Amid the untidy wreckage of collapsed traditions many of us these days struggle to come up with any sort of answer to the question How to Live a Good Life. If, that is, we ever bother to ask ourselves the question in the first place. It was easier in the fabled good old days, of course, when men were real men, women were real women, and strictly conformist social conventions were real strictly conformist social conventions. Then all you had to do was copy what your parents did. Your parents in turn simply copied what their parents had done. And so the social order was maintained. Admittedly there were a few negatives: nothing ever changed, no one ever challenged authority, ignorance and prejudice remained firmly embedded. A small price to pay for stability and certainty, right?
But as we congratulate ourselves on our relatively recent liberation from the straightjacket of stifling tradition we sometimes find ourselves bewildered by all this new freedom of choice. Once upon a time there was only one answer to the question: the Good Life was whatever the authority figures in your society (priests, politicians and the like) said it was. Now you can pick and choose from an apparently inexhaustible, all-you-can-eat buffet selection of divergent lifestyles. A life of Service to Others, a life of Hedonistic Revelry, a life Dedicated to God, a life of Conspicuous Consumption, a life of Philosophic Contemplation, a life in Pursuit of Celebrity and so on – if not quite ad infinitum at least ad nauseam. In practice, most of us don’t consciously make any such choice, we just bumble along and hope it will come out right in the end.
For today’s little essay I want to mention one possible life choice that seems initially at least redundantly obvious. A Life Lived According to the Evidence. Obvious? you might well ask. Well, yes, if you look at it this way: our lifestyle choices are generally informed by things we believe. For example, if we believe that eating foie gras and drinking Dom Perignon will bring us more pleasure than anything else, then we will attempt to live a life in which we maximise our chances to experience fine dining. If, on the other hand, we believe that God punishes people who eat a certain food – say, Peanut M&Ms – then we will piously avoid all chocolate-coated nut-based snacks, and probably treat with contempt all those sinners who are defying God’s will in this important matter. In short, what we believe informs our life choices.
But if in turn we ask the important question, why do we believe the things we do? the answer can get a little hazy. Why do you believe that Michelin stars guarantee the best food? Why do you believe an all-powerful deity cares what you eat? The answer in most cases is because you have – or at very least you think you have – evidence to support your belief. We don’t generally admit to having false beliefs (that is, beliefs demonstrably contradicted by evidence) nor do most of us want to admit that there is no evidence whatsoever to support our beliefs.
As we drill down beneath lifestyle choices and the beliefs they are grounded on we seem to hit a bedrock of evidential support. I do X because my Belief Y encourages me to do X; I believe Belief Y because Evidence Z supports Y. Now, I’m not so naïve as to imagine that most people ever explicitly articulate this process. Nor am I so foolish as to think that most people form their beliefs based on an impartial examination of the evidence. Most of our beliefs would seem only ever to be justified retrospectively by looking for evidence to support them if and only if we are called upon to defend them. Otherwise we just take them as read – we inherited them, our friends fostered them, our other prejudices encouraged them, they fit comfortably into the implicit narrative of our lives – as an article of faith if you will.
And speaking of faith, even religious beliefs are justified by some sort of evidence. Why do you think Jesus is the Son of God? Why do you think God’s only true prophet is Mohammed? Evidence. In both cases the evidence comes in the form of a book, a book that purports to present the one and only Truth, enthusiastically backed up by priests and other societal authority figures. Talk of faith not needing evidence seems to me specious – I’m not sure that anyone spontaneously acquires a religious faith about something that has never been spoken of or written about, or has faith in something without any evidence of any kind. Why should you refuse to have faith in Spliggug the Ever-Unguent, Supreme Deity of people with very slightly runny noses? Because there is no reason at all to believe in His Stickiness’ existence, that’s why. But be the so-called evidence oh-so absurdly flimsy – someone might claim, for example, that an angel with a runny nose has revealed to him the location of holy scriptures inscribed on gold plates and written in an otherwise unknown language which speak of the beneficent wisdom of Spliggug – then rest assured someone somewhere will believe it.
A Life Lived According to the Evidence is an attempt to articulate the idea that our evidential standards need to be better than that, that we need to challenge regularly and systematically all of our beliefs. Why, for example, do I believe that Climate Change is real? Because I think there is a wealth of strong, independent and unbiased evidence to support it. Why do I think homeopathy is nonsense? Because I think there is a wealth of good evidence that debunks it. But in both cases I need to do more than that: even though I am not a scientist or an expert I still need to investigate to the best of my limited ability the claims for and against. I need to use reason, not prejudice, to form a rational conclusion based on the best evidence available to me. And all the while I need to be wary of Confirmation Bias, the trap we all fall into of only seeing the evidence that confirms what we already believe while ignoring anything that disconfirms it.
And the high standards of evidence I demand from Climate Science or Medicine ought to be applied equally to all other areas of my belief system, including – most definitely including – my moral beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust. Why do I think eating chocolate-coated peanuts is a sin? Is there really good, reliable, independent evidence? Is that book in which the demands of the deity are apparently recounted quite as authoritative as I thought it was? If I should find that the evidence turns out to be pretty flimsy after all, should I really continue to cling to that belief? A Life Lived According to the Evidence demands that if the evidence doesn’t stack up we are duty-bound to modify or even abandon our beliefs based on it.
It’s potentially a much too exhausting and unrealistic prospect. Far easier to allow in any belief that conforms to my already existing menagerie of beliefs; far easier to accept without question statements made by people I trust. That way I can delegate the hard work to others and simply pick anything that feels comfortable. Why exert all that intellectual effort when someone else has a host of off-the-shelf beliefs for me to choose? A Life Lived According to the Evidence demands hard work. Especially when the evidence is equivocal and we might need to suspend our belief until better data is available (more about Doubt next time). But I feel that the effort is vitally important if we are at all concerned about the dangers of ignorance, prejudice and irrationality. If we can form a habit of mind that allows us to interrogate our own beliefs, albeit on an irregular case-by-case basis, then we might begin to form a more coherent and rational view of the world, a view in which we can feel more confident that our actions are informed by beliefs that have some sort of independently verifiable and evidentially supported foundation. If we fail then we’re all doomed to become followers of the next charlatan with a tall tale about the golden tablets of Spliggug.
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Epicurus: Letter to Pythocles
“We must not think there is any other aim of knowledge about the heavens … than peace of mind and unshakeable confidence, just as it is our aim in all other pursuits.”
“We must not theorise scientifically about nature by means of empty maxims and arbitrary principles, but as phenomena require. For our life has no need of foolishness and idle opinion, but of an existence free from confusion.”
“All these and related observations are not at variance with what is manifestly visible, if in such considerations as these we keep hold of what is possible and have the ability to refer each of these points to what accords with the evidence.”
“There is nothing in heavenly phenomena to contradict these explanations if we always keep in mind the method of multiple causes and make a comprehensive survey of hypotheses and causes consistent with the evidence, without looking to inconsistent explanations and granting them credibility without basis.”
“Thunderbolts may be produced in several ways. Only let mythical explanations not be admitted, and they will not be, if we make inferences about the unseen by attending closely to the visible.”
“Keep all these things in mind, Pythocles, for by so doing you will keep yourself free of superstition and be able to understand phenomena akin to these things I have told you about.”