Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ideology of convenience

Suppose that I believe that all of humanity's problems would be solved if only we put in charge the pink unicorns from outer space. ”Once the pink space unicorns are in charge,“ I say, ”the world will be a much better place. Gone will be violence and sadness and other negatives, and in their places we'll enjoy increased love and happiness and other positives.“

Being a ”rational“ person, you may then decide to challenge my viewpoint. ”Prove it,“ you say.

Of course, I can't prove my belief. The best I'll be able to do is to create some assumptions, tacit or otherwise, and bootstrap my belief by begging the question. But even though I cannot prove my belief, there's something equally important—in my mind, that is—going on: you cannot prove me wrong. In case you doubt this, then I challenge you right now: ”Prove me wrong.“ Prove that the pink space unicorns don't exist or that, when put in charge, they will solve all of our problems.

You'll soon—hopefully—figure out that disproving the pink space unicorns is an impossible task. Why? There's no evidence one way or the other. It's really hard to prove that something doesn't exist. The best you'll manage to do is to assert Occam's Razor or some similar idea that we should, in the absence of evidence, reject a more complex explanation when a simpler explanation is also plausible, and you will then tie the Razor with the fact that we have absolutely zero evidence one way or the other for the pink space unicorns. I, in a brilliant counter move, will state a disbelief of Occam's Razor, at least in this specific case if not in the general case. This leaves us in a logical stalemate where you'll rightfully call me a crackpot and perhaps make a sarcastic reference to the Great Orbiting Teapots; I, on the other hand, will describe you as one within the brainwashed, disbelieving masses and blind to the Truth, and we'll part ways, mentally.

But let's talk about this a little bit. I've pulled off the Hat of the Pink Space Unicorns and donned the Hat of Self-Criticism and am willing to analyze my belief. In doing so, what I see are two important facts. The first fact I already mentioned: my belief cannot be disproved. The second fact is this: my belief states, as a side effect, that I am personally not culpable for the problems of the world. That I, despite my simplicitism, consume more than the per capita share of the world's resources and that I don't treat others with the respect they deserve and that I break traffic laws when riding my bicycles—these are mere irrelevances that have nothing at all to do with blameworthiness because, as righteous and wise people know, all real problems are caused by the pink space unicorns not being in charge.

These two facts suggest an important property of my belief: because my belief eliminates my culpability and therefore provides me an emotional incentive to maintain that belief, and because my belief cannot be disproved, then it follows that I have an emotional incentive to avoid self-critical analysis of my belief. Indeed, I have emotional incentive to delude myself into believing that I have performed self-critical analysis of my belief without ever having done so. If I can convince myself that I have done some bang-up self-criticism, then my belief in the pink space unicorns will be made even more valid—in my mind. This whole pattern of belief—the belief itself that cannot be proved either way, the consequence that I am not culpable, and the incentive to avoid honest self-criticism—constitutes what I call an ideology of convenience.

An ideology of convenience is exactly the sort of reasoning that defies testability and is emotionally self-supporting, and there exist quite many of them. They're like gravity wells: easy to fall into and difficult to escape from. A good hint that you're dealing with someone who's trapped in an ideology of convenience is when that person says that they're morally superior not because of how they act but because of what they believe. If you are such a person who makes this claim, well, I have a hat you should try on some day.

Either you agree with my idea of the pink space unicorns or we're at an impasse. This is not mere philosophical debate, however. You may wish to discuss solutions to very real problems in the world, like law-breaking cyclists being a nuisance on the roads, with the realistic aim of making the world better, however small the difference is. I and my pink space unicorns have vetoed your ideas. Although I will doubtfully ever say so explicitly, the core of my pink-space-unicorns message is loud and clear: ”I'm not at fault, and so I shouldn't be forced to change my ways.“ Convenient, indeed.

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