Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Love at first sight

Love at first sight

'Love at first sight' is an interesting phenomenon. Our oldest record of it was by the Ancient Greeks, who explained it as a sudden feeling of passionate love, a kind of mania, upon meeting a person for the first time.

One thing that’s interesting about it is that some people believe it’s possible to experience it, to have it happen to them, while other people don’t. And for the people that do believe it, this is part of the causal chain that causes them to experience it. As for the people that don’t believe it, they can’t experience it. It just doesn’t happen to them.

The 'unbelievers' either believed the tradition and then changed their mind, or they never bought into it in the first place because they already had reason to believe that it doesn’t make sense. But most of these people still have basically the same mistake. They still think in a way that is consistent with ‘love at first sight’ for other things, like ideas.

So a person might have an intuition, or gut feeling, and immediately be excited by the idea, without checking it for error. And because he's excited, he doesn't put any effort in looking for problems. This is fundamentally the same as a person who gets a sensation upon the first sight of someone and then interpreting that sensation to mean that he loves that person, all without checking the idea (that he’s in love) for error.

'Love at first sight,' for a person or for an idea, doesn’t make sense. No matter what sensation one has, that sensation doesn’t mean that the idea is true or best. Treating the sensation this way is a form of justificationism. It’s a way to give status to an idea in order to ignore the possibility that the idea might be wrong -- i.e. it's a way to justify the idea.


Justifying an idea by it’s sensation means having no means of finding out that you’re wrong. It means treating the sensation as an authority. It means treating the sensation as an infallible source of knowledge.  Justificationism doesn’t account for the fact that people are fallible, that all ideas people come up with are subject to error. 'Love at first sight' is just a special case of this.

'Love at first sight' is fundamentally the same as getting angry after jumping to conclusions in response to somebody saying something to you. Whatever the intent of the person, you could be wrong about your interpretation of his intent. Your sensation of anger is not justification that your interpretation (of his intent) is correct. Maybe the person had no malicious intent. Maybe he wanted to help you as opposed to wanting to hurt you. No matter how strong your sensation is, that doesn’t make your interpretation true. Your sensation doesn’t give extra status to your interpretation. Your sensation is not an authority. You do not have any infallible sources of knowledge. All your ideas are subject to error, even the ones that you get strong sensations about.

This is about first impressions. If your first impression comes with a strong emotional/intuitional sensation, that doesn’t mean that it’s correct. Your first impression could be wrong. And if you act on your first impression before checking it for error, then you are ignoring that you might be wrong. In the case of 'love at first sight' for an idea, it’s important to check for problems with the idea, as a means of accounting for the possibility of it being wrong.

First impressions, like all other ideas, are fallible, so people shouldn’t act on them without first checking for criticism. One type of criticism of a first impression is another explanation that fits the evidence, an explanation that rivals the first impression. It’s a criticism because if both the first impression and the second explanation are compatible with all the existing evidence, then that means both explanations are wrong since neither of them is better than its rival, in the sense that both of them equally fit the evidence. In order to rule one of them out, you’d have to find another piece of evidence that contradicts one of them but not the other.

This way of thinking affects all areas of a person's life. Lots of people make huge life decisions based on the sensations they get surrounding those decisions. They get married to people because of their feelings while ignoring the glaring problems surrounding the relationships. They choose not to abort pregnancies for feelings of love of unborn children while ignoring things like whether or not the family situation is opportune for the unborn children and for the parents. They switch jobs based on feelings of excitement of a new job, often trading to a worse situation than compared to the previous job, usually in a type of scenario where the person could have found out the danger before quitting the previous job. These are all very dangerous situations. Thinking in this way, of making decisions without trying to lookout for danger, can only be expected to lead to a long string of major disasters. What's needed is a way to think about things where dangerous results can be avoided instead of ignored.

