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August 11, 2005

Disjunct afterlife

... that was the subject heading on a spam message I got today. As it happens, it dovetails nicely with my topic.

Philosophers, especially epistemologists, in discussing matters of human behavior generally assume that they are dealing with a "rational agent". Such an entity is presumed to operate in a manner consistent with its beliefs so as to achieve maximum benefit. People are not generally rational all the time, but when articulating principles of ethics or knowledge it's useful to pretend so. In arguing for the notion of justification, such a line of thought is used to construct sophisticated arguments that, in the end, too often reduce to "if only an irrational person would believe that, then believing it isn't justified." The end of that philosophical rainbow is unsatisfying, but we'll let it pass.

I'm more interested in how that assumption relates to a further assumption often made by philosophers: that such rational agents cannot live (or not for very long, anyway, lest they become, shudder, irrational) in a conscious yet undecided state with respect to any proposition. This flavor of argument usually starts at fundamental scales of life, as in perception, though it can be generalized further. For example, Plantinga says in Warrant and Proper Function -- I'm paraphrasing -- that if somebody sees a red apple, he can't help but perceive it as being red. If that person believed all apples were green, this "being appeared to redly" requires that he quickly act to change his noetic system in some way, for it would be strange indeed for someone to long remain in a state of abeyance as to the truth of "all apples are green" after being subjected to such a perception. That it would be strange is the important thing. Strange by definition is unexpected behavior, which is generally taken to also be irrational. Thus, according to this assumption, our rational agents should never be involved in such behavior.

I suspect this principle of non-abeyance often does hold for perception, due to its visceral and strongly manifesting attributes. How am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? It's a tough job to ignore such a thing as it hangs outside my window; I could try all week but still fail at it, slowly going mad in the process. And there's another reason, stemming from a similar question: Why am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? Even if somebody showed me a turquoise apple, I might suspect some funny business but it wouldn't faze me to accept that some apples are turquoise. The color distribution of apples holds no purchase on my psyche.

But what if it did? Isn't it possible that other, more important aspects of my noetic system might depend so much upon the proposition that I would work mightily at ignoring the allegedly red apple? Human beings (in fact, perhaps all living beings, to lesser degrees) operate on a hierarchy which probably looks a lot like Maslow's famous hierachy of needs. Physiological (food), Safety (shelter, work), Community, Esteem, and Self-Actualization (being, thinking) drive us from the bottom up. Like the anvil of a thunderstorm pointing the way, self-actualization decides what we appreciate, where we live, what we do, and what (or whether) we eat. But just like in a thunderstorm, if our anvils of higher thought get too far from the lower, denser clouds of more primitive needs, we will fall apart. Let's take the most dramatic possibility. Suppose my day-to-day thoughts, morals, actions, choice of career, choice of spouse, even diet, were dependent on the notion that God exists, but learning that some apples are red decisively undercuts that notion (perhaps my theology declares that the merciful Lord declared all apples to be green, for green is a holy color). There is ample documentary evidence to suggest that when believing people lose faith, their lives are completely upended, rearranged to fit their new belief system. Such a rearrangement would have a significant cost to me; perhaps I would choose a wider diet, a flashier job, a more liberal morality, and lose current job, friends, even spouse in the process. Life would be totally different.

I submit that in such a situation it would not be strange for me to ignore the red apple. Indeed, I might even be irrational in accepting this apple, as obvious as it appears to be; maybe I decide it is a false apple sent by the deceiver. Living in consonance with absolute truth has a price that is too high to ever recover, so I would choose to believe something that could be true (but isn't) instead in order, ironically, to achieve maximize benefit. Shades of Pascal's wager here, and of every other ideological struggle we have to face.

Ed. note: I asked a real epistemologist about this, and he thinks I'm right. Actually, he thinks I'm recapitulating an argument by Quine. I'll have to check that out.

Posted by The Greatness at August 11, 2005 09:33 AM