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Against Belief-Labels

1 Post author: I_D_Sparse 09 March 2017 08:01PM

EDIT: Lumifer says:

"...when you are talking to someone, presumably you want to communicate some meaning and saying "I'm a rationalist" communicates very little."

This is true. Belief-labels are useful socially; as long as you don't come to internalize them, you should be fine. I would dissuade anyone from actually identifying with a belief-label, but YMMV.


George is a Perfect Bayesian Rationalist, and has recently come to the conclusion that everything Albert Camus says is correct with a probability of greater than 0.99999. Since his realization, George has called himself an absurdist. Why shouldn’t he, after all? He agrees with all that the absurdists say.

I will henceforth refer to words such as “absurdism”, “nihilism”, and “theism” as belief-labels, for obvious reasons. (Hopefully, this extensional definition should suffice.) I will discuss why I am more-or-less opposed to their usage, and why I don’t think rationalists should use them to describe themselves.

In George’s universe, absurdism is Perfectly Rational (as an example; let’s not debate absurdism in the comments). Because of this, if somebody is a (perfect) rationalist, then they agree with the tenants of absurdism. However, if someone is an absurdist, then they are not necessarily a rationalist – they may have adopted absurdism because it appealed to them, or because of social pressure, etc. Therefore, if George must choose between just describing himself as a rationalist, or just describing himself as an absurdist, he would do better to choose the former; it communicates more information, as the relationship between rationalism and absurdism is (in our example) that of implication, not equivalence. “I am a rationalist” implies “I believe the tenets of absurdism”; so does “I am an absurdist”, but the latter does not imply “I am a rationalist,” which the former obviously does.

You might say, “it is a false dichotomy.” And you would be right to do so, as George can, without expending significantly more effort, say: “I am a rationalist and an absurdist.” However, why would he say such a redundant thing? If one implies the other, then the other can be dropped.

Now, from the perspective of those to whom George is introducing himself, it might be the case that he is an imperfect rationalist, and therefore is not an absurdist. This is one argument for using the belief-label in this particular example; to better illustrate my next point, I shall choose a particularly salient example.

Consider the belief-label “atheism”. Rationalists of varying levels almost universally reject the tenets of theism, so when somebody says “I am a rationalist,” you can be almost sure that they are an atheist. And this is why I do not call myself an atheist: it would be misleading to call myself an atheist, but not a rationalist; and it would be redundant to call myself an atheist and a rationalist.

There is another problem with belief-labels, however, that transcends any semantic considerations. When you use a belief-label, you are separating the belief from the reasons you believe it. Yes, that is important enough to warrant italicization, bolding, underlining, and size-16 text. Why? Because it is a Deadly Mistake; a misstep in the dance, to borrow from Eliezer.

Beliefs are connected. It just doesn’t do to extrapolate a new belief from evidence, then say, “better add that to my list of beliefs!” If you let any part of your map float free, apart from the rest, then, upon encountering something that undermines a should-be-connected part, you may fail to properly update the floating part. If you keep your beliefs separated, in different mental boxes, then you make it easier for yourself to double-count previous evidence when you encounter new evidence. Atheism is not its own thing; it is inextricably linked to the rest of your beliefs. If it is an inevitable consequence of your rationalism, why give it a special name? Every piece of your map has its place, and should not forget it. If you cut up a real map, and glue it back together another way, then will it still represent the territory?

“Okay,” you say, “but cannot I call myself an atheist, without forgetting where my atheism belongs relative to my other beliefs?” Yes, you can. However, I do not recommend you do so, as it is very risky. Do not underestimate your susceptibility to bias; the longer you go on calling yourself an atheist, or an absurdist, or even a singularitarian, the more you risk forming an attachment to that belief. When the so-called New Atheists refer to themselves (rather proudly) as “atheists”, it almost implies that they have an attachment to the particular belief of atheism, and makes me imagine them defending it in every case, even those ones in which the theists are correct. If Richard Dawkins encountered strong evidence for theism, would he be able to overcome his cognitive dissonance correctly, and update his beliefs in the right direction? I do not know; however, I suspect it would be easier for him to do so if he identified as a rationalist, rather than an atheist. The virtue of a belief does not lie in the belief itself, but rather is a function of and only of the belief’s rationality. When you adopt a belief-label as part of your identity, you risk seeing the belief as its own separate thing, in its own mental box.

And before you talk about social benefits...

“I’m a republican.” “I’m a fan of Lost.” “I’m a transhuamist.” What do these statements have in common? They do not all include belief-labels, but they are all ways of cheering for a team, of belonging to a tribe. That is a glaring alarm-bell; TRIBALISM AND RATIONALITY DO NOT MIX. One who says “I am a socialist,” risks bias towards believing future statements made by socialists; furthermore, they make it harder for themselves to update their beliefs in a direction that they think conflicts with socialism.

Why not just call yourself a rationalist?


Comments (12)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 10 March 2017 03:36:02PM 1 point [-]

"Why not just call yourself a rationalist?"

As you say, tribalism and rationality do not mix. So saying that they are a rationalist might be helpful for some people, but not for anyone who associates with people who use that name as a tribal label.

Comment author: skeptical_lurker 10 March 2017 12:46:51PM 1 point [-]

I generally agree, but...

