Adding Up To Normality

Pretty Similar To: Leave a Line of Retreat

“It all adds up to nor­mal­ity.” Greg Egan, Quarantine

You’re on an air­plane at 35,000 feet, and you strike up a con­ver­sa­tion about aero­dy­namic lift with the pas­sen­ger in your row. Things are go­ing along just fine un­til they point out to you that your un­der­stand­ing of lift is wrong, and that planes couldn’t fly from the effect you thought was re­spon­si­ble.

Should you im­me­di­ately panic in fear that the plane will plum­met out of the sky?

Ob­vi­ously not; clearly the plane has been fly­ing just fine up un­til now, and countless other planes have flown as well. There has to be some­thing keep­ing the plane up, even if it’s not what you thought, and even if you can’t yet figure out what it ac­tu­ally is. What­ever is go­ing on, it all adds up to nor­mal­ity.

Yet I claim that we of­ten do this ex­act kind of pan­icked flailing when there’s a challenge to our philo­soph­i­cal or psy­cholog­i­cal be­liefs, and that this panic is en­tirely pre­ventable.


I’ve ex­pe­rienced and/​or seen this par­tic­u­lar panic re­sponse when I, or oth­ers, en­counter good ar­gu­ments for propo­si­tions including

  • My re­li­gion is not true. (“Oh no, then life and moral­ity are mean­ingless and empty!”)

  • Many-wor­lds makes the most sense. (“Oh no, then there are always copies of me do­ing ter­rible things, and so none of my choices mat­ter!”)

  • Many “al­tru­is­tic” ac­tions ac­tu­ally have hid­den self­ish mo­tives. (“Oh no, then al­tru­ism doesn’t ex­ist and moral­ity is pointless!”)

  • I don’t have to be the best at some­thing in or­der for it to be worth do­ing. (“Oh no, then oth­ers won’t value me!”) [Note: this one is from ther­apy; most peo­ple don’t have the same core be­liefs they’re stuck on.]

(I promise these are not in fact straw­men. I’m sure you can think of your own ex­am­ples. Also re­mem­ber that pan­ick­ing over an ar­gu­ment in this way is a mis­take even if the propo­si­tion turns out to be false.)

To illus­trate the way out, let’s take the first ex­am­ple. It took me far too long to leave my re­li­gion, partly be­cause I was so ter­rified about be­com­ing a nihilist if I left that I kept flinch­ing away from the ev­i­dence. (Of course, the re­li­gion pro­claimed it­self to be the ori­gin of moral­ity, and so it re­in­forced the no­tion that any­one else claiming to be moral was just too blind to see that their lack of faith im­plied nihilism.)

Even­tu­ally I did make my­self face down, not just the ob­ject-level ar­gu­ments, but the bi­ases that had kept me from look­ing di­rectly at them. And then I was an athe­ist, and still I was ter­rified of be­com­ing a nihilist (es­pe­cially about moral­ity).

So I did one thing I still think was smart: I promised my­self not to change all of my moral rules at once, but to change each one only when (un­der sober re­flec­tion) I de­cided it was wrong. And in the mean­time, I read a lot of moral philos­o­phy.

Over the next few months, I be­gan re­lax­ing the rules that were ob­vi­ously pointless. And then I had a pow­er­ful in­sight: I was so cau­tious about chang­ing my rules be­cause I wanted to help peo­ple and not slide into hurt­ing them. Re­gard­less of what moral­ity was, in fact, based on, the plane was still fly­ing just fine. And that helped me sort out the good from the bad among the re­main­ing rules, and to stop be­ing so afraid of what ar­gu­ments I might later en­counter.

So in ret­ro­spect, the main thing I’d recom­mend is to promise your­self to keep steer­ing the plane mostly as nor­mal while you think about lift (to stretch the anal­ogy). If you de­cide that some­thing ma­jor is false, it doesn’t mean that ev­ery­thing that fol­lows from it has to be dis­carded im­me­di­ately. (False things im­ply both true and false things!)

You’ll gen­er­ally find that many im­por­tant things stand on their own with­out sup­port from the old be­lief. (Do­ing this for the other ex­am­ples I gave, as well as your own, is left to you.) Other things will col­lapse, and that’s fine; that which can be de­stroyed by the truth should be. Just don’t make all of these judg­ments in one fell swoop.

One last cau­tion: I recom­mend against chang­ing meta-level rules as a re­sult of chang­ing ob­ject-level be­liefs. The meta level is how you cor­rect bad de­ci­sions on the ob­ject level, and it should only be up­dated by very clear rea­son­ing in a state of equil­ibrium. Chang­ing your flight des­ti­na­tion is perfectly fine, but don’t take apart the wing mid-flight.

Good luck out there, and re­mem­ber:

It all adds up to nor­mal­ity.

[EDIT 2020-03-25: khafra and Is­nasene make good points about not ap­ply­ing this in cases where the plane shows signs of ac­tu­ally drop­ping and you’re up­dat­ing on that. (Maybe there’s a new crisis in the ex­ter­nal world that con­tra­dicts one of your be­liefs, or maybe you up­date to be­lieve that the thing you’re about to do could ac­tu­ally cause a ma­jor catas­tro­phe.)

In that case, you can try and land the plane safely- fo­cus on get­ting to a safer state for your­self and the world, so that you have time to think things over. And if you can’t do that, then you have no choice but to re­think your pi­lot­ing on the fly, ac­cept­ing the dan­ger be­cause you can’t es­cape it. But these ex­pe­riences will hope­fully be very rare for you, cur­rent global crisis ex­cepted.]