May 2nd 2020

Strong opinions are irrational – here’s why we should all be agnostic

by Darren Bradley

 

Darren Bradley, Associate Professor, University of Leeds:

"I work on a range of topics in the philosophy of science, metaphysics and epistemology. In my book, Critical Introduction to Formal Epistemology, I explain how the use of probabilities is shaping epistemology."

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/a-critical-introduction-to-formal-epistemology-9781780937526/

I have a PhD in philosophy from Stanford University (2007) an MA in philosophy from University College London (2001) and a BSc in Philosophy and Economics from the London School of Economics (2000)."

 

Suppose you are on a trial jury trying to decide whether the defendant is guilty. You are discussing the case with your fellow jurors who you know have exactly the same evidence as you, and are just as good at assessing the evidence. You think the defendant is guilty, while your peers think he is innocent. After lengthy discussion, you still disagree. What is the rational response to this disagreement? Is there a logical way out of such an impasse?

This is a common situation, but it is deeply puzzling. To answer the question of what the rational response to disagreements is, we should distinguish the psychological question of what people do from the philosophical question of what people ought to do.

The issues with what people do are well known. Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, wrote that: “Most men … think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.”

This has been backed up by research. Most people ignore evidence that would contradict their beliefs, regardless of whether they are right. They are even biased in their detection of bias – they find it in other people, but not in themselves.

It is when we consider what we should do that we realise such responses are irrational – they are often based on emotions rather than logic. Those who hold that their opinions are right and everyone else is mistaken are guilty of being arbitrary. They have most likely acted impulsively, failing to make a rational assessment of the argument.

To avoid being arbitrary, you should be humble and conciliate: move your opinions towards the other person’s. Similarly, they should move their opinion towards yours and you should both become agnostic. We are talking here about disagreement between peers, people who are equally intelligent. This is nevertheless extremely counter-intuitive for most of us.

But conciliating has some successes. The “wisdom of the crowd” is the well-known phenomenon that groups can produce very accurate opinions. This can be traced to the ancient philosopher Aristotle and was popularised when the English scientist Francis Galton noticed that the average of 800 guesses of the weight of a bull was within 1% of the correct weight.

But this commonsense view has some disturbing results if we follow it through, as it becomes impossible to maintain any opinion in the light of peers who disagree with you. When faced with a disagreeing juror, you should give up your belief. When it comes to 11 other jurors disagreeing with your view that a defendant is guilty, it is more likely that you made a mistake than that all the others did, so you should change your mind and conclude that the defendant is innocent.

Almost any controversial opinion becomes irrational. You probably have at least one strong political opinion on which intelligent people disagree with you. According to conciliationism, this is irrational. The only rational position becomes a radical agnosticism, refraining from any strong opinions that are not shared by most other people. It is irrational to disagree with the crowd.

But philosopher Adam Elga sees this as “spineless” and argues that you don’t always have to agree with the crowd to be agnostic. Consider people who have radically different political views to yours. These radically different political views must be based on a radically different worldview. If you think that this worldview is radically wrong, perhaps you should decide that they are not your peers after all and discount their opinion.

But I argue that this gets things backwards. If you initially thought they are as intelligent and knowledgeable as you, you should take their views to be evidence that your entire worldview is wrong. There are limits of course. We should only worry about the beliefs of those who are at least as well-informed and as good at assessing the evidence as we are. Still, many people find this approach uncomfortable.

But what benefits could radical agnosticism have in society? Politicians often have to make decisions in the light of experts disagreeing, as we are now seeing in responses to the coronavirus. When there is a choice between incompatible paths, it might be best to take one despite having low confidence that it is the right path to take – opting for the one that seems to be the best. In such cases, however, new evidence, which might still be inconclusive, could show that the best course is to change from one path to another. So making a U-turn, which is politically embarrassing, is actually more rational than sticking with a faulty initial approach.

When it comes to science, revolutions have come from people who completely disagreed with their peers. Scientists might rationally work on something which they and others think will fail, as the benefits of being right make it worthwhile, despite the low probability of success. But if they genuinely believe they are right, they should be able to convince others. Einstein discovered a revolutionary and deeply counter-intuitive theory of gravity, but it did not take very long for other scientists to adopt it.

Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

It’s an insightful comment that we should all ponder. Whether we are able to fully embrace radical agnosticism or not, chances are the world would be a better place if we started questioning our own beliefs a bit more.

Darren Bradley, Associate Professor, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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More Essays

Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”