I’ve heard the word “naive” bandied about fairly often in lofty (or not so lofty) philosophical debates, and thrown it around a time or two myself, though I’ve been trying to stop recently.  I started thinking about the word and how it really applies after witnessing an exchange where both parties on opposite sides of an issue called one-another naive.  They clearly weren’t using it in the most common form of “inexperienced” or “gullible.”

Probably the best functional definition of “naive” I can think of is one who believes overmuch in the simplicity of cause and effect. In my experience most of the important and contentious topics are incredibly complex and multilayered, and naivete isn’t simply believing something others tell you without question so much as believing the easiest/most appealing explanation available, despite lack of empirical support or extensive experience in the matter.

(To stave off an invocation of Occam’s Razor: the law of parsimony is about accepting the explanation that fits all the facts while making the least new and unproven assumptions.  When both arguments are based on unproven philosophical tenets or claims that are not easy to verify, neither can be employing Occam’s Razor.)

As an example, here’s a simplified conversation I’ve heard from many different people and been a part of multiple times:

Person A: “All rich people are selfish.  They can never fix problems, because ultimately they’re looking out for themselves.  All the major problems in the world come from the rich hoarding wealth from everyone else.”

Person B: “I don’t think that’s true. It might be harder for an unselfish person to become rich, but there are plenty of selfish people who aren’t wealthy too, who do exactly the same things as the rich, on smaller scales.  It stands to reason they’d do the same thing if they were rich, so the problems aren’t due to rich people’s character: we just notice it more from them because they have so much more influence, so it’s easier to see.  It would take a lot of poor people doing something selfish to match one selfish act of a rich person, but each act might be just as selfish.”

Person A: “You can’t blame the poor for trying to survive in a world that’s hostile to them.”

Person B: “But that’s a matter of circumstance then, not character. By your argument if the rich person was poor, they would be doing the exact same thing due to their circumstance, so there’s no moral classification or blame you can apply to people based on wealth.”

Person A: “That’s because the system itself forces people to be haves or have-nots.  You can’t gain without someone else losing, so the most selfish and ruthless people are the ones who get to the top.”

Person B: “That’s only true in zero-sum economics, not all commerce.  Maybe people who engage in that kind of business are greedier than people who don’t, but there are plenty of corporations who became rich by positive-sum means.”

Person A: “You’re so naive.  Open your eyes and look around you at all the terrible things the wealthy do!”

Person B: “I am, and I see good and bad people in all walks of life, doing good and bad things to everyone. You’re the one who’s naive by thinking in such absolutes!”

So.  Here we have two people who are using “naive” in very clearly distinct ways.  Person A is calling B naive in the sense of “Thinks the world is a better place than it is.”  While this certainly is related to lack of experience or insight in our culture, where the dominant discourse for children is that the world is a good, fair, just place, it’s not laterally translatable: he’s effectively calling Person B an optimist, which Person B may not actually be.  His stance in this situation is considered optimistic only from Person A’s perspective, who is far in the negative side of the Pessimist/Optimist scale.  From the hypothetical Person C’s far positive side of it, Person B’s contentions that not only rich, but also poor people act selfishly, is what marks him as a pessimist, as Person C would say that ascribing negative emotions to people’s actions is assuming the worst.  If B and C were in a debate, B might eventually call C naive in the same way that A called B.

However, when Person B called Person A naive, he was using it in a different way: he was accusing Person A of taking the “easy” route of dividing the world between “Have” and “Have-not,” which can be just another way of saying “Evil” and “Good.”  This is also related to lack of experience or insight, as this kind of moral or sociological dichotomy are prevalent in everything from childhood stories, whose audience is by definition uneducated in complex systems,  to major blockbusters, which still simplify those systems immensely to create easy-to-digest narratives (think of House of Cards, which is cynical and thus believable, but still presents a very simplistic view of government). Person B is criticizing Person A on the simplicity of his beliefs based on lack of information. And this is also much more objective label he’s placing on Person A: that his views are uninformed. That can be verified.  It’s a falsifiable criticism.

Furthermore, it’s hard to do the same to Person A as we did with Person B and imagine someone else on the other side of Person A, making an even simpler proposition that make sense in any way: they could only make a similarly simple but wildly different view, such as that “All poor people are lazy and all rich people are hard workers.” or “God/karma rewards good deeds and punishes bad.”

Simple doesn’t mean wrong, but it does mean easy to believe, and the less someone knows on a topic, the easier it is to convince them of anything about it.  That’s the source of my distrust in simplicity, and why “naive” will always primarily connote a lack of understanding.   Just as one encounter with someone from another culture can give rise to a simplistic stereotype, immersion in that person’s culture, and meeting multiple people from it, gives an understanding of complexity.  The same goes for any job, or hobby, or genre of art.  It’s easy to accept simple beliefs that we have no information or experience on.

The older we get, the more experience and information we have, and the more complex our worldviews become in some respects, while others generally don’t. If my model of how beliefs are formed is correct, the areas of our lives we have experience in give rise to more complex views.  Those that we remain ignorant on, stay simple. People usually don’t realize this, because wildly complex things are often summed up by simple explanations, to make it easier to understand. “Gravity makes things fall down.”  Sounds simple, but the words themselves mean nothing more than “Thor makes lightning in clouds” unless you actually know what “gravity” is, and why “down” is subjectively defined the way it is.  As a child, the words are enough: to someone educated in the fields, astrophysics can be an elaborate and complex lens to view something as simple as a falling apple through.

Just so for debates about social matters, or economics.

Most people will freely admit their naivete in a scientific field unless we’ve studied it extensively, and sometimes even then.  Even deniers of global warming or evolution will not pretend to be experts in physics or astronomy or chemistry. Where there are no implications beyond the field’s purview, people don’t care enough to fool themselves into pretend expertise. As soon as some mathematical theory is shown to have implications that people disagree with, I predict a higher number of people who will pretend expertise in mathematics, or willfully ignore the importance of their lacking such.

Meanwhile, social matters are all about the implications.  It’s hard to find a topic related to people’s behavior or society’s norms that doesn’t bump up against people’s Values in some way. And so people who have never seriously studied anthropology, world history, economics, psychology, government, etc, nevertheless feel confident that their understanding of such topics, simple as they may be, are sufficient to reach correct beliefs.

Acknowledging complexity would directly challenge our surety in the rightness of our Values, and so we do not confront our naivety in these fields because it is far easier to take an assertive stance that makes sense to our Values than to face the uncertainty of a complex world. But that’s exactly what we have to be willing to do if we want to ensure our beliefs are aligned with reality.

Simplicity should be embraced in predictive models that are demonstrated to work, but we should be skeptical of it when debating hypotheses about how the world works.  Being “naive” is considered a bad thing because it makes one easy to fool… including by one’s own preferences and biases.

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