Anticipations and Falling Off Cliffs

January 2012

in Self-awareness

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Good beliefs provide ways for us to verify them.

They make us anticipate that something will happen, which we can go and verify in the real world. But, even if you have beliefs which are ‘good’ in this sense, keep in mind that your beliefs may still turn out to be wrong!

Maybe you have various ideas about what sorts of foods are healthy and what foods are not? Likely, then, you anticipate that if you were to eat a lot of these foods you will get healthier.

Someone who thinks fast food is the pinnacle of healthy food is in for a surprise. Hopefully, if they are open to changing their beliefs, they would realize it’s not working (verification!) and do some research or try something else.

The Simple Truth by Eliezer Yudkowsky is a short story that defends the idea that ‘truth’ is actually a very simple concept. There is a good example at the end of the story that illustrates the importance that your beliefs create anticipations that can be verified. But also, just because your beliefs can be verified doesn’t necessarily mean they are right! Here is the snipped from the end (note: it’s best if you read the whole thing, but the example can still stand alone):

Inspector Darwin looks at the two arguers, both apparently unwilling to give up their positions. “Listen,” Darwin says, more kindly now, “I have a simple notion for resolving your dispute. You say,” says Darwin, pointing to Mark, “that people’s beliefs alter their personal realities. And you fervently believe,” his finger swivels to point at Autrey, “that Mark’s beliefs can’t alter reality. So let Mark believe really hard that he can fly, and then step off a cliff. Mark shall see himself fly away like a bird, and Autrey shall see him plummet down and go splat, and you shall both be happy.”

We all pause, considering this.

“It sounds reasonable…” Mark says finally.

“There’s a cliff right there,” observes Inspector Darwin.

Autrey is wearing a look of intense concentration. Finally he shouts: “Wait! If that were true, we would all have long since departed into our own private universes, in which case the other people here are only figments of your imagination – there’s no point in trying to prove anything to us -”

A long dwindling scream comes from the nearby cliff, followed by a dull and lonely splat. Inspector Darwin flips his clipboard to the page that shows the current gene pool and pencils in a slightly lower frequency for Mark’s alleles.

Autrey looks slightly sick. “Was that really necessary?”

Necessary?” says Inspector Darwin, sounding puzzled. “It just happened… I don’t quite understand your question.”

Read the full story here: The Simple Truth by Eliezer Yudkowsky.


Image by aussiegal.