Understanding Beliefs

Understanding Beliefs is a book by Nils J. Nilsson in The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  Perhaps a better title for the book would be “How We Should Believe,”  the reason for this should become clear by the end of this post.  Nilsson is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, and putting the concept of belief into computer science is quite valuable.

He does not work entirely  in the domain of artificial intelligence as he notes contributions from psychologists and neuroscientists.  He invokes Kahneman’s concepts of System One and System Two processes that have been discussed previously in the healthy memory blog.  System One processes run off more or less automatically.  System Two processes are more in the vein of what is regarded as thinking and require mental effort.  Our beliefs are processed automatically through System One and there is little evidence of additional brain activity..  When information contradicts our beliefs, the brain becomes active and if not immediately revoked, System 2 and effortful processing is engaged to deal with the conflicting belief.

Nilsson discusses his own beliefs.  He does not believe that we ever have contact with an external world.  Rather we form concepts or beliefs based on the sensory inputs from an external world and the subsequent cognitive activity.  Moreover, these beliefs are weighted in terms of probabilities.  Nothing is certain.  That is, there are no beliefs with values of 0.0 or 1.0, regardless of how strongly the belief or disbelief is felt.   My views are identical.  These views are common among scientists and philosophers.  Here are some exemplary quotes:

“Objects” do not exist independently of conceptual schemes  We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one of another scheme of description.”  Hilary Putnam, philosopher.

“There was no way to hook up ideas with things…because ideas—mental representations—do not refer to things; they refer to other mental representations.”  Louis Menand, author, referring to thoughts of the philosopher C.S. Pierce.

“There is no quantum world.  There is only an abstract physical  description.  It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to found out how nature is.  Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”  Niels Bohr, physicist.

“The physicist constructs what he terms the physical world, a concept which arises from a peculiar combination of certain observed facts and the reasoning provoked by their perception.”  Robert Lindsay and Henry Margenau, physicists.

Nilsson advocates the scientific method as being the gold standard for confirming or rejecting beliefs.   When beliefs are modified, probabilities are adjusted, but beliefs are no entirely confirmed or discounted.  Near the beginning of the eleventh century, al_Haytham, an Islamic scholar who lived in Basra and Cairo, wrote the Book of Optics,which included a theory of vision and a theory of sight.  According to one authority, “Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method.  His book changed the meaning of the term “optics” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field.  His investigations were not based on abstract theories, but on experimental evidence, and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.  Unlike the Greeks, in his theory of vision rays of light came from the objects seen rather than from the eyes that see them.

Some of the European contributors to the development of the scientific method are Robert Grosseteste (c. 1125-1253), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and, of course, Isaac Newton(1643-1727).

Problems arise when the problem is how to change erroneous beliefs.  The default for people is what they already believe, and much effort is involved in changing beliefs.  Moreover, we tend to seek out information that confirms rather than disconfirm our beliefs.  The internet has exacerbated this problem.  Different sites cater to different beliefs and we tend to search for information that confirms our beliefs.

The psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert describes two separate mental activities for processing a new piece of information, comprehension and assessment.  Assessment involves comparing  what is comprehended with other information.  It is much easier to reject than to accept information that does not correspond with existing beliefs.  Moreover, people do not like to suspend judgment.  Closure is preferred.  However, doubt us a valuable defense against belief traps.

Great minds can embrace doubt  The physicist Richard Feynman said, “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing—I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about.”

I fear that if we contrasted what  Feynman said with the typical individual on the street, we would find that most people have definite opinions about many things the know nothing about.  And many of these beliefs fly in the face of accepted scientific opinion—evolution for example.

Nilsson believes that the scientific method offers the best way discovered so far to invent  and evaluation beliefs.  And he believes that the best antidote to belief traps is to express our belies to the reasoned criticisms of others.  But as you should remember from the previous healthy memory blog post on belief, that beliefs are extremely difficult to change.  The viability of Nilsson’s  remedies will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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