A Cheetah, Sea Creatures and a Spider – Philosophers Looking At Animals

Here are three philosophers looking at animals:

Hursthouse’s Cheetah

“I once saw a nature documentary which followed a cheetah in the wild through her pregnancy and managed to capture in full the extraordinary sight of her trying to bring down a small deer (on her own, of course, because cheetahs are solitary) when very near to her term. Apart from the pregnancy, she was nothing but skin and bone and sinew, and although she started off with the characteristic gravity-defying bounds, she couldn’t keep it up, and collapsed. According to the documentary, she had been, in the last few weeks, a little unlucky in the availability of prey, but only a little; near starvation and exhaustion after attempts at hunting during pregnancy are, it was said, pretty much the female cheetah’s lot.”

Rosalind Hursthouse “On Virtue Ethics”

Wiggins’ Sea Creatures

“Two or three years ago, when I went to see some film at the Academy Cinema, the second feature of the evening was a documentary film about creatures fathoms down on the ocean-bottom. When it was over, I turned to my companion and asked, ‘What is it about these films that make one feel so utterly desolate?’ Her reply was: ‘apart from the fact that so much of the film was about sea monsters eating one another, the unnerving thing was that nothing down there ever seemed to rest.’ As for play, disinterested curiosity, or merely contemplating, she could have added, these seemed inconceivable.”

David Wiggins “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”

Nagel’s Spider

“One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men’s room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn’t in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn’t too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn’t seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below floor level and couldn’t get out.

Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him. I reflected that if he didn’t like it on the outside, or didn’t find enough to eat, he could easily get back. So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I pushed him an inch or two along the tiles, right next to the urinal, but he still didn’t respond. He seemed to be paralysed. I felt uneasy but thought that if he didn’t want to stay on the tiles when he came to, a few steps would put him back. Meanwhile he was close to the wall and not in danger of being trodden on. I left but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved.

Animals – Human and Otherwise

Why do philosopher’s look at animals when they’re considering the big questions about human existence?

Maybe because it makes sense to remind ourselves that we are also animals. And then it helps us think about the ways in which we are different from other animals and the ways we are alike.

Wiggins’ sea creatures for example who don’t rest, play or contemplate, show us that these activities are important to us. In Wiggins’ words:

“If we can project upon a form of life nothing but the pursuit of life itself, if we find there no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life; then the form of life must be to some extent alien to us.”

Human animals need to be able to pursue something more than survival itself. The world is – to us – of non-instrumental interest. We can care about it beyond our lifespan. And it is part of who we are, as a species, to look for meaning and purpose. (Wiggins almost looks like he’s arguing that any life form that doesn’t concern itself with philosophical questions is alien to us.)

Hursthouse’s cheetah, reminds us that as animals our lives and what constitutes a good life are to some extent bounded by what is biologically possible for us. In contrast to cheetahs though, we can correct what is “natural” for us through our thinking, our actions and our institutions. Hursthouse writes:

“But in virtue of our rationality – our free will if you like – we are different. Apart from obvious physical constraints and possible psychological constraints, there is no knowing what we can do from what we do do, because we can assess what we do do and at least try to change it.”

While cheetahs are not widely seen to be organising themselves to make pregnancy and childbirth less burdensome and potentially lethal for female cheetahs, human beings have, for example, adopted Millennium Development Goals to improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality, empower women and achieve universal primary education. As a species we have even made some progress towards these over the decades. We can critique our nature from the inside and do something about it in a way that cheetahs can’t.

Nagel’s spider serves as a metaphor for the absurd human existence. With hindsight he sees that he went wrong in “rescuing” the spider. He assumed that this miserable existence in a urinal could not possibly be a worthwhile life for a spider. But it turned out that when the spider was “liberated” from his bleak existence, that was the moment when life was no longer worth living. The point of view of the spider and that of Thomas Nagel were incompatible with each other in a way that turned out to be fatal for the spider. What Nagel takes from the episode is that there are “hazards of combining perspectives that are radically distinct.”

Whereas in that example we have the spider’s perspective and the human being’s, Nagel’s point is that the human mind seems capable of taking up two similarly radically distinct points of view all of its own: a subjective, “inner” point of view within which our projects have supreme value and importance, but also an objective, “outer” view, the view from nowhere, or the point of view from the universe, where everything shrinks into insignificance compared to eternity and where any human being’s interests (even mine) are worth as much as any other’s.

