Beliefs Are For True Things

One of the core prin­ci­ples—maybe the most core prin­ci­ple—of the art of ra­tio­nal­ity is that be­liefs are for true things. In other words, you should be­lieve things be­cause they are true. You should not be­lieve things that are not true.

Hold­ing that be­liefs are for true things means that you do not be­lieve things be­cause they are use­ful, be­lieve things be­cause they sound nice, or be­lieve things be­cause you pre­fer them to be true. You be­lieve things that are true (or at least that you be­lieve to be true, which is of­ten the best we can get!).

Eliezer referred to this prin­ci­ple as “the void”, writ­ing in his “The Twelve Virtues of Ra­tion­al­ity”:

Be­fore these eleven virtues is a virtue which is name­less.
Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in The Book of Five Rings:
“The pri­mary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your in­ten­tion to cut the en­emy, what­ever the means. When­ever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the en­emy’s cut­ting sword, you must cut the en­emy in the same move­ment. It is es­sen­tial to at­tain this. If you think only of hit­ting, spring­ing, strik­ing or touch­ing the en­emy, you will not be able ac­tu­ally to cut him. More than any­thing, you must be think­ing of car­ry­ing your move­ment through to cut­ting him.”
Every step of your rea­son­ing must cut through to the cor­rect an­swer in the same move­ment. More than any­thing, you must think of car­ry­ing your map through to re­flect­ing the ter­ri­tory.

Musashi wrote that you must always think of car­ry­ing your mo­tion through to cut­ting; I write, with Eliezer, that ev­ery be­lief and ev­ery step in your be­lief must cut through to know­ing the truth.

Beliefs, af­ter all, are for true things, and if you lose sight of that you will lose your epistemics. If you think only of what gives you an ad­van­tage in a de­bate, of what sounds nice, of what wins you the ad­mira­tion of your peers, of what is poli­ti­cally cor­rect, or of what you would pre­fer to be true, you will not be able to ac­tu­ally be­lieve true things.


I would like to take the per­haps un­usual step of clos­ing with a poem by Rud­yard Ki­pling, which ad­dresses this point (among oth­ers) rather well:


As I pass through my in­car­na­tions in ev­ery age and race,
I make my proper pros­tra­tions to the Gods of the Mar­ket-Place.
Peer­ing through rev­er­ent fingers I watch them flour­ish and fall.
And the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings, I no­tice, out­last them all.
We were liv­ing in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn,
That wa­ter would cer­tainly wet us, as Fire would cer­tainly burn:
But we found them lack­ing in Uplift, Vi­sion, and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Go­rillas while we fol­lowed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never al­tered their pace,
Be­ing nei­ther cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Mar­ket-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were ut­terly out of touch.
They de­nied that the Moon was Stil­ton; they de­nied she was even Dutch.
They de­nied that Wishes were Horses; they de­nied that a Pig had Wings.
So we wor­shiped the Gods of the Mar­ket Who promised these beau­tiful things.
When the Cam­brian mea­sures were form­ing, They promised per­pet­ual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and de­liv­ered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
On the first Fem­i­nian Sand­stones we were promised the Ful­ler Life
(Which started by lov­ing our neigh­bor and ended by lov­ing his wife)
Till our women had no more chil­dren and the men lost rea­son and faith,
And the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
In the Car­bonifer­ous Epoch we were promised abun­dance for all,
By rob­bing se­lec­tive Peter to pay for col­lec­tive Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was noth­ing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Mar­ket tum­bled, and their smooth-tongued wiz­ards with­drew,
And the hearts of the mean­est were hum­bled and be­gan to be­lieve it was true
That All is not Gold that Glit­ters, and Two and Two make Four —
And the Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings limped up to ex­plain it once more.
* * * * * *
As it will be in the fu­ture, it was at the birth of Man —
There are only four things cer­tain since So­cial Progress be­gan: —
That the Dog re­turns to his Vomit and the Sow re­turns to her mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wab­bling back to the Fire;
And that af­ter this is ac­com­plished, and the brave new world be­gin­s
When all men are paid for ex­ist­ing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copy­book Head­ings with ter­ror and slaugh­ter re­turn!