Rebirth of Reason


Honesty and the Arbitrary
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the major Objectivist virtues is honesty. There are a number of reasons why being honest is in your rational self-interest. One of the more interesting reasons is epistemological. When you tell a lie, to keep it from being found out, you have to store that information in your mind. The bigger and more complicated the lie, the more details you need to you retain. In essence, you create a second view of the world within your mind. To keep from being caught, you have to spend mental effort always keeping this alternative view of the world consistent with what other people know.

When some new piece of information comes your way, you need to not only try to integrate it with your understanding of reality, but you need to try to integrate it with your lie. Whenever you need to choose what to do or say, you have to analyze it within the context of your real understanding, but also within the context of your lie. The bigger the lie, the more mental effort you waste on it. That's brain-power you could be using to live a better life. And the more lies you try to maintain, the bigger the mental burden is. You'd eventually get crushed by the weight of the lies. It's not surprising that when the truth comes out, often the liar is relieved. He no longer has to live in a state of constant anxiety, spending every ounce of energy he's got on keeping his lies straight.

Take an example of a man who steals from a friend. Let's say he stole a tool set. The problem with keeping the tool set is that his friend might find out. He may want to keep it, but he has to hide it in his garage. He would become fearful of his friend coming to visit after that. He may still try to invite him over, but he'd always be nervous. He may have to hide it. If his wife asks him where he got it, he has to make something up, like he bought it on sale. He becomes fearful of saying anything in front of his wife and friend that might lead the conversation towards tools. He quickly tries to change the subjects when they get dangerous. Instead of enjoying a conversation with a friend, he has to constantly focus on the lie. This is just one of many ways in which a lie can cause this kind of mental chaos.

This kind of epistemological quagmire happens for another reason as well. When people accept the arbitrary as true, they again fill their minds with ideas that are not related to reality. They create an alternative view of the world.

If they try to keep the arbitrary beliefs separated from their actual knowledge of the world, they run into the same problem of overwhelming their cognitive ability. New ideas would be contrasted with reality, and then with the arbitrary beliefs. Choices and discussions would have to rely on both sets of views. When deciding how to act, you have to look at both system of beliefs. And whenever a conflict it found, you have to try to sort them out. You emotions will by confused and unreliable by having two entirely different value judgment results.

For instance, if you believe that all mankind is by nature evil, and yet in your experience some people are good, you have a conflict. Your emotions may lead you to not trusting people, or they may lead you to acting kindly toward those who deserve it. Your emotions become unreliable. You set them up to be in opposition to your reasoning. You destroy their usefulness.

Keeping the arbitrary disjointed from reality causes its own problems. Instead of integrating your beliefs into a coherent world-view, you intentionally keep your mind fragmented. Instead of using unit-economy, abstraction, integration and other epistemological functions to reduce the amount of necessary mental work you need to do, you would be multiplying the work. You'd have to contrast it to every arbitrary belief. You may look for ways of reconciling facts with your theories, causing new theories. You mind would get overwhelmed trying to keep track of the details.

As an example, say you believe the moon is made of green cheese. Now when you see footage of men walking on the moon, you have to integrate that knowledge with everything else you know. Instead of focusing on reality, you have to start trying to figure out how it might be compatible with your beliefs. Maybe you'll postulate that it was all a hoax, or maybe you'll believe that the outer layer of the moon must have been covered with rock and space dust, but the cheese is in there somewhere.

As you continue adding arbitrary claims to your mental portfolio, eventually you lose track of reality in that ocean of mystical beliefs. When you gain some new piece of information, you have to contrast it with each of these wildly bizarre theories, as well as the arbitrary theories you invented to avoid dismissing the original claims. Instead of looking for clean, simple answers, you get used to contorting the evidence and the truth to fit your preconceptions. Your mind stops being a tool of awareness, and becomes a tool of evasion.

It should be obvious that you're wasting precious mental energy on a worthless endeavor, but this is what happens when you've accepted the arbitrary. You mind spends energy trying to avoid conflicts, and the result is that you accept more and more arbitrary claims to support the first one. Your beliefs grow in complexity as you add more and more absurd ideas trying to reconcile arbitrary claims with reality. How do you keep it all separate in your head?

Those who insist on being dishonest or irrational are necessarily drawn to the same conclusion. You don't have to be burdened with keeping it all separate. Why not just believe the lies? Why not just accept the arbitrary as being as real as actual knowledge? Even if they don't make a conscious decision, it would require focus and mental effort in order to keep them separated. When you relax your diligence, the outcome is a mixing of the two, treating them as equals. The borders between reality and fantasy are blurred. You stop caring about things like evidence or contradictions. You believe whatever you want, and damn the consequences.

There are those who argue that there's nothing wrong with accepting the arbitrary, because there's no proof that it isn't real (and no evidence that it is). They ask what the harm is in believing what's not real. The answer is that you destroy your mind piece by piece when you try.
Sanctions: 34Sanctions: 34Sanctions: 34Sanctions: 34 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (65 messages)