Saturday, October 23, 2010

Default Setting

Just writing down a common theme of mine in compact form for future linking.

When one is trying to contemplate what is true, and what one should believe, there is an important preliminary sterp. First, we must know what our default settings are. Otherwise, we will too easily fool ourselves when examining the evidence. We will have a confirmation bias toward what we want to be true. It is impossible in such an instance to be objective.

If are raised raised mostly among Christians, with mentors and heroes all being persons of that faith, we will secretly root for explanations which vindicate our tribe. Or, if we are raised among Christians and want out in some way, we will secretly root for ideas which discredit it.

This leads us to the hidden default setting. We must not only look at what are the beliefs of the place we come from - for we may have an ambivalent relationship to those - but more importantly, to the group we hope to belong to. In Empire, we will learn the language of the capital and the ruling class if we hope to get ahead. We will identify with these "better" people, if only they will accept us. If we are a bright college student who has long known (or fancied) that we are far smarter and more enlightened than the people we left behind, we will gravitate to the beliefs and practices of those around us who seem to have the best claim to being intellectuals. This may be a selection of our peers, a subset of our professors, or the writers we are assigned, but we will want them to be proved right. We may later reject this, preferring a group out in the world of our profession, our new friends, or local luminaries - but we will always have this temptation with us.

Socrates said "Know thyself," and this may be one of the important strands of what he meant. Until we know what advantage, whether social, financial, or psychological, that a particular set of beliefs provides for us, we have no business pretending we are choosing cleanly.

Descartes resolved to assume nothing and see what he could conclude. I am not so temeritous as to claim he was wrong - it may be that this rule for objectivity I am laying down applies only to people like me, and we may not be the most noble or elevated. But I will still venture to call Descartes sharply into question on this point. I don't believe we can assume nothing. There is no default place in contemplation where we are starting at a zero point. At best, we can attempt to correct for biases we identify.

As Lewis said, a heap of broken images is itself an image. To have rejected all creeds in the hopes of starting at some neutral place is itself a creed.

Need I mention that this is uncomfortable? It is not so much difficult intellectually as emotionally. None of us likes to think that any fraction of our creed could be a pose, adopted in order to seem like a certain sort of person, either ourself or others.


Anonymous said...

"I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member!"
~ Groucho Marx

Sam L. said...

This brought to mind an SF story I read within the last 10 years about a man who'd grown up on a space station and then married a woman born planet-side. Their learned responses didn't work in differing environments.