I have so far distinguished between belief as anticipation-controller, belief in belief, professing and cheering. Of these, we might call anticipation-controlling beliefs "proper beliefs" and the other forms "improper belief". proper belief can be wrong or irrational, as when someone genuinely anticipates that prayer will cure their sick baby. But the other forms are arguably “not belief at all.”
Yet another form of improper belief is belief as group identification—as a way of belonging. Robin Hanson uses the excellent metaphor of wearing unusual clothing, a group uniform like a priest’s vestments or a Jewish skullcap, and so I will call this “belief as attire.”
In terms of humanly realistic psychology, the Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Center undoubtedly saw themselves as heroes defending truth, justice, and the Islamic Way from hideous alien monsters a la the movie Independence Day. Only a very inexperienced nerd, the sort of nerd who has no idea how non-nerds see the world, would say this out loud in an Alabama bar. It is not an American thing to say. The American thing to say is that the terrorists “hate our freedom” and that flying a plane into a building is a “cowardly act.” You cannot say the phrases “heroic self-sacrifice” and “suicide bomber” in the same sentence, even for the sake of accurately describing how the Enemy sees the world. The very concept of the courage and altruism of a suicide bomber is Enemy attire—you can tell, because the Enemy talks about it. The cowardice and sociopathy of a suicide bomber is American attire. There are no quote marks you can use to talk about how the Enemy sees the world; it would be like dressing up as a Nazi for Halloween.
Belief-as-attire may help explain how people can be passionate about improper beliefs. Mere belief in belief, or religious professing, would have some trouble creating genuine, deep, powerful emotional effects. Or so I suspect; I confess I’m not an expert here. But my impression is this: People who’ve stopped anticipating-as-if their religion is true, will go to great lengths to convince themselves they are passionate, and this desperation can be mistaken for passion. But it’s not the same fire they had as a child.
On the other hand, it is very easy for a human being to genuinely, passionately, gut-level belong to a group, to cheer for their favorite sports team.1 Identifying with a tribe is a very strong emotional force. People will die for it. And once you get people to identify with a tribe, the beliefs which are the attire of that tribe will be spoken with the full passion of belonging to that tribe.
1 This is the foundation on which rests the swindle of “Republicans vs. Democrats” and analogous false dilemmas in other countries, but that’s a topic for another time.
Sounds like someone needs to examine his bias re Alabama bar patrons.
Paul, I looked up a list of the most religious states in the US. But if you actually go into an Alabama bar and say it, I'll change the post (not recommended).
I'm not about to put my money where my mouth is on that one
Sounds like someone's beliefs aren't paying rent.
Or maybe it's a matter of existential risk? If there's a 1/10 chance of him being horribly wrong, then I don't particularly blame him for not testing it. I might believe quite thoroughly, but not want to test it when the explosive is directly in front of me.
I'd happily test it from behind a blast wall, though.
I thought this site would be the last place I'd see criticism of the "suicide bomber as cowardly" notion. Under some definitions, sure, doing something you expect to result in your death, in pursuit of a higher goal, necessarily counts as courage. However, it would be justifiable to say they are intellectually cowardly. That is, rather than advance their ideas through persuasion, and suffer the risk that they may be proven wrong and have to update their worldview; rather than face a world where their worldview is losing, they "abandoned&q... (read more)
Is that what extremist Americans mean when they say cowardly?
Except that based on videos and letters left behind, the hijackers considered Americans to be not just intellectual adversaries, but wartime ones. I believe the majority of the hijackers cited American military presence in the Middle East and military and economic support of Israel to that effect.
My point is that using violence to silence intellectual adversaries is very different from using violence against a perceived wartime enemy.
Are you breaking your advice to not use contemporary politics in examples?
Good posts. This series is the first thing in a while to make me really glad to participate here.
I think that the stereotype of Alabama bars is pretty reliable. OTOH, the stereotype of suicide bombers is much much less so. If you read the rhetoric of radical Islam, or for that matter if you read ancient mythology such as Homer or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, you will see people who are occupying a VERY VERY different moral universe from us Platonized Christianized (that includes the secular children of "modern orthodox" Jews) post-Enlightenment Westerners.
In terms of realistic psychology fitting neither the SSSM nor the Evolutionary Psychology brand (which you really should spend more times reading non-leftist criticisms of), the Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Center undoubtedly saw themselves as heros, but in some sense that we would have a VERY hard time empathizing with or relating to. They are NOT a mirror reflection of ourselves, but genuinely something that has to be understood with empiricism, not empathy and wishful thinking.