How can we find our lives meaningful when we are aware of the objective perspective? From the point of view of the universe, our lives could look a bit like that of a spider living in a urinal. And yet, we can clearly also experience enjoyment and lead a life worth living in the subjective view. But, though we may try, we can’t ever completely let go of either perspective.

Nagel argues that we can’t reconcile the two perspectives, but we can reduce the jarring between them. We can do this through devices, such as morality, “which seeks a way to live as an individual that affirms the equal worth of other individuals and is therefore externally acceptable.”

Or through a certain form of humility: “the recognition that you are no more important than you are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or that it would be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local significance.” This humility, Nagel says, “falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance.” As he says, with it:

“We can try to avoid the familiar excesses of envy, vanity, conceit, competitiveness, and pride – including pride in our culture, in our nation, and in the achievements of humanity as a species.”

That latter point is interesting. We may even be able to learn something by looking at other species.

 

 

Vote Yourself Happy!

Voting makes you happy!

Or as the classic research paper on the subject puts it rather more simply:

A cross-regional econometric analysis suggests that institutional factors in the form of direct democracy (via initiatives and referenda) and of federal structure (local autonomy) systematically and sizeably raise self-reported individual well-being. This positive effect can be attributed to political outcomes closer to voters’ preferences, as well as to the procedural utility of political participation.

(Frey, Bruno S. and Stutzer, Alois ‘Happiness, Economy and Institutions’ 2000)

This study was done in Switzerland where the level of democratic activity differs from canton to canton (regions). It therefore lends itself well to looking at correlations between levels of happiness and participation in democratic processes.

A key part of the findings was that voting makes you happier, whether the outcome or person you voted for wins or not.

So, no matter who you vote for, make sure you vote!

 

What I Learned From Social Media About the State of Philosophy

A couple of months ago, I wrote this blog post about the fear (mostly felt by philosophers) that philosophy was disappearing from public debate. I posted it on Reddit – an online space for public debate – and it got the strongest response out of anything I’ve ever written.

(For those of you who don’t know Reddit,  it is a place where you can post things and other users can vote it up or down. They can also comment on it. The more up-votes something gets, the higher up the list of links it goes so more people will see it. People can also up- or down-vote the comments.  There are “communities” in Reddit who have their particular “sub-reedits.” So this discussion on my blog post took place in a philosophy-themed part of Reddit. I suppose you have to see it, really…)

My post got more than a thousand up-votes and almost 300 comments. The comments contained discussion among people who are studying or studied philosophy academically and those who never did but are interested. So pretty much the sort of group you would want if you wanted to work out why philosophy’s role in the public space is diminishing. Because the question has two sides: 1.) what is happening to philosophy? And 2.) what is happening to public debate.

Anyway, a lot of the comments on Reddit make for interesting reading, and there are some good discussions there.

Here are some factors that Reddit users thought were particularly relevant:

1. Philosophy isn’t taught in schools. As one commenter put it:

“By the time you get to college, the only exposure most people have of philosophy is, “what is the meaning of life?” That question in of itself is a great question but to most people, it’s incredibly stuck up. People see no practicality from philosophy and it’s treated as a joke. My friend wants to study philosophy and go to law school but his parents are forcing him to major in something else or they won’t help pay for college.”

There was then also a long discussion about whether philosophy as a subject at school or university is useful for getting into other career paths, e. g. law. Several people argued that it was. People also argued that a philosophy degree wasn’t the one that led to the highest “starting salaries” after university.

2. Where Philosophy is taught, it is often taught badly. This puts people off. This view is based on the subjective experience of individual commenters but there was a lot of discussion about different approaches. The teaching of philosophy based on the work of individual philosophers, with a stress on being able to quote them, was deemed less inspiring than discussion of philosophical issues in a way that is relevant to people’s lives. One commenter encapsulated it neatly as:

“We need to stop naming the study by the people who did it/wrote it first or best, and instead study the lines of thought themselves – as loosely correlated and organized by particular named philosophers. […] What you really learn studying the “thing” behind each of these [names] is really not the person, but the body of thought and understanding they now represent. If instead of organizing the study by these old, stodgy names, we named each of the lines of thought by the themes and ideas they created and explained – then it would remain an integral part of teaching in a timeless way.”

