Ontological Priority

TGGP has requested that I expand upon my earlier statements regarding the choice between contradictory assertions.

A useful method for analyzing incompatible ideas is to force the assigned truth value of each to vary, examining the consequences of this on the value of the others. In this way the possibility space of the conflict can be explored. “What happens if I assume this? How does this change?” I often perceive this as turning a complex object in my hands, twisting the pieces of a puzzle, exploring how a shift in perspective or a sliding piece transforms the shape of the structure.

We quickly find that the categories of statements are loosely organized into a hierarchy. (I prefer the concept of a reverse-hierarchy, with the most important things at the bottom rather than the top, but the associations that cause that are merely subjective and you may do as you please.) Altering the truth value of the most fundamental concepts has implications for certain other categories of statements, but not vice-versa.

Let’s say you observe a friend doing something that you believe is utterly and completely uncharacteristic of them, to the point where you can’t bring yourself to believe you saw what you saw.

There are two competing premises here: “Friend did X” and “Friend is incapable of doing X”. They’re clearly incompatible – the see-saw of logic is in full swing. Depending on which statement we accept and which we reject, our conclusions flow in two different directions.

If we’re uncertain about what we saw, and we’re fairly confident in our evaluation of our friend’s character, it’s easy to dismiss our observation. We could have seen incorrectly, after all. If our beliefs about our friend are uncertain or weak, it’s easy to accept what we saw. But taking confidence to be more than it is leads to faith, where any contradictory evidence will be rejected no matter how strong.

What we have to remember is that our beliefs are just a way to anticipate and react to the things we perceive. Both beliefs and perceptions can be in error, but perceptions are closer to the true reality we’re trying to understand and predict.

Changing the valence of our beliefs does not change what really happened. Considering different truth values for the reality makes our beliefs either true or false (or valid or invalid, justifiable or unjustifiable… you get the idea). One category is more fundamental than the other, which is ontologically dependent on the value of the statements in the deeper level of analysis.

That deeper level has ontological priority over the other.

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3 Responses to “Ontological Priority”

  1. I like thinking of it as an inverted hierarchy as well. we have foundational beliefs upon which we build other beliefs. when a belief is challenged every belief built on top of it is threatened simultaneously. If your personal identity is tied up in several of the threatened beliefs you will fight harder to maintain your beliefs as is. Rather than basing your criteria for dismissing a belief upon the proportional strength of evidence available you base your criteria upon how much of your ego is proportionately tied up in your beliefs.

  2. I’m reminded of Alan Crowe’s Reductio ad absurdum vs proof of necessity. I forget if I’ve already linked that here.

    A major argument for perceptions being more accurate than beliefs is that beliefs are often based on perceptions. As you noted with your Family Guy post, that isn’t necessarily always the case. I would also say that sometimes beliefs not based on perceptions can be accurate. These would be inborn instincts that were naturally selected because they were accurate and beneficial. Given how much variation there can be which will alter our perception but not our instincts, it makes more sense to rely on the latter (though we know of many instances where it can be wrong).

  3. I would also say that sometimes beliefs not based on perceptions can be accurate.

    Yes. Sometimes, beliefs chosen by throwing darts at a diagram of the alphabet and searching the resulting letter strings for content can be accurate.

    Instincts that were selected for were beneficial, but not necessarily accurate. And given that we no longer live in the same environment as the one for which our instincts were developed, they’re probably not beneficial any longer.

    In any case, they’re an obstacle to generating a rational understanding of the world.

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