Good point, Tarleton - although I'm still hard-pressed to think of a better example that isn't directly a religious belief. If you only use the obvious religious examples, people will fall into the standard trap of thinking they've achieved perfection as rationalists because they're not religious - I wanted to use something that would actually strike a sympathetic chord and let people see how the belief-as-attire effect extends beyond religion. Got a better suggestion?
Vassar, also a good point, although I'm skeptical that I would have difficulty empathizing - these are humans we're talking about, not aliens, and the WTC hijackers were mostly educated Saudi Arabians, not Yamomano. They saw themselves as heroes in the support of causes, such as sexual decency = woman's de-emancipation, which are not American causes; they believed and maybe even anticipated 72 virgins; they fought in guardianship of ancient perfection; they carried out the will of God revealed in perfect scripture. None of this strikes me as a significant barrier to understanding. Can you say specifically what you think presents the barrier to empathy?
Ignorance. I may think I understand their minds, but that does not prove that I do understand their minds.
All you know is that you have a mental model of their minds which seems credible to you. Have you tested this model, and if so, how?
All I am reasonably sure of is that they did not see their act as evil and cowardly. Doubtless the same was true of Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler, but that tells me nothing about the differences between them and everyone else. After all, I only think that is true of them is because it seems to be true of most people.
It is really just an assumption.
This might be an especially easy category of bias to identify. Just ask yourself if you feel proud that this belief associates you with some group with which you want to be associated. If so, weaken your confidence in this belief.
Pseudonymous, I confess that it is only a guess, just a more plausible guess than the American one. And Jack the Ripper might well have been a monster - there are such things as sociopaths.
Robin, I'd say "recalculate your reasons" not "weaken your confidence". You can't literally shift a probability estimate because it makes you feel proud.
I should mention my old short essay, Are Beliefs Like clothes?.
Eliezer, it seems to me that you can and should shift your probability estimate because it makes you feel proud. Of course you might do even better than that by recalculating your reasons, but that approach will often not be cheap or reliable.
it would be like dressing up as a Nazi for Holloween.
"So remember kids, dressing up like Hitler in school isn't cool."
Eliezer, your lack of familiarity with "the other side" on the topic of terrorists is all too obvious from your crude attempt at a characterization of it. All you appear to know about it is a few platitudes. Often I get the feeling from this site that it is not so much about overcoming your own biases as it is about coming up with new excuses to dismiss views that you don't agree with by applying the genetic fallacy over and over (e.g. "suchandsuch belief is a product of suchandsuch bias").
Eliezer, Brilliant post, in my opinion. Clarifying and edifying. I'm looking forward to where you're going to go with this analysis of how bias and belief operate.
Silas, My opinion: you seem invested in using "muslim terrorists" for in-group/out-group construction, and I think it's coloring (biasing?) your analysis.
Michael, great criticism of an element of Eliezer's post.
Hopefully_Anonymous: You seem invested in labeling people as using "muslim terrorists" for in-group/out-group construction, and I think it's coloring (biasing?) your analysis.
Constant, this blog has warned against the genetic fallacy before. What do you think would be a good characterization of the "other side"? Eliezer's characterization describes a large minority of Americans very well. (He's clearly not intending it to be descriptive of everyone who thinks Islamic extremism is a serious threat, if that's what you're thinking.)
I think questioning the Alabama bar analogy is useful within the context of this post. Whose attire is a belief in the value of giving primacy skepticism, critical thinking, etc.? According to Eliezer's performance in the OP, it's not the attire of either Alabama bar patrons or "muslim terrorist suicide bombers" -and both of those may signal more generally, the losers of the American Civil War and non-white brown people. In short, I think there may be a gentrification of critical thinking: it's reserved for an in-group, perhaps in particular nort... (read more)
One reason is because dog-whistles can work: I have from time to time had the experience of expressing my opinion about a subject in a way that causes the minority who agree with me to recognize me as a potential ally without triggering reprisal from the majority who disagree with me.
Another reason is to preserve some credibility in case of a future discussion where I'm more willing to deal with the consequences of public opposition. Rather than having to say (for example) "Well, yes, I know I said policy X was a good idea, but I didn't really mean it; I was lying then, but you should totally believe me now because I'm totally telling the truth" I can instead say (for example) "I said that policy X is an efficient way of achieving goals Y and Z, which it absolutely is. But I don't endorse maximizing Y and Z at the cost of W, which policy X fails to address at all."
