Tag Archives: epistemic closure

We Are Stubbornly “Beasts at Heart”

A contributor to the Washington Post, Kara Swisher, who writes from the perspective of the business world noted the “unconscious bias” that is often made in such things as hiring practices.  She described it as “a bias that kicks in automatically, with our supposedly unthinking brains making often-inaccurate snap judgments…While I am fully aware of the science behind the concept — which basically boils down to the fact that we are all beasts at heart — it’s pure laziness by some of the world’s smartest and most innovative people to pretend they are unconscious of something so glaringly clear. It both abrogates the responsibility of leaders and fobs it off on training and classes that never seem to solve the problem, no matter how much money is spent.”

The ”unconscious bias” is much related to the epistemic closure or confirmation bias that is often a focus in my blogging.  There are premises that are involved which influence our decision making and these “premises” are difficult to pay attention to, primarily because we don’t want to pay attention to them. These premises are a template through which we filter our rational thinking and they are heavily laden with emotion to the point that “rationality” often eludes them. This is a human dilemma and most of us have wrestled with the issue from time to time, squirming under the painful realization that our stance on various issues in life were totally irrational and merely reflecting of what had been an “unconscious bias.”  The pain of this self-awareness is often so intense that our conscious mind just will not permit the insight, opting to affirm even more passionately our biased view of the world. Furthermore, we can always find like-minded persons who will “confirm” our bias.

Our political system in the United States currently illustrates what happens when two different world views are “dug in at the heels” and refuse to budge, not realizing that the obstinacy is bad for all in the long run. The core issue is identity itself.  If we take our identity to be only what and who we “think” we are, then we will not be able to back-off of our viewpoint and realize that often the other view point has more validity than we first thought.  This notion takes my mind always to the domain of existence I like to describe as the spiritual, that region in the depths of our heart where we encounter and learn to live with the vulnerability that comes in realizing understanding that the essence of our being lies beneath the surface realm of rationality.  Then, at times we have to agree with Swanson, “We are beasts at heart.”

The irony is that this stubborn “beastliness” is usually most conspicuous with religious beliefs.  No one deliberately opts for “ignoble” beliefs in their religion.  The problem comes when they subscribe to “noble” beliefs but then interpret them in such a way that the result is that other people are marginalized socially at least and sometimes politically.  At times the “marginalization” has even led to violence as religious fervor has become so intense that a believer feels that his belief system must be forced on others even at the “point of sword.”


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The Finger Pointing to the Moon is not the Moon!!!

I recently posted on one of my other blogs about a favorite subject of mine, a closed-referential system also called epistemic closure or confirmation bias.  I focus on this issue because it is personally relevant given my youth in a very close-minded community and religious culture.  And my knowledge about this matter is so personal that without a doubt I am revealing that my “escape” from the close-mindedness is not complete and probably never will be.  In fact, it is impossible to cease to think outside of a context and that context is always larger than one is aware of.  We do not have an “objective” existence and if we ever accomplish that stance we will have become God and personally, I’ve already told friends that if I ever give evidence that I think I have accomplished that, “Just come and shoot me!”  I often like to use the term “god-complex” for those who are so rigid in their belief system that the uncertainty necessary for faith is not permitted to visit them.

My focus for the moment is the way in which religious thought can become self-contained so that it is self-referential, leading always to group-think and the aforementioned epistemic closure.  In a spiritual context like this “god-talk” is nothing but idle chatter even though the “chatting” might be done with great solemnity and fervor.  The “god-talk” I have in mind can be thought of as social grooming, amounting to nothing more than “car-talk” or banter about the local sports team.  Social grooming is very important and even has value in a religious setting though not when it is an end in itself. “God-talk” might be thought of in the spiritual context I come from as the exchange of common-place notions like, “Jesus Saves” or “Praise the Lord” or “Isn’t God wonderful” or “Hallelujah” and all of these terms have value.  But their value has meaning only when they are used in a group dialogue in which they are explored in terms of personal experience and not as mere grist for a social mill.  When reduced to this grist, they have the value only of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”

The core issue here is epistemological, the word is not the thing or as the Buddhists put it, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”   But our culture has misled us, teaching us that “the word is the thing,” that it is the “thing in itself” and not the pointer that the Buddhists would have us learn.  This view of the world gives us the impression that the world is one dimensional, that there is no immaterial dimension to life, and that our everyone is empowered to claim objectivity.  But the problem with this “objectivity” is that it encourages everyone to claim the right to this objectivity which puts on our table at this present moment two diametrically opposing views of how the world should be seen.  One view is conservative and at its root is a firm belief that “the way things are” is valid and need to be maintained, that “walls” need to be built around it to keep out the ever-encroaching peril of the other view.  This other view, the liberal view, does not see reality as static but as a dynamic flow that permits us to have only a viewpoint, not an objective grasp of “the way things are.”

The “immaterial” dimension of life, i.e. the “spiritual”, could humble each of these perspectives and permit the finding of common ground.  The conservative and the liberal energy is necessary in any political body but when each side is dug in at the heels conflict cannot be resolved and catastrophe can take place.  But by using the term “spiritual” I have just opened a can of worms as the word means something which is not spiritual in the least but a means of social control and even tyranny.






If Ignorance Were Bliss…

One of my dearest pastors from my youth would often quip, “If ignorance were bliss, we’d all be blistered.”  This was just a witty, deliberately maladroit Arkansas version of the epistemological insight that basically we are all more ignorant than we light to admit.

The nature of knowledge increasingly fascinates me.  The political situation in my country has intensified this fascination as I watch intelligent and thoughtful people persistently subscribe to things that are patently absurd, giving rise to the phenomena of a “fact-free” world.  Here is a New York Times op-ed from this morning in which this penchant for self-deception is explained, a penchant which the authors point out is present for liberals and conservatives alike. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/opinion/sunday/why-we-believe-obvious-untruths.html?_r=0

The authors point out that ignorance is our natural state. There is an absurdity to that observation unless you look at things closely, including your own life.  They are only restating what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said that we “see through a glass darkly.”  We see first what we want to see and if we ever get beyond our self-serving premises it will not be merely a function of intelligence.  Particularly, in the area of religion it is very troubling, disillusioning even, to realize that we have been approaching even our spiritual experience with “dark” vision, an insight which immediately subjects us to disillusionment.  But if we can withstand the discomfort, or anguish, of disillusionment than sometimes we can begin to toy with the notion that perhaps those who see things differently, be it in regard to religion or politics, might not be as “wrong” as we had thought.


(If this subject of “willful blindness” intrigues you, google the terms “epistemic closure” and “confirmation bias.”)