A Humean Hope

March 24, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 3:39 pm   Category: Life

I will get back to my “Paradigms Lost” series soon enough, but in the mean time I thought I’d share some thoughts from Ken Binmore in his two volume work: Game Theory and the Social Contract:

Nothing … in the ludicrous constitution of Plato’s Republic constrains the philosopher-king and his guardians [from abusing their power].  We are asked instead to believe that their Rationality will suffice to ensure that they follow the Good.  Nowadays … we are equally afflicted with would-be philosopher-kings, who are just as sure of their own virture as Plato was of his…

Corrupt officials are often utterly unconscious of their crimes against the social contract, but they undermine the social contract nevertheless.  We are only too ready to deceive ourselves with stories about why the insider groups to which we belong are entitled to regulate their affairs according to more relaxed versions of the rules than we think should bind outsiders…

But even saintly leaders are human.  Given long enough in power, they finally learn to tell themselves stories which allow them to respond to their incentives, while still remaining convinced of their dedication to the public interest.  (Vol. 2: 273,236)

Binmore meant these thoughts to be applied within the realm of politics and the rules of law.  I, however, hoped that we could make it a little more personal by applying it to epistemology and the rules of belief.  In particular, there are certain rules of belief which none of us dare break outright and openly.  We don’t want to flagrantly contradict well-established evidence or be caught believing “A” and “not-A” at the same time.  We also tend to not make a habit of kicking against the pricks of common knowledge or well-motivated faith.

On the other hand, given enough motivation and time, I suspect that even the most hard-nosed of rationalists/scientists/philosophers will eventually find a way to think themselves to the beliefs that they so badly long to have.  And this, in turn, fills me with hope.


  1. Jeff: I don’t understand your hope. Is it your hope that you can self-deceive yourself into a cherished belief again? That just seems counterintuitive to me.

    But given your starting point, what else could there be? If our cognitive faculties are the result of random mutations in a deterministic process that dictates what we believe regardless of rationality, then how could we ever trust any belief that we have? Everything is then geared merely to survival and has no regard for grasping and accurately assessing abstract truths of the kind Plato addressed. There is no real morality but only some ersatz concoction that we adopt because it leads to greater social cooperation and survival and not because there is something really right and wrong.

    Comment by Blake — March 24, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

  2. Unfortunately, sociopaths rise to the top in a democracy. They eventually delude themselves into madness, and you end up with a government that’s for sale to the highest bidder.

    Against this backdrop, the only thing that can save is kicking against the pricks of common knowledge, which for the most part is a depraved collective psychosis.

    Comment by Bradley — March 25, 2012 @ 12:46 am

  3. “Self-deceive”? That’s a little cynical don’t you think?

    While I did, of course, have myself in mind, I was also speaking more broadly of conversion processes in general. The main idea I was hoping to throw out was that, like Alma 32, if you plant a seed in somebody which is good enough, and if you have enough patience with them, then they will take care of most of the intellectual work themselves.

    If my post was meant to criticize thing at all, it would be the Socratic method of pointing out the flaws in everyone and everything that doesn’t agree with you. That’s just not the best way to make friends or converts.

    While it’s not really on point, I could also point out that my views on free will and naturalism in general have changed as I’ve come to embrace a quasi-Rortyan anti-philosophy.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 25, 2012 @ 9:50 am

  4. For the record, the title refers to Hume’s famous passage:

    “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

    I think Hume’s formulation is a might bit strong, but for the most part right. This was one of the many ideas by which Hume argued for the limits of human reason, ideas which were the primary motivation for Kant’s quest to place reason back on its pedestal, where he thought it should be. Blake can speak for himself, but I’m fairly certain that his feelings about Hume’s assertion closely align with those of Kant.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 25, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  5. I am still think through this, but I think I agree. When I was new in the church, new information perpetually had me on the ropes, and I was a literal embodiment of being “thrown about by every bit of doctrine”, or however the saying goes. I think it is because I am a doubter by nature. But with time, I have learned to give my faith and religious convictions the benefit of the doubt (as opposed to just the doubt). What is not rational now will either become rational through a transformation of me or a transformation of it.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 25, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

  6. We need to have more doubt in our doubts.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — March 25, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  7. A couple more metaphors which come to mind:

    Quine talks about each person’s web of beliefs wherein any belief can be saved if the proper adjustments are made elsewhere in the web.

