I would not, originally, have considered starting (or restarting) a blog with this as the slogan. This sounds like a platitude, a truism so banal and boring and uncontroversial that it’s not worth any explicit statement, just like saying “basic logic works” does not seem to merit being said out loud.
I was having an online conversation once about probability theory. The discussion was with a person who claimed to have thought heavily about probability, not just the mathematics but the underlying philosophical issues. I was trying to explain the importance of the qualitative “rules of plausibility”, although I wouldn’t have phrased it that way at the time. And the person I was talking with made the comment — paraphrasing here — that he didn’t see the importance of these qualitative rules of plausibility. After all, he reasoned, what if you apply these rules of plausibility to a situation that doesn’t matter? Why would they matter then?
After some bewildered consideration of that comment, I tried to write a reasoned response. I acknowledged that there would be no point expending effort in ranking relative plausibilities, if the outcome of the ranking were not important. However, I then suggested the somewhat different task of applying the rules of probability to a situation that he actually found important, a situation where he did not know the absolute truth of the matter, but had to make a decision under some level of uncertainty. (The world is big. We are small. There are many things we do not know.) I suggested that rigorous thinking about probabilities was desirable in exactly those cases where it would be critical to him, even essential, that he got the answer right, when he was ultimately ignorant of what would happen.
This same person, who previously claimed deep consideration of these issues, declined to respond to this point, or any other point I made. Conversation over. I’m still not sure what to make of that. But that conversation, among others, is a source of this current emphasis. I understand now, finally, that this is a point that must actually be made explicitly. And emphasized. Repeatedly, if necessary.
There are problems in the world that are actually important. It’s worth thinking about how to improve our chances to solve those problems.
If anybody has an objection to that, well then, I don’t really know what to say except… I disagree. Likewise, if I’m discussing the importance of the various “rules of plausible reasoning”, I would like to discuss the importance of these rules within the context of an important problem, one where we genuinely care about getting the answer right, especially when there is potential human suffering on the line given a mistake.
The world is big. We are small. We cannot be absolutely certain that we are doing the right thing, and DESPITE ALL THAT, there are still problems that are so overwhelmingly important that we really, really, really, really want to get the answer right. This is true in the political world. It’s true in the sciences, as well. The inventors of the H-bomb were certainly smart enough to create the H-bomb, but (as the saying goes whose source I cannot find at the moment) they were definitely not smart enough to not make the H-bomb. So how smart were they? Wouldn’t it be a better world if everyone clever enough to make doomsday devices were also rational enough to NOT make them? There are problems in this universe where it is crucially important to get the right answer. I would say the inventors of thermonuclear explosives didn’t manage that. They solved the physics problem, and thereby spectacularly failed to solve the human problem.
And of course, it’s not just decisions on this scale that we need to get right. It’s also true that there are decisions that we need to make in our own personal lives, maybe not the world-shattering decisions of nuclear physicists, but nevertheless crucial for our own and our family’s happiness. It’s important to get those decisions right, too.
So now, I’m stating that as an axiom up front. There is shit that we want to get right. How to improve our chances of getting this stuff right is worth thinking about.