3. As the academic study of philosophy is becoming more and more specialised and narrow, it is becoming less and less relevant to a lot of people. This point was put stridently and in language unfamiliar to philosophical debate by a commenter who said:

“As a person who majored in Philosophy in college I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Even on Reddit, most of the Philosophy threads I see make the front page are stuck up posts that have zero bearing on modern life.

In our current times, ethical and political philosophy are the only “useful” areas of thought and should be frequently discussed.

If the people who actually know philosophy are sitting around debating topics like metaphysics, then it is our fault that philosophy is disappearing because we’re essentially jerking ourselves off, saying ‘I’m so smart’, and providing no direction toward worthwhile discourse for a regular person.”

Others took issue with the idea that philosophy should be useful. This sparked a lot of debate. Ultimately, those who put forward the view that philosophy ought to have a use for society in order to justify its existence saw their view re-inforced by those trying to make arguments to the opposite.

Another way of putting the point about the narrowing scope of philosophy due to specialisation was this:

“Philosophers are professional hairsplitters. They hit a stubborn stasis, split some hairs, debate a more fine-grained detail, arrive at a stubborn stoppage and split again. Philosophical debates are so finely grained and abstract that they don’t get traction with real-world public policy.

Philosophy needs more lumping rather than splitting. Instead of playing the tenure game of “saying something new”, philosophy needs some sort of meta-analysis to tie all of the work together. It needs more generalists to make connections between the detail work and the work of living well.”

4. The nature of public debate has changed. It was suggested that all discussion in our culture (the commenters were largely American but this goes wider) had become about narrow point scoring and winning an argument, rather than improving ideas and thinking through reasoned debate. Where philosophy goes along with that, it turns off people who are generally interested in ideas, where it doesn’t, it doesn’t fit with public debate. A debased political debate was seen as a parallel or context to this phenomenon.

5. Related to this, the nature of the media had changed. It was argued that the media used to have an aim of raising the bar of public debate, but that now it was merely profit-focussed.

Mostly what it suggested to me was that there could be massive public interest in philosophy, certainly online. In order to cater for it, philosophy needs to be relevant to the lives of human beings, presented in a style that is intelligible to intelligent human beings, consensus-seeking and positive. It would help if it was supported by teaching at schools and a public atmosphere that acknowledged that there doesn’t need to be a choice between financial and commercial success on the one hand, or philosophy on the other.

Go online philosophers!

Drowned Rats and Mad Dogs: Terrible Things That Have Been Done to Animals to Learn about Human Nature

Drowned Rats

In the 1950s Curt Richter was doing experiments on stress responses in wild and domesticated rats when he accidentally came across a strange phenomenon.

The experiment involved putting rats into large jars full of water and measuring the length of time the rats would swim in water of varying temperatures before they drowned. He was able to show that there were temperatures at which rats survived for longer, and temperatures at which they drowned sooner. (Don’t ask me about the use of this experiment.) The problem was that there were outliers with large variation in the results. Some rats swam for 60-80 hours, while others, particularly wild rats, would drown within minutes.

This variation reduced the significance of Richter’s findings, so he wanted to work out why some of the rats drowned almost immediately. Having ruled out some other factors, Richter worked out what was going on by considering the whole situation the rats are in. He writes:

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense. This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to “give up.”

Next Richter finds a way to prevent the rats from literally just “giving up.” He does this by training them in the idea that their situation is not hopeless. As he describes it:

“Support for the assumption that the sudden death phenomenon depends largely on emotional reactions to restraint or immersion comes from the observation that after elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die. This is achieved by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water for a few minutes on several occasions. In this way the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless; thereafter they again become aggressive, try to escape, and show no signs of giving up. Wild rats so conditioned swim just as long as domestic rats or longer.”

Let’s just note for now that the rats who learned not to become hopeless in this way didn’t necessarily survive the experiments. They simply stop messing up Richter’s experiment by being hopeless outliers. Ultimately they were still participating in an experiment to work out how long a rat normally struggles for in a tank of water before it drowns. The difference is that after having been given hope they then died of exhaustion rather than hopelessness. (I’m sorry if that sounds gruesome. It is what it is.)

