Tag Archives: rationality

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…

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The making of a Communist

When Mama and Papa came to America they were not seeking the legended golden mecca. As young Jewish revolutionaries, they knew they were coming to a capitalist America, but at least it was not tyrannical, monarchistic Old Russia. …

The 1905 revolution in Russia raised jubilant hopes among the young emigrés, and Mama, pregnant with my sister, made plans to go home. The revolution failed; going-home talk slowly receded, but Mama and Papa and the aunts and uncles did not assimilate into the new country. They rejected the mores of capitalist America. They were critical of those among their emigré circles who adjusted and tried to make it by the exploitative measures needed to succeed. Their goals remained alienated from those of this country. They wore their poverty like a badge of honor, continued to meet in small groups which at least now were no longer illegal as in Old Russia, and talked about the needed revolution. …

Through it all we children grew and played in this self-contained, foreign-born, radical community. We were enrolled in the Socialist Party sunday school at the Labor Temple at the time we started public school kindergarten, and the former was more important than the latter. Among my early memories are those of being lifted each week onto a table in stark meeting halls and lisping my way through recitations of revolutionary poems by Yiddish writers my parents and their comrades loved so passionately. Papa coached me at home, explaining the pathos and courage and hope of the words I was to recite. …

In 1922, at the age of sixteen, my sister Mini, already a Young Communist League member, organized the first Communist children’s group in Southern California. I was her first recruit and rapidly became that organization’s public spokesperson—a fiery, tense thirteen-year-old. In school I was selected to recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” poems at PTA meetings; out of school I made eloquent speeches at Communist mass meetings, denouncing the Rockefeller and Morgan warmakers and urging support of the new children’s revolutionary movement.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975