Thursday, March 10, 2016

Epistemology and politics (or lack thereof)

After one of the most off-putting titles I’ve ever conceived, let’s cut to the chase: you may not stay awake at night pondering what is it that you can “know”, what that “knowing” consists in and what is it that makes believing a certain proposition “knowledge” (as opposed to opinion, fancy, or being a classical and unvarnished asshole). That puts you in the same league than 99.9% of humanity, and probably you never thought you were in any way worse off because of such lack of interest in the good ‘ol field of epistemology (which trains you to agonize over such weighty issues, but would not for the life of it stoop to provide you with a definite answer, or not one that you could explain to any 15 year old you crossed your path with, anyhow). Well, sorry to break the sad news to you, but you were dead wrong. Not being epistemologically literate is an unforgivable sin on par with having regular sex with animals or (gasp!) not recycling, and the evil system is taking advantage of your lack of sophistication in precisely that area. How come? I’ll use the remainder of this post to try to explain.  

To make the subject easier to grasp, lets start with a simplified, somewhat metaphoric model. Assume this is all there is to know, aka “the world”:

Not very impressive, I know, but enough for our current purposes. Our world is a bounded circle, with some funny shapes in it: a bunch of yellow squares, a rectangle (also yellow), a reddish triangle, a brownish star and a red sinusoidal line. What about the birds, and the clouds, and the sea, and continents and stones and people? We will get to that in a moment, just trust me that our simplified world is just as complex as it needs to be for explaining what this epistemology stuff is about, and what we will formulate regarding these simple shapes will be pretty straightforward to extrapolate to all the other thingies you may be rightfully thinking about.

Of course, with just our simple model of a world we wouldn’t get very far, so to start talking about knowledge, belief, justification, warrant, reliability and whatnot we need at least one additional element: a conscious subject that can perceive it. Lets call such subject “A” (Smith would also be fine, but would be unnecessarily long and not abstract enough, and we occasional epistemologist like our Martinis shaken, not stirred, and our examples as abstract as possible). So just by being alive A is aware of her surroundings, and forms a mental representation of the world, a perceptual map if you wish of what surrounds her:

Now you may notice that the image A has in her head of what’s out and about her does not exactly coincide with what is actually out and about. A number of discrepancies are unavoidable, given A’s perceptual apparatus (it doesn’t really matter if A is a human being, a bat, a horse or a starfish, every living being’s sense organs convey only a limited portion of what surrounds it). There are surely things too small for A to notice (that may explain that instead of a number of yellow squares she only sees one), and here may be shapes in colors that reflect the light in wavelengths her eyes can not respond to (so these colors are, for all practical purposes, invisible to her), or sounds her ears can not distinguish, etc.

Unfortunately, the potential discrepancies between what A perceives and what is “out there” are not limited to the ones imposed by A’s narrow senses (let’s call that source of discrepancies the “perceptual bias”, which is widely shared by each species, so we would expect that, having roughly the same sense organs, each member of the same species would perceive the world in a roughly similar way). If A is a self-conscious being, she will have preferences and tastes that incline her towards certain experiences, and make her avoid (consciously or not, I do not want to get to that distinction yet) other experiences. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she dislikes pointed edges, and irregular polygons (that is, polygons where not all the sides and all the angles are equal). As far as we can tell, all self-conscious beings adjust their perceptions to conform as closely as possible not only to their expectations (unfounded as they may be) but to their tastes and preferences, so in the case of A she will easily come to believe the single square she sees is really slightly rounded, and that something similar happens with the triangle. As for the star, she may just not pay it much attention; just enough to notice it has five points, and then may just think it was really a pentagon (less pointed). The rectangle, being irregular, she is wont to ignore. Let’s call this second source of discrepancies between the hypothetical external world and A’s perception of it “preference bias” (confirmation bias and aesthetic bias would be aspects of it).

To complete the picture, and be able to show why it is important for our everyday life, we have to add a second complicating element. A world with a single subject is not the most promising place to discuss about what we can really know and what such knowledge consists in, so let us add a final element, a second subject which, unavoidably, we will call “B”:

Now we may expect B, belonging to the same species as A, to have exactly the same perceptual bias as her, so their perception of the world if that was the only source of potential discrepancies would be exactly the same. But having a different genetic makeup, and a different upbringing, it is more likely than not that B has different tastes and preferences from A. Let’s say that she doesn’t have a problem with pointed edges, but she is a resolute “two-dimensionalist”: she doesn’t believe for a moment that there are one-dimensional shapes, and she thinks that any talk of lines, points or any geometric figure that can not boast a measurable area is a pie-in-the-sky fable, and only superstition and undignified refusal to grow up and confront the world as it really is can explain people still talking of lines, curves and whatnot. For B the red line is but a fiction, she successfully manages not to perceive it, so it is not a part of her mental map of what is “out there” in any meaningful sense.

