virus: Belief and Knowledge (was: The truth about faith)

Wed, 25 Jun 1997 19:35:44 -0700

From: David McFadzean[]
>I've noticed that many engineers like to draw pictures of abstract
>concepts in order to understand them better. <snip> I'm tentatively =
> the diagram the TGrid(tm) and you can find it on the web at=20
> [2]

Well, I've been lurking a long time and thought I would remain doing so, =
but if there's one thing I can't resist it's a visual argument. Great =

I've played around with variations on this theme and it led to all sorts =
of interesting places. I'll mention one here... (in story format instead =
of visual format since it's easier in ASCII)

A Story


Consider the proposition: "The home team will win the championship this =

Now imagine two teams: the Whynville Stars and the Luzeburg Clowns. And =
imagine two fans: Wally who lives in Whynville and Larry who lives in =
Luzeburg.(I know it's silly...but bear with me.)

The Stars have won 6 out of the last nine championships and they are =
returning with the same lineup this year. The Clowns haven't won in 30 =
years and are returning with the same lineup (unfortunately!).

Chapter 1:

Wally and Larry, being devoted fans, each strongly believes the =
proposition "The home team will win..." (of course the "home team" =
refers to a different team in each case...)=20

Being fans of the sport, each is also fully aware of all the statistics =
and history of the two teams. Wally is brash in his confidence, Larry is =
a little defensive but both believe in their respective teams.

Chapter 2:

Due to shifting job markets Wally moves to Luzeburg and Larry moves to =
Whynville. Both consider it a bad turn of fortune. Possessions being =
easier to shift than allegiances, each now disbelieves the proposition =
"The home team will win..." since they still root for their old teams.=20

Wally is almost indifferent about it -- the thought of the Clowns =
winning isn't much of a concern. Larry is more attentive to the danger =
posed by the Stars but finds support for his disbelief not only from the =
fortunes of the Clowns but also from all the other 30 teams in the =


There have been four scenarios of belief described. Wally originally =
believed in a proposition supported by abundant evidence ("Go Stars!"). =
Larry believed in a proposition unsupported by evidence ("wishful =

Wally later found no reason to believe a proposition that had no =
evidence supporting it ("Clowns? Yeah, right."), while Larry disbelieved =
in the Stars chances despite some good evidence to believe otherwise =
("They're overrated!").=20


In this light, consider four definitions:
1. Knowledge.... Belief in accordance with the Evidence.
2. Credulity....... Belief despite the Evidence.
3. Skepticism... Disbelief despite the Evidence
4. Thrift............ Disbelief in accordance with the (lack of) =
Evidence =20

KNOWLEDGE is the holy grail. It requires not only the difficult =
assemblage of data and theory but also the equally difficult willingness =
to believe in the evidence in order to reap the benefits and continue to =
build further knowledge.=20

It is also the most satisfying; in the story it corresponds to Wally =
rooting for a winning team. No (or little) conflict between head and =
heart. Feels good. (Note that a non-fan resident of Whynville gets =
little enjoyment from the perennial championship victories of the =

CREDULITY is a willingness to believe despite the weight of the =
evidence. In some cases this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of =
positive thinking.=20

This is the position of Larry rooting for the Clowns. A little sad =
perhaps, but note that there is an irreconcilable conflict between head =
and heart for Larry. He has the bad luck to be in a town with a lousy =
home team. His happiness is tied to a faulty proposition (or maybe the =
enthusiasm of all the die-hard Clown fans will be the impetus to deliver =
the miracle?).

SKEPTICISM is an unwillingness to commit to any position. Since (as all =
debaters know) it is far easier to oppose than propose, the safest =
intellectual position is often one of absolute skepticism ("everything's =
an illusion").

When Larry moves to Whynville he can correctly point out that the Stars =
have lost three times and draw on the possibility of any of the other =
teams winning. Thus it is easier intellectually to maintain the negative =
position than it was the positive position in Luzeburg. Not very =
emotionally satisfying though.

THRIFT is simply a recognition that mind and time are finite. There are =
a Vast number of possible propositions, only a Vanishingly small =
fraction of which have any evidence to support them.=20

Wally is (quite rightly) pretty certain that the Clowns aren't going to =
win when he moves to "Luzeburg" but the whole thing is really beneath =
consideration, unless he grows impatient with all the "Luzers" cheering =
for the Clowns and making ridiculous claims as to their chances. After =
all there's lots of other teams that he doesn't think are going to win =
either -- he can't get worked up about all of them!


1. This post seemed to take _forever_ to write, it's longer than I =
wanted it to be, it says less than I wanted to say, and it says it less =
well than I'd hoped it would. Lurking is much easier :-)

2. Some of the confusion over the word "faith" results from =
equivocation of "Faith =3D Credulity" with "Faith =3D Committing Fully =
to Uncertain Propositions". (These correspond exactly to David's =
graphical interpretation I think.)=20

3. Knowledge is the fruit of the middle way, between the intellectual =
laziness of Credulity - belief without evidence, and the spiritual =
laziness of Skepticism -- evidence without belief.=20

4. The "power of positive thinking" aspect of the Credulous position is =
a fascinating aspect of it. It probably gets attention far out of =
proportion to its actual applicability, but it does so because it is =
paradoxical and self-referential and interesting and often true (all =
good things!). In this sense it's probably analogous to the "altruism" =
issue of natural selection.



The Obligatory Quotation:

"It is of course /possible/ that all or any of our beliefs may be =
mistaken, and therefore all ought to be held with at least some slight =
element of doubt. But we cannot have /reason/ to reject a belief except =
on the ground of some other belief." --- B. Russell, _The Problems of =