George is a Perfect Bayesian Rationalist, and has recently come to the conclusion that everything Albert Camus says is correct with a probability of greater than 0.99999. Since his realization, George has called himself an absurdist.

One problem here could be that it might not the case that all beliefs and positions can be determined by Bayesian Rationalism. Does absurdism have an objective truth value? Perhaps not. Political positions, to give an example, seem to correlate more with personality traits than with intelligence: Einstein and Von Neumann are widely regarded as two of the smartest people in the 20th century, and yet Einstein campaigned for nuclear disarmament, while Von Neumann campaigned to preemptivly nuke the USSR.

“I’m a republican.” might not mean "I have rationally decided that republicanism is the best philosophy" it might mean "I have high enough 'aversion to danger' to want boarder controls and high military spending, low enough 'openess to experience' to be uncomfortable with unconventional lifestyles, and am rational enough to realise that free markets are more efficient"

Or it might mean something else. Either way, saying “I’m a republican.” gives object-level information quickly without going into the meta-level underpinnings to your beliefs.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 March 2017 08:49:06PM 1 point [-]

Why not just call yourself a rationalist?

Because when you are talking to someone, presumably you want to communicate some meaning and saying "I'm a rationalist" communicates very little. The normal response would be "What does that mean?"

Comment author: tristanm 09 March 2017 11:57:35PM 0 points [-]

Or you come off as an arrogant snob. That's why I don't think I would ever say to someone "I'm a rationalist", it kind of sounds like "I only think correct thoughts."

Comment author: I_D_Sparse 10 March 2017 01:01:20AM 1 point [-]

Good point - "aspiring rationalist", perhaps?

Comment author: tristanm 16 March 2017 10:32:10PM 0 points [-]

I think "aspiring rationalist" has basically the same problems, because the word (as Lumifer mentioned) doesn't carry a lot of meaning, and in this case "aspiring" doesn't specify what kind of rationalism we're talking about.

In my brain I still think of LW-type rationalists as "Bayesian rationalists", and I'll probably continue to use that label at least mentally for the time being. It's not that much better, but it at least conveys that we're not simply claiming that we think correctly or that we're particularly sane people. Bayesian rationalists make a pretty hefty claim, at least relative to what is commonly believed even by philosophers (who often claim there is no well-defined concept of rationality). That claim is basically that it is possible to define rationality, and we have proof! Like, real, mathematical proof! So, whatever label you use should at least convey that there is a specific claim to be made, and that it's not an intuitively obvious claim that all "sane" people would know. Most of rationality is in fact going against how most people think.

Comment author: I_D_Sparse 09 March 2017 09:24:23PM *  0 points [-]

That's a valid point - I suppose there's no harm as long as one is careful. Allowing any part of your map to gain too much autonomy, however - internalizing a belief-label - is something to avoid. That's not to say that identity is bad - there's nothing wrong with being proud that you're a fan of Lost, or of your sexual orientation, etc. There is, I believe, something wrong with being proud that you're an atheist/socialist/republican/absurdist/singularitarian (etc.).

Comment author: Dagon 10 March 2017 01:47:25AM 0 points [-]

wait, what? Please describe the difference between the first acceptable identities and the second not-OK list.

I think you're confusing the type of grouping or identity with the level of identification. acknowledging membership in a group (unsure about pride, but ignore that for now) is fine. Believing that membership is exclusive and exactly describes you is a mistake.

Comment author: Viliam 10 March 2017 02:18:33PM *  0 points [-]

This feels a bit like the concept of instrumental goals -- the goals we only have because they help us achieve other goals, and (assuming we are rational enough) we will drop them when we learn that they are no longer helpful for the other goals.

Maybe "accidental labels" would fit the concept -- the labels we actually don't care about, but we still happen to have them because they happened as a consequence of something else we care about; but if tomorrow we will learn otherwise, we may lose the label.

For example a person who doesn't care about suffering of animals, but reads a convincing book about how vegan diet is healthy and decides to change their eating habits accordingly, could be called an accidental vegan. If the next book convinces them that maybe paleo diet is better, they will easily stop being a vegan.

Using an example of atheism, a person who just follows the herd, and happens to have a lot of atheist friends at the moment, can become an accidental atheist. And when they move to a different environment, they can just as easily become an accidental theist.

But a person who cares about having correct beliefs, and decides that belief in supernatural is incorrect, is also an accidental atheist. Some hypothetical evidence could turn them into an accidental theist.

So what would be a non-accidental atheist? I guess a person who dislikes the religion per se, regardless of what their friends think or whether a belief in supernatural is correct. For example someone who grew up in an abusive religious family.

Comment author: Dagon 09 March 2017 11:30:30PM *  0 points [-]

Your edit should go at the top. I was disagreeing with most of it when I was reading "describe yourself as" literally as how you concisely communicate your belief clusters to others, who may or may not be as rational as you are.

If you just mean a variant of "don't believe your own press", I fully agree.

If you're talking about self-labeling, you should probably just choose "me" as the label. Any other risks an incorrect focus on some external aspect of your beliefs.

Comment author: I_D_Sparse 10 March 2017 01:02:44AM 0 points [-]

Moved it to the top.

Comment author: I_D_Sparse 09 March 2017 08:08:21PM 0 points [-]

Sorry about the text at the top, it's the wrong size for some reason. Does anybody know how to fix that?