The Most Insidious Enemy of Truth

In my second post I wrote that in order to make a claim convincing we must justify it, and do so in accordance with to some basic principles. My assertions may have seemed obvious and intuitive enough: of course we cannot go around making claims about whatever we want with no justification and expect others to believe them. But while I think such a rational approach to belief is necessary to give our arguments epistemological structure, it omits the equally pertinent but unfortunate reality that belief is a messy business.

I challenge you now to think of even a single belief you hold (that has implications beyond your own experience) which you came to believe through a purely rational and structured process of justification of the sort I discussed in the earlier post. You may find it surprisingly difficult, and this difficulty reflects an important truth about the nature of belief: we rarely follow such a process to come to any belief whatsoever. I’ve already mentioned that we take many, if not most of our beliefs for granted from some kind of authority; but even those that need not (or should not, as I argued last time) be taken for granted in this way can be hijacked by what I consider the truth’s most insidious enemy: bias.

By definition, bias undermines our ability to justify our beliefs rationally by influencing us to to see, hear, and remember that which conforms to our preconceived ideas about reality. Bias enters our minds through our media, books, relationships, emotions, personal interests, upbringing, and personal identity, among other sources. These are all sources of intellectual influence that, in principle, have nothing to do with the justifiability of the beliefs themselves which they support.

Rather than write a small book about every manner in which bias affects our beliefs, let’s consider its effects on another subject which is comparable to religion in significant ways: politics. The analogy is perhaps more poignant today than ever; just think back on our most recent election cycle. If you yourself did not engage in any heated political disputes, you probably at least witnessed such an exchange. (Social media, to the agitation of many, was an excellent place to find them.) You probably noticed the tendency of these conversations to devolve into an emotionally charged shaming match in which neither side is able to get their ideas through to the other, no matter how clearly or reasonably they articulate their arguments. Neither side wants to cede any ground; even when its seems obvious that one side has lost and should give up, they seem to be willing to say anything—to employ even the most outrageous fallacies—just to cling to what they already believe… and they don’t even realize it!

The smallest amount of critical analysis reveals that this kind of discourse, this process of determining what is true and what is not, is not based on a cool, rational process of justification; there is something much deeper tugging at the strings of our beliefs—something more emotional, more irrational, more inscrutable.

But why is this analogy to political bias so relevant to our discussion about religion? There is a reason why it is said that religion and politics are the two subjects one should never discuss in mixed company. Both subjects seem to empower the greatest impetuses of bias that I mentioned above: they bear heavily upon our personal identities, upbringing, and experience. The same kind of bias that hijacks political disputes between staunch republicans and a democrats, for example, affects disputes between committed Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and so on. If you have ever tried to have a rational dispute with a believer of a different religion, you have probably already noticed this. (Unfortunately these conversations rarely happen because we too often consider it taboo to challenge another person’s religion.) It is easy to see bias in our opposition, but extremely difficult to see it in ourselves.

This is not at all to say that no political position can be more accurate than another, or that the existence of bias proves that all religions are false. I simply want us to acknowledge that we are all susceptible to it, especially when it comes to our religious beliefs (or lack thereof). It must be part of the conversation. Trying to find religious truth without acknowledging the power and inevitability of bias is like looking for buried treasure without a shovel. It is, unfortunately, a powerful and unavoidable fact of the human condition… You are biased. I am biased. The media is biased. The scientologists are biased. Your strange opinionated uncle is biased… Everyone is biased!

But if everyone is biased, what’s the point of talking about it except to say that we should all “be careful” to not let ourselves be influenced by it? Presumably, many people have already done that, yet we still all believe in different faiths. No—bias affects us in far more insidious ways than can be counteracted by simply “being careful,” or, “thinking harder about it”. So what can we do?

There is no “rational vacuum” where we can go to be completely free from bias, but there are methods of thinking that we can employ to counteract it. This is where I think the skeptical approach to knowledge (not the “atheist” approach per se) becomes helpful. Bias still plays a role, of course, but I think that epistemologically speaking, it is the best way to prevent us from holding false beliefs. I will explore what I mean by the “skeptical approach to knowledge” and how it counteracts bias in my next post… so don’t miss it!

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  1. LOL!! Yes! Let’s hear it for strange opinionated uncles! 😉

    “I simply want us to acknowledge that we are all susceptible to it …”

    I do so acknowledge.

    If, as you say, the human condition is hopelessly infected with bias, then we must also be just as skeptical of what we call “rational process” that defines any particular epistemological structure. It could just as readily be the result of some kind of bias either originating on an individual level or perhaps a sort of mass, delusional epistemological structure as a result of bias affecting what we would like to rely upon as “rational.”

    So, any epistemological structure that would ostensibly mitigate bias could itself be hopelessly biased and therefore potentially as invalid as the most irrational thought imaginable. Since this makes a case for arguing that “rational thought” has its limits, it therefore leaves us free to just as legitimately appeal to what some call “heart knowledge,” or anything else, for that matter. Or, we could just take things on authority, like people have been doing for the past 2,000 years.

    I say: “look for ‘God in the Odd…'”

    1. Hah! I made no conscious connection between you and “strange opinionated uncles” when I wrote it, but it seems almost too much of a coincidence for it not to have been subconscious.

      There is a big difference between being wary of how bias distorts our rational process of justifying claims, and rejecting rationality all together–the latter is a much more radical form of skepticism. It certainly does not follow from what I’ve written here (though I would entertain an argument to the contrary). One of the main reasons for talking about epistemology at the beginning of this blog is precisely to argue that religious claims CAN be, at least in principle, understood and demonstrated as true or untrue. Bias is an enemy of truth, not its ultimate downfall.
      This can be made clear with an example using a more simple claim. “I’m sitting in a chair” is either true or untrue. If you walked into the room where I am and saw me sitting in a chair, could you simply claim that my bias is distorting my belief, and that it might actually be untrue, and that you could appeal to whatever sources you want to make the claim that I am actually standing on my head? Intuitively, no–you would have to accept my claim. Religion is the same way, but more complicated and vulnerable to bias due to the nature of the claims being made and they ways we come to believe in them. We need to talk about better ways to rationally approach these claims that circumvent it, not throw our rationality all together.
      Nor do I think you should or are able to use this radical skepticism to defend your own Christian beliefs in a way that is coherent. If no epistemological structure is more valid than another, then there is no reason why “heart knowledge” should be more valid than any other kind of knowledge; it makes far more sense, on account of radical skepticism, to doubt that anything is true at all. You also couldn’t make any case whatsoever why your beliefs are more correct than anyone else’s, which I assume is not what you intend.
      Furthermore, taking things on authority does nothing to combat bias, in fact it probably agitates the problem; there are lots of authorities, and people will simply listen to whatever authority confirms their biases. And of course, the authorities themselves are probably equally mired in their own bias.
      I’m happy to have a discussion about radical skepticism, but I don’t think it makes any sense in this context.

  2. “Intuitively, no–you would have to accept my claim.”

    So, then, I suppose we now have on record that you consider intuition as a valid means of discerning truth, at least in some circumstances?

    1. No. In that case I meant “intuitively” more as a synonym for “obviously”. But even if I wasn’t I think you should take care before you try to argue that it follows from using “intuition” to determine whether someone is sitting on a chair in front of you, that we could also use it to justify something like religious beliefs. Of course we can use intuition sometimes to come to certain beliefs; we do it all day, every day. I think I have already explained why I think something like intuition is not a legitimate means of justifying belief in a religion. Unless you have some very, very clever philosophy tucked up your sleeve, I encourage you to engage with the rest of my response above, which I think is sound, and not embark on a tangent based on that single word.

      1. Thank you for explaining what you actually meant vs. what you wrote.

        Your blog is understandably compartmentalized, but each post can still be connected to the whole. Making connections between the compartments is fair game.

        I do not think you have satisfactorily justified why religion is held to higher or even impossible standards vs. other things of extreme consequence, like the article I posted previously about intuition as a command prerogative for military leaders in combat situations. Yes, the religious stakes are still the highest but certainly not disconnected from the matter of being blown to bits in combat, for instance. Beyond this example, I am sure that there are probably plenty of other examples of how religion is connected with other high-stakes, dire events in life. Yet, religion curiously gets singled-out.

        In any case, I should mention that I do not advocate for intuition alone. Rather, I see it as part of a profile, or part of a suite if you will, of reasons why it is quite reasonable to “believe” even in the face of an impossible demand for perfect, irrefutable proof centuries “after-the-fact.” The standards of such a demand tend to, in my view, invalidate it because of [spoiler alert] the extreme prejudices that can be involved. Perhaps this might eventually segue to your pending introduction of what I assume will be the metaphysical objections to religion that I further assume will include reference to naturalism being the final arbiter, or something along those lines? You don’t have to answer this now.

        I wish I had the time to brush up on my epistemology first… sorry. I’ll do the best I can in the meanwhile. Yes, your points about bias are very important and well-taken. But, when I consider that there are a lot of people on both sides of this issue that are a LOT smarter than I am, I sometimes ask what we, or most people, hope to accomplish? Last night I watched Christopher Hitchens debate Al Sharpton and then a debate between Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan. These brilliant people with their dazzling intellect almost certainly still had their own biases. Nevertheless, I do agree that we should all still try to “get out of our own way” when discussing such things in a best effort to be as unbiased as possible in seeking Truth.

        By the way, I’m too fat to have anything tucked up my sleeve. There’s no room.

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