Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Reasons from the value of true belief

Two soccer teams are facing off, with a billion fans watching on TV. Brazil has a score of 2 and Belgium has a score of 0, and there are 15 minutes remaining. The fans nearly unanimously think Brazil will win. Suddenly, there is a giant lightning strike, and all electrical devices near the stadium fail, taking the game off the air. Coincidentally, during the glitch, Brazil’s two best players get red cards, and now Belgium has a very real chance to win if they try hard.

But the captain of the Brazilian team yells out this argument to the Belgians: “If you win, you will make a billion fans have a false belief. A false belief is bad, and when you multiply the badness by billion, the result is very bad. So, don’t win!”
Great hilarity ensues among the Belgians and they proceed to trounce the Brazilians.

The Belgians are right to laugh: the consideration that the belief of a billion fans will be falsified by their effort carries little to no moral weight.

Why? Is it that false belief carries little to no disvalue? No. For suppose that now the game is over. At this point, the broadcast teams have a pretty strong moral reason to try to get back on the air in order to inform the billion fans that they were mistaken about the result of the game.

In other words, we have a much stronger reason to shift people’s beliefs to match reality than to shift reality to match people’s beliefs. Yet in both cases the relevant effect on the good and bad in the world can be the same: there is less of the bad of false beliefs and more of the good of true beliefs. An immediate consequence of this is that consequentialism about moral reasons is false: the weight of moral reasons depends on more than the value of the consequences.

It is often said that belief has a mind-to-world direction of fit. It is interesting that this not only has repercussions for the agent’s own epistemic life, but for the moral life of other parties. We have much more reason to help others to true belief by affecting their beliefs than by affecting the truth and falsity of the content of the beliefs.

Do the Belgians have any moral reason to lose, in light of the fact that losing will make the fans have correct belief? I am inclined to think so: producing a better state of affairs is always worthwhile. But the force of the reason is exceedingly small. (Nor do the numbers matter: the reason’s force would remain exceedingly small even if there are trillions of fans because Earth soccer was famous through the galaxy.)

There is a connection between the good and the right, but it is quite complex indeed.


Ibrahim Dagher said...

This was really good. In some of my own work, I've been thinking a lot about whether we can deduce any asymmetries between a maximally evil-god and a maximally good-god. One such line is this: an evil-god will want to maximize the evils in the world, and because false beliefs are an evil, an evil-god will want to maximize the false beliefs we have. So an evil-god entails a deeply radical amount of skepticism.

I've always found this line of thought to be powerful reason to think a good-god is a more reasonable hypothesis than an evil-god. But this post has made me realize false beliefs do not necessarily entail the normal moral obligations other evils do. Do you think what you have said here undermines this argument?

Ibrahim Dagher said...

On an unrelated note: Dr. Pruss, will you be attending the SCP Conference at Baylor next month?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is an SCP conference at Baylor next month?

Ibrahim Dagher said...


Although I guess it is virtual, not in-person. It was supposed to be hosted by Baylor.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I rarely know about conferences.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A maximally evil God might tolerate some true belief. For instance, here are four options:
1. Doing what you think is wrong when it is actually wrong.
2. Doing what you think is wrong when it is actually right.
3. Doing what you think is right when it is actually wrong.
4. Doing what you think is right when it is actually right.

Here, 4 is the best and 1 is the worst. 2 and 3 are somewhere in between. So the evil god will wish to promote 1, which does require true belief.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a related asymmetry, on the other hand. A good God's having true beliefs is intrinsically good and also instrumentally good as it makes the good God more effective at doing good. But the bad God's having false beliefs is intrinsically bad but instrumentally good, since it takes the evil god less effective at malefaction. And the bad god's having true beliefs is intrinsically good but instrumentally bad. So it's harder on the bad side to align the intrinsic and instrumental values.
This applies to power as well as knowledge.

Ibrahim Dagher said...

I think (1)-(3) will probably justify an evil-god's allowing some instances of true beliefs. But it still seems like there will be plenty of important cases outside of (1)-(3). For example, consider highly complex mathematics: if an evil-god were to exist, should we expect our rational faculties to be efficacious when we think about things like Fermat's last theorem, Tao's work on the primes, or the Axiom of Choice, etc.? I would be highly skeptical of my ability to come to true beliefs in mathematics if an evil-god existed. But we shouldn't be skeptical about our work in mathematics.

I like your asymmetry between intrinsic and instrumental values. I also wonder if this makes an evil-god less unified, because the instrumental values have to justify the intrinsic ones. For instance, if someone were to ask: why is God omniscient/omnipotent? The answer is something like: because God is perfect (or for the Scholastics, because He is pure actuality). On the other hand, for an evil-god, if we are to ask for an explanation of why He is omniscient/omnipotent, its going to be in terms of some fact outside the evil-god's nature.


Alexander R Pruss said...

That sounds right.

Now consider some provable set theoretic proposition p that is completely irrelevant to the design of the universe (it's not a proposition we humans think about). The evil god, being really smart, sees the proof of p. What happens now? Does he believe not-p contrary to the evidence, because it's wicked to believe contrary to the evidence? Presumably so. Presumably the evil god has infinite resources of self-deceit. In fact, if he is capable of seeing the proof of p while believing not-p, he is capable of believing contradictions. So he probably believes lots of contradictions. But he's really smart. Why don't the contradictions explode into falsehoods about stuff that does matter to universe design? Well, maybe he gets lucky in his beliefs. But if he has to get lucky, then it's a contingent matter that he is all that evil. Maybe in some possible world he is really unlucky and unable to do much evil because he knows very little.

Benjamin Stowell said...

Maybe: the Belgians laugh at the suggestion because if maximizing true beliefs are what we're after, true beliefs are what we are going to get regardless. The 1 billion fans will soon get to enjoy holding to the true belief that the Belgians have won. Also, if the Belgians throw the game for the sake of maximizing true beliefs, the 1 billion fans will now have the false belief that the game was played fairly.

Ibrahim Dagher said...

Dr. Pruss,
Well said. It seems like knowledge creates a two-headed problem for an evil-god hypothesis. On one hand, because our having knowledge is intrinsically good, the hypothesis generates skeptical worries. On the other, an evil-god will want to maximize his own false beliefs, which seems to imply various absurdities and contingencies.

Also, suppose an evil-god's believing some proposition p leads to just as much evil as the evil-god's not believing p (or believing ~p). Does this mean the evil-god will in some worlds believe p, and others not, even if those worlds are otherwise extrinsically identical? Or, does it mean that the evil-god's believing p just has no explanation? It just seems really odd to have a maximally great being *choosing* their beliefs, based purely on extrinsic facts.