First to the Tribe


– Rant # 172 –


 By a belief being true I mean its corresponding to some actual state of affairs. (What it is for a network of synapses in the brain, or a sequence of phonemes in the air, or a set of chicken scratches on a piece of paper, to ‘correspond’ to a state of affairs, and how these pick out that state of affairs rather than some other, has never been made clear to me. But let’s just ignore that.)

By contrast, by a belief having epistemic warrant I mean its being one one would be well-advised to embrace. By being well-advised I mean it gets her through the night, which is a metonym for contributing to her flourishing, where by flourishing is meant what she wants out of life, as distinct from what others might want out of her.

It should be clear, then, that truth and warrant are birds of very different feathers. For example, if I have exactly $35 in my wallet, and you’ve guessed this, then it’s as true for you as it is for me that I have exactly $35 in my wallet. But whereas I, having just counted it, have strong epistemic warrant in believing I have exactly $35 in my wallet, you have virtually none.

But the epistemic warrant for a belief is not confined to the likelihood of its being true. The likelihood of Christianity being true is … I was going to say pretty damn close to, but no, it really is zero. But if I lived under a Christian theocracy whose thought police carried an indefeasible mind reading device on one hip and a pistol on the other, I’d have pretty decisive warrant for believing every word of the Gospel’s nonsense.

The reason why people conflate truth and warrant is because ninety-nine times out of a hundred the two coincide. People who believe the truth generally fare better than those who don’t. But all this shows is that truth is an instrumental virtue, and therefore, given that there are exceptions to its instrumentality, a defeasible one.

This is not to say that having at the truth couldn’t be, for some people, an end in and of itself. And if such a person would rather choke to death on a truth in her craw than live to a ripe old age with a falsehood on her lips, well, to her I say God’s speed. But for the rest of us, let’s remember there’s a reason the widow’s paying us the mite she can ill afford. She wants us to tell her what to believe, in the hope that right-believing will make her life go better. Better by whose lights? By hers, not ours.

Perhaps another way to put this is this:

Prior to our having taken the Darwinian turn, by epistemology was meant the study of knowledge, and by knowledge was meant justified true belief. We studied knowledge because we wanted to get some of it. And we wanted to get some of it because we thought God would reward us if we did. “Believe in me and thou shalt be saved!” You know, that sort of thing.

Now, however, we’ve lost interest in God, and so likewise with truth, and so likewise with knowledge. Now we’re only interested in identifying the norms for belief-acquisition, and we’ve come to think of the norms for belief-acquisition in precisely the way we think of any other mental algorithm or protocol that’s been naturally selected for.

To none of my colleagues is any of this rocket science. In fact it’s pretty close to a duh. So that said, now let’s put this duh on the back burner, just for a moment.

By one’s tribe I mean those on whom one depends for her survival, delectation, and companionship. Outside the tribe “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The human animal knows this. No matter how intolerable we may find it, we’ll do whatever we must to remain in the tribe, unless and until we find one more to our liking and that’s willing to take us in.

But there’s a penalty for jumping ships this way. If you’ve abandoned that tribe for this one, what makes us think you won’t abandon this one for yet another? So for that reason tribes enjoy a certain stability. But also because even if your tribesmen are assholes, better the assholes you already know than the assholes you’ll have to get to know.

Tribes can be individuated and identified by any number of sortals, natural or artificed, and/or combinations thereof. It’s true that only one such sortal is commonality of belief, but one such sortal is commonality of belief.

This is not to say a tribe must share a set of beliefs. Christians do but Jews don’t. Neither do members of most Philosophy departments.

Individuals are allowed to belong to more than one tribe, provided those tribes are not in conflict. If they are then one has to choose. Those of us old enough to remember video stores are especially sensitive to how burdensome choice can be. So tribes minimize this burden by packaging beliefs into pre-selected sets. This packaging has been naturally selected for because it saves us from having to think our way through each and every issue we’re required to have an opinion on. It’s much more efficient for the tribe to have done that work for us.

We might think we’ve done that work ourselves. My colleagues certainly think so. But one doesn’t have to press them too hard to out this as a delusion. But as noted in Rant # 171, we don’t press each other on this delusion because we don’t want to be assholes to each other. Why? Once again, because being an asshole gets you turfed from your tribe.

