The Quasi-Impossible Task

To me, the most important failures in OB come from not even attempting what seems to me to be the most urgent issue, construction of a convincing argument for someone who doesn’t already pursue truth that they would be better off by their own values if they did so.
michael vassar

That’s an extremely difficult goal. If people aren’t concerned with logical validity and standards of evidence, demonstrating that your position is valid and meets those standards isn’t helpful.

How can you produce a logical argument that will convince people who not only aren’t interested in logic, but are actively hostile to it?

Pretty much all you can do is determine what properties are effective at motivating a person with a specific belief system, and then construct an ‘argument’ that exploits those properties and tells them to pursue truth.

That won’t help with the people who explicitly don’t want to pursue truth, of course. Then you might try undermining that desire through a long process of manipulating the roots of their motivations. If “avoiding truth” is a sufficiently deep motivation, though, either you won’t be able to do it or the costs of putting them in the artificial environment necessary to shift their motives are prohibitive.

Tailoring arguments for individuals, which is what is likely necessary, is extremely difficult. Trying to make a system that causes people to be vulnerable to certain arguments en masse — in other words, a religion — is difficult, and existing religions have mechanisms to prevent outsiders from seizing control of them. It’s hard to brainwash someone who’s already been brainwashed.

Of course, this avoids thinking about the root question hidden in the above:

Why would we want to help people who aren’t interested in the pursuit of truth? Pure instrumentalism? Compassion? What benefit would we derive from doing so?


3 Responses to “The Quasi-Impossible Task”

  1. Robin Hanson gives an argument why you should seek the truth here.

  2. It seems likely to me that there are common reasons why people become uninterested in the truth, and if that is the case, developing a general method for convincing them otherwise might be cheaper than you’re thinking.

    I have no good response to your last paragraph though.

  3. His point is based upon logical argument.

    Thus, it can only convince people who already honor logical arguments (and people who are swayed by arbitrary properties that happen to match his presentation).

    The primary group of people that would be convinced by the argument are those who already accept the conclusion; ergo, the argument is circular.

    Thom Blake: perhaps. But their motivation to seek the truth will be contingent upon whatever you used to convince them.

    For example, if a person is motivated to conform with the people around him, and they all practice the scientific method, the person will practice it. But if the environment changes, so that he’s surrounded by Creationist faith healers, he’ll adopt that. He’s easily influenced, but that works against you as well as for you.

    What we’d really want would be to cause him to keep to the scientific method even in an environment hostile to it… but how could we accomplish that?

    To be truly useful, the motivation to seek truth must be deep in the rooted hierarchy of motivations. And I don’t think we can create such motivations cheaply or easily.

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