December 12th, 2009

eyes black and white

Good reasons for irrational belief

The other day, I had a dream, which I now realize was a premonition, in which I was blogging about the rationality of irrationality. Here are good reasons to be irrational:

  1. Information is not free. It's not usually worth paying the price for certainty, and moreover, by the time you're 100% sure of something, it's probably useless (except if you're a mathematician). We constantly have to act on uncertain information, at the risk of making either great mistakes or great discoveries — all men are irreducibly Entrepreneurs.
  2. Hesitation is costly. Any long term project requires commitment, trust in partners, faith in success, etc. which can only be based on imperfect information. Moreover, once the project is started, time spent worrying or hesitating, even due to good reasons, only decreases the chances of success of the project, while irrational faith in success is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  3. Most errors don't matter that much. When they matter, there's no need to eagerly chase them, because they'll come after you all by themselves, and then it's time to fix them. And in the rare cases where feedback is deadly and you can't fix an error after the fact, it is better to err a lot on the side of caution than to err only ever so much on the side of danger, so you shouldn't go looking to hard for the truth.
  4. It's important to agree with others on the outcome of otherwise arbitrary decisions. It doesn't matter all that much how one should pronounce the words that convey any given meaning; but if you don't use words in such way that the other party will make sense of it, you won't convey any meaning at all. And you really don't want to mispronounce shibboleth (though one man's pronounciation is another man's mis-).
  5. It's hard to unbundle good and bad ideas, yet good ideas often come in package-deals with bad ideas. Untangling ideas often requires costly domain-specific expertise and efforts that are not always worth the results.

Of course, just because there are good reasons to follow strategies that have the adoption of bad ideas as a necessary consequence, it does not follow that any of those bad ideas is good in itself, or even that the strategy was successful in any particular instance. So having an allegedly good epistemic strategy is no excuse to any of your individual errors.

However, the important point is that you should be understanding decision-making in terms of rules and strategies rather than individual decisions. This is also the main point of Henry Hazlitt's The Foundation of Morality, or of the new (dawkinsian) point of view on genetics and memetics. That's why you should welcome the identification of individual errors, not just as opportunities to fix mistakes (which is not always possible), but also as opportunities to improve your process itself.