Acting on Indeterminable Presumptions

Posted on July 14, 2017

Recent reflections have led me to the following observation: I act and think in a number of ways based on certain presumptions - or axioms, if you wish - which are not exactly striking in that it is obvious that they must be true. In fact, I consider my presumptions to be indeterminable. That is not to say that they are necessarily absolutely indeterminable, but merely that I personally have no way of strongly determining their veracity. The reason for why I act as if my presumptions are correct (i.e. postulate them as axioms) is obvious - I derive more utility from such a mode of operation. Allow me to illustrate with the most salient examples that I can think of right now.

  1. Free will. I consider the existence of free will to be indeterminable, even if you proceed beyond linguistic pedantry and the mire of defining it properly, as some of the arguments for and against are beyond my ken, and there is a very high likelihood that compelling arguments for and against exist, of which I am not even aware (either due to not having encountered them or due to them not having been ‘discovered’). Additionally, our understanding of the physics which govern the intelligible universe are not advanced enough to rule out free will as a directly physical phenomenon, even though superficially they seem to indicate its impossibility. Acting upon the presumption that free will does not exist, however (even if one strongly believes in the veracity of the assumption), would obviously be absurd and most people would consider the resultant behaviour irrational (though as Mises notes, all human action is rational regardless of motivations or scenario). Much like I cannot exactly determine how an advanced AI would act, I cannot say exactly how strongly acting upon the assumption that free will is nonexistent would look - but it seems reasonable that it would somewhat resemble the nihilistic actions of Mersault in L’étranger, and that at the very least there would be no reason not to discard morality and any direct goal-orientation. It is a fact of life that we all act as if we had free will, regardless of if we do or not. And a bloody good thing it is, too. A corollary to this can be found in that we do not act as if we exist within a simulated reality, even though the chances of this actually being the case should probably be considered to be quite high.

  2. God. My exposition of the reasons for the indeterminate nature of the existence of free will can easily be transposed to the existence of God. Again, definitions and our particular understanding of what we mean by the word ‘God’ play a large role. I have encountered several highly compelling arguments both for and against the existence of God, and while I have so far found the arguments for to be more compelling than the arguments against, I have covered much less than a very tiny fraction of the highly advanced philosophical material available on the subject, and my confidence is consequently not very high. My reasons for choosing to believe in the existence of God despite my low epistemic confidence are closely aligned with those of Dr. Peterson. (For a more in-depth exposition of his religious views, I cannot recommend his Biblical Series highly enough.) Additionally, look here. Please note that I do not presently believe in ‘the afterlife’ (at least not in the superficial version which is usually presented), and that my reasons are related to the present and not some sort of future goal orientation.

  3. The permanence of marital commitment. Note that I am speaking not as someone who has married, but as someone who would very much prefer to do so in the future, and as someone who thinks it a very good thing that people do indeed continue to maintain the institution. This one is simple, and similar to free will - the highest expected value is obtained by fully committing, and even though it is not exactly certain that it will last ‘till death us do part’, acting as if it is will substantially increase the likelihood of that actually being the case. Thus acting upon (committing) an indeterminable presumption (the constancy of the amorous bond) seems to once more be the best option in most cases.

  4. Objective truth. This is the most important one, and it neatly ties the other ones together as it cuts right to the core of indeterminability. Simply put, I consider it to be impossible, from my personal and subjective understanding of reality, to determine whether there is in fact such a thing as objective truth or whether nominalism or radical relativism are actually true. You may have noted some recursion - and indeed my view on nominalism and relativism is indeed itself relativistic. My indeterminable presumption, however, is that objective truth does indeed exist and I do in fact not act or think as a nominalist even though from a rational perspective I consider the nominalist view to be highly compelling. This affects all topics and subjects - from a purely logical perspective, I have reason to suspect that neither my own views on any given topic nor that of someone with a completely opposed understanding are correct, but that we are both highly convinced of the veracity of our positions due to our priors. The nominalist/relativist position would be to posit that it is impossible to determine whether one or both or neither of us are correct - in reality, however, neither of us allow for this. For obvious reasons.

There are many other examples, and the ones I listed could obviously do with a lot of expansion (innumerable books could be, and indeed have been, written on each of the subjects) - both my patience and understanding of the subjects is, however, insufficient for that. My purpose has been to illustrate how acting in accordance with presumptions that are not obviously true is often both necessary and/or yields a more desirable result than not doing so. This may not strike the reader as the most objective approach - and indeed, I would agree that in many cases it is not. The human tendency to fill in epistemic holes with more or less useful content can be a serious problem in many fields and contexts. But it is not an absolute rule, and it is my hope that I have at least persuaded you somewhat that there are cases where the indeterminability and context is of such a nature so as to render certain presumptions completely warranted. And I disagree with the view that doing so is necessarily self-deceptive - such a stance is completely impracticable in the real world and does in itself lead to serious contradictions.