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CAN I believe, MUST I believe? 
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Post CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
I thought this was one of the most useful principles in the book so far. Scotchbooks, I believe, has already referred to it. The social psychologist Tom Gliovich studied the workings of confimatory thinking regarding weird beliefs and came up with a simple but powerful way to understand the effects of self-interest on thinking. It's the difference between can and must.

"..when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Can I believe it?' Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don't want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Must I believe it?' Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must."

I like this because it captures more accurately what people do. We usually don't just reflexively react for or against something without reason, or without reasoning. But our search will often be of the most perfunctory sort and is directed to be either critical or non-critical according to the beliefs we already hold.



Last edited by DWill on Wed Jul 18, 2012 7:59 pm, edited 3 times in total.



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Wed Jul 18, 2012 7:56 pm
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
Confirmation bias is a bitch. Especially difficult to wrestle with because it subverts the mechanism we use to try to determine truth.

Interbane has always been a champion on this forum for weeding out our own internal biases. I don't think it can ever be fully expunged, after all how can you help having an opinion about something, it can ony be carefully challenged.

Do i reject accupuncture because it doesn't "sound" right? I had better do some research.

Introspection, and bouncing your thoughts off other people are the only ways i can see to correct the problem. Even when you can't see your blinders, sometimes others can.


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Have you tried that? Looking for answers?
Or have you been content to be terrified of a thing you know nothing about?

Are you pushing your own short comings on us and safely hating them from a distance?

Is this the virtue of faith? To never change your mind: especially when you should?

Young Earth Creationists take offense at the idea that we have a common heritage with other animals. Why is being the descendant of a mud golem any better?

Confidence being an expectation built on past experience, evidence and extrapolation to the future. Faith being an expectation held in defiance of past experience and evidence.


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Thu Jul 19, 2012 10:11 am
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
Much of our bias is sort of an evolutionary cultured heuristic. If we spent all our time trying to find "the truth", we'd be stuck spending years on every pro and con for everything we've heard. It's easier(and perhaps increases our survivability) if we simply accept the things our parents and mentors tell us.

Even with supreme discipline in adhering to critical thinking practices, we must still at some point cut the corner and make a decision. It will be a decision made without all the data, but hopefully we've gathered enough to justify coming to a conclusion.

It's a sliding scale I guess. How long do you wish to ponder the same concept or belief? How much time will you spend studying the effects of MSG before you make a decision to consume or reject it?

There are an infinite number of beliefs to navigate in life. You need to have something of a radar in determining which are worth your time to analyze, because we definitely don't have time to analyze every one. Put some effort towards the beliefs that have the biggest potential impact on your life. At this day in age, I think Healthy Living type concepts and beliefs are one of the highest priorities, simply due to obesity/cancer. Whatever you do to earn income is also high priority, of course. I'm always critically analyzing the different ways to safe energy at the YMCA. Every industry is rife with misinformation.

We could sit agnostic on many of the ancillary issues, which I think is technically correct. But I've found that the agnostic position doesn't lend well to correction. What I mean is, if you settle on one side or the other, you're more likely to flush out contrary arguments from people you know. If you settle loosely and make it axiomatic that the belief is flexible, you'll be less likely to entrench yourself.


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Thu Jul 19, 2012 12:39 pm
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
Interbane wrote:
Even with supreme discipline in adhering to critical thinking practices, we must still at some point cut the corner and make a decision. It will be a decision made without all the data, but hopefully we've gathered enough to justify coming to a conclusion.


This comment reminded me of Gladwell in Blink
Malcolm Gladwell writes about great decision makers not being individuals who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of "thin-slicing". He describes this as the skill of filtering only the few factors that matter from the much larger number of variables.



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Thu Jul 19, 2012 3:43 pm
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
LevV wrote:
Interbane wrote:
Even with supreme discipline in adhering to critical thinking practices, we must still at some point cut the corner and make a decision. It will be a decision made without all the data, but hopefully we've gathered enough to justify coming to a conclusion.


This comment reminded me of Gladwell in Blink
Malcolm Gladwell writes about great decision makers not being individuals who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of "thin-slicing". He describes this as the skill of filtering only the few factors that matter from the much larger number of variables.

I think he also says this ability must be developed through immersion in a subject and is not generally something individuals just happen to be good at (if I'm not mistaken). These people "think" almost intuitively about certain things because of all this preparation, but it seems exactly parallel to a gymnast who has stored so many complex movements in muscle memory that she doesn't have to think about what she does. Referring back to Haidt, he places intuition in the category of emotions, but it seems that some intuitive-like processing is actually fully rational; it is reasoning that has attained great speed.



Thu Jul 19, 2012 6:45 pm
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
DWill wrote:
the difference between can and must.

when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Can I believe it?' Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don't want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Must I believe it?' Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must."I like this because it captures more accurately what people do.

Reason explains the categorical distinction between facts and values, largely resolving this sort of faux dilemma between can and must.

Reason shows that knowledge is solely of objective facts. If we were rational and logical, we would agree that we 'must' only 'believe' objective facts. But acceptance of objective facts is knowledge not belief, so strictly speaking belief is always a matter of preference not logical compulsion, the set of 'must believe' is empty. You must only accept things you know - if it is uncertain then it only has status as unproven hypothesis. While we may have to act as though highly plausible claims are objectively true, claiming that we must believe things that are uncertain is just dogmatic bullying.

Use of pseudo evidence to justify belief is irrational. Of course people do it, but it is unethical. The worst example is global warming. The facts are clear that CO2 emissions are rapidly warming the planet, as a certain matter of objective knowlege. People don't like it, so they latch onto any farcical lie that can enable them to live in the realms of fantasy.

