Rationalizations for the truth are a barrier to truth

I’ve noticed an annoying tendency in myself.

Often, I slowly work my way to a conviction about something. It might take years of gradually moving from a solid starting point to a conclusion that is uncomfortable or challenging to accept, and then from there to the next one, and so on.

What I find is that because the conviction took such a long time to build up to, I will forget the complex process of reasoning that took me from beginning to end. Where did I start? Which options did I consider, which did I eliminate and for what reasons, which did I accept at each stage of the process and for what reasons?

What I am left with instead is a belief in a thing, and a strong sense that it is a thing I have thought through carefully and have very good evidence for, so long as I don’t examine it too closely.

This is where the self-deception enters in. My brain looks for and seizes upon reasons, or better to say rationalizations, for the conclusion. Here’s a simple and straightforward and plausible argument for my conclusion. That must be why I believe it! And it must be a very powerful argument, since I know in my gut that my reasons for believing the conclusion are excellent, and obviously this argument has been the reason all along.

The thing is, even if the conclusion I’ve arrived at is true, such a way of thinking is likely to blind me to the best arguments for it, by substituting in weaker and easier arguments and investing them with an emotional impression of solidity.

This tendency has been present in me for a long time, I think, probably as far back as I can remember. But I’ve only recently become aware of it and become able to articulate it coherently.

I think there are two advantages which enabled me to see this tendency which my brain tries very hard to hide from itself. One is that I have worked my way to a nuanced and unconventional set of conclusions. I listen to progressives share their thoughts and I’m repulsed, and I listen to rightwing racism or conspiracy theorizing or libertarianism and I’m repulsed, and I listen to centrists of various stripes and I’m largely unmoved. I think that if there was an ideological demographic that I could fit into more easily, and if I could hear a variety of different rationalizations from many people who are smarter than I am, it would practically be all but impossible for me to break out of the bubble of rationalizations.

But that’s not enough by itself either. It has been the habit of writing twice a week for a small and invisible audience, clarifying what my convictions are and explaining why I hold them, which has forced me to think through what I believe and why. I remember I had a reason for this conclusion, but now, what was it? It’s been so long.

It is a reminder of how long and difficult is the path to seeking truth, and replacing opinion with knowledge. The project is a great challenge, but the difficulty is part of what makes it so attractive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *