(NB: if you haven’t already, I’d suggest reading Part 1 of this series before continuing.)
I realize that this article will be a slog through some empty theorizing. But a main goal of this blog is to fill that emptiness. Think of theorizing as a glass and Truth as water. You need the glass to define an empty space that can then be filled. Only then can the water refresh you. Personally I would choose beer or a good whiskey over water, but the analogy works either way. Regardless, I hope you’ll bare with me through this empty glass post. It’s necessary for you to understand why a writer would even care about these concepts. So, onward!
In my last article, I ended with with the main thrust of this here blog: exploration not achievement. The search for Truth and the methods of making it known to others. There’s one thing that stands in the way of discovering and understanding Truth: bias.
We talk a lot about bias these days, and I don’t wish to go into that too much now. But I will say this. Biases can take many forms. But essentially bias is a result of our cognitive limitations, which stem from limited experience/information, limited intellectual power, and our emotional needs. In other words, none of us are purely rational, objective beings working with perfect information. All these seeds of bias (informational, intellectual, and emotional) produce roadblocks to two aspects of truth — accuracy and completeness. Accuracy is how well our understanding of Truth actually aligns with reality. Completeness is how broadly our understanding applies to reality.
Due to our limited experiences, we are always working from a lack of information. We’re all ignorant in some ways, even about subjects we know well. Informational limitations mostly produce errors of accuracy. We simply don’t know enough to produce an accurate understanding. However, in situations when we do have enough information, we can still produce errors of completeness whereby we don’t know if our understanding is universal or situational.
Limited intellectual power is pretty easy to understand. Basically, some of us are simply smarter than others. And even incredibly intelligent people tend to be better with certain thought processes (e.g. strategic vs. executive) or types of information (e.g. abstract vs. concrete). In these cases, even if we had perfect information, someone may personally lack the ability to put all the information together to form a coherent understanding. This results in errors of accuracy.
Our emotional limitations produce errors of both accuracy and completeness. Basically, we’ll believe something is true simply because we want it to be true (wishful thinking). The opposite also happens (denial). We also tend to want to feel smart and capable, so we convince ourselves we’re right about something regardless of the truth. You can see these errors most often in the forms of confirmation bias, cherry picking, attribution errors, etc. Basically, we see what we want to see. Errors of completeness can also result, such as overgeneralizing or treating a general phenomenon as if it only applies to specific cases. You can recognize these as faulty heuristics, including stereotypes, prejudice, etc. Our emotional imitations can prove to be the most insidious. When we become emotionally attached to an idea, we’re more resistant to examining it and more likely to deny contrary evidence, even violently so.
Due to the combination of the above factors, we’re left with the fact that we all have blind spots. As a result, we tend to reject the ideas and opinions of others on the grounds that the person is biased. But we forget that our grounds for rejecting an idea is rooted in our own biases. A person that accuses another of bias is always right. Using that accusation as a refutation of another’s statements is always wrong because such a refutation would equally apply to the refutation itself. Being biased doesn’t make someone wrong. It can only explain why someone is wrong. You have to demonstrate that they’re wrong first. Bias is not grounds for dismissing an idea.
I’ve seen a ton of discussion that says that if we can eliminate bias we can lead better lives or create a better world. Since we are always working with limited information, have limited intellectual capacity to process that information, and have emotional needs that cause us to ignore information or assume certain interpretations, we all will at all times possess biases. Unless humans can be perfectly rational and omniscient, eliminating bias is not possible.
But there’s another way to think of this. Instead of seeing bias as something that makes us wrong, we can focus on how bias imposes limits on our correctness. Instead of blind spots, we end up with little pieces of understanding — truths that can add up to Truth. From this point of view, I think we can find a way to constructively use our biases.
Take a step back some time and watch an argument unfold instead of diving in or ignoring it. What’s really going on when we disagree is that one person’s bias is different from another’s. We’re stepping into each others’ blind spots, but those steps are made with our little nuggets of understanding. Individually, bias blinds us. But collectively, bias doesn’t blind; it blurs. If we begin to understand that collective blurring effect, we can determine how to bring our individual understanding of Truth into better focus. This transforms our biases into powerful tools. If we all are biased (and we all are) and all of those biases are different (and they all are), then we can use each other’s biases to clarify our own vision. Each biased view when added together creates a more complete and accurate picture. So instead of rejecting a biased view, we should accept it in toto, which includes the limitations of that view. Rejecting another view solely because it is biased can only blind yourself.
If only there was some way to share our individual areas of understanding and fill in each other’s blind spots…
Turns out we do have a way. Communication. (See, I promised you I would explain why all this matters for blog largely about writing.) Communication is the key to understanding the world beyond our biases. I’d also argue that writing is the most effective means of communication to achieve this (but I’ll make that full argument later). Communication puts our views on display. It allows us to compare and contrast them, which if done honestly, allows us to see not only other peoples biases but also our own. This in turn allows us to synthesize these views. If we can indeed use each other’s biases to clarify instead of obscure Truth, communication is the only means to do so. The real enemy of Truth isn’t bias; it’s not even falsehoods. It’s silence.
As an American poet, Mark Amidon, said, “Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.” This concept expands to all communication, not just language. And you should listen to us poets. We say some pretty smart things sometimes.
(NB: Here’s Part 3 of this series.)