Conventional advice

Another interesting thing about 'love at first sight,' or rather, the boiled down version of it, 'first impressions,' is the conventional advice about how to deal with the uncertainty of making decisions. The advise says that second-guessing yourself is something that should be avoided. It says that one shouldn't think critically about a decision after having made the decision, as a means of feeling better about the possibility of the decision being wrong. But this is a misguided way of dealing with uncertainty. It's like saying: Since I can't be certain about my idea, I need a way to act that accounts for the bad feeling I get when I'm uncertain about a decision I made. This is a bad approach because it's not giving any method for dealing with the uncertainty, and instead it's only giving advice on how to feel in spite of the uncertainty. The problem I see with this is that following this advice means ignoring criticism of one's ideas. It means blocking out of your mind that your decision could be wrong. It means blocking out of your mind that the case might be that you should change your mind. It means blocking out of your mind that you can learn things from your past mistakes, things that you can use to help you in future decisions.

To clarify the issue, let's consider what it means to stop second-guessing in the context of a murder case. The first guess is the detective's first suspect. Second-guessing means looking for other possible suspects that could have committed the murder instead. It means looking for other types of theories like maybe it was a suicide, or maybe it was an accident caused by one or more mistakes made by the accused person and/or other people. If the detective doesn't second-guess his first guesses, then he can't possibly find the truth, unless he happened to get lucky on his first guess. Do you want to be a suspect in a case where the detective follows this conventional advice that second-guessing is something to be avoided? If you were wrongly convicted of a murder, would you want our judicial system to avoid second-guessing (aka appealing) the case?

Consider the equivalent situation in the context of the medical profession. Recently a women died the night of being released from the hospital. The physician had decided that it was ok for her to be released from the hospital, and immediately after making the decision he second-guessed himself, but instead of acting on this, he looked to the nurse for confirmation of his decision, to which she confirmed that it was the right decision. But it was the wrong decision. Not only was it the wrong decision, the physician was also wrong to seek confirmation of his decision as a means of burying his thoughts of uncertainty. Instead, he should have sought criticism. He should have thought it normal to second-guess himself, instead of thinking that it was bad to do so.

How to deal with uncertainty

My description might not be giving the conventional advice a fair analysis. I think the conventional advise says that you should second-guess a little bit, and then at some point to stop second-guessing and decide on your best knowledge. But the problem with this conventional approach is that it's not clear about how to arrive at an idea that can be considered 'the best knowledge.' It doesn't explain that the best idea as a proposal solution for a particular problem is one that refutes all of it's existing rivals. It doesn't explain how to go about criticizing one's ideas. And it doesn't explain how to update one's ideas in the future as new ideas and criticisms are created.

Consider the context of a murder case again. The court system is designed so that any conviction can be appealed. This is because we know that we could have been wrong about the conviction. Our best knowledge to date, at the time of the conviction, was good enough to convict, but we know that it's possible that a new piece of evidence, or a new analysis, could change the dynamics of the case such that the previous theory is now refuted, in favor for a new theory. This shows that our judicial system is designed to account for uncertainty. And this is a way of thinking, an attitude, that individuals can have to.

So the conventional advice is telling us how to feel better about possibly being wrong (aka uncertain). But it doesn't address the underlying issue, that it's ok to be wrong since that's part of the human condition. Being wrong is normal. It's common. The important thing isn't that you're wrong, or that you could be wrong, but rather it's how you deal with the fact that you could be wrong, and how you deal with situations where you have criticism of your ideas. Do you seek confirmation for your ideas or do you seek criticism? Do you block out things from your mind or do you change your mind about your ideas when you do find out that you're wrong?

More importantly, finding out that you're wrong shouldn't be seen as a bad thing because it's actually good -- you went from being wrong, to being right, about that one thing. If you get a bad feeling when second-guessing your ideas, that's an indication that you have the wrong attitude, the wrong philosophy towards mistakes. What's needed is an attitude that matches the human condition, an attitude of enjoying criticism, an attitude of enjoying finding out that you're wrong. Why? Because finding out that you're wrong is the first step towards correcting your mistake. It's an opportunity to improve. It's an opportunity to evolve.


  1. you have some very interesting thoughts...if I had someone else to pay my bills, I would discuss ideas with you all day...:)

  2. or you could keep your job and discuss with me part of the day.