Thursday, September 19, 2019

Positive Nihilism Step 1: Epistemic Humility

Where do I start with a project like this, one as vague and poorly defined as its erstwhile subject? Well, it seems to me that a contributing factor in many, many problems in thought, politics, and daily life, is excess certainty.

We see this most clearly in politics. The twats at twitter are completely certain that espousing conservative beliefs is tantamount to violence. And an increasing number of commentators allied with the president seem dead certain that the opposition party is completly psychotic and incapable of rational thought or compromise. I have my own opinions, though we will see that I am at least nominally trying to stop doing that. But all these are mere symptoms of an underlying problem of hubristic certainty.

In my personal life I am sometimes, though surely very, very rarely, incorrect about some matter or another. A fact I have noticed in these very rare instances is that I am often completely certain that I am correct, up and until the point that it is demostrated to me that my certainty was misplaced.

I have never, to my knowledge, been wrong about something and at the same time known I was wrong about that thing. Usually the former preceeds the latter, but never do the two overlap directly. And more generally, I don't think anyone knowingly generates a wrong answer to a problem. Sometimes we are unable to generate any answer and are forced to guess or play probablilities, but if we ever find ourselves holding on to an answer, I think it is nearly always one that we believe to be correct. External reality and the judgement of our peers may or may not agree, but that is hardly relevant to the point.

The point is that, absent external cues, we have no idea if the ideas we hold are or are not correct. Even with external cues, the ideas we generate can get their claws into us and prove at times to be more tenacious that objective reality and well reasoned debate.

This is a problem.

I would like as a general rule to believe things which are true and disbelieve things which are false. I think it would be best to adopt elements of positive nihilism into my life to the extent that they are true and good (look at me slipping an extranious term in there) and reject them when they are false and bad. I have not demostrated that this is a worthwhile rule yet, but allow me to simply assume for now that truth is somehow superior to falsehood, and maybe I will examine this assumption later.

How then, do I undertake a project to examine a philosophy that is new to me, when I am unable to tell a priori what is true?

There do exist in the world heuristics for sifting truth from falsehood. Vigorous debate was preferred by Socrates. Obedience to scripture was preferred by the Christian church fathers. The scientific method has been fashionable of late. Other methods exist as well. But debate is challenging on a blog whose audience consists of maybe seven or eight spambots, scripture is rejected as part of the foundation of nihilism, and the scientific method is too narrow in scope for most philosophical topics, hence the fact that philosophy remains a low paying field for sexually inadequate plebs while sexy STEM fields are reserved for the superiors of the genetic and moral elite.

To end the rhetorical flourishes, I think it is key in this endeavor as in life in general to practice epistemic humility. This is a fancy way of saying that I need to actively start holding in my mind the idea that I may be wrong.

This is harder than it sounds, and to me it already sounds pretty hard. Step one is to cultivate a voice in my ear saying "remember, you are fallable", like the Roman memento mori slave. Step two is to consistently listen to and actively consider that voice instead of just waving it away. Whenever I consider an idea, I should go out of my way to find and consider other ideas. When I am confronted with a problem, I should be reasonably sure about my own foundations before moving on. I already have a tendancy to hedge and qualify statements, but I should do it more and mean it more.

All in all, I need more humility. I need to be less certain about what I think I know. This is epistemic humility. I am going to try and cultivate this in my writing and in general.

But the thing about humility is that it doesn't come with any prizes. You can't brag about your humility, and you can't ever be sure that you are being humble enough. But at the same time, there is no point to searching for answers if you lack the hubris needed to stop at some answer. So I will come to conclusions, and I will shake those conclusions and keep in mind that they could be wrong.

Or at least I will try.

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