What to do when your beliefs are contradictory – don’t panic!
Some philosophers talk as if there is no rational advice one can give to someone – oneself for example – who has just uncovered a contradiction in her beliefs. This seems wrong to me, and eventually I would like to write something about this. In the meantime, I thought that some brainstorming might help. Anyone want to join in?
Some relevant observations [edited to put them below the fold]. (No references here – but of course these are linked to many other people’s work.)
(1) checking for consistency is cognitively expensive. (A basic bit of meta-logic that seems to be born out in everyday cognition.) So it is not a good idea to spend a lot of energy rooting out contradictions in one’s beliefs when they are not causing trouble. When they are, there is usually some theme involved, following which can uncover the worst ones. For example I know to check whether my beliefs about what appointments I have in the next few days can be reconciled with my beliefs about where I am going to be.
(2) because it is not easy to find contradictions, when one deals with one by denying one of the conflicting beliefs, one has no assurance that one is not just creating more or worse trouble. It is safer to move from belief to agnosticism. But it is also an aim of inquiry to have usable opinions about things. So there is a tension here. Often the best thing to do is to leave the beliefs in place, and guard against trouble with a compartmentalization of one’s beliefs, making one wary of conclusions whose roots lie in both compartments.
(3) suppose your beliefs fall into two compartments, and you cannot make a unified system of them. That is no worse than finding that someone who is no less intelligent and well informed than you believes something you deny. That’s a very familiar situation. One usually just lives with it, if there is no easy way to persuade the other, and you don’t find yourself persuaded. But in the one person compartmentalised belief case it is you who is no less intelligent and well informed than you, and who disagrees with you. There is really nothing more shocking about one person letting a contradiction remain than about one person tolerating a disagreement with an epistemic equal.
(4) suppose that you think the other person is better informed than you. Then if their belief contradicts yours you have more of a problem than when you find a contradiction in your own beliefs. If their belief added to yours entails something which you explicitly deny, then even if you don’t automatically add their belief to yours, still you would think you have something to worry about. Conversely, suppose you think that p on a topic where you feel pretty secure, and think that if p then q, on a topic where you don’t trust your intuitions and don’t have good control over the evidence. Still, that is what you believe. Then the two come together, one romantic evening, and you see the pressure to q, which you would much rather avoid accepting. You could just withdraw the belief that if p then q, but you could also shrug your shoulders and say “always felt I was at sea on those matters: better not let my X opinions mess up my Y opinions.”
(5) it is sometimes be the best course to let your beliefs get fragmentary – if you have the virtue of letting them fall into the right fragments – and hope that these fragments combine with the fragments of other people’s beliefs in profitable ways. So I have beliefs of kinds X, Y, Z and so do you, and we strive to make our X- and Y-beliefs consistent with one another’s, but just agree to differ when there’s trouble over Z. Sometimes it’s best to straighten out your own mind, sometimes best to get on the same wavelength as your friends, depending.
(6) so two important intellectual virtues emerge. Having a feel for profitable fragmentation, and knowing when to worry about the pattern of your beliefs and when to worry about their relation to beliefs of others. In a way the second is a special case of the former.
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