journal and have it peer-reviewed. Once it passes all these phases, it can safely be called a scientific theory, and everyone will be justified in believing it.

Voila! Problem solved! Now we know the correct approach: disbelieve every new possibility, explore it if it is explore-worthy, and only believe it once it is justified.

What do I mean by “disbelieve every new possibility”?

Let me start with what I don’t mean by it: I don’t mean that we should claim with absolute certainty that the possibility does not exist, unless we can justify that claim via logic or experimentation. A negative claim is also a claim. And every claim places the burden of proof on the claimant. Hence, unless you’re able to prove with certainty that a possibility is not valid, you should not make knowledge claims about it. Hence, by “disbelieve”, I mean “to withhold belief” and not “to discard the possibility”.

There are some beliefs, however, that can safely be discarded because they’re meaningless. For example, there is a possibility that a mountain is a conscious being and has an inherent purpose. Sure, theoretically, it’s possible. Should you believe it, though? Of course not! I actually feel it’s not even explore-worthy, because it’s not a claim that can be falsified. You can’t form a hypothesis that “a mountain is a conscious being and has an inherent purpose”, then prove with certainty either side of the claim – that is, true or false. So, any exploration of this possibility is not likely to lead anywhere, which is why it can be safely discarded.

Beliefs are very special and important things in that they shape our very minds and affect our actions. Hence, our beliefs should have a sound basis in reality and be justified. Yes, one is free to believe what one wants, but one also has to be prepared to face criticisms for said beliefs. For example, if I believed today that the Earth is flat, and I was outspoken about my belief, it would only be natural for me to be criticized and ridiculed for this belief.

I hope I have been able to prove that I am not opposed to the search for knowledge; I actually support it wholeheartedly. My intention is simply to keep this search free from the pernicious effects of automatic beliefs in unjustified entities and events."
codegeek wrote:
Voila! Problem solved! Now we know the correct approach: disbelieve every new possibility, explore it if it is explore-worthy, and only believe it once it is justified.

This is not actually a good strategy at all. If someone yells at you "if you don't jump out of the way, you'll be hit by a car", you don't start by disbelieving the possibility that a car will hit you if you don't move, and wait until you've gathered the evidence that there is, in fact, a car, and it is, in fact, bearing down on you. You assume the claim is true, and get the hell out of the way.

Hyperskepticism - the refusal to accept any possibility until the full weight of the evidence is in - is just as bad or worse as mindless acceptance. A lot of horrible things are done every day because of hyperskepticism. It's good to have a bullshit detector, but it's not good to turn it up to 11 and keep it locked there 24/7.

The only sane strategy, when new information comes in, is much more complex. You have to consider, among other things:
  • How well the information agrees with the information you already have.

    If you live in an area where bear attacks are not rare, then when someone tells you "there's a bear coming this way"... you ****** run for cover (figuratively speaking). But if you live in an area where there are no bears - like in the heart of a big city or, ya know, a place that doesn't have bears - you can take the claim with a grain of salt.

    There still might be a bear! (And in a place where bears are common, someone could tell you a bear is coming when one isn't.) Your default assumption is not going to be absolute knowledge. But your provisory position should depend on what you know about the likelihood that a bear could be coming.

  • The costs of accepting/rejecting the information.

    When you have new information, before you have a chance to dig too deeply into it, sometimes there may be extreme costs to accepting/rejecting the information. For example, rejecting the "car is coming at you" information has an extremely high cost. Meanwhile, accepting "if you don't give me all your money now, your soul is damned" has an extremely high cost. Without more information, the logical starting position is to accept the fact in the car case, and reject it in the collection-plate case.

    This doesn't mean you should automatically accept any claim by anyone that implies dire consequences if you don't. When someone tells you, for example, "do x or you'll die", you have to unpack that into two claims - first, that the person might reasonably know that you may or may not die, second that x would make a difference - and usually you'll be able to write the whole thing off when you dismiss the first claim.

  • The source of the information.

    If your doctor tells you "take this pill or you will die", you should seriously ****** take the pill. But if some marketing guy selling supplements tells you "take this supplement or you will die"... yeah, it's okay to be skeptical.

    This is not an "argument from authority", because no one is saying "it's true because a doctor says it". What i'm saying is that it's far more likely that the doctor's motive for saying it is because it's true, rather than that the doctor has ulterior motives... but of course, that's not always true (see the recent press about Dr. Oz, for example). Until more data comes in, it's just logical to trust the doctor... but trust a salesperson? Please.
There are other factors to consider, too, but the key point here is that there's no magical quick formula to deciding how to process new information. You have a powerful reasoning tool between your ears, so just use it, rather than trying to figure out some simple equation that allows you to turn off your critical thinking facilities and follow some script to get real knowledge.

When new data comes in, don't blindly accept it, and don't blindly refuse to accept it... and no, doing either of those things doesn't become any less stupid if you add "until evidence comes in to confirm/deny it". Use your brain and consider the new data and all the metadata you have associated with it (such as where the data came from, what the data implies, how well the data agrees with what you already know, etc.), and build a rational, statistical case for whether to accept it provisionally, or reject it provisionally.
Why dont we bring reality and belief together. It is more relaxed. Two worlds are very dangerous. So its better to have one belief and one reality and one family than to jump from theory to theory. Or do You study it?
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