Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

In Defense of Uncertainty (Lesson #1, Rationality Series)

It has been a while since I read the book Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky (from now RAIZ). I have been meaning to write about it, but the book is 1800+ pages long and covers very many topics in varying degrees, from evolutionary psychology to quantum mechanics. Instead of writing one long review, I will write a series of short posts expanding upon a specific idea from the book.

In Defense of Uncertainty.

Certainly one of the biggest takeaways from RAIZ  is its attitude towards epistemic certainty. That is to say that due to our systematic, unconscious errors in judgement and the fact that both the instrument (brain) and the method (science) for obtaining truth is clumsy and fallible, we must adopt an attitude of humility when making judgments. This has been a recurring theme in this blog, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Instead, I want to show how this attitude towards certainty has worked in my life.

Prior to being exposed to the ideas of this book (and of “Rationality”/Mental Models material in general), I thought I was certain about many things, especially political things.  When I realized that certainty was pretty much unattainable at an ideological level, my whole political thought-process was radically transformed.  To illustrate what I mean, and in homage of the quirky rhetoric in which RAIZ is written, I will do it by way of a dialogue. The following exchange is between a slightly caricatured version of my former self –Irrational Luis–, and an idealized, rational me –Rational Francisco–.


Irrational_Luis:¨ Reds are wrong. Their goal is to suppress freedom and discourage progress. We Greens must stand for the oppressed and fight against the forces that seek to destroy everything that we have accomplished  ”

Rational_Francisco: “How can you believe something like that?… You mean to say that everyone who isn’t a Green must be freedom-hating and oppressive?”

Irrational_Luis “ Yup, pretty much, and I will prove it to you.  Take a hard look at the history of the world. If you’re really looking, you’ll notice that  the biggest oppressors, killers, and liars have been Red. Even when they claimed to be Green, their actions were undoubtedly Red.   Likewise, people who have advocated morality and have brought prosperity on our country have been Green. Even when they claimed to be Red, their actions were undoubtedly Green”

Rational_Francisco:: “ I see… “

Irrational_Luis: “ You’re not convinced? Well I have plenty more evidence. I go to a group that gets together every Tuesday and Thursday and talks about all the ways in which Green ideas are correct. We also talk about all the silly Red ideas that we hear and we discuss how they are wrong. We talk for hours and even make bumper stickers of our favorite Green soundbites. “

Rational _Francisco:: “You seem pretty certain of your position”

Irrational_Luis: “Of course. How couldn’t I be?”

Rational_Francisco:“ Well, have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”

Irrational_Luis: “Look, buddy, I’m no fool. I base my opinions on truth. Either the world is Red, or the world is Green. As simple as that. If the world all of a sudden changed to Red, then I would be Red. Got it?  But the world is not Red”

Rational_Francisco:“Would you agree that the world is a complex place?”

Irrational_Luis:“Why yes, of course. The world is very complex”

Rational Luis:“Okay. Do you think that there are things we haven’t yet understood about the world?”

Irrational_Luis:“ Where are you getting at? Why so many questions?”

Rational_Francisco:”I’m just trying to understand.”

Irrational_Luis: “Are you even a Green?”

Rational_Francisco:‘No”

Irrational_Luis: I KNEW IT. You’re one of those filthy..”

Rational_Francisco:“I’m not a Red either”

Irrational_Luis: “Ah, you must be a foreigner then. My cousin Sandra once talked with one of those hippies and…”

Rational_Francisco: “I’m not. Um… please just answer my question.  Do you think there things out there that you don’t understand?

Irrational_Luis: “Yeah… sure.  But that doesn’t mean that the Reds know any better. You see, those people believe that…”

Rational_Francisco: “Let me stop you right there. You admitted that the world is a complex place and that there are things that you don’t understand, so why must reality fit your narrative?

The theories and ideas that you have about the world are, by definition, no more than abstractions that you construct  in order to understand reality. You cannot expect to form accurate beliefs when you are dismissive of anything that contradicts your preconceptions. You discriminately require more evidence for anything that opposes your view and all too readily accept things that fit. You hang around people who think the same way as you and make caricatures of those who don’t.

Breaking free from your self-imposed delusion requires that you discard your need for certainty and narrative coherence. Get used to the fact that you are going to be wrong about many things.  Seek ideas and people who disagree with you and always listen to what they have to say. Re-phrase their ideas as best and as generously as you can and try to find value in their words.

Be humble and admit that there is no reason for you to understand the world.  It’s good that you are passionate, but don’t worry too much about whether things are Red or Green, worry about whether things are true. Be a champion for truth.  That should be your chief worry. Truth. Be suspicious of when you feel certain about something, because that could just be your passions diverting you from the truth.

Here, take this book. It should get you started. Never stop reading. Never stop questioning. Learn some math.”


Disclaimer: 

I originally wrote the dialogue for other purposes, but I think the idea is original enough to merit being reproduced in this blog. It also seems to have the capacity to potentially make me cringe when I look back on it some time hence, which is always fun I guess.

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2 responses to “In Defense of Uncertainty (Lesson #1, Rationality Series)

  1. chakshuRA December 25, 2015 at 12:41 am

    In my view any sort of absolute belief breeds isolation and eventually leads to violence. Belief is generally at the exclusion of every other point of view. Doubt and skepticism towards beliefs are essential for growth and peace. Nicely connects to Poppers Falsification principle. Love this uncertainty approach which adds a more broader perspective to my understanding. Look forward to more on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras December 26, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      I tend to agree with that as well. I also think we should be very careful when we write about the dangers and contradictions of absolute belief. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve advocated doubt and skepticism I usually get the response that without fundamental absolutes the only logical position is epistemic nihilism. In my view, the natural continuation of doubt and skepticism is probabilistic thinking.

      While there may not be absolute certainties (Probabilities of 1 or 0), we can effectively intervene in the world and understand ourselves by working within the nuance of probabilistic thinking. I also think this concept connects nicely to Popper’s Falsification and it develops the ideas brought forth by E.T Jaynes in his book “Probability Theory: The Logic of Science”.

      Liked by 1 person

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