Yet another reason is to use plausible deniability as a way of equivocating, when I'm not sure whether to come out in opposition or not. That is, I can disagree while maintaining a safe path of retreat, such that if the degree of reprisal I get for disagreeing turns out to be more than I feel like suffering, I can claim to have been misunderstood and thereby (hopefully) avert further reprisals.
Empathy is hard. Cultures differ. We Americans (especially secular Americans?) really don't have a clue what it feels like to (for instance) feel an obligation to kill our daughters or our sisters in order to preserve our family honor. Some actions in the name of causes may be psychologically modular, but some really aren't. What's the parallel for honor killing? Pressuring one's schizophrenic philosophy post-doc son to go to law school where he thinks he'll be miserable for the bragging rights? Sending your kids to Hebrew School or Day Camps they hate because your parents made you do it? It just doesn't work. Even within a culture, I have no idea what it's like to identify with a sports team and very few people can relate to the horror that I feel at some Psychological data or philosophical ideas. You once pointed out that most of us can no longer even understand why the Psycho shower scene was once considered terrifying. I would recommend Silvia Plath's diary for what are to me stranger attitudes than those.
Actually, I think that much of www.xkcd.com including the current one can be though of as an enumeration of feelings that people who aren't either quite young or quite nerdy have not analogues to. Philosophy is full of others, such as existential despair and satori.
"Eliezer's characterization describes a large minority of Americans very well."
All I see there are familiar platitudes, not a description of anybody who thinks about things. All I see, in fact, are familiar formulas employed by politicians. Nor are the formulas necessarily wrong. It should not be hard to see what is cowardly about most terrorist attacks.
American Heritage has a fairly good definition of cowardice: "Ignoble fear in the face of danger or pain."
The ignobility is an important factor which other dictionaries tend to miss. But... (read more)
Michael, I think your example is interestingly rooted in an implied in-group/out-group construction that construction Americans in a flattering way. Consider that you contrast honor killings with forcing kids to go to law school or day camp -that won't necessarily result in their death. It's a flattering contrast that I think constructs America as Western and honor killers as culturally Middle Eastern. But, if we contrasts cultures that approve of state-sanctioned killing of people for moral transgressions, America and the nations of the honor-killers are ... (read more)
HA: I chose my examples carefully to to try to match as closely as possible as many of the categories, relationship types, motivations, etc as I could, and the examples I came up with are both pervasively American and truly ugly from my perspective in the closest way that I could think of (matching type of motive, e.g. content of emotional state, not degree of emotional state or degree of ugliness) to honor killings. My point was that we don't have any very close matches. Your examples still don't match the intensity of honor killings, but more important... (read more)
Michael, how about the point that you're (rather explicitly now) picking a point upon which to manufacture in-groups and out-groups. In-group: those of us who get motivations for execution. Out-group: those who get honor killings.
The in-groups and out-groups change if the point to get is abrahamic monotheism, or if the point to get is state-sanctioned punitive killings. It seems to me that you're picking one that's particularly salient either to you or to what you imagine your audience to be. I think this gets to the belief as attire/beliefs as cheers for ... (read more)
HA: It seems to me that you think I have changed the topic. I agree with all of the sentences of your most recent comment, except for the first, but they don't seem to be about what I was saying.
Likewise, I agreed with Eliezer's post, but I thought that his analogy was, well, lacking in appreciation of the difficulties involved in analogy.
Basically, I think that Douglas Hofstadter's writings on the difficulties of natural language translation, the proper translation of literature, etc, are all in relevant to the issue of the translation of inferred emoti... (read more)
All curiosity exists to destroy itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer.
Vassar, it seems important to you that you not be able to understand certain acts - a badge of pride. I don't think I'm having trouble understanding an honor-killing. Someone else rapes your sister, it stains the family honor, she has to die, QED. It's not the way I think, but that doesn't stop me from modeling it.
In proof of this, I ask you, what virtuous mode of thought, or even mode of thought that you are not particularly indignant at, do you think yourself unable to understand across cultures?
