Re: Any strong belief is a chain.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Tue, 22 Dec 1998 17:38:36 -0600

Robin Hanson wrote:
> Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
> >Of late, the opinion has been expressed that it's okay to believe
> >strongly in something as long as you have evidence for it - in other
> >words, "dogma" describes a belief that is held strongly in the absence
> >of evidence. I disagree. Any strong belief is a chain. ...
> >Any strong belief causes the opinion to persist in and of itself and
> >slows reaction to new information. Translation: It makes you stupid
> >and slow.
> Bayesian decision theory gives a nice account of how one's degree of
> belief in some claim should vary as evidence accumulates. It allows
> for assigning probabilities close to one when the evidence is strong.
> I presume you mean something else by "strong belief."

Not really. I have no problem with assigning probabilities close to one. When I refer to a "strong belief", I am referring to a cognitive event over and above that involved in having a statement about probabilities; I think that the best phrasing I can apply now would be that a "strong belief" means that you care. I have a pretty good probability that the sky is blue, but if it was orange, so what? By contrast, many people would be deeply disturbed to learn that there is/is not a God. They probably assign roughly the same probability to the two statements "sky is blue" and "my religion is correct", but the behaviors of the beliefs differ. Strong beliefs are "sticky"; it's hard to change them.

Let's take my own belief that "strong beliefs are bad" as a case in point. If I had a strong belief that "strong beliefs are bad", I wouldn't be able to consider circumstances under which "strong beliefs are good". It may well be that having a strong belief activates various cognitive abilities, particularly social abilities, but possibly even a different type of search for evidence, or an expanded search for effects caused by the believed-in object.

So I think people should train themselves out of strong belief, but I would anathematize any attempt to neurosurgically disable the "strong belief" capability... without a much better idea of what's going on, anyway. This is not something I would say if I had a "strong belief", even though I still think the probablility that a strong belief will screw you up in any given situation is close to 1 (except in deliberately constructed special cases).

--         Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.