USS Clueless - The critical question

Stardate 20020604.1714

(Captain's log): We are an inductive species. We prize deduction as a mode of thought, but life is too complex for that. Deduction cannot solve most problems. So we think inductively; we analyze probabilities; we try to make guesses based on inadequate or unreliable information; we assume correlations which may not exist and we assume causation from correlation when there may be none. As a result, sometimes we get the wrong answers, but it's better than doing nothing at all.

We face questions big and small all the time; we constantly try to determine what is going to come next. Most of the time we aren't even aware that we're doing it.

There is one question which is the critical question in life. It's the most fundamental question there is. You might even say that it's the question of life, the universe, and everything -- except that the answer isn't "42". Indeed, it's not clear that it has a single answer. It's a question we all deal with constantly, and each of us must live with the consequences of whatever answer we choose. So what is this profound question?

Do you prefer unpleasant truths or pleasing falsehoods?

Stated in those terms, most people would say "Truth is better than falsehood" but it's not that simple. This is a very deep question, and in practice most of us do, to some extent, accept pleasing answers irrespective of whether they're the most likely answer. It's called "hope", "optimism", "faith" and many other things ("gullibility"), and for many people it's what keeps them going and keeps them happy.

There's a fine line between optimism and gullibility. That's the problem. A pessimist may be a realist, but he is probably also unhappy. Is that good? It depends on what you think you're trying to accomplish in life, and that's why there's no simple or obvious broadly applicable answer to this question.

No matter how you answer it, you'll pay a price. There are benefits and drawbacks to every way of dealing with it, and also to attempting to dodge it. On one level or another, it affects everything we do, because it is a fundamental question about how we view the universe and how we think inductively.

About 30 years ago I embraced the idea that truth was always better than falsehood irrespective of whether it was pleasing. There are various reasons why that was, for me, the best answer but those reasons don't apply to other people and it may not be the best answer for everyone.

Because of that, I became an atheist. While I would prefer the comfort of religion, I cannot bring myself to accept it. It is, to me, a pleasing falsehood. To me, atheism makes the most sense. But atheism is cold, uncomforting. I have come to accept atheism and to make the best I can of it but it doesn't fill the hole that religion would fill in my psychic needs. That is part of the price I pay for taking an extreme realistic point of view of the world.

Going too far in the direction of optimism leads to delusion. Most people recognize that sometimes at least it is necessary to accept that bad things happen, that the universe is not ideal. In practice, this isn't an either-or decision for most people so much as a matter of degree.

But the degree is indeed the thing, and it affects how we set goals in life.

Consider gambling. I just got back from a trip to Vegas. There are ranges of bets there of various kinds. At one extreme you have Blackjack, where it's not possible to win more than the amount you bet. At the other extreme you have wagers which are extremely long odds, but which do indeed pay off once in a while. Last week a woman won $22 million on a $3 bet on a slot machine.

I don't play those kinds of bets. I don't like long-odds bets. I mostly play Blackjack in Vegas because I understand it, and because I have the ability to affect the outcome. And because the winnings are low, it's more common to win even though wins are worth less. When you're playing longer odds, you win less often but you win more when you do.

Other people like the thrill of getting a huge payoff and are willing to accept a lower probability of winning or even the possibility of not winning at all. That's why Vegas offers so many different kinds of games and ways for you to wager.

When we set goals in any endeavor, we're influenced both by the desirability of the outcome and by how likely it is that we can achieve it. How long of odds are we willing to accept? Is a near certainty of a moderate outcome better than a slight chance of a hugely fantastic result? That's not an easy question to answer.

This can manifest in everything from a willingness to play the "E" bet on the Craps table to setting the political goal for your revolutionary terrorist movement. For example, the Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" as a condition for a political settlement with Israel is an example of a long-shot bet. It makes the result far more worthwhile for the Palestinians, but it also means there's far less chance of winning anything at all. Were they to abandon that and settle for less, there's a much higher chance that they could achieve a true settlement with Israel, but it would be one which would "pay" less. As a hardcore realist, I feel that they're being too idealistic, and as long as they keep playing for the long shot the war will continue. That's why I have contended for a long time that they must give up the "right of return". From my point of view, it doesn't matter whether it's a desirable outcome for the Palestinia

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004