Load-Bearing Beliefs

The concept of God does a lot of heavy lifting in Christianity. He knows all and punishes transgression, thus protecting you from temptation. He works in mysterious ways and visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation, warning you of the unintended consequences you don’t see. His infinite wisdom restrains fools who think they’re clever and urges humility to the wise. No wonder His removal led to instability.

The God of a monotheistic religion is a good example of what I’ll call a load-bearing belief. It’s an idea that doesn’t necessarily do much on the object level, but supports and justifies the rest of the belief system. There may be more than one, but they tend to be interconnected and few in number. It could very well be impossible to have a stable, fully decentralized belief system.

We notice that God the idea has much of His impact on the meta level: encouraging compliance, discouraging second guessing, standing in for otherwise difficult concepts. In fact, connecting Him to the object level seems to have been actively harmful. The mysteries of Creation have been used as a justification for belief; when science came up with mundane explanations for those mysteries, it undermined that belief. The is-ought problem suggests there may be little benefit to hanging your load-bearing beliefs on contingent facts. It also exposes you to a nasty catch-22 if you got your facts wrong: Do you suppress the contradiction and risk being blindsided by reality, or do you let it stand and risk destabilizing your entire belief system?

Damage to load-bearing beliefs does not necessarily collapse the entire belief system. It can deform as the load shifts to other parts. Equality before God became equality before the law became equality full stop. We observe those questioning human equality attacked with the zeal once reserved for heretics. Notice that “equality” has more direct object-level implications than God does; perhaps contradictions are more vehemently attacked because they’re easier to see? Either way, the West has a lot riding on the assumption.

Identifying load-bearing beliefs is important to understanding any belief system. They give it structure and determine its behavior under changing conditions. They are weak points to attack or defend, depending on your goals. Modifying them can drastically change the system, often unpredictably. Connecting load-bearing beliefs to contingent facts is dangerous: if our understanding of reality changes, the system becomes unmoored.

I’ll end with a conjecture: In the long run, load-bearing beliefs must be strictly metaphysical; otherwise your great-grandchildren will meddle and ruin everything.

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Tradition is Underrated

Finding good ideas would be much easier if we could run experiments on societies. Indoctrinate a group with a set of beliefs, isolate them in a small village, observe and record the results for a few generations. Too bad about the ethics, the expense and the duration. We could look for natural experiments but I don’t think there are many around any more.

Natural experiments used to be plentiful, though. Insular tribes with their own customs and traditions have been the norm for most of human existence. A tribe might come up with a new idea and have the consequences play out before its neighbors got around to adopting it. The story would spread and observant people would notice the pattern and share it with their tribe. Over time, the patterns would be added to their oral tradition. Some tribes would go on to write down their traditions in the holy texts of their religions. The most successful of these would spread and develop into the world religions we see today. In other words, old religions are repositories of wisdom accumulated over thousands of years of social experimentation and have proven their worth over centuries of use; we ignore them at our peril.

Why, then, is the West drifting ever further from its Christian roots? I think the answer is twofold. On one hand, circumstances have changed. On the other, we’ve lost our faith.

The case for some change is easy to make: take usury for example. The Bible speaks clearly against lending for profit, but modern economies are based on loans with interest so that restriction had to go. We manage the downsides with regulation and bankruptcy law but it’s not perfect: people still get burned by bad loans. It’s a tradeoff. Other changes don’t seem to have such clear benefits, other than sounding nice. We don’t see the harm so why not do the nice thing. Because God forbids it?

Christianity justifies its rules as given by God. This works well as long as people believe – but what if they don’t? Why take God’s law literally if He is just a metaphor? The change is gradual: people tend to retain the values they were raised with. We change a few pointless seeming things and that becomes the new baseline. Then we change things again. Each iteration drifts further from tradition and the process seems to be accelerating. Is the acceleration due to the changes themselves or something else? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this: Belief in personal God was a stabilizing influence.

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Unintended Consequences: They’re Worse Than You Think

If we are blinded to the wrong patterns, millions die. This is what happens with communism: try it and you get famine and tyranny. Unfortunately the idea sounds so nice that people keep trying – with predictable results. My lesson here is not “Communism is bad” but a more general one: There are ideas out there that sound good yet fail horribly when acted on – and we don’t always know which they are. Communism is the perfect example of a convincing bad idea that we know is bad. Often we don’t.

Most flawed ideas don’t have such obvious failure modes. For example, I think decline in Christianity has enabled the undermining of marriage that contributes to divorce and single parenthood – both of which are bad for children and society. The evidence is far less clear so it’s easy enough to disagree. That’s the point: we eventually get wise to obvious failures but subtle ones can linger for a long time.

We don’t know – can’t know – the full implications of our choices. Sometimes it’s just plain unpredictable: luck or accident. Other times it just seems so: it’s easy to assume that we had the right idea but got unlucky. Just ask the people who think real communism has never been tried. It’s up to us to pay attention and hold our ideas responsible. Look at the results, even if you don’t like them. Better yet, learn from the past.

This is where tradition comes in.

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Cause, Effect and Choice

No matter how confusing the world can seem, it is a lawful place. Everything happens for a reason, and every event affects what comes after. This includes our choices. They come from our mental state influenced by our personal history and ripple out into the world, their effects mixing with everything else that is going on. Sometimes this is obvious: we go out for an ice cream and end up having one. Other times, it is not: a car slows down to let us cross the street and narrowly misses a speeding truck a few blocks later. Often it is somewhere in between: we reinforce our ice cream habit and gain a bit of weight over the summer.

