Others are incentivized to change our beliefs to the degree they are affected by them. This has always been the case and has led to several strategies to do so through a Darwinian mechanism. Facing this, the only reasonable response is to evolve counter-strategies.
In what follows I argue for the first two points – Why is there deception going on, and how it came about. In a further essay I suggest possible counter-strategies.
Beliefs, Power, and Deception
There are ontologically subjective facts which are epistemically objective (1). Allow me to unpack. The fact that Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is the Queen of England is epistemically objective (she is indeed the Queen of England). It is also ontologically subjective in the sense that it made true solely by a standing agreement amongst epistemic agents. This agreement consists of various propositions which are made true in virtue of the agreement (one of them being “Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is the Queen of England”).
The fact that it is made true in virtue of agreement is where I want to focus. This fact makes it so, dear reader, that if everyone were to wake up tomorrow believing you to be the Queen or King of England, then in fact, you would be.
Now one might have a preference for being or not being the Queen of England, President of the U.S.A., CEO of Apple, owner of the convenience store next to your place, the smartest man in the world, and so on . This means that shared beliefs (which your beliefs are, in part, part of) affect others.
If your beliefs affect others and their preferences, then this would provide them with an incentive to alter them. Especially beliefs that concern them or their position or interests, insofar as they can alter them. It is unlikely that the owner of the convenience store next to your place can do much.
You can imagine that utter disapproval of the President could lead to a revolution or impeachment. Utter disbelief in the regime’s legitimacy would change the regime. Disbelief in the power of the CEO to call the shots would lead to him being led into paralysis, and so on.
Now this is a very fine and amusing story. But what would you actually expect to see in a world where the story obtains? Where facts are made true by agreement? Where power derives from these agreements?
You would expect to see groups with enough power systematically trying to install in those whose beliefs they depend on particular opinions and beliefs as to keep them in power. You would expect systematic efforts to alter beliefs in a certain direction. You would expect to see propaganda, agenda-setting, disinformation, crowd manipulation, media manipulation, delegitimisation, wars of ideas. These on the “evil” side. (2)
But you would also expect “good” issues (3). Modern social justice (4), appeals to “rights” (5), and various movements trying to influence you (feminism, Masculism, A, etc.). The Watson controversy. Inequality talk (6). And in older time, just war.
You would also expect the fact that some “facts are made true by agreement” to be as hidden as possible since widespread knowledge of this would make these facts stand on much shakier ground . Better to stand on some firm ground (7). You would further expect systematic deception by those in power. (8) And a lot of people telling you what to do.
These efforts need not be explained by a big conspiracy by the powerful. In fact, no intelligent design is needed. In a parallel to man, Darwin explain how very complex mechanism come into place.
Gaining power is a very strong incentive. Since it is the ability to influence or control the behavior of people, power can help one reach all of theirs instrumental and terminal goals.
The claim is that for those that wanted to come to or stay in power there was an active darwinian mechanism going on involving variation, selection and retention. Variation was provided by the various techniques used to attempt to alter the belief landscape. The owners of the conjoined belief landscape provided a selection mechanism – they would either come to agree about the power of those in power and the necessity of them staying in power, or not. And finally, retention, successful strategies would stay and be used.
As the landscape evolves so do the strategies. Upworthy was selected for virality in a landscape of social media dominance that was not in place fifteen years ago. Trying to convince the populace that the chief of state ought to be the chief of state because he is a God would work on North Korea and in Egypt some 2000 years ago, and wouldn’t work anywhere in Europe in the present.
The setting presents itself as such. On the one hand we want to have an accurate map. On the other there are entities that wish us to have an inaccurate map. In such a situation one might suggest creating tools to defend ourselves from these pernicious influences.
The contestation can be heard: “Are we not children of the Enlightenment? Was it not one of historicism’s mistake that Popper destroyed (9) to analyse the origin of an argument instead of the argument itself? Ought we not to do engage with arguments, by themselves?”
I answer that we mustn’t. Attention is limited, and if one can dismiss a source quickly, then all the better. “There’s an old saying in the public opinion business: we can’t tell people what to think, but we can tell them what to think about.” And this is precisely why we cannot engage with every source with the same seriousness. Engaging with any one source has opportunity costs and thus needs to be established as useful or necessary prior to the engagement itself. In the next post I will describe some heuristics for belief adoption in adversarial settings.
- How much distortion can we expect on the various entities telling us what to do?
- Can the convenience store owner do anything to influence our belief? (Maybe acting as a prototypical convenience store owner.)
- How far can the Darwinian selection mechanism hypothesis apply and what does it predict?
- Social reality is pretty openly discussed within some academic circles. It might be a case of hiding in plain sight. It might be that it just can’t be hidden. It is notable that all major world religions (except Buddhism?) mesh really well with objectivity, and objective world (God-given) and not with facts made true by human agreement.
- Plato in the republic emphasised maintaining social order (classes) by spreading a myth, the Noble falsehood that different people have different metals in their souls.
(1) -Searle, J. R. (1995). The construction of social reality. Simon and Schuster.
(2) – I.e.: the various sides that have not been branded by themselves.
(3) – I.e.: various movements that have branded themselves (I.e.: Pro-choice, versus, Pro-Life [No one is anti-anything. See here])
(4) – The current world is unjust and we aim to make it just. “Just” is of course not about human agreement, but beyond humans.
(5) – Rights are normative principles, and in some cases given by nature (whatever that means). A society that doesn’t assert rights is just wrong.
(6) – Inequality being like social justice. The current world is unequal, equal is good, let’s make it equal!
(7) – Religion is as firm as you can get. Who would dare defy a God?
(8) – And, of course, you would expect this to happen in all places where there are power relations. So not only there and in the past, but here and in the present.
(9) – Popper, K. R., Havel, V., & Gombrich, E. H. J. (2011). The open society and its enemies. Routledge