Let’s also note for now that Richter thought these experiments were relevant to human beings. He suggested that the immediate drowning (“sudden death”) is comparable to so-called “voodoo” deaths – instances of “mysterious, sudden, apparently psychogenic death, from all parts of the world.” But he also thought it might be comparable to patients dying in hospitals, not from disease or unsuccessful operations, but simply from fear of an operation. He also cites instances of soldiers dying in good health during the second world war.

Richter’s hopeless rat experiments have become famous for their simple message: look at what the simple presence of hope in the mind makes possible! The physical endurance of a rat in a water tank is greater by a factor of hundreds, just due to a simple mental ingredient: hope!

What strikes me as interesting though, is the picture one must have of the kind of universe we inhabit, if these experiments are meant to be meaningful to our situation. Presumably the experimental set-ups would need to reflect our environment in some way and the things that happen to the rats and dogs would have to be comparable to the kinds of things that happen to human beings.

Is a rat struggling to stay afloat in a water tank suitably similar to life on earth for a human being?What of the experimenter holding the rat briefly and  then freeing it? What about immersing it in water for brief periods of time at first? Is life meant to be like that – short periods of captivity, pain and struggle followed by momentary relief giving us hope that there is point in struggling on? But what for? Only to be able to withstand longer periods of struggle and then drown anyway?

I know that the experiment by necessity is a simplified model of reality. But this experiment is said to deal with concepts like hope, death and survival. And all this in an environment where there is no meaning and no vision of the good (or even just the good life for a rat) apart from survival itself? What are these rats who are not hopeless meant to be hoping for?

And what is the experimenter who gives the rats a careful taste of freedom every now and then in order to make them hopeful? Is it a God in our universe? A cruel God? Or is the experimenter just trying to recreate a situation where painful experiences alternate more or less randomly with less painful, neutral or even positive ones while we make up our own minds about the meaning in it all?

What if the rat experiment had been carried out in an entirely different framework of thought, say in one where death was seen as liberation from the necessary suffering that is life? What if the end of life for a rat was seen as an opportunity for re-incarnation as a different, less ratty, life-form or a chance to enter into nirvana?  Then the rats that drown first aren’t in fact losing hope or giving up, but simply letting go, no longer clinging on to life under the misguided notion that it is worth clinging onto?

Then the experimenter who gives hope to the rats by holding them briefly, then letting them go, or by putting them into the water tank briefly, then taking them out is not giving them hope, but rather strengthening in them a tendency to grasp, to believe that it is possible, if they just work hard enough, to fulfil their cravings, to be free of struggle and suffering.

Mad (Sad) Dogs

About fifteen years after Richter’s rat experiments, Martin Seligman and colleagues did some influential experiments with dogs.

They gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who had access to a switch with which they could make them stop. They also gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who couldn’t make them stop. Later they put the dogs into a cage where they received electric shocks but could move over a small obstacle to a different part of the cage where they wouldn’t receive shocks. The dogs from the first group found out quickly how they could avoid the shocks and largely did so. The dogs from the second group just suffered the shocks. The conclusion: These dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman was immediately interested in the implications for human suffering and wellbeing. He says the animals who had learned helplessness looked “downright depressed.” And it was the implications of learned helplessness in dogs for depression and other mental illnesses in human beings that looked interesting.

But again, there are some outliers. And the outliers begin to look even more interesting than the normal cases. As Seligman writes:

“It all stems from some embarrassing findings that I keep hoping will go away. Not all of the rats and dogs become helpless after inescapable shock, nor do all of the people after being presented with insolvable problems or inescapable noise. One out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up. At first, I try to sweep this under the rug, but after a decade of consistent variability, the time arrives for taking it seriously. What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness? What is it about other people that makes them collapse at the first inkling of trouble?”

Seligman’s experiments provided the foundations for a new school of psychology. Positive psychology focussed on helping people lead happier, more effective lives, rather than on removing psychological diseases and weaknesses. Some of it focussed on the characteristics of those outliers who refused to learn helplessness, assuming that these could help others. This led to the insight that it helps to view bad events as temporary rather than permanent and specific rather than universal. These non-human and human animals apparently have hope. Hope again emerges as a key factor, this time not only in longer survival but in wellbeing and happiness.

But What Does It All Mean?

The experimental set-up again contains some ideas about what life in this universe is like. Some individuals may experience phases in life where they are unable to control the painful events (electric shocks or other) that they are exposed to. From this experience they may conclude that it is pointless to try to avoid painful events in later life phases and surrender to them. They no longer struggle against painful events or look for ways to avoid them. They continue in this resigned state, even in later phases of their lives when they could avoid painful events

But how is the universe and human life really set up with regard to painful events? Is it more like having a switch with which we can make them stop or more like not having one? Is it more like being able to move from a part of a cage where we are exposed to electric shocks to another part where we aren’t?

The kinds of painful events human beings outside of experimental settings are exposed to are more diverse than electric shocks. And there are other things we can aim for in life than the avoidance of pain. What if the painful events are on the path to a greater good that makes them worthwhile? (To be fair to Seligman, he fully recognises that purpose, meaning, pursuing a greater good are key to happiness. In that he seems to have left the dog experiments well behind.)

Another experiment, more of a “thought experiment,” comparing a dog’s life to that a human being’s, stems from around 2000 years before Seligman. It’s that of an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher who says that a person’s relationship to fate is like the relationship between a dog strapped to a cart and his master. The master will get the dog to pull the cart from A to B. It’s the dog’s choice whether he goes willingly, or whether he gets beaten by the master every bit of the way.

Note how the assumptions about man’s (and dog’s) ability to avoid pain are different in this example from the assumptions in Seligman’s experimental set up. By necessity, we have to undergo the experiences predestined for us. ( How painful they are depends not so much on our efforts to avoid them. Quite the opposite – the ride becomes less unpleasant if we adjust our mental attitude to undergoing them willingly.

Clearly the strength of our belief in our ability to avoid events that are bad for us and move towards those that are good for us influences how hard we try. So a belief that we can change things for the better and that some events are under our control can be a positive thing to have.

What I’m less sure about at the moment is what happens to hopeful people when it turns out that events really aren’t under their control. (Making the assumption that such events are an inescapable feature of the human condition in this universe.) Do more realistic people then fare better – in that they waste less time struggling unsuccessfully? (Think about the fact that in the universe Richter creates for them all the rats drown in the end.) Or in that they are better, like the Stoic dog, at embracing the journey and submitting to it, thus at least not compounding the pain of painful events with the pain from thinking that things should be otherwise and struggling against them.

Beliefs about Ourselves

In the previous post we looked at a number of scenarios where there is a link between having correct beliefs and a successful outcome. Success in these context meant reacting reasonably to a perceived threat, or it meant achieving a simple goal like catching a train in order to get to work. In any case the interactions with the world and the beliefs involved were relatively simple and immediate. The number of objects and beliefs in play were small.

It appears to me though that the relationship between correct beliefs and successful outcomes is also true for more complex projects, say learning a language or climbing a mountain. In order to learn French, I need to be correct in my beliefs that the vocabulary and grammar I am learning is French. If I am learning Italian words instead, believing that they are French, my project to learn French is doomed. To climb a mountain, I need correct beliefs about geography, weather conditions, the required climbing gear and many other factors, in order to succeed.

Then there is also a question of luck. Luck – good or bad – can mess up the relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Let’s assume that I incorrectly believe that there is a train at 8.20am and therefore go to the station exactly for that time. Actually, I’m wrong. There is a train at 8.15am. On any other day, I would have missed it. But today, as luck would have it, the train is delayed by five minutes so I catch it. The successful outcome can’t be said to have related to any correct belief of mine. Or say I’ve prepared and trained conscientiously to climb a mountain, studied the different routes and ensured that I have the right levels of fitness and the required equipment, but on the day a freak change in weather, totally unpredicted by the forecasters, forces me to turn around before reaching the summit. Despite my correct beliefs, bad luck has prevented a successful outcome.

