General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a preface to this post, it is crucial for me to communicate that I am setting aside the discussion about “knowledge” as my primary pursuit. The reason, as I explained in part II, is that the use of the word has become muddled. My position is that philosophical skepticism about “knowledge” of the external (physical) world attempts to solve a presently unsolvable problem, and therefore, “knowledge” may not be the best term to use when attempting to describe how we gather and store data in our brains. Instead, I will focus on the interaction between human beings and the external world on its own terms. Hopefully what follows is indicative of this.

A while ago I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, contending that he removes the essential components from what it takes to justify a belief. His argument was that, when looking at belief in God in a cost-benefit analysis, it is more beneficial to choose to believe in God. I reject his presumption that a person can rationally choose to believe something exists while disregarding all evidence for or against its existence. However, his idea that it is useful to equate believing and wagering is worthy of consideration. My suggestion is that the process of making a wager is the best model to describe what is going on when we are deciding that something is the case. When we claim to have a belief, faith, trust, or even knowledge, what we ultimately have is a form of bet. This does not answer the question of how we ought to come to a belief, but my inclination is to say that this theory will help explain what these kinds of claims are, fundamentally.

There are a few “armchairish” observations sometimes taken for granted that hint at my suggestion being a good one: Assuming that humans all function the same in the following ways, 1) we use observations and cognitive processes to form beliefs; 2) we take action based on our beliefs; 3) sometimes mistakes, ambiguity, and/or external factors outside of our control cause us to be incorrect in/about our beliefs; and 4) replacing the word “belief” with “wager” in (1)-(3) results in a fairly coherent progression of thought.

Put simply, when we decide that P is true given the data we have, we are simultaneously placing a wager on P. In other words, we do not only think it is true now, but we are betting it will continue to be true as time goes on. Then, as we go about life taking action according to the wager, the proposition is tested by observations xy, z, etc. If these observations appear to connect logically and/or causally with P (if everything appears consistent), then we confirm it to some degree, and the wager is not changed. The risk adopted by the bet is that the proposition may be proven to be incorrect, and there may be some undesirable consequence as a result of the action(s) based upon the proposition.

This process is related to Jonathan Haidt’s psychological theory involving processes of the mind. He came to the conclusion that people have an initial reaction to some stimulus that consists of a snap-judgement. Then, what follows are a series of rational thoughts that he says “supports” the initial judgment. I agree with this general theory, but if we also add that it is possible for the rational thought to deny the initial judgment, the theory has an even wider application.

The nature of the game is that whenever we consider some question, we have an open field of possible truths that is narrowed whenever we rule things out based upon testing, observation, and logic. This thought isn’t new. It is reminiscent of the scientific method, which dates back to the Renaissance and early Colonial Era when it began to take shape. Most of the modern iterations of the scientific method assume that any theory is open and liable to change, not only because of more efficient and useful language, but also because the pool of data changes over time. A “wager,” I suppose, could be most analogous to a “hypothesis.” But hypotheses are more consciously contrived, and my goal for the “wager” is to be broad enough to refer to unconscious behavior, in addition to all matter of predictions, theories, and conjectures.

Note that merely “placing a bet” says nothing of my conviction in the outcome, the quality or quantity of information that is taken into account, the level of consciousness with which I make the bet, or the time-frame of my test. I may be unconsciously believing something ridiculous, or I could be making a detailed evaluation of a claim’s plausibility. Both would involve a wager of some form—a decision to hold some proposition to be true or at least to act as if it were true.

One might also point out that there are important distinctions between different kinds of wagers, namely temporal ones. There are wagers about what will happen (predictions), about what has already occurred (beliefs), and about that which is ongoing. Suppose my childhood friend and I see a squirrel darting through street, and he says, “I bet that squirrel will get hit by a car!” Our inclination would be to label this as a prediction, since the event has not yet come to pass. In continuing the story, suppose I were to respond, “I do not believe that squirrel will be hit by a car.” It seems odd at first that I would use the word “belief” for what should be another prediction.

The reason someone might make such a mistake, I think, hints at a deeper underlying theory like the one I have proposed. If both beliefs and predictions are forms of a wager, then there is an inherent predictive aspect in both of these terms. The substitution of “belief” for “prediction” is made because the character of “belief” has an inherent predictive quality about it, which makes it easily mistaken for a prediction. However, it still does not have the same set of qualities that “prediction” has. There is still room for distinction.

And the distinction is this: A prediction is a consideration of what has not yet come to pass; a belief considers what is ongoing or has passed. In my theory, they both still fall into the “wager” category. I can still comfortably replace both “I believe” and “I predict” with “I bet.”

The immediate worry that should arise is that it seems like I would be committed to saying that predictions, wagers, and beliefs are all the same thing. In response, I would say my claim is that wagers are broad enough to encompass all of these kinds of terms, and there is a predictive element to a wager. However, that element refers to a “first-order” qualification that beliefs, predictions, propositions, and the like contain in common an expectation of continued confirmation. And confirmation can only occur at points in time after a wager is made, regardless of its kind. Note that because people are continuously acting or not acting, each action must carry with it an implicit set of bets. Since this is always the case, it doesn’t seem that “beliefs” can be abstracted from “wagers.”

