Useful Identity

by pgbh

As Paul Graham points out, identities lead to fuzzy thinking. If you encounter ideas that clash with your own self-image, you resolve the conflict in any way possible – even if it means throwing out lots of data. For instance, if being a libertarian is important to you, then you look for ways to maintain your libertarian ethos. Pretty soon you’re irretrievably entrenched in libertarianism – whether or not it was right to begin with!

For Graham, this is frightening. How can you form correct beliefs if you’re systematically biased against changing your mind? The solution, to him, is to attach yourself to as few ideas as possible. Accept ideas as the evidence permits, sure, but don’t form an image of yourself as someone who does so.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently enjoyed the historical novels The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, written by Mary Renault. These books are a retelling of the life of Theseus, a Greek hero of legend. As such they’re fiction, and it would be foolish to draw too many lessons from them, but I still can’t resist dabbling.

The books portray Theseus as a character of great courage, resolve, and daring. He never shies away from fighting, commanding, persuading, planning, and generally acting to promote his own goals. Where does this attitude come from?

Sure, in part from narrative necessity. But even within the narrative, Theseus’s character makes sense. That’s because the way he acts is part of his identity. He believes (truly, or not) that as a prince, he is better suited to achieve his goals than a normal person would be. And since that belief translates into action, he is usually correct.

That’s the issue I have with Graham’s viewpoint. Sure, Theseus’ strong identity doesn’t make epistemic sense – he’s far more likely to believe false statements than an unbiased, zero-identity observer would be. But instrumentally, his questionable beliefs are key to his achievements.

That’s all fictional, of course. But I think the observation generalizes. Graham gives an example of religion as an area where conflicting identities kill fruitful debate. Sure, religious people aren’t successful in that sense. But given that the religious tend to be happier, live longer, report greater life satisfaction, etc., how can we say their identities are really hurting them?