So far the examples we’ve looked at related to beliefs about things and the way the world is organised. But there is a class of beliefs that is said to be particularly relevant to achieving successful outcomes from our own activities. That’s the class of beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. That makes sense: successful outcomes are ultimately about how a number of variables turn out to be arranged. And one or more of those variables are bound to concern the people interacting with the world. In the mountaineering example, success may depend on my assessment of my mountaineering skills and what I (correctly or incorrectly) believe about my ability to get to the peak in inclement weather conditions.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this as a “tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s beliefs.” The beliefs she is interested in are people’s beliefs about their own abilities and their own potential to extend these abilities. She distinguishes between the “fixed mindset” in which people believe that traits such as intelligence are given and static and that challenges are points at which their qualities are  assessed and proven on the one hand, and the “growth mindset” in which people believe that challenges are there to be overcome, that failures are opportunities to learn and that, of course, intelligence and ability can be acquired and extended on the other hand. Dweck isn’t particularly interested in which of these mindsets is true but in the effects of believing in the components of the one or the other.

And the pay-offs in having a growth mindset – that is to say a certain set of beliefs about oneself – are great. People with a growth mindset are more likely to stay on difficult tasks for longer, more likely to succeed at tasks, but also generally more likely to have better outcomes on a range of things such as health and relationships.

Another area where beliefs about ourselves matter is the area of so-called “learned helplessness” and its counterpart “learned optimism.” Psychologists distinguish three areas of belief that are relevant: permanence, pervasiveness and hope.

In the words of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, the permanence belief looks like this:

“People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent – the bad events will persist, are always going to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

So people with a permanent (pessimistic) belief system might think “I’m all washed up,” while someone with a temporary (optimistic) outlook might say “Right now I’m exhausted.”

Pervasiveness is about whether we have universal or specific beliefs and the extent to which we believe the causes of good or bad events affect all areas of our lives, or are specific.

Having hope is about finding permanent and universal causes for good events and temporary as well as specific ones for bad events. So for example to think “I’m talented” rather than “I was lucky this time” if something goes well. Or “I was a bit distracted that morning” rather than “I’m just stupid.”

Seligman, like Dweck, is more interested in the effects of holding those kinds of beliefs, than their relation to the truth. He writes:

“Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. When you break your diet, the response ‘I’m a total glutton’ is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathise with the sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than its worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the world should be fair?”

But I’m wondering whether the relationship between beliefs and outcomes that we observed in the previous post isn’t somehow relevant here too. That would mean that the beliefs at the core of a “growth mindset,” that intelligence and capability can be expanded, or the beliefs at the centre of “learned optimism,” that the causes of personal failure are temporary and specific, are correct beliefs and therefore more conducive to positive outcomes due to an interaction between the belief and what is out there in the world.

I’ll want to look at this more in the next post.

 

Beliefs and Outcomes

As I said, there are some issues swirling around my mind that I’m not completely clear about. The temptation is not to write about them until I have achieved greater clarity. But I suspect that unless I write about them, I won’t achieve that greater clarity. So let me start with some basic thoughts about the relationship between beliefs and what happens in life:

1.) Imagine I walk out of my house one morning. As it’s early, it’s still dark, slightly misty and I’m only half awake. I see something I believe to be a cobra or some other kind of dangerous snake slightly to the side ahead of me. I jump back indoors and shut the door buying time to consider my next steps. Here are two alternative scenarios for what might happen next:

a) Ok, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been true. I phone the police or the local zoo or someone. They come to pick up the dangerous snake. All is fine. The correct belief that there’s a dangerous snake outside my house allowed me to react in an appropriate way to save my life and potentially that of others. By instilling a useful emotional reaction (fear) in me and triggering the right physical response (jump back, shut the door), the correct belief rewarded me by protecting me from a dangerous animal and I survive.

b) Ah, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been false. I look more closely and realise that a neighbour just left a coiled garden hose in the front garden. The belief that there’s a snake out there did nothing particularly useful, as it didn’t correspond with any real danger. Though I survive in this scenario too, the belief hasn’t done anything useful for me. If anyone observed me getting scared of a garden hose, it might cause me slight embarrassment. The whole episode was a bit of a waste of time.

2.) Imagine I need to get to work. I believe that there will be a train from my local train station at 8.20am that will get me there on time. So I walk to the station and get there just before 8.20am. Again two scenarios:

a) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was correct. I catch the train and get to work on time.

b) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was incorrect. It left at 8.15am before I got to the station and the next one doesn’t leave for another 30 minutes. I’ll get to work late and I waste 30 minutes at the train station.

