23 July 2012

Usefulness Philosophy of Belief

This is partially just my reaction to blanket agnosticism, or the idea that we should label ourselves as fence-sitting on subjects that are not useful to believe.
What happens when we choose our beliefs on what's useful to believe? I will examine some obvious and less-obvious examples of what I mean. You might decide on a different analysis for this and other beliefs. That's cool, it's more about the process.

This is wholly unscientific, by the way.

The Golden Rule

This is a one with horrifying counter-examples: the fail for this rule is rape.
The argument goes that one should always do unto others as one would want done to them, but a rapist usually wants their victim to have sex with THEM, so why shouldn’t they have sex with their victim?
It’s more useful to believe in the “shadow of the future”. This states that people will behave selfishly unless they are afraid of burning bridges. It’s more useful to trust someone to be afraid of consequences than that they will go against their own interests to do good.
Are some people just “good people” or “jerks”? Sure, but this is likely a product of behavioral reinforcement: Some people learn to look out for #1, others have been praised for being a nice person, and still others are trying hard not to do what another did that made them “fail” in life.
With the “shadow of the future” idea, either type of person is explained and can be prepared for.

Flat Earth

In the medieval ages there was a great case for agnosticism, it never mattered... unless you were a sailor, merchant, or fisherman with secret cod fishing banks in Nova Scotia.
It’s more useful now than ever to believe the world is round - could you imagine international flights that avoided some “edge” line?

Germ theory

It’s hands down more useful to believe in the germ theory of disease that the sin theory of disease.
Let's say your kid gets chicken pox in kindergarten. It's definitely possible that kids are natural sinners. However, it's much easier to treat illness with ramen soup and antibiotics than good behavior.

Creationism v. Progenitor Race v. Evolution

  • Creationism posits that a an omnipotent being created everything we know.
  • Progenitor theory posits that life on our planet came from extraterrestrial sources.
  • Evolution posits that the known good rules of thumb, simple things lead to complex things and things change more the more time you have, to biological diversity and a proposed chemistry/biology transition.

Evolution is more useful to many people, animal breeders, vaccine researchers, archaeologists, etc.
It also removes the extra complexity of one’s explanation causing more questions, Occam's Razor.

  • If progenitors or deities existed before life on Earth, where did they come from? 
  • If a creation deity always existed, why couldn't we say that life just always existed?

Simple chemicals led to genetic chemicals, which led to simple life, which led to complex life. Evolution is neither random nor intentional.


Free Will

It’s more useful to beleive it does exist.
  • Should we not negatively enforce or deter people for antisocial behavior?
  • Should people not be held responsible for actions?
  • Should soldiers “just follow orders”?
I argue that it doesn’t matter a single bit whether or not any person has free-will.
It is simply more useful and constructive for a society to be built on accountability for choices (though not necessarily for the options one has to choose from).
This is part of the reason it’s good we have a volunteer military, otherwise it’s proper operation would depend on it’s members not having free will.


Death is Final

More useful to believe.
If people only have one life to live:
  • Martyrdom is less attractive
  • Other people’s life is more important, too
  • Mourning involves actually accepting the loss
  • It empowers you to improve your life now, not accepting bad things for a “future reward”

Also, the comfort argument for usefulness isn't necessary if you take on a certain mindset, like Mark Twain.

"I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit."
-Mark Twain


This is actually a tough choice.
Real studies have shown us two things.

  1. Praying for something like the health of a patient won't work.
  2. Wishing for more 1’s in a random number generator actually works.

So perhaps it says that what religions say will happen at a macro scale is really an allegory of what quantum and string theories show happen at a microscopic level.

Useful course of action: wish for things, but don’t waste your time directing it towards a deity.

Remember, take everything with a grain of salt and a lot of thought. 
I'm just not sure I've found a case where sitting on the fence was better.

The best action isn't often inaction.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

No comments: