Playfulness vs Epistemic Traps

C. Thi Nguyen on Playfulness vs Epistemic Traps

Intellectual playfulness, loosely, is the disposition to try out new ideas, perspectives and systems of thought (involves perspective shifting) for the sheer joy of it (autotelic behaviour). It is a disposition to explore ideas for the value of exploration itself.

Intellectual playfulness also has some clear epistemic functionality for us

  • intellectually playful exploration sometimes can better serve the goal of finding the truth, than will exploration that is strictly aimed at finding the truth
  • it functions against epistemic traps: a belief system that re-directs good-faith inquiry to bad results. An epistemic trap manipulates background beliefs to fend off contrary evidence.

Examples of epistemic traps:

  1. anti-reflective traps: belief systems that operate by preventing their adopters from reflecting on their belief system at all (e.g. unswerving and unthinking obedience to a leader)
  2. inquiry trap: belief systems which encourage, but re-direct, various intellectual processes. A kind of intellectual judo, flipping earnest intellectual efforts and sending down the wrong paths (e.g. echo chambers: a community which creates a significant trust disparity between members and non-members — in-group bias. Members of echo chambers come equipped with the intellectual machinery needed to dismiss contrary evidence coming in from the outside. Outside sources are, after all, untrustworthy, malicious, and corrupt)
  3. insensitivity trap: hybrid anti-reflective and inquiry trap. Belief system that selectively cuts off attention to certain areas of life by attributing valuelessness to those areas by narrowly specifying what counts as valuable. (for example, the businessperson who believes the only thing of importance is money. They spend their time thinking about strategies to make more money and unlikely to attend to pursuits which might put them into contact with other expressions of value)

The truth-seeker’s explorations are guided by the current belief system; they will typically check out the most plausible alternatives. The intellectually playful person doesn’t care about plausibility. They care about more aesthetic qualities of ideas. They care about cool ideas, or elegant ones, or thrilling joy-rides of discovery. They care about exploring where exploration is joyful.

Intellectual playfulness, like play, involves a form of perspective shifting — trying on and (at least temporarily) inhabiting alternate belief systems, which includes trying out alternate beliefs, values, and norms for belief-acquisition.

This is notably different from open-mindedness. Open-mindedness makes a weaker demand than perspective shifting. An open-minded person ought to take some challenges seriously, when their background belief system gives them good reason to, but their standing belief system is a very active participant in the process (this is problematic as their belief system shapes 1) which challenges one takes seriously 2) and how to view them as valid or not). However, open-mindedness is weak to epistemic traps.

Imagine that a belief system is a boat. Open-mindedness is the willingness to pull out any particular plank and to inspect it to see if it makes sense on the boat. But that assessment occurs while standing on all the other planks of that boat. Perspective shifting involves jumping ship and trying out a whole new boat.

Next, we argue that the pursuit of truth may be a self-effacing end — that it cannot be acquired through direct pursuit. Even if you are trying out alternative systems of belief, the choice of those systems will still be influenced by your standing system of beliefs. The trouble is that a well-designed epistemic trap can undermine the plausibility of alternative perspectives.

In the exploit-explore tradeoff, random walks are actually good. Surely, one may argue, that if going on occasional random walks is the best path for rationality, then wouldn’t the rational person go on random walks? Yet, one cannot take a truly random walk without being guided by prior beliefs.

Idealogical Turing Test

The Ideological Turing Test is an exercise where you try to pretend to hold an opposing ideology convincingly enough that outside observers can’t reliably distinguish you from a true believer.

Passing the ideological Turing test is a sign that you understand the opposing ideology on a deep level.

See also: Turing Test