Epistemology 101: How to Buy Beliefs

Simple Tricks for Wisdoming Your Life Up a Notch.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Throughout history, people have treated waking up as wising up to some “eternal truth.” History's many woke movements invariably go bust over time. Why? 

Give a person an “eternal truth,” and they may wise up today. Give them a better method for shopping among interpretations and in a few years, they'll be wiser forever. 

Giving eternal truths is quick, easy, and flattering. That’s why woke movements have always been so proud of themselves. “I’ve got the eternal truth and you don’t. It’s simple, eternally right and righteous, and it affirms me as both humble and best.”

Giving a better method for shopping among interpretations is slower, harder, and often unflattering. That’s why it takes a few years for people to wise up, if ever.

Waking up to a better method is cultivating a more realistic epistemology, a better way to shop among interpretations, one that counters our natural human bias toward self-confirmation, the flattering self-affirmation of thinking we’ve already got it figured out with simple, woke, pat formulas.

Here are a few suggestions for waking up to a better method for shopping among interpretations:

  • A behavior or attitude is neither all good or all bad. Its value depends on the context. For example, there are times to be kind and times to be unkind. Kindness is not always good. Unkindness is not always bad. There are times to be honest and times to be dishonest. Honesty is not always good. Dishonesty is not always bad. 
  • When assessing the worth of some formula for living, flip it. Counter your confirmation bias by quickly getting beyond the cases where the formula works to instead look for exceptions or contraindications.  For example, when you hear “love is the solution,” get beyond the dreamy, flattering, patness whereby you decide that you are officially a loving person and look instead for cases where love is the problem. They’re easy to come by: Love of Hitler, love of the abusive spouse, love of evil, egomaniacal absolutist self-love.
  • Stop ignoring relative value. Value, by definition, is comparative. To love something more is to love other things less. The more you love one thing, the more you hate its opposite. If you love justice, you hate injustice. If you love having your partner, you would hate losing your partner. 
  • Stop mincing words in a strained effort to rescue pat formulas. Stop equivocating, for example, describing your hate as loving. Drop your false dichotomies, for example saying that loving evil is completely different from loving virtue and therefore it’s apples and oranges—no comparison.
  • Attend to trade-offs. Quit flattering yourself by claiming to embrace all of the absolute, uncompromising, top-priority virtues. At best, we only get to have one uncompromising top priority. Expect compromise among values.
  • Wisdom requires that you unload loaded terms, unspinning terms that are spun with positive or negative connotations. For example, serenity and courage sound positive, as though you should never compromise either and just always be serenely courageous. But if that were the case, why would you need the serenity prayer’s wisdom to know the difference between situations in which to be serene and situations in which to be courageous? Apparently, they aren’t always positive. You don’t want the serenity to accept what can be improved or the courage to try to improve what can’t improve. To recognize this, you have to strip both terms of their positive connotations and instead focus on their denotations—what the terms mean independent of positive or negative loading. For another example, love sounds good; addiction sounds bad. But when you strip them of their connotations they amount to the same thing: Doing dedicated work to maintain something you depend upon. The only difference is whether you think they will turn out well or badly. If you think a relationship will turn out well, you’ll call it love. If you think it will turn out badly, you’ll call it an addiction.

There is an opposite to wisdom, not just unwise but anti-wise. Anti-wisdom only attends to connotation: “If it sounds good, it’s about me. If it sounds bad it’s about my competitors.” The anti-wise strive to maintain the cult-alluring, self-flattering appearance of an uninterrupted winning streak by ignoring the meaning of words and attending only to their connotations. It’s confirmation bias made absolute. 

Why does shopping better among interpretations matter?

Interpretation is adaptation, figuring out how to read your situation and fit your responses to it. Failure to adapt is deadly—always has been, always will be.

Fit or die. Fit what? Fit reality, that which won't adapt to you. 

The woke self-flattery that falls hard for absolute self-confirmation by embracing some supposedly eternal truth, isn’t just maladaptive. It’s anti-adaptive. It’s pretending you’ve got it all down and can now rule reality rather than having to fit it.

It’s a buzz for sure, very tempting, very addictive. And it is inherently doomed no matter which woke movement sports it.