Why “Loser’s” Compromise?June 8, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
[Update: I forgot to include the link back to Lifeguard’s original comment; fixed now.]
Well, I’m back, sort of, and from the looks of things you guys didn’t miss me too much. I don’t suppose I’ll ever catch up on the comments backlog, but I’m sure you will let me know if there are any important points I’ve missed in my quick skim.
Meanwhile, I did notice this interesting comment (stuck in the moderation queue) from a commenter by the handle of “Lifeguard.”
I guess what I’m struggling with here is what the exact difference is between the Loser’s Compromise and simply acknowledging the very real possibility that despite the certainty of your beliefs you may be mistaken about which conclusion is the most justified, the best of the bunch, to say nothing of absolutely proven to be true?
That’s an excellent question, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to explain this further.
There’s a big difference between the Loser’s Compromise and the reasonable practice of acknowledging a certain margin for error in one’s conclusions. In the latter, the goal is to keep one’s mind open in order to be receptive to receiving new information that might change one’s conclusions. The goal of the Loser’s Compromise, by contrast, is to deprive us of the ability to benefit from new information, or even already existing information. The loss of this ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood is precisely what makes it a “Loser’s” Compromise—we’re trying to lose a faculty we could otherwise use to learn that our beliefs are already false.
The Loser’s Compromise is, in effect, the exact opposite of admitting that there’s a real possibility we could be wrong. If we are wrong, the only way we’ll ever find out is by noticing that the evidence is inconsistent with the conclusions we wish to believe. The whole point of the Loser’s Compromise, however, is to make the evidence sound equally consistent with all conclusions, thus causing us to lose the ability to identify incorrect conclusions.
The feature that makes the Loser’s Compromise stand out as a rationalization, and that betrays the compromiser’s motives, is when we try to use the Loser’s Compromise to claim that we have a justification for our beliefs, despite the fact no such justification exists. If the evidence fails to favor one conclusion over the others, then they are all equally UNjustified, not equally justified. That’s an important distinction, because when the evidence is uniformly ambiguous, the only position that can be legitimately justified is agnosticism, not belief.
Now, there may indeed be circumstances in which the available evidence is insufficient to distinguish between different possible conclusions. I would not use the term “Loser’s Compromise” in such situations, provided that we were openly agnostic about our conclusions and that we were actively seeking more evidence and information with the goal of ultimately discovering which answers were right and which were wrong. The term “Loser’s Compromise” only applies to the specific case of trying to make the existing evidence sound inconclusive, via arguments intended to deny or distort the facts, in order to avoid acknowledging a clear inconsistency between the available facts and a particular conclusion.
So yes, I endorse the practice of acknowledging the possibility that one’s conclusions might be incorrect, and that new information might invalidate previously-held beliefs. I myself could be wrong about heliocentrism, or about God, though at this point I’d say the odds would appear to be about equal in either case. Acknowledging the possibility of error is a good thing, but it’s the exact opposite of what the Loser’s Compromise attempts to accomplish—lip service to human fallibility notwithstanding.