[GiveGetWin Summer Camp wraps up today! It's been amazing. Recaps coming soon. Big thanks to everyone who made it happen, particularly all the great people at UChicago and the Chicago Innovation Exchange, especially Tom Ancona and Ashley Clement, and a great thanks to all our mentors -- Ben Rubin, Chiara Cokieng, Eden Full, Greg Nance, Jason Shen, Judd Weiss, Kai Zau, Laura Coe, Miguel Hernandez, Shashin Choksky, Stepan Parunashvili, Taylor Pearson, Ted Gonder, Zach Obront, and Zachary Cohn. And finally, to all our very talented attendees and the companies and experts that participated by taking part in GiveGetWin.]
On Empirical Truth and Affective Truth
"We've always been at war with Eastasia."
Being able to be cloaked in the mantle of "truth," unfortunately, is extremely profitable to all manner of people.
In the broader rationalist community, there's a concern with actual genuine truth via empiricism -- observation, analysis, hypotheses, testing, falsifiability, the scientific method, and so on.
We can all laugh when the North Korean government makes a declaration along the lines of "Kim Jong-un is the third greatest leader of all time, only surpassed by his Great and Illustrious ancestors, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il" -- but what's not funny is that the ability to have this statement more-or-less accepted by 25 million people is quite literally a matter of life or death for the DPRK's leadership.
If we wanted to test whether Jong-un is a Great Leader, we'd probably ask for parameters. How many scientific advancements have happened under his leadership? How was the quality of life improved? Should we measure by GDP? Solving social ills? Lower disease rates, better access to medicine, reduced rates of starvation? Perhaps a more subjective measure, like the fairness and consistency of North Korean courts, perhaps as judged by inquiring and weighing the opinions of experienced and well-respected jurists across the world?
But this exercise is worthless -- even laughable -- because the North Korean government is not resting its claims on our kind of truth, empirical truth.
It seems to me, unfortunately, that humans don't naturally differentiate between the truth of Newton's Second Law of Motion "1 N = 1 kg⋅m/s2" and the truth of statements like "X Country is the greatest country in the world."
But I contend that it would be a severe mistake to fight against how the vast majority of how people think and process: the concept of "truth" has historically never been limited to empirical truth.
Furthermore, this piece started off with a statement that most people worldwide would feel to be false despite beingasserted to be true and believed by a few people; that makes the job easier.
But consider instead, "Shakespeare is truth" or "I've been living a lie."
What are these?
These statements might, indeed, be true -- for some definition of true.
Indeed, to me personally, Shakespeare is truth. Xenophon is truth. I would assert that.
Though it's a different kind of truth than Newton or Maxwell.
We could call the "truth" of someone's life, art, and aesthetics "affective truth" to differentiate it from empirical truth.
"This place feel right to me" -- true! Affectively true.
If we wanted to have this enter into common parlance, we might use the words "empirically true" and "spiritually true."
When Kim Jong-un's press secretary puts out a piece about the Dear Great Leader, they're making claims of spiritual truth.
Indeed, for many definitions of religions, the North Korean government is trying to run a religion. A religion that almost all of us would call false -- affectively false, in that it feels wrong. It isn't true. It isn't a good way to live. We can feel that, intuitively. North Korea is a lie -- in terms of the claims they make about life and living.
North Korean's mythos is, certainly, also built on a house of empirical falseness, lies, empirical untruths.
But to try to argue empiricism with someone's spirituality[*] is, generally speaking, a wasted exercise.
We often see hyper-rational people refuting objectively false statements that politicians make -- for all the good it does them!
Politicians are often making appeals to affective truth, rather than attempting to give their best estimations and judgments of empirical truth.
I think -- I suspect -- at least, I hope -- that if we narrowly scope the definition of "empirical truth" to narrow standards of involving observation, testing, and resting as much as possible on mathematics and hard science, and only making highly parameterized statements when dealing with more subjective issues -- in this case, I think we'll be allowed to have "empirical truth" stand as it is.
Hopefully it can be technical and boring enough that we can avoid it becoming a political or religious battleground.
That's not to say there won't be heated disagreements by experts in a field about what the empirical is -- such is normal and productive -- but ideally we can stop much of the wasted energy that comes from when a rationalist is making an argument about empirical truth, the other party is making an argument about affective truth, and both sides are getting frustrated.
I'm writing this largely as a reminder to myself.
Sometimes I do something that I think is really cool. Then I go share it with the world. And sometimes, I get feedback that seems off-base to me.
Y'know, I'm wrong a lot of the time. I'm wrong more often than most people, simply because I try to huge volumes of stuff. When I'm 55% sure, I'll usually write up my initial thoughts and just note that I'm not sure if it's correct, but it's what I'm thinking about.
So, I'm wrong a lot. A lot of times, someone points out a glaring error I made. For instance, Jason Shen was kind enough to point out that the vast majority of people think to some extent that business/commerce/wealth is zero sum, so maybe it keeps making sense to talk about "adding value" - oh, right, selction bias on my part since most of my peer group either directly create things that didn't exist before (artists, engineers, programmers, experimental scientists, etc) or facilitate trade and exchange and wealth building (entrepreneurs, managers, investors, financiers, etc).
But most people that aren't directly involved in the creation or trade. The world is complex, most people in the West work in big corporations and don't see how their role directly contributes to new wealth being created. So anyways, mea culpa there, and I'll amend my position. Thanks Jason.
As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of assuming that we are very close to omniscient. - Kathryn Schulz
Several years ago I happened on Kathryn Schulz's delightful TED talk about being, well... wrong. I was immediately struck by the importance of her ideas for anyone who cared deeply about the truth. (For those of you who, like me, love books more than videos, I can also recommend the book she is discussing in the TED talk, pictured above.)