Our need for bias

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still.

William Hazlitt, quoted in How to Think (p.86-87), written by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs continues:

“So we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”

Calling our collection of predispositions and biases ‘System 1’ (a term borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), Jacobs argues that our ‘System 1’ thinking can be “changed, trained; it can develop new habits.” He connects this with John Stuart Mill’s insistence that we consider our whole being in this arena- the emotions and the intellect. Jacobs writes: “This is what Mill meant when he spoke of the power of rightly ordered affections to shape the character. Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.”

This passage evoked so many from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love that I nearly brought that volume back upstairs. Some of the most splendid moments of my reading life occur when I witness my authors speaking to one another. Often they are echoing one another, or taking a drink further downstream. At other times they are sharpening the argument, flipping the blade to the other side.

These conversations are most easily perceived with the best writers, by the way. Often, the most important conversations span centuries. This interestingly brings me to a concluding comment that Jacobs makes about the role of rightly ordered affections in our thinking. He writes:

“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”

I ain’t the only one

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

~ Michael Shermer in an article titled: When Facts Backfire. This article appeared in the January issue of Scientific American.

This was the opening paragraph to Shermer’s article. While my own experience confirms the truth of his statement, the cartoon of a flat-earther and a round-earther (what shall we call them?) shaking hands confirmed my suspicions of who Shermer had in mind when he wrote the paragraph.

He continued to argue that creationists, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, and Obama birthers, in his view, double down on their positions in spite of overwhelming evidence, due to their worldview commitments.

He provided at the end of the article six suggestions for tackling this difficult problem of talking with such Cretans:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.
  2. Discuss, don’t attack.
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

I appreciate that Shermer is working on the tone of his tribe, considering that many of them consider that my belief in God is as rational as belief in a flat earth. An unfortunate number of articles in Scientific American have an unnecessarily pedantic and antagonistic tone. Following these six steps would take the magazine in a helpful direction. I would like to humbly suggest a seventh piece of advice for Shermer and his intended audience: realize that you too regularly deal with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the very real possibility of ignoring or even distorting evidence in support of your positions.

I work hard to identify and describe this tendency in my own life and in my own circles. My worldview demands this type of introspection. My conclusion is that Shermer’s concern isn’t a problem that afflicts religious people or conservatives alone, but all of God’s children. Shermer should be able to encourage his readers to acknowledge this without considering such an admission to be a blow to his community’s credibility. In fact, the absence of such an admission further undermines my willingness to trust such advocates of Science as impartial.

I recommend this article from the Hedgehog Review by Ari N. Schulman. Schulman addresses the pervasive sense of mistrust that society shares of the scientific community and offers balanced perspectives how the various groups involved can constructively move forward.

I’d also like to point out that I’ve got Locke on my side here:

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.

Allan Bloom- We Are a Bit Like Savages

We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.  

~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.

This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.

Slavery and Abortion- Appropriate Analogy?


Slavery reveals how anyone, now as well as then, can come to accept, perpetuate, and justify an exploitative system that seems essential and immutable. After all, we live with our own monsters. Alan Taylor

Is abortion the new slavery in America? Perhaps you’ve heard this analogy used in the past few months with the recent controversies surrounding Planned Parenthood and the consequent resurrection of the debates about prochoice and prolife positions. This analogy between chattel slavery and the rights of the unborn is striking and controversial, and I’d like to make some distinctions and examine its merits.

What are the unborn?

The question of the abortion of the unborn and the rights of the mother must invariably turn on the question of the status of the unborn. What are the unborn? Are they living human beings with full rights to life from conception? If we ignore this question and proceed to discuss the bodily autonomy of the mother, the risks and financial hardships, etc. we assume, in advance, the status of the unborn, namely, that they are not human in the same sense as ourselves. This assumption is evidenced when we consider the case of the toddler, and- believe me, toddlers restrict the autonomy of parents. But what of the prochoice advocates who concede that the unborn are human, but who insist that the mother’s right to choose whether she will face supporting a child in severe adversity ultimately outweighs the rights of the unborn?

To free, or not to free…

It is here that I would like to turn back to Taylor’s quote above regarding slavery. To be clear: Taylor was not drawing an explicit parallel between slavery and abortion, but I think it will be clear why the inference is justifiable. From Taylor’s work, it’s apparent that many of the founding fathers, themselves defenders of liberty, found themselves facing difficult choices with what to do with slaves on American plantations. Many of them agreed that black people were indeed men like them, entitled to freedom. Sadly, emancipation seemed to them to carry too great a cost. Many slave owners would lose their livelihood, not to mention that they were unsure how millions of freed slaves, deprived of an education, would be able to provide for themselves. Thomas Jefferson recommended mass deportation. Widowed land-owners would sell slaves (many times splitting up families) to avoid poverty.

I don’t intend to convey by writing this that the early American’s could simply have pushed the ‘fix’ button to make all these evils disappear with no consequences. I want to portray, however, that there were intense sacrifices that they were not willing to make to protect the rights of enslaved men, women, and children. With regard to the life of the unborn, we are in a similar situation. For the prolife position, convincing our hearers that the fetus is a living human being may not be doing enough.

Some (many?) pro-choice advocates acknowledge that the fetus is indeed a distinct, living human being, but that the hardships facing the mother can (and should) outweigh the ‘right to life’ that the unborn may have. As the case of slavery showed, men and women around the globe argued that slavery ought to be abolished, let the costs be what they may. In a similar manner, the prolife cause is backing up its cry for the unborn by seeking to aid these women who courageously chose to bear these children amidst almost impossible adversity. As of 2010, crisis pregnancy centers in the US outnumber abortion clinics 5:1.

Remembering our own monsters

In conclusion, Taylor’s quote reminds us to walk humbly as we fight for the unborn. “After all, we live with our own monsters.” In spite of the founding fathers fight for liberty, many of them considered slavery as an institution that was necessary and immutable. As Christians seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in our culture, bear in mind the sacrifices that we haven’t made for the unborn, and prayerfully consider what changes you can make today.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8