Be A Smart Reality-Shopper: Three Options

How to feel proud of yourself for being smart about reality.

Posted Mar 13, 2018

We all shop for interpretations of reality. We often pretend that we’re just interested in what’s true, but that’s not true. We’re far more eager to embrace interpretations that make us feel smart and confident than we are to embrace interpretations that make us feel dumb and uncertain.

We want to be smart reality-shoppers but the way we tell whether we are is by the feeling that we’re smart reality shoppers, which can be had more readily through overconfidence than through careful shopping.

More than half of all people think they’re more realistic than average, which by definition is impossible. That’s the irony. The best way to stroke your ego is thinking you’re not stroking your ego, that you’re a superior reality shopper.

You’ve probably witnessed this in others, their ego-driven magical thinking dressed up as realistic. It’s so common that none of us can rule out the possibility that we too indulge in it. The people we laugh at as totally out of touch think they’re more realistic than most. If we think we’re more realistic than most, maybe we’re out of touch too.

Meta-shopping is shopping for ways to shop. In shopping among interpretations of reality there are three main meta-shopping options to choose from:

Infallibilism: Buy a big idea that gives you confidence that you know the absolute infallible truth about something important.

Infallible Fallibilism:  Buy the big idea that no one knows anything really or that there’s no reality to know. Life is a pissing match signifying nothing. There is no right other than the right that might makes. I call this, “The Doctrine of Foregone Inconclusion.”

Fallibilism: Belief that no one knows anything for sure but that we can’t help but place bets on what’s true. There’s no escaping doubt or the need to place bets anyway. Though you never can tell anything for absolute certain, you’ll die trying to know better through better bets in the trial and error process that is life.  Reality is real but not absolutely knowable. Still, some bets are better than others. With Fallibilism, no matter how certain you are of a bet, you’re still more certain that it is a bet.

In my reality shopping, I’ve bought all three meta-shopping options. There were times when I had absolute faith, and times when I thought nothing was true. I switched faiths a few times, having been snubbed in one faith, I’d replace it completely, usually with its absolute opposite, but carrying forward the same self-certainty I had with the first faith.

You might know people like that, for example, folks who rejected the cocky faith of their parents, and embraced its opposite but with equal cockiness. I live in Berkeley California where spiritual faith is popular. They rejected the Christianity of their parents and flew in the exact opposite direction, but they’re no less self-certain than their faith-based parents. Different infallible beliefs, same infallible confidence.

I ended up a fallibilist. Still, having tried them all, here I’d like to present all three meta-shopping options neutrally, with the personal ego benefits and costs laid out plainly, sort of like comparison shopping on Amazon.

Fallibilism is not the obvious choice if you want to feel good about yourself. Still, it offers benefits the other two don’t.

Infallibilism: Buy a big idea that gives you confidence that you know the absolute infallible truth about something important.

Benefits and opportunities:  This model of reality-shopping comes in a huge variety of styles, one for every temperament and occasion. Classic styles are religious or spiritual. You’ll find current models in philosophy, psychology and especially in politics. Infallibilities are available everywhere with popular local styles to choose from. Buy one and you’ll be an instant hit with your local culture. You’ll have lots of friends who agree with you that you’ve found a truth worthy of your absolute faith. Together, you can make fun of people still in the dark, the fools who just don’t get reality. And with social media you can have fun on your own too, trolling fools all over the world. For a reliable sense of your realism and wisdom, it’s hard to beat Infallibilism. It’s really the best option, which is why it’s so popular the world over.

Costs and risks: To buy any of the infallibility styles, you’ll have to learn just enough reasons to defend your faith, and how to posture as exceptionally reasonable. This isn’t hard. You will find leaders to copy. Learn their arguments and postures and you’ll be all set, ready to defend your style’s infallibility against all challenges.

Still, there are some modest risks. A commitment to your infallibility can blow up in your face, though not if you’re sufficiently vague and abstract about what you know for certain. For example, if your infallibility is about the supernatural realm, say, a belief in God, you can believe anything and never be proven absolutely wrong. You can be confident that you know for certain what God wants or what happens after we die and you’re not going to be proven wrong. In the political realm, you can also be vague enough to resist all challenges. Just claim absolute faith that if the world were completely transformed to your infallible truth, it would be ideal. Since the world will never be completely transformed to your infallible truth, you’re safe.