But the truth of the matter is that the reason why most anthropogenic global warming (AGW) proponents are also advocates for gun control is because the tribe to which AGW proponents belong just also happens to advocate gun control. And of course the same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for those who deny AGW and support the Second Amendment. What does one issue have to do with the other? Not a damn thing. But, not unlike your cable TV service, that’s how they come packaged.

The difficulty arises when one tries to rationalize a tribe’s belief-package, that is, when she tries to induce some common denominator to the tribe’s various positions. That’s when she runs headlong into the under-determination of rule by data. For example, if a tribe is pro-Life you’d think it would also be anti-capital punishment, the common denominator being that life is God’s to give and take away. But in America, at least, you’d likely be wrong. You’d think that those who oppose Big Tobacco and Big Oil would likewise oppose Big Pharm, because they’re all, well, ‘Big’. But to oppose Big Pharm is to get into bed with the anti-vaxer lobby. So the common denominator has to be something else.

True, provided you’re willing to ad hoc your way to it, consistency can always be found. But the more honest answer to why any of us believe p and q and r, is that we belong to the tribe identified by its subscription to p and q and r.

Now let’s take that pot we put on the back burner and empty it into the saucepan we’ve just had on the front. What we get is this:

When faced with a choice about what to believe, attend first to the tribe and only then – and at that only if you’re at your leisure – to the evidence. The reason for this is simple. Your survival, delectation, and companionship is far more likely to hang on maintaining solidarity with your tribe than getting at the truth, at least at the truth of most things.

Does it really matter whether “the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son”, a.k.a. filioque, or from the Father alone? Probably not. But it does matter to whether you’re Catholic or Orthodox, and that matters to whether you’re Croat or Serb, and a mere decade ago that mattered a whole lot as to whether you’d have been dead or alive.

Be honest. You’re not Jewish. Does it really matter to you whether the Holocaust really happened? But it certainly matters to how many dinner parties you’ll be invited to.

There are exceptions, of course. If I’m convinced Vesuvius is going to blow within the hour, but my tribe will laugh at me when it doesn’t, I’m gettin’ the hell outta Pompeii anyhow. But I’d have to be pretty damn certain before I’d court such ridicule. Or I’d have to be a philosopher, for whom the courting of ridicule just is what makes one a member of the tribe.

That said, the reason why my colleagues subscribe to positions outside their field of expertise – positions about which they know pretty close to nothing – is that they belong to the tribe that subscribes to those positions. But this is not a criticism. What makes my colleagues idiots is that they think it is, and so they think they have to deny it.

But why do they think they have to deny it? I believe the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. I believe six million of my co-religionists were murdered between 1939 and 1945. I believe these things for no other reason than that I belong to a tribe characterized by a particular chain of trust about the construction of history. If I had to apologize for this I’d be admitting I know virtually nothing at all about history. And that’s precisely a species of the skepticism that at least one of my colleagues rightly rails against.

Down the hall and around two corners, we have a colleague – do we really have to call him that?! – who’s bought into every ‘denialism’ and every conspiracy theory you could have imagined, and a few you couldn’t have. (Did you know the Fukushima tsunami was set off by a nuclear device planted by Mossad on the floor of the Pacific to punish the Japanese for voting in favor of the PLO becoming a member of the World Health Organization? Well, you do now. ) Do the rest of us think he’s crazy? No. But we do think he’s subscribed to an epistemic tribe whose cherry picking of data is driven by an anti-American and anti-Zionist agenda.

Now stand outside yourself and ask how any different from this you appear to anyone who’s not a member of your epistemic tribe. Not a whole lot different, but of course you can’t see that.

If any of this be doubted, conduct an experiment. Break ranks with your tribe on one of these tribe-defining issues, and see if you can last a week before assuring everyone it was all just a joke.

Now imagine you actually do part company with your tribe on one of these issues, and so you won’t be able to pretend, at least with any integrity, that it was all just a joke. Here’s not what you’re going to do. Here’s what you’re going to have already done. You’re going to have taken preemptive action. You’re going to have not allowed yourself to have parted company with your tribe.

But now comes the kicker. How do you know you haven’t done just that?

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