But you surely have noticed that substituting sharp angles for rounded ones is not the only difference between what B thinks the world consists of and what A thinks. From B’s point of view, the different yellow squares are not only clearly discernible, but they occupy a significant portion of the landscape, so much so that she can perceive them as distinct and overwhelming, partially blocking the view of any other shape. So we have to introduce a third source of differences of opinion, that we will call “perspective bias”. Nobody perceives the world from exactly the same place (or the same time), and the kind of portions of reality that fill their perceptions will be different because of such displacements. 

From such different elements of experience they will build different conceptual networks, and give different weight and moral valences to the concepts that form such networks, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves yet. At this point you are surely wondering “what does all this silly talk of triangles, rectangles and sinusoidal lines have to do with anything I may care a iota about?” Do not despair, my impatient reader, ‘cuz I’m just about to explain: start by substituting “race” for “shape”, and “conservative tendencies” (or more reputable, less open to knee-jerk reaction terms like respect for tradition, preference for authority, identification with the history and racial composition of the group one was brought up into, etc.) for “liking of sharp angles” and you can see that A is a bleeding heart liberal that is afraid of the world being taken over by giant corporations and growingly unequal because of the evil machinations of a cabal of cold-hearted plutocrats and B is an old lady in an increasingly diverse neighborhood (yup, the –for her- menacing squares are all those immigrants that occupy a growing portion of her daily landscape, and that figure in her imagination in a completely different position than in the idealized and distant PC vision of A) that is in turn afraid of how the morals and habits of society are being corroded and rendered invalid by multiculturalism and relativism, and that in turn is causing all kind of social evils.

Nothing new here, and a territory well covered by popular books like Predictably Irrational , without having to resort to the epistemological playbook. Some of those biases are shared and some are not, and people tend to feel attracted (and to agree) with people that share their biases, thus driving modern societies, ever more connected thanks to technology (and the ubiquitous social media it has enabled), towards unheard-of levels of alacrity and animosity, and a more and more intractable level of polarization. What the epistemic perspective tells us is that such biases (at least the preference and perspective ones) are causing people to literally “see” different worlds, and to react in predictably different ways to such different realities. Furthermore, it tells us that people not only tends to band with people that have similar perspective to theirs (specifically share their preference bias, as for their perspective bias, it is easy to align the point of view of any two persons with similar preferences and thus eliminate it), but that such banding has a powerful effect in confirming and reinforcing that the mostly common view they can share is the “real”, “true” one, is the one that really reflects how the world “really is”.

And of course it is a very short step from that reinforcement of the very pleasing idea of being in the right and having a distinctively well adjusted grasp on reality to the notion that whoever doesn’t share that grasp is not only wrong (or deceitful, as they report perceiving something that does not correspond with reality), but most likely is willfully so, thus not just wrong but evil (the overarching idea that people can decide what to believe, technically called doxastic voluntarism, is as extended in popular conscience as opposed by most academics, for reasons that would merit their own posts and which I am not going to expound here).

In turn, the existence of those “perception altering fields” created by people with similar preference bias banding together explains a lot of phenomena that would be utterly baffling without such epistemic framework, to name but a few:

·         The rise (and likely winning of the Republican nomination) of Donald Trump. The likes of Bill Kristol and the whole conservative establishment are throwing the kitchen sink at him, but his followers barely budge. They are simply perceiving a completely different world than the pundits and plutocrats that try to sway their perception with reasons (try to correct their perspective bias), while what binds them together, and attracts them to the magnate, is a set of shared tastes (preference bias)

·         The growing impression in a continent of over 400 million souls that doing the humane and morally right thing (admitting between us four to six millions of destitute refugees, it doesn’t matter if they flee war, abject poverty, crushing lack of opportunity or religious prejudice) is somehow a mortal danger that threatens to bring down our whole culture and way of life, as most of them are surely terrorists, sexual predators, child molesters, sexist pigs, religious fundamentalists, ne’er-do-gooders and slackers that only want to live from the public teat and never hold a honest job. The (four or five) guys that hold the opposite view just see an entirely different world from the vast majority of our countrymen, as both our preference biases and perspective biases are completely out of whack (and both are, in turn, out of whack with those of the refugees themselves)

·         The schizophrenic nature of the debate about “Brexit” in the UK (and in the continent), with both sides at the same time maintaining that the current agreement between Britain and the EU is supremely beneficial and an economic catastrophe. Again, the world each side sees (internally inconsistent as they both are) gains the little coherence it can show from a shared perspective bias (as the preference bias of both sides is pretty much the same, so not a source of disagreement), but that sliver of coherence will be enough, between here and August, to create a powerful enough distortion field that will tilt the majority of public opinion to one side or the other

Be that as it may, the sad consequence is that the traditional ways of aggregating individual preferences (that presupposed at least shared biases, so the groups trying to reach an opinion had a common framework, a common perception of the world over which to build their alternative scenarios and in turn over which to jointly decide the best course of action) is not working any more, and thus the political system built on the premise of those ways being optimal may be on its last ropes, its very viability being legitimately open to question.

But we will leave out attempt to answer that question to our next post on the subject. 

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