Tag Archives: epistemology

Lust, Loss, and the Logic of Love – Valentine’s Edition

 

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Many people have bitter feelings surrounding Valentine’s day. And I don’t think it’s just due to the jaded corporatism surrounding the strong social pressure to spend lavishly to show your love. Rather, I think part of the frustration comes from a deep cynicism in our culture surrounding the topic of romantic love itself – the issue at the core then is not the corporatism but the very nature of love as a mental state.

Romance continues to be a popular genre but it’s often treated as a form of escapism because in the regular world most people seem to be skeptical about love as an emotion worthy of guiding major life decisions. Many people have been burned before and have thus, quite appropriately, become jaded about the whole idea of, e.g., grand and romantic gestures early in the stages of a relationship.

For example, when a newly in love couple announces they are engaged after only 2 months of dating, my guess is that most people would be polite and congratulate the couple but secretly think “Oh boy, that’s doomed to failure”. The feeling of doom comes from the general opinion in our society that love is irrational and any major life decision done in the grips of New Relationship Energy (NRE) is not done on firm epistemic ground.

Love and logic are often pitted against each other as opposites. People think it is risky to fall so strongly in love because you end up making rash decisions. But rashness doesn’t of course refer to just the short time-frame nor is it merely about how things happen to turn out: it essentially implies a decision made without enough evidence to rationally decide. We can always get lucky, of course, but the massive risk implies irrationality built into love-dominated decisions. And that’s what people say about this type of love: “You’ve only known each other for three weeks! How could you possibly [insert action]?”

And I think we all understand this skepticism at some core level – there is a sense in which it’s quite obvious that love is a biased decision making vector. From the outside perspective it’s easy to look at a couple in love and see them as being swept up in an irrational delusion that they will be together forever. We all know the statistics about divorce. I have certainly had skeptical thoughts about other couples – so I don’t fault people for having those thoughts towards me when I am in the grips of love.

But this raises the essential epistemic issue: we can’t ignore our own standpoints when making decisions. From the inside, everything makes sense. This creates a phenomenological sense of isolation akin to the Facebook algorithm bubbles we all live in: we will never break through the private barrier of mental life and understand the full context of someone else’s decision. Hell, we stand pretty much zero chance of properly understanding the scope of even our own decisions. So why would we expect to have any sense of why a couple actually decided to U-haul? This is why our own individual standpoints, histories, values, beliefs, and emotions must be accounted for in terms of accessing the rationality of decisions done under NRE.

You can never truly know the full set of information someone is utilizing to make a decision in the “throes” of love. When communicating to others “why” you two have decided to, e.g., move-in together, it becomes impossible to convey the full scope of relevant information in a digestable format. You end up just gushing out a soundbite like “we’re just crazy about each other”. Or at least that’s how it comes off to someone else: crazy.

Coming back to risk, there are individual differences in how much risk-tolerance each of us is comfortable with. There are also different kinds of risk: emotional risk, physical risk, financial risk, etc. These all interact with each other in complex ways. But just like in the investing world where some people are comfortable being highly leveraged, some people are ok taking great relationship risks in order to help bring about an even greater reward. What’s the possible max pay out? A life of happiness. Sounds great doesn’t it? What kind of risk is that worth?

But of course the best situation is where there is a low risk and a massive reward i.e. little downside, big upside. With relationships this can happen where there is liquidity to the relationship. This is often facilitated by neither party coming into the relationship out of a sense of pragmatic desperation. So here you can make an investment where, if things go sour, it won’t be the end of the world, but if things go well, it could make a massive positive change in the direction of your life. This is the sweet spot.

So according to the sketch of standpoint epistemology I just laid out, it is fully possible for a decision dripping with NRE to be fully rational according to a mutually beneficial rational alignment of values that can only be fully assessed by the two relevant parties.

Sounds romantic doesn’t it?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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A Plea for Agnosticism in an Age of Ardor

 

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Can we please, as a society, develop our agnosticism muscles a little more?

This country is deeply divided on so many important issues, we’re angry and alienated from both each other and ourselves, we live in a post-truth society where fake news is so insidious it’s not always clear what’s true and what’s not, we live inside artificially constructed Facebook bubbles, we don’t as individuals have the resources to fact-check everything we read, we know mostly everything we know through endless chains of testimony like a bad game of telephone, we can’t tell what’s click-bait and what’s another day in politics, the algorithms of social media determine what we believe more than our own quest for the truth – we live an age where truthiness reigns supreme as the epistemic value of choice.

