Belief is an instrument to do things

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses how to be rational about rationality:

Rory Sutherland claims that the real function for swimming pools is allowing the middle class to sit around in bathing suits without looking ridiculous. Same with New York restaurants: you think their mission is to feed people, but that’s not what they do. They are in the business of selling you overpriced liquor or Great Tuscan wines by the glass, yet get you into the door by serving you your low-carb (or low-something) dishes at breakeven cost. (This business model, of course, fails to work in Saudi Arabia).

So when we look at religion and, to some extent ancestral superstitions, we should consider what purpose they serve, rather than focusing on the notion of “belief”, epistemic belief in its strict scientific definition. In science, belief is literal belief; it is right or wrong, never metaphorical. In real life, belief is an instrument to do things, not the end product. This is similar to vision: the purpose of your eyes is to orient you in the best possible way, and get you out of trouble when needed, or help you find a prey at distance. Your eyes are not sensors aimed at getting the electromagnetic spectrum of reality. Their job description is not to produce the most accurate scientific representation of reality; rather the most useful one for survival.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    That vision of religion may work for the Abrahamic religions but it completely fails for Buddhism.

    Buddhism claims to be literally, scientifically true about the nature of suffering and how to end suffering. Buddhism is not supposed to be about motivating behavior in any allegorical or mythical way. Buddhism is just a literal instruction manual to get people to literally act to end their actual suffering.

  2. Faze says:

    In real life, belief is an instrument to do things, not the end product.

    Precisely. This is what 98% of our anti-religious science writers don’t get. They think religious people believe religious doctrines the way they, the scientists, believe physics.

    But most religious fundamentalists don’t believe the literal truth of, say, Genesis, they believe that it is crucial for them to profess belief in Genesis — and some will do so to the point of martyrdom.

    It’s not actual belief that holds groups together; it’s the profession of belief.

  3. Kirk says:

    Terry Pratchett explains an aspect of this best in Hogfather:

    Susan: Now… tell me…

    Death: What would have happened if you hadn’t saved him?

    Susan: Yes.

    Death: The sun would not have risen.

    Susan: Then what would have happened?

    Death: A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

    Susan: All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying that humans need fantasies to make life bearable.

    Death: No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

    Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?

    Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

    Susan: So we can believe the big ones?

    Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.

    Susan: They’re not the same at all!

    Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and THEN show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet… you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

    Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?

    Death: You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?

    [they both watch the sun rise]

    Irrational belief is apparently a key and essential thing for the human mind. Don’t have some sort of irrational thing to belief in? Your mind will find one for you.

    I’ve often observed this syndrome in the most bizarre places–One devoutly annoying atheist I know professes belief in healing crystals while simultaneously denying the existence of God or any other form of supernatural element.

    Every single person I’ve known has something they can’t be rational about, whether it’s God, global warming, or the good intent of the Democratic Party. The ones who have God in their lives appear to be able to be rational about many other things in their lives, while those that believe in anthropogenic global warming can’t be argued or evidenced out of anything they’ve taken as gospel truth.

    It’s almost as if belief in the divine serves as an inoculation against irrational belief, and if you don’t have it, all sorts of other things creep in to supplant or add to it.

  4. Mike in Boston says:

    It’s almost as if belief in the divine serves as an inoculation against irrational belief, and if you don’t have it, all sorts of other things creep in to supplant or add to it.

    Or, as the apocryphal Chesterton quote has it, When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything..

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