Epistemic and instrumental rationality

Epistemic rationality is about collecting accurate beliefs about the world. Instrumental rationality is about achieving your goals.

Certain sects, such as the rationalists, believe that epistemic rationality is always instrumentally rational: that is, that holding accurate beliefs can’t hinder you from achieving your goals relative to holding a contradictory inaccurate belief, and that holding inaccurate beliefs can’t help you achieve your goals relative to holding a contradictory accurate belief, and therefore that people should believe things that are true and not believe things that are false. (This of course can’t be true in principle, since there’s no reason in principle why an agent that terminally values believing false things couldn’t exist; but it’s assumed that humans don’t terminally value believing false things.)

Certain other sects, practiced in various Caribbean islands, believe that it’s possible for someone in a certain sort of religious rite to be possessed by spirits that fly over the ocean from Africa. This came up recently when I was talking to a rationalist, and he said that the practitioners of these sects should stop believing that, because it’s not true, because (for example) if you built a big net over the ocean, you wouldn’t catch the spirits in it. The effects of spirit possession could simply be due to hypnosis.

The interesting question that falls out of this is: is there anything analogous to the case where spirit possession is due to hypnosis or some similar natural mechanism, but where only people who believe in spirit possession are susceptible to the form of hypnosis that causes the effects? (I’m assuming that spirit possession is a positive state.)

If there are things that a human could want to do that can only be done by believing false things, the statement that epistemic rationality is always instrumentally rational seems much less defensible: its proponents would have to either give up or argue that the negative side-effects of holding false beliefs must always outweigh the benefits of being able to do the things they need the beliefs for.

It would, however, also be possible to distinguish between epistemic beliefs and instrumental beliefs. The rationalist account of belief seems incomplete: beliefs aren’t merely about correspondence with the world, but also about thedish signaling and social strategies (which most rationalists acknowledge), as well as myth, action orthogonal to the substance of the belief, aesthetic and conceptual associations, etc. That is: beliefs, like most social phenomena, are complex social technologies. For example: the rite is motivated by the belief in spirit possession, but presumably has some social functions, which of course rely on the belief; the spirits fly over from Africa because the culture that practices these rites was brought to the Caribbean from Africa; etc.

There’s surely a culture somewhere in the world that could be experimented on—a culture where people are socially required to believe something that’s demonstrably untrue…

12 responses to “Epistemic and instrumental rationality

  1. Ashley Yakeley June 7, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Doesn’t Nietzsche have a lot to say about this? “Epistemic rationality” seems to correspond to his “will to truth” while the instrumental kind to his “will to power”.

  2. Pingback: Epistemic and instrumental rationality | Reaction Times

  3. NRK June 7, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Nietzsche has already been correctly identified as the most important thinker on this topic.
    Politically, the discrepancy between instrumental and epistemological reason played a large role for early sorelian and fascist movements, that aimed at creating a strong national/political community via the unifying force of mythology – parallels to contemporary identity politics and communitarianism should be obvious.
    For a non- or anti-identitarian perspective, there’s Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason, which basically argues that the increase in technological and political efficiency threatens to erase the epistemological and moral aspects of reason to the extent that they don’t line up with the trajectory of production and domination.

    • Robert Mariani June 7, 2016 at 8:44 pm

      the moral aspects of rationality are kind of nonsense from the start. I didn’t know that Horkheimer wrote about it, but it seems to make sense, since it takes being something like an ideologue to defend it.
      I hear the term “rational” being misused all the time to mean something things that the speaker thinks are smart and good. This isn’t a useful definition because it doesn’t even involve making propositions, and propositions being accurate or not is the normal person version barometer of something being rational or not.
      It boils down to there being essentially two meta-ethical positions: different flavors of moral nihilism and divine command. If you subscribe to the former, then you rationality has nothing do do with the ultimate shoulds/shouldn’ts, it just has to do with optimizing whatever we pick.
      Ideologues often treat their secular ideology like a religion, so I guess it’s not weird that they think discovering the correct command is just a matter of being rational.

      • NRK June 7, 2016 at 8:58 pm

        “It boils down to there being essentially two meta-ethical positions: different flavors of moral nihilism and divine command.”

        In the unlikely case that my education should land me a job in teaching, I’m going to use this as a prime example of a false dichotomy

      • Robert Mariani June 8, 2016 at 1:51 am

        I am obviously glossing over stuff.
        Also I am not using nihilism in a negative sense

      • NRK June 8, 2016 at 5:34 am

        As much was obvious, but that doesn’t make you, as they say, less wrong.

        Besides the false dichotomy, your post also exemplifies what Horkheimer was getting at, the now-commonplace view that rationality cannot be anything but instrumental, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in illicit metaphysics.

      • Robert Mariani June 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

        And Horkheimer is wrong, because he presumably thought that you can rationally arrive at whatever moral intuitions he and his Marxist buddies had, but never managed to actually show it

      • NRK June 9, 2016 at 4:26 pm

        You can’t really establish that someone’s wrong, based on nothing but our own vague assumptions about what they believed and were able to show, can you?

  4. ||||| June 7, 2016 at 9:33 pm


    Evolving useful delusions: Subjectively rational selfishness leads to objectively irrational cooperation – https://arxiv.org/abs/1405.0041

  5. Alison Morais June 7, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    From my knowledge of how spirit-possession is practised in the Commonwealth Caribbean (ie: I can’t speak for Haiti), it is probably possible to experience the relevant trance effects while still being sceptical of them, if you go through the same programme of calorie-restriction/sleep-deprivation/chanting/exercise-fatigue/etc.

    However, I would expect it to be easier to enter the relevant trance state if you believed what you were doing was spiritually meaningful, as opposed to a collision of brain chemicals, so the point still stands.

    I had always interpreted “epistemic rationality is instrumentally rational” to be something along the lines of “you wont be able to identify the best route from your current state to your /actual terminal goals/ if your map of the world is seriously flawed”. It’s unlikely that anyone has spirit possession as their terminal value but, if the goal is to get high, knowing how brains actually work can help you achieve it.

    But discarding false beliefs can definitely make instrumental goals harder to achieve. Religious services are far less pleasant when you know G-d can’t hear you.

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