Dignifying such delusional behaviour with the label of 'a key to unlock the handcuffs of must' is a very strange relativising of reality.


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Fri Jul 20, 2012 5:46 am
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
the difference between can and must.

when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Can I believe it?' Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don't want to believe something, we ask ourselves, 'Must I believe it?' Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must."I like this because it captures more accurately what people do.

Reason explains the categorical distinction between facts and values, largely resolving this sort of faux dilemma between can and must.

Reason shows that knowledge is solely of objective facts. If we were rational and logical, we would agree that we 'must' only 'believe' objective facts. But acceptance of objective facts is knowledge not belief, so strictly speaking belief is always a matter of preference not logical compulsion, the set of 'must believe' is empty. You must only accept things you know - if it is uncertain then it only has status as unproven hypothesis. While we may have to act as though highly plausible claims are objectively true, claiming that we must believe things that are uncertain is just dogmatic bullying.

Use of pseudo evidence to justify belief is irrational. Of course people do it, but it is unethical. The worst example is global warming. The facts are clear that CO2 emissions are rapidly warming the planet, as a certain matter of objective knowlege. People don't like it, so they latch onto any farcical lie that can enable them to live in the realms of fantasy.

Dignifying such delusional behaviour with the label of 'a key to unlock the handcuffs of must' is a very strange relativising of reality.

Robert, I think you've misunderstood the principle Gliovich was trying to establish, and on a broader level you seem unable to accept that this area of morality and thinking can be scientifically studied. This is an attempt at description of our mental processes; it's not about whether we are compelled to believe one thing rather than another. Will you allow me to suggest an example of can vs. must? You have professed a limited belief in astrology that appears to be based largely on the work of Michel Gauquelin. Because of a predisposition towards astrotheology, did that study serve as the permission for you to say you believe? Were you asking yourself, "Can I believe astrology?" and were you therefore searching for the first piece of evidence that would justify belief and afford you the relief of keeping it? I, on the other hand, would approach astrology from the direction of "Must I believe this?" because I am strongly predisposed to think all of it is untrue. If I come across the Gauquelin study, I'm going to see it as peculiar and anomalous, in no way sufficient to refute my complete skepticism of astrology. And I'm going to stop there, not thinking I need to do a more thorough job of investigation. I'll have the relief of knowing that my beliefs about the world are still the right ones.



Fri Jul 20, 2012 6:59 am
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
DWill wrote:
You have professed a limited belief in astrology that appears to be based largely on the work of Michel Gauquelin. Because of a predisposition towards astrotheology, did that study serve as the permission for you to say you believe? Were you asking yourself, "Can I believe astrology?" and were you therefore searching for the first piece of evidence that would justify belief and afford you the relief of keeping it? I, on the other hand, would approach astrology from the direction of "Must I believe this?"


These are basic questions in epistemology, and the astrology example is a good one to clarify the issues. My thinking on these matters has changed over the years, but I think I have always applied the same logical principles.

EO Wilson in his book Consilience suggests a hierarchy of epistemic weight which makes good sense to me. At the first level are claims that are plausible, but which lack evidence. Stronger claims he describes as persuasive, and the strongest, those which are claimed as scientific knowledge, he calls compelling.

The point here is the need to apply scientific method to the assessment of claims. I believe that Gauquelin presents some plausible suggestions which indicate merit in further astrological research. However, he has not convinced scientific audiences, he has not explained any plausible mechanisms, and there are doubts about his methods, so it would be wrong to describe his claims as persuasive or compelling.

The issue here is the application of scientific method in assessing frontier ideas. The first challenge is to formulate a coherent hypothesis. Then, in designing and conducting a study for it, analysis of findings has to continually stay within the boundaries of what the evidence shows, and should also seek to support inductive evidence with deductive reason.

My attitude to astrology is more about what I consider to be plausible hypotheses than claims I would dogmatically defend as personal beliefs. Part of the problem here is that many people rule out suggestions in advance because of a basic misunderstanding, for example the common wrong assumption that astrology postulates emanations from distant stars. Some hypotheses can just be ruled out straight away for being completely outside the realms of scientific possibility, such as the idea that unconnected groups of stars influence the earth. But the hypothesis that these star groups are markers for points in the solar year is not similarly impossible, and can be the starting point for a scientific research program.

These issues get back to the conflict between politics and science. Politics is all about beliefs and values, while science is all about knowledge and facts. The result is that where people have ulterior political motives to ignore scientific findings, they characterise the science as merely belief rather than knowledge.

In the astrology case, a better question than 'can I believe it?' is 'could it be true?' 'Could it be true?' is a question that can be assessed scientifically, posing the issue as one of reason rather than emotion or intuition. If a claim can readily be shown to conflict with the laws of science, then no one should believe it. But of course many people do believe impossible things, which is why astrology has such a bad reputation, like religion.

Only people with a specific interest in new research would take an interest in the 'could it be true?' type of question. People such as yourself without the time and interest for such research are perfectly justified to stick with the consensus view that there is no evidence for any astrological claims, and to only change this stance when compelling evidence is provided. The same thing applies to all science - with the Higgs Boson, before the recent announcement there was no compulsion for anyone to say they must believe in it, as the deductive logic had not been matched by confirmed observation.

At the frontier of scientific research, especially with a topic like astrology that deals with complex historical paradigms and cultural conflicts, assent to unproven claims should only ever be hypothetical. When people cross the line to say they believe an uncorroborated claim is true, they depart from scientific method. But such statements can sometimes just involve provocative speculative poetry, aimed at exploring possibilities.


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Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:03 am
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Post Re: CAN I believe, MUST I believe?
We're just not engaging with the same topic, Robert.



Fri Jul 20, 2012 9:38 pm
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