Friday, July 5, 2013

Louis CK on practical epistemology

In his feature-length stand-up show Live at the Beacon Theater, comedian Louis CK lays bare an oft-overlooked fact concerning the relationship between belief and behavior:
I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them. They're my little believies.
The show is available on Netflix (at around 6 minutes in) and may well be on YouTube.


Don't doubt for a moment that there is an ethical dimension to the lack of conformation between what one believes and what one does. As a good introduction, dial over to, and read William Clifford's 1877 essay, "The Ethics of Belief." The infamous, and terrifically portable, summary of his position on the matter: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." A corollary: Since humans are all always guilty in one way or another of holding beliefs (of some sort or scope) that aren't warranted by sufficient evidence that we ourselves have worked through, it is the case that we (yes, all of us) are living always in a state of epistemic failure (here I almost wrote, "epistemic sin!). Knowing this is the beginning of rationality.


A corollary from Oscar Wilde: “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.” Contrast this to the wisdom theme of H.P. Lovecraft's tale, “The Call of Cthulhu”: “ he most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” If there were a divinity of perfect rationality, would we not have to call this being either insensate as a stone, or wholly mad? (See also Borges' story "Funes the Memorious" for a case example of how a perfect omnimnemonic could not in practice survive with his reason intact, free to live a life we could call human.)

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