Eliezer, I have thought of another sort of belief that is not an anticipation-controller. Sometimes, I hear quite smart young people (who don't just wear beliefs as attire) profess to a belief in physicalism about qualia, or in libertarianism, or in the virtues of the scientific method, or in anti-pseudoscience (a la Martin Gardner), or in global-warming skepticism (a la Bjorn Lomborg), or in consequentialist egoism, or some similar broad philosophical or political doctrine. When I talk to these people, I find out that they can give a number of good arguments for why someone should follow their position, but that they have little to say in response to arguments for why people should follow alternative positions. For example, they might be able to clearly state various arguments for libertarianism, and to respond well to counters to those arguments. Yet when I tell them various arguments in favor of alternative positions (e.g. democratic socialism), their attempted rebuttals are much weaker in quality than their positive arguments for the position they claim to hold.
This usually occurs because these people have read good books or articles advocating physicalism, libertarianism, and ... (read more)
Bob, I take it you're not the deceased kiwi atmospheric scientist Robert "Bob" Unwin. But very high quality commentary. I hope that you start an blog to consolidate your observations under this name/pseudonym (as I have done with mine).
Bob: Great post.
Eliezer: I was not saying anything cannot be understood, but rather that using our specialized "empathic" capabilities for understanding human behavior in terms of our own hypothetical behavior is counterproductive to understanding many instances of human behavior when the humans in question are from different cultures or otherwise very different from one's self. It's easy to model it, possibly even to model it well (Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tries to), but next to useless to model it by reference... (read more)
Bob, a very high quality comment, but at 800 words it is too long for a comment. Please everyone, let's try to keep comments under about 400 words - longer items should be their own post or essay somewhere, which you can of course link to in a comment.
Re: the Alabama bar, when that same criticism was leveled by Neil Young, the response was, "A Southern man don't need him around anyhow". Apart from the fact that it came in the form of hit song, the reply is notable in that it's not something along the lines of, "them's fightin' words!" Though you may be right about the South's religious and political attitudes, I think you misunderstand how and when violence is used in that culture.
Anyway, back to the issue. The mindset of Mohamet Atta, et al, was elegantly described by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer. I don't believe it takes any unusal emotional insight to understand Atta's psychology, if it's seen in those terms.
Konrad: Not to repeat myself yet again, but no, understanding psychology never requires unusual emotional insight. It takes analytical ability, but it gives a different type of understanding from that which emotional insight gives.
Bob wrote "The person who calls himself a global warming skeptic... after reading a couple of books and a few articles arguing for [such skepticism] will often acknowledge that if he'd started by reading books advocating alternative views, then he would not have come to be a global warming skeptic..." This is one mechanism, but sometimes positions just "feel right" to people, i.e. in agreement with their predisposed visions, or traits.
Also it seemed to me that by asking of people that they examine as many arguments opposed to their view... (read more)
What would falsify that model of belief as attire?
I am in the process of working through these delicious posts so apologies in advance if my comments are redundant.
Perhaps group membership of a mutually supportive tribe has the greatest value (for example from both a psychological and survival perspective). If this is the goal, what is the most rational course of action? Will a rational person inevitably run into problems where the tool they are using to solve their problems becomes their primary source of problems?
I like this site for the very reason that it represents a community where my natural probl... (read more)
I appreciate the effort to sort out "improper beliefs". As a philosopher with a background in distinguishing surface-level propositions from speech acts with goals that may be masked by those propositions as such, I am inclined simply to say that "improper beliefs" are NOT beliefs. I prefer reserving "belief" for the anticipatory dispositional beliefs that you call "proper".
This is so far just a semantic difference, but the real difference comes out when you say that people have to "convince themselves they are ... (read more)
In all fairness, I think Islamic fundamentalists really do hate our freedom. They hate our entire way of life, and this freedom is a part of that.
Hating the freedoms of western society doesn't preclude one from committing brave, selfless acts, though. Unfortunately for us.
The biases of Rationalists are showing in this article.
It's peculiar to have a sequence on Korzybski's "The Map is Not the Territory" followed shortly thereafter by a post making a purely intensional distinction between "proper" and "improper" beliefs.
What's "improper" about achieving in group identification? It's often quite handy. Casting intensional aspersions on all values we might derive from our beliefs but the predictive utility does not strike me as rational.
Their belief or cowardly is not the problem. We must be concerned about their expected behavior. The rest is a commentary.
I read this three times. First pass: What? Why? Maybe I missed something. rereads Second pass: Oh, would they not get the reference? But why would that be so bad? rereads Third p... (read more)
Sayyid Qutb, who was a supplier of ideology for the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11, did see the US as evil for, among other things, the freedom of its women. (E.g., to quote Qutb via Wiki, he noted the “animal-like" mixing of the sexes (which "went on even in churches")). So “hate our freedom” has truth to it.