Are There Useful Errors?

Nietzsche and Dennett both take views on which errors are partly beneficial; a comparison of both accounts is instructive

Dennett has recently modified his position in respect of whether error can ever be beneficial. His initial line had been that truth as a component of knowledge is always the primary epistemic goal. While not abandoning truth altogether, he now argues that there are many situations in which truth and usefulness are not coextensive. This argument features prominently in the writings of Nietzsche. In this paper I will examine the extent to which Nietzsche is precursor of Dennett in this respect.

The central question that prima facie appears to require no consideration is whether we should seek the truth. It seems obvious that in our daily progress, anything other than an unswerving devotion to truth seeking would have the most severe and immediate consequences for all of our pragmatic aims. This seems to be just as much the case across the animal kingdom.

McKay and Dennett (“M&D”) argue that truth seeking may not constitute the entirety of the goals of a well-adapted organism. This argument is based on an evolutionary perspective. If the most adaptive beliefs are always the true ones, then the belief-forming mechanisms that we have will be the ones that have found the truth most often. Nietzsche’s line is more appropriately characterized by the phrase ‘one goal among many’ rather than ‘a major goal with some exceptions’ which would be more appropriate for M&D. First I will discuss the latest line of M&D and then I will consider Nietzsche’s views while at the same time covering the parallels with M&D.

1. The M&D Argument

1.1. Design Feature Argument

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The central view of M&D is that if there are adaptive goals other than truth, then we should expect these also to figure in the relevant belief forming mechanisms. This means simply that if there are benefits to false belief under certain circumstances, then we should now be such that those circumstances will produce false belief.

This may be for negative or positive reasons: I may wish to avoid some truths because they are damaging or otherwise unhelpful. Alternatively, if I benefit from believing some propositions falsely, because for example they assist me in forming a self-image that directly or indirectly enhances my reproductive success, then I ‘should’ so believe. The ‘should’ here is not normative; it merely indicates that if adaptive false belief mechanisms exist and are evolutionarily accessible to human cognition, then we will have them.

M&D begin by dividing false belief into two categories. The first category simply relates to situations where the subject has incomplete or inaccurate data. This is unavoidable and not philosophically interesting. The focus of the paper is entirely on the second category: scenarios in which the subject could have formed a correct belief. These deviations might be termed ‘design features’.

1.2. Biological ‘Design Faults’ Not Always Faults

Transferring to the biological domain, potentially beneficial faults are illustrated in the context of error management theory. This relies on asymmetries between the adaptive costs of false positives and false negatives. Where the cost of error is much higher in one direction, evolution will favour estimation in the direction of the less costly error. Note that this is not to abandon truth as an objective; merely to acknowledge that where there is unavoidable error, it may be better to err on the side of caution.

A familiar example of cost asymmetry from philosophy would be Pascal’s wager. He argues that the costs of error are very much larger in one direction (failure to believe when there is a deity) than the other (false belief when there is not).

A biological example of error management theory and how this cost asymmetry could play out is as follows. If an animal is in conflict for resources with others, it will need to assess its relative ability to prevail by force amongst the likely competitors. If it overestimates its own strength, it is likely to suffer severe adverse consequences in combat. The opposite error means that it avoids some combats it could have won, and thus does not gain some resources that were in fact available to it, but this outcome is much less severe. Thus in this case, the belief that animal A could not overcome animal B is both false and adaptive for animal A.

There is also an asymmetry with respect to ‘agent detection’; it is better to misidentify a rock as a bear than vice versa. So M&D have made out their case that there are many natural examples of cost asymmetries influencing systems away from a total adherence to truth.

An explanation of the imperfect nature of evolution is needed, to allow M&D to claim that the results of lengthy and intensive selective pressure on humans have not eliminated all real and apparent flaws in truth mapping. This is found by noting that selection can become trapped in local minima in design space; each incremental adaptation must itself be adaptive and there is no long-term perspective allowing penalties to be paid now in order to reach an optimal solution later.

1.3. Beneficial ‘Design Faults’ In The Context Of Beliefs About The Self

M&D extend these ideas into self-deception, by considering whether there are circumstances in which inaccurate beliefs about the self could be beneficial. The well-known ‘better-than-average’ effect is cited, where most people hold that view of themselves across many parameters, despite the fact that it is impossible in the context of the population and extremely unlikely in individual cases. Examples include AIDS patients who lived longer if they had unrealistic expectations of likely remaining lifespan or further, complete ignored or denied their status. In addition, various forms of the placebo effect are well documented, even in relation to surgery.

The important qualification is made that it is not to be expected that adaptive false beliefs be generated by a mechanism that is ‘designed’ to produce false beliefs, because such a mechanism could not itself be adaptive. Rather, adaptive false beliefs will be by-products of normally reliable systems operating out of their usual domain or fast heuristics evolved to deal with the many situations where a quick semi-accurate decision is better than a slow and more accurate one. The latter example represents an evolutionary mechanism that would produce ungrounded beliefs. To the extent these are harmless, they will not be selected out; even less so if they happen to be beneficial.

Once a mechanism like this has been made plausible, a self-limiting device must be found in order to avoid predicting that humans would be fantasists convinced of their own abilities to leap tall buildings. M&D therefore observe that once the delusions of self-performance grow too distant from reality, they will become dangerous.

1.4. Genetic Fallacy In Relation To The Eye

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There is an ironically false claim in the M&D paper that I believe makes an error of a type in which Nietzsche was most interested. M&D criticise Fodor for his objection that an understanding of evolution would not allow us to distinguish evolved features from accidental by-products. Fodor is committed to saying that it is not true to say that eyes are for seeing and bird wings are for flying, although it is true to say this of aeroplane wings.

But Fodor is exactly right to say that the eye is not for seeing in the sense that the first step in its evolution, thought to be development of a light-sensitive area of skin, did not occur with the eventual aim of vision in mind. This is true a fortiori because there is no such mind, but additionally, no evolutionary mechanism exists to allow this. Each evolved step must pay its own way. The response of M&D fails for this reason; moreover their line is in conflict with their stated line elsewhere that false beliefs can arise as side effects only. That the eye is now used for seeing is irrelevant; Fodor and M&D are using the word for in different senses.

This is an example of what Nietzsche called the genetic fallacy, most prominently considered in On the Genealogy of Morality . He means that there is no reason to believe that the original cause for the emergence of a particular biological or cultural feature must be the same as its current use, and in fact given the elapsed time, this is unlikely.

2. Nietzsche’s Views And Their Similarities To M&D

Origin Of Knowledge

Nietzsche’s most clear statement of his overall position in this respect comes in an eponymous section: “throughout immense stretches of time the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them proved to be useful and preservative of the species: he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.” Nietzsche does not put the word ‘knowledge’ in quotation marks; so he may be seen as accepting the non-standard view that ‘knowledge’ can be false. We can most easily comprehend him here to be referring to ‘knowledge’ as commonly understood; i.e. some of what people think of as true and as being part of knowledge is in fact false.

It is important to note that Nietzsche identifies two mechanisms by which this could happen. One might fall into error culturally by picking up the habits of others. One might also inherit errors. This biological term could be understood culturally, but it also provides a clear link to the M&D claim that false belief mechanisms can be adaptive.

Useful Blindness About Oneself

Nietzsche is sympathetic to the view that the world of perception is an illusory flux hiding an unchangeable invisible interior; the Eleatics, Schopenhauer and Kant held similar views. In particular, Nietzsche claims that in order to avoid succumbing to the error of believing in fixed objects, the Eleatics needed to “deceive themselves concerning their own condition: they had to attribute to themselves impersonality and unchanging permanence, they had to mistake the nature of the philosophic individual, deny the force of the impulses in cognition, and conceive of reason generally as an entirely free and self-originating activity”.

