Dark Side Epistemology

If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever af­ter your en­emy.

I have dis­cussed the no­tion that lies are con­ta­gious. If you pick up a peb­ble from the drive­way, and tell a ge­ol­o­gist that you found it on a beach—well, do you know what a ge­ol­o­gist knows about rocks? I don’t. But I can sus­pect that a wa­ter-worn peb­ble wouldn’t look like a droplet of frozen lava from a vol­canic erup­tion. Do you know where the peb­ble in your drive­way re­ally came from? Things bear the marks of their places in a lawful uni­verse; in that web, a lie is out of place.1

What sounds like an ar­bi­trary truth to one mind—one that could eas­ily be re­placed by a plau­si­ble lie—might be nailed down by a dozen link­ages to the eyes of greater knowl­edge. To a cre­ation­ist, the idea that life was shaped by “in­tel­li­gent de­sign” in­stead of “nat­u­ral se­lec­tion” might sound like a sports team to cheer for. To a biol­o­gist, plau­si­bly ar­gu­ing that an or­ganism was in­tel­li­gently de­signed would re­quire ly­ing about al­most ev­ery facet of the or­ganism. To plau­si­bly ar­gue that “hu­mans” were in­tel­li­gently de­signed, you’d have to lie about the de­sign of the hu­man retina, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the hu­man brain, the pro­teins bound to­gether by weak van der Waals forces in­stead of strong co­va­lent bonds . . .

Or you could just lie about evolu­tion­ary the­ory, which is the path taken by most cre­ation­ists. In­stead of ly­ing about the con­nected nodes in the net­work, they lie about the gen­eral laws gov­ern­ing the links.

And then to cover that up, they lie about the rules of sci­ence—like what it means to call some­thing a “the­ory,” or what it means for a sci­en­tist to say that they are not ab­solutely cer­tain.

So they pass from ly­ing about spe­cific facts, to ly­ing about gen­eral laws, to ly­ing about the rules of rea­son­ing. To lie about whether hu­mans evolved, you must lie about evolu­tion; and then you have to lie about the rules of sci­ence that con­strain our un­der­stand­ing of evolu­tion.

But how else? Just as a hu­man would be out of place in a com­mu­nity of ac­tu­ally in­tel­li­gently de­signed life forms, and you have to lie about the rules of evolu­tion to make it ap­pear oth­er­wise, so too be­liefs about cre­ation­ism are them­selves out of place in sci­ence—you wouldn’t find them in a well-or­dered mind any more than you’d find palm trees grow­ing on a glacier. And so you have to dis­rupt the bar­ri­ers that would for­bid them.

Which brings us to the case of self-de­cep­tion.

A sin­gle lie you tell your­self may seem plau­si­ble enough, when you don’t know any of the rules gov­ern­ing thoughts, or even that there are rules; and the choice seems as ar­bi­trary as choos­ing a fla­vor of ice cream, as iso­lated as a peb­ble on the shore . . .

. . . but then some­one calls you on your be­lief, us­ing the rules of rea­son­ing that they’ve learned. They say, “Where’s your ev­i­dence?”

And you say, “What? Why do I need ev­i­dence?”

So they say, “In gen­eral, be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence.”

This ar­gu­ment, clearly, is a sol­dier fight­ing on the other side, which you must defeat. So you say: “I dis­agree! Not all be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence. In par­tic­u­lar, be­liefs about drag­ons don’t re­quire ev­i­dence. When it comes to drag­ons, you’re al­lowed to be­lieve any­thing you like. So I don’t need ev­i­dence to be­lieve there’s a dragon in my garage.”

And the one says, “Eh? You can’t just ex­clude drag­ons like that. There’s a rea­son for the rule that be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence. To draw a cor­rect map of the city, you have to walk through the streets and make lines on pa­per that cor­re­spond to what you see. That’s not an ar­bi­trary le­gal re­quire­ment—if you sit in your liv­ing room and draw lines on the pa­per at ran­dom, the map’s go­ing to be wrong. With ex­tremely high prob­a­bil­ity. That’s as true of a map of a dragon as it is of any­thing.”

So now this, the ex­pla­na­tion of why be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence, is also an op­pos­ing sol­dier. So you say: “Wrong with ex­tremely high prob­a­bil­ity? Then there’s still a chance, right? I don’t have to be­lieve if it’s not ab­solutely cer­tain.”

Or maybe you even be­gin to sus­pect, your­self, that “be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence.” But this threat­ens a lie you hold pre­cious; so you re­ject the dawn in­side you, push the Sun back un­der the hori­zon.

Or you’ve pre­vi­ously heard the proverb “be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence,” and it sounded wise enough, and you en­dorsed it in pub­lic. But it never quite oc­curred to you, un­til some­one else brought it to your at­ten­tion, that this proverb could ap­ply to your be­lief that there’s a dragon in your garage. So you think fast and say, “The dragon is in a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium.”

Hav­ing false be­liefs isn’t a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be per­ma­nently crip­pling—if, when you dis­cover your mis­take, you get over it. The dan­ger­ous thing is to have a false be­lief that you be­lieve should be pro­tected as a be­lief—a be­lief-in-be­lief, whether or not ac­com­panied by ac­tual be­lief.