Infallible Fallibilism: The doctrine of foregone inconclusion. There is no reality, no right or wrong. Everyone is equally right or wrong. There’s just power plays. The more popular idea wins for a while but it’s no truer than any other idea.

Benefits and opportunities: You can end all arguments in your favor by saying nobody knows anything for sure. You thereby beat everyone’s faith with your faith that they don’t know what they’re talking about. You get the confidence that you’re thinking more broadly than everyone else since you know that nothing is real or true. You’ll enjoy feeling like you’re the most tolerant, most scientific, most snarky-smart, or all three interchangeably. That’s the biggest advantage of this approach. You can always retreat to your safe base in unknowability. You can doubt everyone’s assertions, indiscriminately pointing out how egotistical people are for thinking they know anything. There’s a lot of personal satisfaction in that.

Costs and risks: Though you still have to learn how to deflect all criticism, you don’t have to learn reasons to defend your particular beliefs because you don’t have any. That’s a cost advantage over Infallibilism in which you have to learn reasons why your belief is infallible.

This advantage has made Infallible Fallibilism popular with teens. It’s easier to be cynical about all beliefs than to defend any particular beliefs. The one risk to this approach is if you ever find yourself having to insist on anything, people can play your infallible fallibilism back at you, giving you a taste of your own medicine.

Fallibilism: No matter how confident you are in a bet, you’re still more confident that it is a bet.

Benefits and opportunities: The main personal advantage of fallibilism is doubt-tolerance. You recognize that your choices are trials in life’s trial and error process. You try to avoid mistakes but you forgive yourself for making them. You recognize that you can bet well and still be wrong. You’re more forgiving of your bets that don’t turn out well even while trying to avoid mistakes. You become one with all humanity, no longer feeling like life is some guessing game with a clear and definitive answer. You embrace the uncertainty we all face. There’s relief and liberation in that. The bad news is that you no longer feel exceptionally authoritative. The good news is that you no longer have to feel especially bad about your interpretations when they don’t work out.

Even though fallibilists admit that every interpretation is a bet, they can insist on anything. A fallibilist can be as confident in a bet as an infallibilist while still acknowledging that it is a bet.

With fallibilism, you gain some flexibility to move toward better bets without punishing yourself for having bet wrong before. You self-identify as learning, not learned, trying to figure it out by trial and error, not having figured it all out.

Infallibilists think they’ve got a big answer to some question that in reality doesn’t go away. For example, a spiritual infallibilist might decide that tolerance is always the answer. Never be intolerant; always be tolerant. In making that commitment they blind themselves to the crucial dilemma that fallibilists know they’re going to have to deal with over and over, deciding when to bet on tolerance and when to bet on intolerance. Infallibilism stunts growth on the crucial questions that fallibilists attend to. And Infallibilism breeds hypocrisy since, in our example, no one tolerates everything. To be able to uphold their commitment to tolerance as an answer, infallibilists have to ignore their own intolerance which turns them into chronic hypocrites.

Costs and risks: Fallibilism grants you no enduring freedom from the anxious, challenging work of shopping among interpretations of reality. It’s a commitment to lifelong doubt about what’s true. It makes you somewhat more receptive to other people’s bets which can be taxing. Still, you can bet that someone’s bets are just plain wrong and ignore or fight them, knowing that even in your dismissal of them, you’re still placing a bet.

In debates with infallibilists, acknowledging that your fallibilist commitment is a bet will be a disadvantage. After all, infallibilists assume that they’re not betting. They know the absolute truth, or at least they wear their absolute faith as a badge of honor. They’ll claim that their faith trumps a fallibilist’s bet.

Though fallibilism means a loss of feigned authority, a commitment to staying off hobby high horses on which one can pretend to have big things all figured out, once and for all, and pat, fallibilists can still visit feigned authority to their heart’s content. They can do it through fiction and fantasy, for example, identifying with the movie heroes who have it all figured out. So long as you remember that it’s fiction, you can indulge in imaginary glory, then returning to sober reality in which life’s guesswork continues.