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How’s Your Epistemic Health?

Coach Z (my junior high P.E. teacher) somehow inspired hundreds of junior high kids to fall in love with fitness. The end of every semester brought a “fitness test,” and there were all kinds of awards for progress and achievement. My favorite were the colored ribbons, with black being the highest honor (school colors were black and gold). I still remember when I earned my first black ribbon. Coach Z gave us practical, simple ways to improve fitness that we could practice for a lifetime. He also gave us funny stories, like the time he decided to try swishing Pine-Sol in this mouth (kills germs, right?), burning off all his taste buds and leaving his tongue smooth as glass. He was so beloved that there was a petition to name a school after him.

Coach Z, health
Coach Z, post retirement.

Today in schools we talk about more than mere physical health. We concern ourselves with emotional health, mental health, and other categories of well-being. But when was the last time you heard a discussion about epistemic health? Never, right? I would call “epistemic health” the well-being of your belief system and belief forming practices. What you believe to be true makes a HUGE difference in your life! If you believe you are unworthy of love, or that there are monsters under your bed, it will result in despair and fear. And just as a healthy body can affect your overall happiness, a healthy belief system can yield tremendous benefits. This post and video address some basics of epistemic health. In the concluding section, I will briefly apply these basic ideas to a tough issue: religious belief.

(Jump to video or read on!)

In the video, I’m riding my bike from my house to Harmony Bends disc-golf course. In it I compare various aspects of believing with riding a bike up and down hills, navigating rocky roads and smooth ones. The first analogy looks at the similarities between belief formation and riding downhill. It’s the “easy” part.

The Downhill of Epistemic Health

We form beliefs constantly with no effort or attention. Every time one of your five senses delivers new data (seeing a tree for instance), your mind forms a belief about that input. “There is a tree before me, and it has no leaves,” or “There is a foul smell coming from that creek,” or “I can hear a car approaching me from behind.” Most of these beliefs form in our mind without any awareness. These beliefs go into storage as memories, and we have millions of such memory beliefs. Beliefs also form due to logical inferences (“The tree is bare, so it must be winter.”), testimony from others, and introspection (“I’m feeling happy today.”) All these beliefs come about with no effort or concentration.

epistemic health, downhill

Unfortunately, not all the beliefs formed are “good” beliefs. Some are false, some are true but lack sufficient support. When we read a fake or unsupported news story on Facebook, we may form a belief that it is true before we have really investigated. Or sometimes beliefs form due to non-cognitive inputs like fear and desire, or because of our psychological states (depression and anxiety.) My fear that I left the stove on at home (despite having checked it 5 times before leaving) is not caused by any rational process or observation. Rather it forms because of cognitive malfunction. Occasionally, someone may guess at the answer to a question, and guess correctly, but this is still a “bad” belief due to the lack of rational support or reliable process.

In a 2015 article in Post Magazine, Graham Lawton explores the problems with our normal belief-forming process. Citing research in neuroscience and cognitive science, he points out how so many of our beliefs are not the product of careful reasoning, as we might hope, but rather the product of a little reason mixed in with feelings and non-cognitive inputs. While Lawton correctly points out that even our religious beliefs can be formed haphazardly and without sufficient reason, he forgets that beliefs can acquire support after their initial formation. A child who very appropriately forms a belief in God based on testimonial evidence from her parents, or based on intuition, can, as an adult, investigate and find a plethora of powerful reasons to believe in God. So, beliefs can be “upgraded,” rather than deleted, so to speak. And this is not necessarily “confirmation bias.” (At the end of the day, I think our belief-forming processes are generally reliable, despite these problems.)

The Uphill of Epistemic Health

uphill, epistemic health

In grade school, I often did badly in math. It was only as an adult that I realized that this had little to do with my intelligence. My problem (in addition to being careless) was that I hated checking my work. It was, after all, extra work! Responsible believers (and math students) take time to evaluate their beliefs now and then, especially the important ones. They also maintain a certain degree openness to new information. But belief evaluation is hard! It takes time and effort to investigate issues and seek out the opinion of experts. But just as riding a bike uphill will improve your physical health, evaluation will improve your epistemic health. No epistemic pain, no epistemic gain!

