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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Real Beliefs Have Consequences

Yesterday a coworker told me that very shortly, on a date I won't quote here, "they're going to be putting chips in us." He was speaking of microchip implants that will be "the Mark of the Beast," without which we won't be able to engage in commerce.

Of course I'd heard such predictions before, but without a specific date attached. I told him I think this is nonsense: "Humanity is a chaotic system. No one is in control." I added, "I'm quite certain that no one will be putting any chip in me on [the date]." He insisted, "Just you wait. A year from now, I'll be telling people  'I told you so.'"

Finally I asked, "So, do you want to put some money on it?" His answer? "Well, I'm not that sure."

Note that there were actually two testable claims here. The first was that we'd all be forced to get implants on a certain date. The second was that my coworker believes we will be. If the second were true in any empirically meaningful sense, he'd have jumped at the chance to make some money on it  -- especially since I hadn't specified how much I wanted to bet, or even what odds. The fact that he backed down as soon as I suggested a wager tells me he doesn't really believe what he's saying.

To be consistently empirical, one must define all one's terms of discourse, including those pertaining to the discourse itself, in an empirical way. Only in this way can one distinguish true beliefs -- the kind that induced some people to give away all their possessions and euthanize their pets ahead of 21 May 2011, for instance -- from meaningless cocktail party (or office) chatter. For that matter, one can't even define lying without this distinction.

A real belief makes someone act differently, not just talk differently.

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