But who can really blame us? We are after all just naked apes, fragile and error-prone apes at that, who often claim certainty about things we have no right to claim certainty to, who make sweeping philosophical claims with nothing to back them up, who take our experiences and generalize them to everyone and everything else – I mean our consciousness is a barely functioning ever-ready-to-topple piece of gooey machinery scrapped together out of spare parts, a fragile little piece of work that often goes wrong in so many ways.

But it is our home. We ought to respect our home and acknowledge it as a product of evolution, genetics, epigenetics, development, socialization, learning, etc, etc., and thus susceptible to *not getting things exactly right* when it comes to knowing the actual real truth of how the universe works or whether some complex philosophical claim is true.

Given what we know about ourselves as being what Nietzsche called “human, all too human” why the hell would we ever claim to know so many things with such strong convictions when we could alternatively just relax a little? As a society I just can’t recommend people thinking we know things with strong certainty. I mean, yeah, maybe it’s certain that 2+2=4 but it’s a lot more fuzzy on issues such as e.g. does God exist? Is happiness is valuable? What is consciousness? What is a soul anyway? Is nihilism false? Is democracy the best system of government? What is the nature of gender?

For any highly contentious subject that offers no clear methodology for settling the matter in a public, falsifiable manner we are left with a situation where eventually in any dialectic we just want to slam our fists down on the table and call it an argument.

The problem here is that strong moral convictions have led to a lot of good in our universe. But at the same time strong moral convictions have also led to a lot of bad in our universe. It’s near impossible to calculate the net effect but I think on the whole relaxing the strength of our convictions a little would still allow for community-benefiting moral truths like “treat others as an end in themselves” to continue to spread while warding off the moral convictions of, e.g., transphobes.

Thorough-going agnosticism is not an easy system to adopt fully for it bleeds into our personal lives rather quickly. For example, I have argued for a position I call gender agnosticism. Gender agnosticism is about refusing to make a stand on whether the gender/sex distinction is true or not. Is gender (“womanhood”) different from sex (“female”)? I can see the arguments on both sides. But there seems to be no way to come to a definitive conclusion that is amenable to public consensus. It’s not like we can build a measuring device and go out into the world to determine if gender is different from sex. If you try to operationalize the concept you are left with the question: why that particular operationalization? And if we used another how would we determine which one is better getting at the truth? We’d need a third source. But how do we determine the truth of that one as well? It goes round and round in a circle.

But if I truly believe gender agnosticism, I cannot even be certain of whether my body is male or female. The lack of positive belief renders my self-awareness devoid of content and I am left with less self-knowledge. But what remains is surely the truth. For what I am left with is the notion that whether I am male or female in an ultimate metaphysical sense is not as important as other things like: people using my preferred pronouns, being treated with dignity and respect, having secure employment, healthcare, housing, etc. Of course, whether other people believe I am male or female could impact the lives of trans people in virtue of stigma and the political ramifications of legislation that targets trans bodies.

Does the negative political impact of gender agnosticism render it false? One might think so assuming a pragmatic epistemology. But in my view whether gender agnosticism leads to social harm depends on the context of the community in which it’s believed. In some communities it’s easy for me to imagine the spread of something like gender agnosticism leading to more freedom and happiness. But in other contexts it could of course be used to harm as well.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for apathy where we just stop caring about how things are defined or what’s true or not true. I care deeply about the truth. I just think it’s pretty difficult to arrive at the Ultimate Truth for topics that have some degree of philosophical assumption built in, which is just about every topic imaginable.

We should not stop having dialogue about these tough topics. We should not stop having strong moral convictions. But what drives me crazy is the arrogance of people assuming that they are in possession of the Whole Truth, and not what they actually possess: a distorted fragment. The truth might be out there, but it’s quite another thing to assume we have arrived at it in its entirety. The whole of human history shows us being wrong about just about everything – do we really think that early 21st century humans have finally figured everything out? Chances are we are also really really wrong about a great number of things many of which would probably be quite embarrassing if we had to stand in judgment of our future descendants and explain our way of doing things.

So above all I advocate for humility in the face of the daunting likelihood that many of the truths we cherish are deeply false. Epistemic humility is a trait that is undervalued in the modern social environment with the virality of media often being tied to the confidence of its proclamations rather than the veracity of its content.

And yes, I am aware that my conclusion renders the whole of this post less likely to be true. So fair warning: my own arguments for agnosticism could be wrong – don’t assume they’re true just because they seem convincing to you now. And if they were never convincing to you in the first place, bravo, you might be right!

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