A sin­gle Lie That Must Be Pro­tected can block some­one’s progress into ad­vanced ra­tio­nal­ity. No, it’s not harm­less fun.

Just as the world it­self is more tan­gled by far than it ap­pears on the sur­face, so too there are stric­ter rules of rea­son­ing, con­strain­ing be­lief more strongly, than the un­trained would sus­pect. The world is wo­ven tightly, gov­erned by gen­eral laws, and so are ra­tio­nal be­liefs.

Think of what it would take to deny evolu­tion or he­lio­cen­trism—all the con­nected truths and gov­ern­ing laws you wouldn’t be al­lowed to know. Then you can imag­ine how a sin­gle act of self-de­cep­tion can block off the whole meta level of truth-seek­ing, once your mind be­gins to be threat­ened by see­ing the con­nec­tions. For­bid­ding all the in­ter­me­di­ate and higher lev­els of the ra­tio­nal­ist’s Art. Creat­ing, in its stead, a vast com­plex of anti-law, rules of anti-thought, gen­eral jus­tifi­ca­tions for be­liev­ing the un­true.

Steven Kaas said, “Pro­mot­ing less than max­i­mally ac­cu­rate be­liefs is an act of sab­o­tage. Don’t do it to any­one un­less you’d also slash their tires.” Giv­ing some­one a false be­lief to pro­tect—con­vinc­ing them that the be­lief it­self must be defended from any thought that seems to threaten it—well, you shouldn’t do that to some­one un­less you’d also give them a frontal lobotomy.

Once you tell a lie, the truth is your en­emy; and ev­ery truth con­nected to that truth, and ev­ery ally of truth in gen­eral; all of these you must op­pose, to pro­tect the lie. Whether you’re ly­ing to oth­ers, or to your­self.

You have to deny that be­liefs re­quire ev­i­dence, and then you have to deny that maps should re­flect ter­ri­to­ries, and then you have to deny that truth is a good thing . . .

Thus comes into be­ing the Dark Side.

I worry that peo­ple aren’t aware of it, or aren’t suffi­ciently wary—that as we wan­der through our hu­man world, we can ex­pect to en­counter sys­tem­at­i­cally bad episte­mol­ogy.

The “how to think” memes float­ing around, the cached thoughts of Deep Wis­dom—some of it will be good ad­vice de­vised by ra­tio­nal­ists. But other no­tions were in­vented to pro­tect a lie or self-de­cep­tion: spawned from the Dark Side.

“Every­one has a right to their own opinion.” When you think about it, where was that proverb gen­er­ated? Is it some­thing that some­one would say in the course of pro­tect­ing a truth, or in the course of pro­tect­ing from the truth? But peo­ple don’t perk up and say, “Aha! I sense the pres­ence of the Dark Side!” As far as I can tell, it’s not widely re­al­ized that the Dark Side is out there.

But how else? Whether you’re de­ceiv­ing oth­ers, or just your­self, the Lie That Must Be Pro­tected will prop­a­gate re­cur­sively through the net­work of em­piri­cal causal­ity, and the net­work of gen­eral em­piri­cal rules, and the rules of rea­son­ing them­selves, and the un­der­stand­ing be­hind those rules. If there is good episte­mol­ogy in the world, and also lies or self-de­cep­tions that peo­ple are try­ing to pro­tect, then there will come into ex­is­tence bad episte­mol­ogy to counter the good. We could hardly ex­pect, in this world, to find the Light Side with­out the Dark Side; there is the Sun, and that which shrinks away and gen­er­ates a cloak­ing Shadow.

Mind you, these are not nec­es­sar­ily evil peo­ple. The vast ma­jor­ity who go about re­peat­ing the Deep Wis­dom are more duped than du­plic­i­tous, more self-de­ceived than de­ceiv­ing. I think.

And it’s surely not my in­tent to offer you a Fully Gen­eral Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment, so that when­ever some­one offers you some episte­mol­ogy you don’t like, you say: “Oh, some­one on the Dark Side made that up.” It’s one of the rules of the Light Side that you have to re­fute the propo­si­tion for it­self, not by ac­cus­ing its in­ven­tor of bad in­ten­tions.

But the Dark Side is out there. Fear is the path that leads to it, and one be­trayal can turn you. Not all who wear robes are ei­ther Jedi or fakes; there are also the Sith Lords, mas­ters and un­wit­ting ap­pren­tices. Be warned; be wary.

As for list­ing com­mon memes that were spawned by the Dark Side—not ran­dom false be­liefs, mind you, but bad episte­mol­ogy, the Generic Defenses of Fail—well, would you care to take a stab at it, dear read­ers?

1Ac­tu­ally, a ge­ol­o­gist in the com­ments says that most peb­bles in drive­ways are taken from beaches, so they couldn’t tell the differ­ence be­tween a drive­way peb­ble and a beach peb­ble, but they could tell the differ­ence be­tween a moun­tain peb­ble and a drive­way/​beach peb­ble (http://​​less­wrong.com/​​lw/​​uy/​​dark_side_episte­mol­ogy/​​4xbv). Case in point . . .