Monday, September 27, 2004

Inconsistent Ideas

MelbournePhilosopher

It is a bland but far-reaching statement that some people have ideas that are inconsistent.

For example - someone who is against abortion but pro-IVF. IVF involves creating several foetuses, followed by the destruction of all-but-one. For someone who is morally against the destruction of a foetus, it is not logically consistent to support IVF. But some do - justifying it by saying it's to the greater good, or part of a process of creation, or whatever.

Many people have proposed ways of thinking, sometimes in an effort to simply describe human thought, and others to prescribe methods for clear thinking. The former is psychology, the latter is doomed to failure. Let's look at some philosophical implications.

One area impacted by this is in artificial intelligence. Machines come to conclusions based on logical rules, which are always applied consistently and thoroughly. As a result, no AI attempts produce minds that are inconsistent. It would be possible to design-in such inconsistency, but doing so would serve no purpose other than to more closely mimic human thought processes. There is a lot of discussion to have about how humans form ideas and reason here, and it is a huge area.

The strangely controversial author Ayn Rand makes a clumsy but easily understood attempt to suggest ways in which we can do more to ensure our ideas are consistent. She breaks reasoning down into concepts which cannot be further described, and must be learned intuitively. "Hunger" might be one such concept, but there are rational ideas as well as perceptive ones in this category. Then, she builds these up into a kind of resource bundle of known true relations and facts. From this, we build up to more complex ideas, eventually gaining an ability to process new information according to existing knowledge and beliefs.

This is somewhat similar to the Beliefs, Desires and Intentions model of software agent architecture, a method for writing software from components which act towards their own interest. The reason that software and computing feature so heavily in this article is that attempts to code intelligence give us some of most quickly understood methods by which reasoning might be formally encoded. No doubt psychologists have extremely advanced functional descriptions of the mind, but they are concerned more with analysis of behaviour that the creation of formal systems describing thought.

Humans seem however to memorise facts without checking them for consistency. It is possible to learn an inconsistent fact, and to believe it to be true, while at the same time also believing a different mutually exclusive fact to also be true. If we thought about it, we might abandon one or the other or both, but it is clearly possible for a human to believe in contradictory things.

Philosophers often try to define the motivations of people, how we think, how we should act etc. Plato for example espouses a kind of "inbuilt cynic", in which we question things until we have reached something clearly ridiculous, or discovered their validity. (The phrase for a discussion of this kind is Socratic Dialog) Ayn Rand's philosophy, "Objectivism", proposes a conscious method of learning which is not without merit, but ignores the problem of subconsciously learned information introducing inconsistencies. It is an idealised model rather than something which can be practically relied on. Nietzsche has the concept of "will to power". Economists such as Adam Smith, and many others, have variously proposed motivations for trading behaviour, based on fundamental human desires for wealth, power, minimisation of effort etc in attempts to describe human behaviour.

It is remarkably difficult to convince someone who does not already agree to adopt a more rational system of acquiring or analysing knowledge. Persuading someone that logical inconsistency is good grounds for abandoning an idea is hard, because apparently unrelated facts can throw a belief into doubt, but until a more direct counter-reason is found, we are often reluctant to abandon our beliefs. This is a fascinating result of the efficiency of human thought, arising I believe from efficiency reasons. It is more efficient to hold slightly wrong inconsistent ideas that to spend significant time and effort resolving these inconsistencies. Essentially, we are better off thinking quicker but worse, than slowly and correctly. Timeliness of thought is as important from an evolutionary perspective as correctness.

4 Comments:

Blogger infidelchick said...

You sure it's not just a response to the inconsistent nature of reality? Or at the very least of perception?

9/30/2004 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, not everyone accepts that reality or perception are inconsistent. But I do.

My basic opinion is that if you don't think about inconsistency per se you will miss out on seeing a whole lot of implications for both thought in general, and also for the various opinions you hold. If you are attempting to deal with a rational person, then a spiritual / emotive argument just won't work, and vice versa. In order to give yourself the tools to relate to people, it is a good idea to understand the role that inconsistency plays in thought...

My belief is that most people have a kind of balance between accuracy and expediency. Understanding when one is more important than the other is also useful - for example if you are doing some public speaking, or doing a job interview, or presenting a paper etc. There are heaps and heaps of times when it really pays to think about this stuff.

9/30/2004 04:24:00 PM  
Blogger infidelchick said...

Ah, and you say the Myers-Briggs isn't useful...

10/01/2004 09:40:00 AM  
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