The most painful part is watching a belief slip away when it is unable to stand the rigors of evaluation. Many beliefs that we acquired in our youth may have been formed hastily or without sufficient evidence, and now we realize that they must be discarded. But as we examine a cherished belief, we may also discover that there is far more support available than we ever knew!

Responsible Believing

Finally, let me say a few additional words about the “downhill” process of belief formation and how we can navigate the hazards. While I have already said that much of our belief formation is involuntary and subconscious, we are not helpless in the process. I’ve ridden on many mountain biking trails where gravity tried to kill me. But even though I am moving very fast, I can use skill to avoid slamming into trees and rocks. These skills develop over time, through practice. Similarly, as we walk through our daily routines, we can utilize epistemic skills to avoid bad beliefs. Here are a few ways you can exercise epistemic skill:

  • Being selective of what you read or consume on social media makes a big difference. It isn’t the ideas you are trying to avoid or filter, necessarily, but rather the people presenting them. Is this person an expert on this subject? Are they citing experts? If not, it may not be worth reading, or at least take their words with a grain of salt.
  • Engage your “System 2.” Daniel Kahneman famously wrote about System 1 and System 2 in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 allows us to make quick, instinctive decisions, which is great when you’re hurtling downhill on a bike. But sometimes we need to hit the brakes and think more carefully, employing System 2. System 1 just can’t handle complex problems or important topics. That’s what System 2 is for. So when you read or hear information or arguments about big, complicated subjects, slow it down and let System 2 engage.
  • Watch out for biases. As humans, we aren’t like computers or Mr. Spock on Star Trek. We aren’t perfect reasoning machines. Our thinking permits emotions and desires to influence it. One example is “tribalism.” This bias instantly colors any person or information opposing our “tribe” as bad, wrong, and stupid. It also colors anything or anyone that agrees with our tribe as good, true, and insightful. Knowing you have irrational biases of this kind, be on the lookout for their influence.
  • Adopt a position of epistemic humility. Realize that you could be wrong and often are. Just as we must finally admit our need for help when we go to a doctor, that same humility enables us to receive help and make difficult changes to improve our epistemic health.

The importance of engaging System 2 and exercising care became clear to me when my son, Clark, started beating me at chess. He always plays a careful, mistake-free game. I, on the other hand, am prone to mistakes because of impatience! I have to intentionally slow down and think through my options and possible consequences.

System 2

Epistemic Health and Religious Belief

As I briefly mentioned above, applying these skills can be especially important in your beliefs about God. However you currently answer the “Is there a God?” question (yes, no, maybe), you can evaluate your reasons for holding that view. Every position should have support (not proof), even if undecided. Every adult also must regulate what she takes into her belief system regarding God. Are the people you listen to reliable? What makes them reliable? What kind of support do you have for your view? How much are emotions or desires affecting your thinking?

Since the existence of God or the correctness of a religion cannot be proven, we must settle for what is most reasonable or trustworthy. Relying on the word of a parent or teacher is appropriate in childhood, but not as an adult who grapples with the complexities of the issue. Given the importance of this subject–it has far-reaching implications–I think we are all required to give it serious thought and investigation. Seek out the best information available and evaluate your view. There are, of course, practical restraints that limit how far our investigation goes, but do as much as you are able.

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Conclusion

When you understand the process of belief formation and evaluation, you can use that knowledge to improve your epistemic health. Like a person gathering apples in a basket, you can inspect each one before dropping it in the basket. You can also look through the basket for bad apples you may have missed. One difference is that we can sometimes “upgrade” bad beliefs, but bad apples are harder to repair.

Having mostly true beliefs, especially about the things that matter most, is what we want. That is what generally improves our overall mental health and happiness. (Just think of people who suffer from delusions and how this affects their happiness!) We can’t always tell whether our beliefs are true–so little can be proven. But we can examine the reasons we have for each belief, and be willing to make changes when reason is lacking.

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