There is a Sartrean feel to this argument, which holds as he did that we pretend that our characters are fixed and that our choices are limited to as not to be overwhelmed by the ‘nausea’ resulting from the realisation of the fact that we have absolute freedom at every moment. There is nothing in reality that gives us a fixed identity or requires us to do what we have previously decided to do. There is also a very clear recognition by Nietzsche that a denial of the truth that reasoning has partisan ends is necessary to allow one to pursue it in the belief that it will produce impartial results.

The existence of a self is a pre-requisite to the idea of self-deception; though of course there is a further Sartre/Freud paradox in the vicinity of the question as to who is deceiving whom in such circumstances. M&D’s related discussions extend beyond the delusional and yet healthier AIDS patients to those who gain from self-deception about themselves: college lecturers, students and drivers who think that they are better than average. They even note that people think of themselves as less prone to self-deception than others! There is perhaps an echo in Nietzsche of the various placebo errors when he writes of “a melancholy invalid, who, in order to forget his present condition, writes the history of his youth”.

Alchemy As Prelude To Science

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Nietzsche notes the importance of beginning from falsely conceived projects in order to motivate more realistic approaches: “Prelude to Science. Do you believe then that the sciences would have arisen and grown up if the sorcerers, alchemists, astrologers and witches had not been their fore-runners[?]”. This means that the desire for power could have arisen before the means of satisfying it could be properly constructed and the failed attempts motivated the better ones and facilitated them by the nature of their falsity. M&D touch on Dawkins’ meme idea , whereby a natural selection mechanism for cultural items is posited. Those beliefs including fitness enhancing elements such as religions including punishment for non-belief would survive; alchemy and similar pre-sciences would fail via lack of predictive power.

Nietzsche later discusses the role of hypotheses in science, which are of necessity not true at the time they are selected, the impossibility of a pre-suppositionless science, which must nevertheless be assumed possible and how the value of truth must be affirmed without warrant: “the question whether truth is necessary, must not merely be affirmed beforehand, but must be affirmed to such an extent that the principle, belief, or conviction finds expression, that ‘there is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value.’ ”

Necessary Error

Nietzsche praises criticism and the illusion that we change our minds for impartial reasons: “something now appears to thee as an error which thou formerly lovedst as a truth, or as a probability: thou pushest it from thee and imaginest that thy reason has there gained a victory”. The biblical flavour of the terminology immediately suggests here that Nietzsche has religion in mind as a candidate for a beneficial false belief, though we should note that this may be a translation artefact: the Nauckhoff translation modernises this section. M&D discuss at length the various arguments that may be summarised as ‘no atheists in foxholes’; they also consider the idea that supernatural beliefs may be exaptations of theory of mind capabilities, themselves extremely adaptive.

Monkeys And Error Asymmetry

In the context of discussing how people wish to be prophets without understanding the concomitant difficulties, Nietzsche retails a parable concerning monkeys before a storm: “these animals then behave as if an enemy were approaching them, and prepare for defence, or flight: they generally hide themselves, they do not think of the bad weather as weather, but as an enemy whose hand they already feel”.

While one should not make too much of the biological nature of this example, it does indicate that Nietzsche has a good understanding of how in the natural world, it may be better to behave as if. The parallel to M&D would be to their argument on error management theory and asymmetry when it is better to mistake a boulder for a bear than vice versa. The monkeys are better off by behaving as if the storm were a physical enemy approaching.

See Also:

Leibniz’s Arguments For Monads: A Summary

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Nozick’s Claim That Knowledge Is Truth-tracking: A Critical Evaluation


R McKay, University of Zurich and D Dennett, Tufts University, The Evolution of Misbelief, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press), Cambridge University Press 2009
F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998
F Nietzsche, The Gay Science,, (“GS”) III, s110
GS III, s110
R Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press 2006

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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