There are patterns in this tangled mess of causality. Repeated choices become habits, eating habits affect our health and so on. When the pattern is tangible enough, we make good choices. When it is abstract, knowing may not be enough: impulse overrides reason. Worse, there may be patterns we don’t see. We’d have no way to make good choices then.

What if we are missing some causal patterns? How bad can it be?

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The Model that Said Too Much

My model of four types of ideas is more powerful than I expected – too powerful, in fact. Let me demonstrate.

Pretty lies are easier to stomach than an ugly truth so convincing ideas are not necessarily good. Safe and easy life masks consequences of flawed ideas, and advances in printing and communications let nice sounding ideas spread further faster. In other words, advancing civilization turns selection down for goodness and up for convincingness. This means that we should expect bad times to select for good ideas which lead to good times, which lead to worse ideas which lead to bad times again. A few commonsense assumptions allow me to infer a memetic social cycle theory!

The catch is, I set out to demonstrate the perils of convincing bad ideas so pessimistic assumptions were baked in. The model may hint at a real phenomenon but it only formalized some of my assumptions, making it easier to see where they lead. I could make it look realistic by adding detail but it would remain untestable. This is how convincing bad ideas are made, so we won’t be going there.

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The Good, the Bad, and the (Un)convincing

In my mission statement I posed two questions: “How do values spread and persist?” and “Which values do good?”

Let’s substitute “ideas” for “values” for the purposes of this discussion. The concepts are more general and the word “idea” just flows better here.

These questions suggest two measures of performance for ideas: spread and consequences, respectively. Many things affect these but I’ll treat them as properties of the ideas themselves here. Both are continuums but I give them binary labels for simplicity. I’ll use convincing/unconvincing for spread and good/bad for consequences. These make for four possible combinations:

Bad and unconvincing ideas are the norm. Everyone has these all the time. Mostly harmless, unless you manage to convince yourself or a friend.

Good and unconvincing ideas work great – if only people took them seriously. The discoverer might have a good life following his idea but we never get to hear about it.

Good and convincing ideas are what we are after. These ideas are good and they spread.

Bad and convincing ideas are dangerous. It sounds great and people buy it, but there’s some subtle flaw that ends up ruining it. If the flaw is bad enough and the idea spreads fast enough, a convincing bad idea can destroy civilizations.

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Mission Statement for Contingent, Not Arbitrary

If I am to get anywhere with this blog, I must be clear on my core task. This is my first attempt at defining it. It may not be the last; my thinking is still in flux.

A vital attribute of a value system of any kind is that it works. I consider this a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for goodness. A value system, when followed, should contribute to human flourishing and not produce results that violate its core ideals. This is a pragmatic, I-know-it-when-I-see-it definition. I may refine it further if the need arises.

I think that the prevailing Western values fail by this standard. I will not spend much time arguing this; many others have already. If you reject this premise, this blog may not be for you.

I consider old traditions an important source of wisdom: they have proven their worth over centuries of use. Where they agree, we should listen. Where they disagree, we should figure out why. Where modernity departs from tradition, we should be wary of the new.

Tradition has one nagging problem: it was abandoned by the West. How and why did that happen? I consider this a central question. I expect the reasons to be varied and complex. Understanding them seems necessary if we are to fix what may have been broken.

In short, I want to answer these questions:

  1. How do values spread and persist? An ideology does no good if no one holds it.
  2. Which values do good? Sounding good is worse than useless if it leads to ruin.

The ultimate hope would be to find a way to combine the two. Many have tried and failed. I don’t expect to succeed either, but I hope I’ll manage to clarify the questions.

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The Starting Point: My thesis and its implications

I recently had an insight into metaethics that seems worth sharing and further exploration. If the argument has already been made, please point me to it.

My thesis can be summarized thus:

  1. Value systems are ultimately judged by their results. Lofty ideals count for little if adherence leads to suffering and ruin.
  2. The consequences of a value system are determined by the conditions it is applied in.
    1. Some of these conditions are unchanging or nearly so: logic, physics and human nature.
    2. Other conditions are situational and malleable: local environment, culture, economic and social conditions.

Therefore, morality is contingent and not arbitrary.

Contingency implies non-arbitrariness but bears repeating given how often it is ignored in practice.

Morality is not necessarily determinate: there may be multiple value systems that would produce good results in given conditions.

Contingencies may be subtle and slow acting:

  • A value system can be prone to drift: it is unstable to begin with or allows for extensions and corollaries that creep in over time, compromising its viability.
  • A value system can have different dynamics when held by a small minority as opposed to a dominant majority. Adherents thrive as a small group in a larger society, but widespread adoption leads to societal decline.

Some ways in which unaccounted-for contingencies might play out in real life:

  • Someone has a Great Idea, gains a following and heads out to build the Perfect Community. A few years later the community falls apart and members go their separate ways.
  • An ideology is very good at gaining power through violent revolution, but fails to deliver on its Utopian promises once in power.
  • A religion spawns a splinter sect that proceeds to splinter further until one of the splinters mutates into a virulent, ideologically totalitarian cult and unravels the entire civilization.

These examples should illustrate how subtle contingencies make moral philosophy a Hard Problem.

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