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In Favour of Heuristics

Since the earliest days of my philosophical education I have, at least implicitly, considered heuristics and regarded them as effective, if not necessary. Yet, it is not until now that I’ve tried to make the rationale for this explicit. And so, here we go…

The thought-process goes something like this:

A lot of things in life are important – very important. To live effectively and morally; to make the right decisions for himself and others, a man must make many decisions in life and all decisions are informed by the mind.

Let’s take a couple of examples…

Politics effects all men because, at some level, it determines the ebb and flow of the societies in which we live. Broadly considered, the subject of “politics” covers other areas such as economics and culture. Most men might live ignorantly of politics, but many such men reaped this ignorance by living through a societal collapse, being handed a gun and marched to war, or trying to stop their families from starving due to a famine induced by their governments’ misuse of resources (not to mention how many families wrestle day to day with their governments’ influence on everything from taxes to how they raise their children). Hence, if politics affects all men, there is a case to be made that all men must understand politics.

The importance of Religion is likewise ubiquitous. More so, in fact. Wherever you land on questions like “Does God exist?”, “What religion represents Him?”, and “Are humans immortal?” one answer you certainly can’t give is that they don’t matter. The truth or non-truth of religion effects all men and hence, is something that all men should understand.

Finally, healthcare and sub-topics like fitness and nutrition effect all men.

Therefore, a man needs to know many things in order to inform his decisions correctly. However, there are many problems.

How is the average man supposed to become an expert in all of these things? Even experts are seldom – if ever – exhaustive experts in their respective fields. Has any one man ever completely understood politics, religion or healthcare? Even as a collective entity, does mankind have an exhaustive understanding of any of these things? And so, even if a man were a super-genius with all the time in the world to spend studying, there would still be intellectual problems. Each one of us tends towards some kind of specialisation, but this specialisation in one area always leaves us wanting in another.

For these reasons, a man needs at least 3 things:

1. Faith,

2. Good intellectual discipline,

3. Effective heuristics.

Faith is necessary, even for the non-religious, because it basically amounts to a conviction to put our “chips down” on the limited knowledge that we have. We never have perfect, complete, flawless truth about life, yet we need to make decisions anyway, so we all need faith. A truly faithless man does not exist. And if he does, he is sat in a hermetically sealed box, doing nothing.

We need good intellectual discipline because the necessity of faith is no excuse to treat all information and truth-claims as equal. Even if we lack a perfect appreciation of truth, there is still an objectively real difference between true and false; better and worse ways of discerning information, and so our intellectual discipline is our necessary filter or “sorting mechanism” for taking the limited understanding that we have, and making the most of it.

Finally, we need heuristics because we need simple, effective models to think and live by prior to perfect insight.

What is a heuristic?

A basic intellectual model that allows someone to discern something for themselves. It is a kind of intellectual shortcut for navigating information.

In fact, forming heuristics entails the other two qualities because heuristics should always be formed with intellectual discipline yet, accepting imperfection, always imply the necessity of some degree of faith.

Some heuristics can be proposed for general use, but the exact capacities, dimensions and complexity of each heuristic will ultimately differ from person to person depending upon their own strengths and needs. Whereas a full-fledged theory or philosophy tends to be full of detail, heuristics tend to be a cluster of principles that attempt to account for whatever is most vital about a particular topic.

However, it is also important not to apply heuristics rigidly and categorically. The key intellectual disciplines that improve our use of heuristics are humility and the capacity to learn. By their very nature, heuristics are fuzzy and quick-fire in many respects and even the ones that are consistently proven to be useful are subject to exceptions and change.

Here are just a couple of examples of potential heuristics:


  • Don’t trust the government – don’t assume that the people who rule you love you, care about you, or in any way actually want to help you.

  • Always take what you hear in the media with a bucket of salt.

  • There is no political “solution” – all forms of government are flawed.

  • All political parties are flawed in some way.


  • Excessive intake of almost any substance is bad.

  • Balanced rhythms of things like eating, exercise and sleep tend to be good.

  • Avoid obvious toxins like drugs.

  • Avoid unnecessary stress or learn how to regulate it.

I even formulated my own basic heuristic for philosophy and the general discernment of truth in my book Life and Truth:

  • If an idea is inconsistent, it’s wrong (in some way). And the extent to which an idea/theory/model contains inconsistencies is the extent to which it should be regarded as wrong.

  • If an idea cannot be practically applicable, or of practical application or if an idea does not produce the proposed outcome, this is a strong sign that the idea is incompatible with reality and either needs to be revised or discarded.

  • (Therefore, ideas/theories/models which are consistent and practically applicable are more likely to be reflections of the truth than ones which are not).

Of course, these models leave a lot of things out and things can be disputed but as you can see, their value is in their simplicity. For a man who doesn’t have a lifetime to study politics, a good heuristic to apply to politics could be effective enough to help him avoid some really nasty surprises. Likewise, a man who only has a limited time to think about his health can become rather healthy if he applies the right principles in the right way.

In sum, get some good heuristics. Or, given that you’re almost certainly using your own, appreciate them more and maybe take a minute or two to give them some fine tuning.

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