Public beliefs vs. Private beliefs

A distinction that I get a lot of value out of is the difference between private beliefs and public beliefs.

Public vs. Private

A public belief is a proposition that someone thinks is true, and justifying on the basis of legible info and reasoning. If X is a public belief, then implicit claim is “not only do I think that X is true, I think that any right thinking person who examines the evidence should come to conclude X.”

If someone disagrees with you about a public belief, it is prosocial and epistemically virtuous to defend your claim and to debate the matter on a public forum. Public beliefs, if consensus is reached about them, can be added to the sum total of human knowledge, for others to take for granted and then build on.

A private belief is proposition that someone thinks is true based on their own private or illegible info and reasoning. In this case, the implicit claim is “given my own read of the evidence, I happen to think X. But I don’t think that the arguments that I’ve offered are necessarily sufficient to convince a third party. I’m not claiming that you should believe this, I’m merely providing you the true information that I believe it.”

If someone disagrees with you about a private belief, there might or might not be a fruitful discussion to be had about it, but it is also important to be able to “agree to disagree.”

An example

I think that Circling meaningfully develops real skills of introspection, subtle interpersonal sensitivity, and clarity of map-territory distinctions. I further think that Circling is relevant to the Art of Rationality.

There have been some write-ups that describe why I think this is the case, but I don’t know that any of them are persuasive. If a person is curious about why I might be interested in Circling, I think this post is a decent overview. But crucially, I don’t think that the evidence presented should be sufficient to convince a skeptic.

I would say that I have a private belief that Circling is useful. It is actually my calibrated view, based on my personal experiences and my reasoning about those experiences. But by stating that belief, I am not at all making a social bid that others believe it too.

A special case: cloaks

There’s a special case of having a private belief that, at CFAR, we used to refer to as “having a cloak”.

If you are pursuing some ambitious project or personal development goals, it can be damaging to tell people about or justify your ambitions. Many ambitious goals are butterfly ideas, that need to be handled gently. Your own sense of what is possible might be fragile, and you need to nurture it.

And, for many people, sharing their ambitions puts them in a mindset of asking themselves to justify whether they’re cool enough to succeed, or needing to fend off a kind of social pressure from causal pessimism. All of which is wasted motion.

So it’s useful to have a “cloak”: an understanding that your plans and hopes can be private beliefs, that are no one’s business but yours.

Sometimes that cloak can be keeping what you’re working on a secret (as Paul Graham suggests in What You’ll Wish You’d Known).

Alternatively, it’s useful to have a true(!), but incomplete, description about what you’re aiming to do, that gives others a bucket for conceptualizing your actions, while you also have private, more ambitious plans. (Paul Graham also recommends this sort of cloak, in his “tactics” section of Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.)

A motivating example is Amazon.com. I bet that back in 1999, Jeff Bezos had at least a glimmer of the the long term future of Amazon. But if Jeff Bezos had outright declared, “Amazon’s plan is to build an online bookstore, and eventually conquer almost the whole online retail economy (which, by the way, is going to be a double digit percentage of all retail, by 2020) and become one of the top 10 most valuable companies in the world”, he would have gotten incredulous reactions. Lots of people would have scoffed at Bezos’s delusions of grandeur, many would have mocked him outright. Even if this was the actual plan and actual goal, declaring his ambitions for Amazon outright, would not have helped them succeed.

None of those people needed to believe that that kind of growth was possible, in order for Amazon to succeed. The only people who needed to believe is were Bezos and the core team at Amazon.

So instead, Amazon in 1999 has the cloak of just being an online bookstore, interesting but unobjectionable, while internally, they’re working towards something much bigger than that.

In general, it’s helpful to be able to believe things about yourself, and your abilities, that you don’t have to justify to anyone else.

Why does this matter?

I think failing to make a distinction between public and private beliefs can hamper both interpersonal communication and, more importantly, people’s internal ability to think.

Personally, being able to say “this is a think that I think is true, but I definitely don’t think that I’ve made the case strongly enough here, for you to be convinced” gives me space to express more of my ideas, without skirting close to conflict or affront.

Further, I think lots of folks implicitly feel like they “aren’t allowed” have an opinion about something unless it is a defensible public belief that for which they are prepared to advocate in the public forum. Accordingly, they have a very high bar for letting themselves believe something, or at least to say it out loud.

I suspect that this hobbles their thinking, in much the same way that knowing someone will read your diary entries causes your diary to be less reflective of your true thoughts. If you have a feeling that you have to justify all of your conclusions, there are lines of thought that you won’t follow, because you can simulate your friends frowning at you for being a bad rationalist.

Personally (a private belief!), I think that rigor is extremely valuable, but it is even more important to be honest with myself about what I actually think is true, separately from what I think is socially defensible.

Wait, isn’t it bad to let people have beliefs that they don’t need to defend?

I imagine that some readers might object to giving social permission for people to have beliefs that they don’t need to justify.

“Isn’t part of what’s wonderful about rationality that we try to be explicit enough that we can reason about anything? Isn’t a major cause of the world’s problems that beliefs are rarely held to any standard of evidence, and therefore people believe all kinds of random stuff? This post kind of sounds like you recommend that we stop holding people to standards of evidence.”

The key thing for me is that private beliefs are your own personal model of the world, and you should never expect, or insist, that other people act on them.

It is always out of bounds to expect or demand that other people adopt your beliefs without offering justification.

If you are making claims that you want to influence other people’s actions, it is incumbent upon you to justify them.

Everyone has an unalienable right to hold the belief, that, for instance, polyamory is bad for people’s psychology, on whatever basis they find compelling, including of intuitive or illegible reasoning. You are by all means allowed to decide whether or not to be polyamorous yourself, for those reasons. It is quite bad if a person feels pressured into being poly despite their intuitive sense that it’s harmful for them or for others.

But, by my proposed social norms, if you want to go further and suggest that other people should be prevented from being polyamorous, or that it should be discouraged in your community, it is on you to justify that, to put forward a public position with reasons that can be critiqued and debated.

And of course, a person could always declare some of their private beliefs, not mainly in the hopes of convincing those that disagree, but rather to find and filter for the other people that share their view, so that you can together form spaces where that view can be assumed and built on. eg “I can’t (yet) articulate why I think that self-honesty is so crucial to the world saving project with full rigor, but if you also have that intuition, maybe we can work together on building and refining a culture that promotes self-honesty.”