The Course of Reason

Safety and Liveness: Applying Information Assurance Policies to Belief and Mental Health

June 11, 2013

My current research applies formal logic to the analysis of information assurance. Blah Blah Blah, right? Well I’ll be damned if I didn’t just have a conversation with my therapist about the application of information assurance policies to fighting my depression. And what’s more, they also apply to the skeptic’s dilemma of trying to minimize one’s false beliefs or maximizing one’s true beliefs. This might be obvious to you, but my brain works funny, so I am just discovering it.

First, I should lay out the computer science properties. In the discipline of formal methods, math and logic nerds create models of computer systems and reason about them. We like to reason about things like information security and the use of limited computer resources. There are two classes under which all security policies fall: 1) Safety; 2) Liveness.

Math nerd, analyzing some stuff.

The guys at the NSA we are so afraid of.

Generally speaking, a safety property is one that says “bad things don’t happen.” For example, “a high clearance user’s actions have no effect on low clearance users.” This property, called non-interference, means a low clearance user can’t see anything about a high clearance user’s actions, because the high clearance user’s actions have no observable effect on the low clearance user’s system. The bad thing, high clearance affecting low clearance, should never happen, according to the policy. It is a safety property.

A liveness property is one that says, “eventually, something good happens.” For example, “the CPU will respond to a request after at most x clock cycles.” We want a guarantee that each system call will get the CPU’s attention after a reasonable amount of time. This liveness property says that the good thing, a CPU response, will eventually happen.

These came up in my therapy session because I struggle with depression and its associated dark thoughts. My brain recognizes that I’m experiencing problems, and it does its best to suggest possible solutions. One way to avoid unpleasant experiences is to just kill oneself, according to my brain. I agree with you, Brain, but that is like satisfying a safety property by shutting down the computer system. It is an unsatisfying solution, because it prevents unpleasant things from happening by preventing anything at all from happening. We need a better solution.

A better solution is to combine safety and liveness. We should try to stay mentally and emotionally safe by avoiding painful and unpleasant things to the best of our abilities, but not to the exclusion of happy, positive experiences, like by getting medication so that I can feel those things again. My brain’s proposed solution fails to satisfy a liveness property, because it prevents anything good from ever happening. The English major within me is acutely aware of the amusing connection between the name “liveness property” and the fact that killing oneself fails to satisfy such a property.

Staying Alive

Similarly, a liveness property on its own is not a complete solution. I can guarantee that something good happens by living recklessly and pursuing instant gratification. In fact, I used to live this way to a large extent. But this approach allows too many bad things to happen as well, and ultimately leads to more bad than good, in my experience.

The best approach is to employ a combination of safety and liveness in balance, avoiding painful and unpleasant things but also taking steps to pursue good things. This principle also applies well to the way of the skeptic.

If you hang out with skeptics, you will eventually have the conversation about “which is better: having no false beliefs, or believing all the true things?” This is related to the extremes of denialism and so-open-minded-your-brains-fall-out. One way to avoid all false beliefs is to have no beliefs. Suspend judgment about everything, and you will never believe falsely. However, this also guarantees that you have no true beliefs, and no knowledge.

Well heck, as someone who values science and discovery, I value knowledge. I think it is rare, and precious, but something to pursue nonetheless. So a complete devotion to epistemic safety, as I’ll call it, is not a satisfying solution to my problem.

Similarly, I could take the other extreme and simply believe everything, thereby ensuring that I believe all the true things. But obviously this would not be a satisfying solution, because then I’d believe in Jesus’ resurrection, homeopathy, and other false things that I want to avoid.

The solution is to adopt a principle that balances epistemic safety (minimizing false beliefs) and epistemic liveness (pursuing true beliefs). I’m not sure exactly what the proper balance is, but I’m quite confident that it exists.



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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