Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, July 18, 2014

Beliefs, Attitudes, Pain, Optimism and Doubt

So there has been some interesting back-and-forth in the comments to my last post.  I want to broaden the point a little, although my thoughts are not focused enough to write with much precision.

Let's say that you have to decide whether to believe a proposition.  For some propositions, there may be a very clear piece of evidence that (for practical purposes) resolves the question.  For instance, you may have a scale that you regard as highly reliable in measuring weight.  Now strictly speaking, this entails a bunch of foundational beliefs about whether the gravitational constant might change dramatically at any moment, whether a demon might have substituted a less-reliable scale while you weren't looking, etc.  But let's ignore these "absurd" possibilities, just as we do in real life.  For the proposition that the coffee in a cup weighs 250 grams (plus or minus a gram), a simple measurement may constitute adequate evidence to adopt the relevant belief and take any appropriate action (in my case, I would stop pouring and drink the coffee).  We'll take this as an unproblematic case, though I have unwavering faith in the ability of philosophers to "problematize" it.

Now consider the position of an alcoholic who is faced with the proposition, "I will successfully refrain from drinking for the rest of my life."  This proposition may be very important, because if the alcoholic accepts it as a belief (or attributes a very high likelihood to it), then he will propose marriage to his girlfriend.  If, on the other hand, he does not believe it (or assigns something less than a very high likelihood to it), then he will consider himself unsuitable for marriage, and may even end his relationship so that his girlfriend can find a more suitable long-term partner.  (I'm not suggesting that's the correct approach for him to take, it just happens to be his choice in this example.)

There may be a lot of evidence available to the alcoholic, in the sense of "data that bear on the likelihood of the proposition."  But assessing that evidence is not straightforward.  Basically, the alcoholic is presented with the problem, "Am I more similar to the population that has a good chance of remaining sober, or am I more similar to the population that doesn't?"  There are infinitely many ways in which he is similar to each population, so the similarities have to be prioritized and weighted, and there is no demonstrably "right" methodology for doing so.  The alcoholic may also have to predict how his risk factors will change over time (for instance, maybe it will be easier to stay sober if he can get a job in Utah, or maybe it will be harder to stay sober if his wife becomes chronically ill).

Now I think that in this case, adopting a belief (or attributing a likelihood) is not so different from adopting an optimistic or pessimistic attitude.  This doesn't quite fit my "evidential threshold" framework, but I think it captures what I was getting at.  If we had two similarly situated men, and one decided that his likelihood of staying sober was high enough to propose marriage, while the other didn't, would it really be wrong to say that the difference is that one man has a more optimistic attitude than the other?

I suppose it would be possible to distinguish between "subjective" optimism and "objective" optimism.  In other words, imagine that an alcoholic faced with this situation makes all of his methodological choices with "no thumb on the scale."  That is, he doesn't consciously shade any of his estimates based on his attitudes.  (Query whether this is logically possible, much less realistic as a psychological matter.)  Nevertheless, it seems as though you could rank men from "pessimistic" to "optimistic" based on their conclusions, although you might want to call it a kind of objective (or non-subjective) pessimism or optimism.  But I suppose this raises the possibility that I might be using the word "attitude" to mean something like "series of modeling choices," which makes my point tautological, maybe.  Or maybe the point is that it's possible to re-cast values and attitudes in the form of modeling choices, which is sort of the other side of the coin.  (But then is there any room, anymore, for "subjective" optimism?)

Apologies for the vagueness and unsettledness.  This bears more thought, I think.


Anonymous Master Simeon said...

I don't know if I actually have anything to say, but I'm going to say something anyway.

My off-the-cuff reaction is that some forms of evidence seem "inherently attitudinal," whereas others don't. Take the question "would I stay sober if my wife became seriously ill?" There is a "purely data-driven" answer, which, depending on the nature of the data, will account for some of the guy's specific circumstances (e.g. for how long he's been sober, his age, his socioeconomic status, whether he's in a support group and/or receiving psychotherapy), but, of course, not for all of them. For example, he may think the positive impact of his psychotherapy is unusually strong, and that he has become unusually strong-willed. Or maybe he has been adhering to what he believes to be a counter-alcoholism diet, although he recognizes there is no(t yet any) solid evidence it works. So he is faced with the question whether he should include any of these "data points" in his analysis.

It's true that he could consult the literature. Maybe there's no good study on the diet yet, but there is some stuff out there; it's not a purely attitudinal question. Similarly, maybe there's no good study on his particular form of psychotherapy, or at least not his particular psychotherapist (not to mention himself), but there's not nothing. Maybe there's even a study that looked at people's subjective perceptions of their willpower.

But even coupled with such analysis, questions such as "how strongly should I weight my belief that I will exercise greater willpower than the data support" seem to inherently implicate attitude. I suppose there's a very limited sense in which one could have "no thumb on the scale" when answering such a question, which I think is something like answering it in good faith/genuinely attempted self-honesty. But the question inherently seems to come down to "how much do I trust myself?" which seems inextricable from questions of attitude.

...which all may just be another, more muddled way of saying what you ultimately penned in your penultimate paragraph.

11:41 AM  
Blogger James said...

Yes, and in particular, consider the case in which the same man is alternately optimistic and pessimistic, depending on whether he's well-caffeinated, whether he's in pain, etc. It may be that he's simply expressing an attitude. But if pressed, he may be able to articulate an actual reason for changing his mind. "Sure, this morning I thought I could do it, but that was because I was underestimating just how hard it would be. I've increased my estimate of how much willpower it will take, and so now I predict that I am only 60% likely to be able to do it." What are we to say at this point? That he seems to be prey to some sort of Sunstein-like fallacy? How do we know? And more importantly, how do we know which estimate was more fallacious, the optimistic or the pessimistic one? Is his conclusion really non-attitudinal because he can cite reasons for it?

I should mention that my thoughts in this area are somewhat influenced by Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism, by Ben Jeffery, which deals with some of these issues.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Apologies if this is obvious, but what seems to be happening is that beliefs can be partly self-referential. So I could have a belief like, B1, "Snow is white," and also a belief like B2, "I believe snow is white," and also a belief like B3, "If snow is white, I believe snow is white" (substitute better example).

A belief like "I will successfully defeat alcoholism" may be effectively self-referential because whether you hold the belief influences your future behavior in such a way as to determine whether the belief is true or false.

This has the consequence that there are perfectly good propositions, ones that seem to have perfectly well-defined semantics, which nonetheless do not have a single right answer as to whether they should be adopted as beliefs.

This may be one reason it makes sense to have an optimistic bias (as humans do). If there are "multiple equilibria" for justification, appropriate biases can nudge you towards the practically preferable one.

1:04 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, interesting. But I think we could side-step that issue by altering the hypothetical slightly. Now the (confessed) alcoholic has asked his girlfriend to marry him, and she's the one who has to assess his ability to stay sober in the future. I think the problems I've identified still arise, but we don't have a self-reference problem. In other words, I think the difficulty comes from the underlying judgment calls about the evidence, not the usefulness of believing something for non-truth-related (or self-fulfilling) reasons.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...


9:45 AM  

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