    I also like to think of this as a somewhat drawn out evolutionary process by which we are able to gradually construct a robust conceptual niche which is hospitable to the beliefs we value most.

    Both imply that the process of making a comfortable space for some beliefs takes time and real intellectual work.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 25, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Jeff, I’ve followed your posts and comments here and on your own blog for several years now. Your life’s arc and your recent writings have been a powerful inspiration to me and a source of hope; my own faith has required considerable work, both emotional and intellectual, and you’ve helped me with it as you’ve shared your own thoughts and experiences, in this post perhaps more than any.

    Comment by Lawrence — March 25, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  9. Thanks for sharing that, Lawrence. One of my biggest fears, while posting here at the Thang, is that the thoughts and conceptual tools I’m trying to share are doing more harm than good.

    I can’t help but suspect that one of the motivations behind our blogging presence is that we feel a common tension in our lives between the things we want to believe and the things that we feel like we “have” to believe. I certainly know that I’ve felt that tension in my life, and many of the posts and emails that I read over the years lead me to believe that I’m not alone. My hope is that the free exchange of thoughts and ideas among us can help to relieve this tension.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 25, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  10. A very poignant realization for me is that belief is heavily dependent upon experience. I was excommunicated three years ago and vowed that I would never set foot in an LDS church again. I have attempted to discard all previous beliefs, especially about morality, trying to convince myself that having premarital sex, for instance, is OK as long as I’m “committed” to someone. I tried so hard to believe this because I was so attached to the behavior, but the outcome was always the same. My life and thinking seemed always out of sorts and off balance. In short, a belief I tried to dislodge is, and most likely, will be with me the rest of my life. Why that is, I don’t know. Part of me thinks that much of it has to do with social conditioning (parents, primary, young men, mission, etc.). Although this might explain some of it, I think a more accurate explanation is that truth is constant.
    A few weeks ago, I had an experience. Without going into detail, this experience has led me back into open inquiry. I’m actually open and willing to learn from a different angle whereas before, I was completely closed to the possibility. I’ve now stopped drinking beer and coffee, have attended church twice, and have an appointment with the bishop this week. I feel an enormous amount of resistance and I understand the hardship ahead. My point is that, the beliefs I thought I no longer had (and didn’t necessarily want) are with me. In many cases, they operate in the background like a computer application without me even aware of them. And it is life’s experiences that bring them into full view.

    Comment by Geoffrey — March 26, 2012 @ 9:28 am

  11. Geoffrey — I surely wish you well.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — March 26, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  12. Geoffrey, I can definitely identify with a lot of what you say. I wish you nothing but the best in your search for happiness.

    Totally unrelated and just for the record: My post was not meant to suggest that in time we can or ought to violate the rules of rational inquiry such that we can pass from conceptual point A to point B. Rather, I meant to suggest that the rules of rational inquiry are sufficiently flexible, nuanced and versatile that, given enough time and motivation, it is pretty much possible to go from any point A to any point B without violating them.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 26, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

  13. I think one thing about the Alma 32 imagery is that we can plant a seed and see it sprout in unexpected places. Great point Jeff.

    The socratic method I don’t see quite as negatively as you do. I don’t think it’s really about criticizing everything but your own position. Socrates point was that everything had to be examined after all. The problem with some is that they don’t reflect sufficiently on their position at hand.

    That said I clearly agree there are big limits to the socratic method and one should put bounds on public criticism as a method.

    Comment by Clark — March 28, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  14. Well, I don’t want to say that it is all that bad and I did caricature it a little bit. However, there is a time and a place in which each tool ought to be used, and I think the Socratic Method, or the rules of Liberal Science in general are too often treated as if this rule did not apply to them. I don’t think that everything “ought” to be examined.(!) I think that some conceptual tools work precisely because they go unexamined. Ironically enough, I think the rules of Liberal Science themselves are tools whose efficacy depends upon their being unexamined. This, I think, is where I part ways with Rorty.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 29, 2012 @ 11:53 pm