Already so

What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.- Eugene T. Gendlin 1

A biography of the philosopher Derek Parfit talks about his fixation with trying to prove that morality is objective. It sounds like this veered into unhealthy levels of obsession, causing him anxiety and emotional pain whenever he failed to convince others of his view. He was deeply invested in the idea of objective morality because he believed that, if it were false, nothing would matter at all.

I’m vulnerable to becoming stressed over the same topic for the same reason; recently I started reading a rebuttal of the moral realist view I adhere to and noticed I was getting upset. Many people get similarly stressed by challenges to other core beliefs they hold. I’m talking about cases where we think it’s important that something be true—like “morality is objective”, “my God exists”, “my nation / party / politician is innocent of an alleged crime”—but we have no control over whether it’s true.

One way we (subconsciously) cope with our lack of control over whether these claims are true is by transferring our emotional investment into something we have more hope of influencing: whether people (ourselves and others) believe the claim is true. We act as though providing compelling proof for our cherished beliefs would actually cause those beliefs to be true. When someone challenges those beliefs, we react as though the challenger were trying to drag us into an alternate universe where our deepest fears are true, and we must successfully rebuff the challenge in order to remain safe.

Obviously, that’s silly. If there’s no God, you won’t be able to summon him forth from the void with reasoning, no matter how many people find your argument to be conclusive; nor, if he does exist, will a seemingly incontrovertible argument for atheism cause him to “vanish in a puff of logic” (as Douglas Adams joked). The same goes for Parfit’s and my fears of nihilism: objective value is either real or it isn’t, but it doesn’t flicker in and out of the universe as we become swayed one way or another on the question. Only our beliefs, not reality itself, hang in the balance. Sometimes it’s calming to consciously remind oneself of this.2

Of course there are practical reasons to care a lot about knowing and convincing people of the truth. But our emotional investment in it should be kept in check by a realistic assessment of our influence. If someone repeatedly rejects arguments that I find compelling, I’m probably not going to change their mind, whether by pushing harder or by coming up with brilliant new arguments. Nor does my failure to win them over mean my beliefs are at risk of disappearing from society.3

This has all been said a million times before, but I find I need to remind myself again and again.

  1. I owe my awareness of this quote to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. ↩︎
  2. Additionally: Often when we change our minds about one of our previously-cherished beliefs, we also change our minds about its importance and implications. If we forget this, our current ideologies can deceive us about what we would actually think and feel if we held to different ideologies. For example, I used to believe both that God exists, and that there could not possibly be any basis for morality without him. Given those beliefs, if you tried to imagine what it would be like to lose your belief in God, you might assume that you’d also become a nihilist—a distressing prospect for many. But that’s not likely. Most atheists aren’t nihilists; if your perspective on God’s existence were to change like theirs did, your perspective on the relation between God and morality would probably change too (as mine did). ↩︎
  3. Parfit was a genius with a cult following and an extensive correspondence network, and he probably did help bolster the popularity of moral realism; but the book that his obsession with the topic drove him to write was kind of a flop, even in philosophical circles.↩︎