Secondary qualifications would make up the distinctions between the different kinds of wagers. For instance, expanding upon the distinction I made earlier: the content of a belief must be considering an ongoing or past phenomenon; the content of a prediction considers a future phenomenon.

To conclude, when we form beliefs and predictions, we are making bets on what we think is accurate. The discussion about whether we can verify knowledge globally is a bunch of bunk. It is pretty clear that sometimes we make mistakes, but our goal is to seek truth regardless. And ultimately, we all play the game. We are all cosmic gamblers.

Emotional Control Through Rational Thought (Learning How to be a Robot)

Contrary to what may be inferred by the title of this post, I do not think an individual can immediately decide to feel a certain way about such and such in opposition to an initial feeling. Even if it is possible, I do not think it is something easily accomplished. I do think, however, that an individual can condition oneself to react emotionally in one way or another over time.

One way to think about this is to examine Aristotle’s view, in which he divides the soul into three categories. The first amounts to what plants are capable of, basic nourishment and reproduction. The second level is that of animals who have the power of locomotion and perception. The third is the human level, which introduces the intellect (reason, rationality, or what have you). He uses this context in order to explain how one should live a eudiamonic (or the best kind of) life. His belief is that it is virtuous to utilize one’s rational capabilities to the fullest, and at the same time, one must exhibit self-control when dealing with the lower-level functions of life like appetite and emotion.

This may not be the most detailed or accurate way to categorize life considering our modern-day understanding, but there are a few reasoned observations that suggest that Aristotle is on to something: 1) The human capacity for rational thought, or something similar, is probably the essential characteristic that makes humans different from other life-forms on this planet. 2) The use of logic through our rational thought allows us to come to accurate conclusions about the world around us. 3) Rational conclusions can be overturned by emotional desires and vice versa. 4) Humans have the capability to change how rational thought and emotion are involved in their thought processes.

IF all this is pretty much true; and IF humankind is the most advanced form of life in existence; and IF there is an aristotelian “eudiamonic” life to be had, then MAYBE we should all aspire to become robots. These are some big “if’s” of course, hence the use of all caps… but no, I don’t actually advocate that we all aspire to become robots (right now anyway). Why? Human functioning is actually way more complex than what any robot can do. It is complex enough that we cannot yet replicate it by artificial means. I would advocate that people spend more time on “logic-based thought” than “emotional thought,” however. Why? Because I think it does more good for the world.

Whatever degree of utility that emotion plays in human thought processes, there is no denying that it takes relatively little time for most people to have emotional thoughts. Emotions are reactionary by nature. They are an automatic response that our bodies have to certain stimuli. We typically have very little control over these reactions, as they are hard-wired into our brains. Often they are explained as evolutionary survival mechanisms and thought to rise primarily from the limbic system. They explicitly fall into the category of non-rational functioning.

Rationality, on the other hand, is characterized by conscious and deliberate thought processes. To reason about something is considered an exercise in human agency. We are doing it on purpose, and we have control. Its function is essentially to discover truth by logically analyzing our observations. Processes in this category like differentiation and determining causal relations occur in the frontal lobe. I am of the impression that an individual can use rational processes like these to alter emotional processes.

Because emotions are closely tied to memory via the limbic system, I think the first step toward effective emotional control is to recognize the causal patterns of behavior. It would be prudent to analyze the typical triggers that cause associated emotional memories to fire. The goal should be to pinpoint the exact underlying causes that elicit the feeling. Sometimes it can be difficult when they are suppressed, but this is what your frontal lobe is there for. Taking the time to consciously face some of these issues might also require courage, but I don’t know how to help people with courage. Just don’t be a weenie I guess.

The second step would be to learn how to counteract the emotional reaction brought on by the trigger. There are many ways to do this, but I strongly advise against ignoring the emotion if your goal is long-term control. The objective of this step is to create emotional memories that override and replace the current ones. This can be done through introspection, external exposure, or a combination of the two. For example, suppose that I fear speaking in public. One thing I can do is to expose myself to situations in which there is more pressure to speak, like taking a speech class. Perhaps I can create a parallel scenario in which I am speaking in front of friends as if I were speaking in public. These are very common remedies to a common problem.

One uncommon method, though, is to use introspection. A solution can be found through creating a new perspective for oneself by thinking about the different possible outcomes. The practice could involve imagining worst case scenarios — those which would be most feared — and reconstructing the feeling in one’s mind. Doing this regularly may “wear the feeling out,” and the individual can better accept the emotion, making its effect negligible. Another option is to contrast the trigger situations with other situations that are far worse, creating a logical connection that will eliminate the reaction. Eventually it is possible for the subject to adopt the perspective of the indifferent observer: “So what?”

There isn’t really a third step.

If there were though, it would probably be to practice doing this until you become a really well-adjusted person.

…Or if your dream is to become a robot, then have at it.

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime (Photo credit: Devin.M.Hunt)