In these examples correct beliefs about things reward me with a successful outcome to my projects (survival / avoidance of danger; getting to work) and allow me to plan appropriately. Incorrect beliefs can’t be said to reward me in such a way. The reason the correct beliefs reward me with a kind of success is because they correspond with something that’s real in the world (leaving aside for now all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological justifications that may be required for such a statement) with which I correctly engage in order to further my projects.

3. Let’s say that the train operator in my area is unreliable. I believe that on any given day there is a 50% chance that there is a train from my station at 8.20am. On half of the days the train drivers are on strike, there are technical problems with the trains or the trains aren’t running due to bad weather conditions. I have no way of knowing in advance whether this will be one of those days, so I walk to the station for 8.20am.

a) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is a train. Great!

b) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is no train. Not so great. But as my belief was correct, I always reckoned that there is only a 50% chance that I won’t have a train. Though the absence of a train is disappointing, I expected it as a possibility. It is an eventuality I took into account in walking to the station, while also planning for an alternative for the case that there is no train. In my own personal cost-benefit analysis walking to the station every day, even if trains only appear on half the days is still worthwhile. (E. g. because the walk to the station is short and the benefit of getting to work by train is great.) Believing correctly that there may not be a train allows me to avoid disappointment and plan for alternatives (taking a bus or working at home).

c) My belief was incorrect. There is never a train at 8.20am. Though there may have been one at 8.15am which I have missed. The next train may or may not be there in half an hour’s time. This is less good. It’s disappointing, a waste of time and for as long as I persist in my false belief that there is a train at 8.20am, I will never catch a train on time, even if it’s a good day for running trains.

In this scenario too, the correct belief rewards me with success in terms of furthering my plans and projects. In this case – due to the complexity of the situation – that success may not be the achievement of my most immediate goal (getting to work). But the success in this case consists of the fulfilment of my general expectation that if I go to the station for 8.20am every day, I will get to work by train on half the days. Though I don’t catch an 8.20am train in scenarios b) and c), scenario b) is different in that my project – of catching the train if there is one, and doing something else if there isn’t – is still successful. Again this success is due to the correspondence of my belief with what is actually happening in the world.

In these examples then, there is a relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Holding correct beliefs allows me to interact with the world in a way that generates a successful outcome. This is not least the case because the world is the way I believe it to be. If I hold false beliefs, the world turns out not to have been the way I believed it to be. This means I interact with the world in sub-optimal ways.

There is a certain type of beliefs that is held to be particularly important to the achievement of successes. These are beliefs about ourselves. I wonder whether the simple relationship we discussed above regarding the correspondence of real things in the world with the beliefs I hold and successful outcomes holds for this type of beliefs too.

 

Why What Goes On In The Mind Matters

A complex of related themes is going around my mind at the moment over which I don’t feel I have enough clarity yet to write a coherent blog post. But I thought that maybe if I set out some of those things in little chunks, then maybe it will help make things clearer. So here are some slightly random thoughts which really need to be elaborated and brought into some kind of order:

  1. What goes on in our minds matters because it influences what we do and how we do. Not just in an obvious sense that acting on correct beliefs can lead to successful outcomes (“there is a train at 8.20am that goes to the destination I need to get to”), but also in more indirect ways (if I believe things aren’t hopeless, I will be able to take positive action for longer; if I believe this pill is the medicine that will heal me, I will get better even if it’s a placebo; if I believe my mental capacities aren’t fixed but I am capable of learning things, I will succeed better at expanding my mental capacities; etc.)
  2. The things we actively “bring to mind” and the things “at the forefront of our mind” aren’t the totality of what goes on in our minds. There are probably beliefs we are unaware of that we may not have examined for a long time. There may be thoughts that are being processed outside of our field of attention. There may be techniques by which we can become more aware of some of the things going on in our mind but fundamentally that’s how human minds work (?).
  3.  Given 1. and 2., it would sometimes be helpful if we could choose what we believe or what goes on in our minds. But fundamentally we can’t fully choose what we believe (try believing something random at will), and we can’t easily influence the beliefs or other things going on in our minds that we aren’t aware of.
  4. There may be techniques by which we can exercise a bit more control over what goes on in our minds (in particular clearing out unhelpful beliefs that we hold but haven’t examined for a while). Given 3. we should expect these to be very valuable but not straightforward to practice or instantaneous in their effect.

So that’s it. I hope to expand on all of this a bit in the next few posts. If the mind allows.