Consciousness itself seems to be a form of cognitive bias in which we prefer our own thoughts, of which we are consciously aware in the present moment, to sources of knowledge and understanding external to that realm. [This essay is adapted from my longer essay An Open Letter to Heterodox Academy]
Consciousness seems like a not invented here syndrome of the mind in which we place disproportionately high trust and faith in thoughts that we “feel” because they originate in our selves and disproportionately low faith in ideas that originate outside of ourselves that we therefore do not feel. Ideas we come up with ourselves feel right, normal, natural, but we have to be convinced of ideas thought of by others including, and often especially, from the past. (Here’s a different description of this idea).
Or, we tend to prefer a logical sounding rationale to our own intuitive judgment. We can be persuaded by seemingly solid conscious reasoning to say and do things that don’t intuitively feel right and that we otherwise might not do. The urge to trust conscious thought more than intuition sometimes even allows us to override The Gift of Fear that was wired into our minds by millions of years evolution to help us survive, such that we end up willingly walking into situations that somewhere deep inside we know might put us at risk.
We use whichever of these seemingly contradictory tools that best fits the current circumstance. But either way, conscious reason and technical knowledge seem to always get the benefit of the doubt, and all other sources of knowledge, like practical knowledge, Ancient Wisdom in its many forms – like customs, traditions, and institutions – gets only doubt.
What Is Learning?
Learning is the process of internalizing and assimilating into our selves information, concepts, and mental processes that originated outside of our selves. The objective of learning is to expand, refine, or enhance the range and depth of our internalized repertoire of and ideas, concepts, and mental process such that they become a natural and integral part of how we perceive, think about, and react to the world.
But the consciousness bias is so strong that we’re naturally resistant to learning. It can take repeated and prolonged exposure to ideas for them to become internalized. The process of learning can be thought of as training our inner elephant. This concept is central to the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. I’d add, however, that the phrasing of the book’s title is misleading. The objective of learning as I’m describing it here is not to help us think without thinking, but rather it is to make our thinking more capable, robust, encompassing, holistic.
The Consciousness Bias Thwarts Learning
We humans have been around long enough and are seemingly smart enough to have learned from the school of hard knocks that some things work and other things don’t work, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why; and to have learned that no single human brain has the capacity to contain all of the facts nor, even if it did, has the capability to sort them all out; and to have come to the realization that human society itself, in which each individual brain – past AND present – is like a neuron of the collective brain of humanity, actually has figured out some things.
But do we trust lessons like these, collectively learned the hard way by our ancestors and by ourselves? Do we stand on the shoulders of giants?
No. Our lifetimes are so short and our bias for the here and now of conscious awareness is so strong that we’re blind to most of it. In the arrogance of our own consciousness, and the naïve realism, reason-based choice, and other biases that flow from it, every new generation seems to think that it and it alone has found the “real” key to, or the “actual” truth of, human nature and tries to reinvent the wheel almost from scratch. Some of us actually have the audacity to think that “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for..”
Supremely arrogant, short sighted, and small minded creatures, are we not?
In another post I called this form of bias The Reason Delusion. A better name for it might be The Consciousness Delusion. I see it as a distinctly different phenomenon from The Rationalist Delusion. The rationalist delusion would not be possible without first presuming that our own conscious awareness and thoughts provide more and better information than that of our “common” sense (e.g., the evolved psychological predispositions that make it easier for us to like butterflies than spiders and snakes, i.e., the moral foundations) and the collected knowledge of society itself (sometimes called “corporate” knowledge in the business world). The Consciousness Delusion is a prerequisite for The Rationalist Delusion.
Possible Origins of The Consciousness Bias
I suggest that we crossed the Rubicon to the consciousness bias around the same time that we crossed the Rubicon to shared intent. Because of this cognitive bias there’s a strong, natural, feel-it-in-your-bones, sort of appeal to the abstract-reason-based WEIRD rationalist, idealist, cognitive style. There’s something deeply satisfying about being immersed in one’s own thoughts:
Logic is, to borrow William Blake’s phrase, self-delighting. The experience can be so exhilarating that we fail to notice where it is headed. – Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Strugle for the Soul of Western Civilization, p. 198
It’s what makes naïve realism and reason-based choice feel so good.
This appeal and its consequences seem to be mitigated sometimes but not always, and somewhat but not completely, by the “intuitions” of the binding foundations, which tend to pull one’s thinking toward the experience-based holistic intuitionist, empiricist, epistemologically more humble cognitive style. Thinking from the three-foundation moral matrix seems to have a greater tendency toward the consciousness bias than does that of the all-foundation matrix, which seems to have greater faith and trust in intuition and ancient wisdom.
Through the cognitive bias of The Consciousness Delusion, and contrary to the lessons of brain science, the rider really does, in a way, seem to control the elephant. The bias for consciousness is an intuition, a flash of affect, that can change the path our elephants follow.
Because of The Consciousness Delusion Western culture to this day is still deeply, blindingly, entrenched in the “two-hundred-year tangent” of the rationalist delusion. It is the consciousness delusion and its sister syndrome the rationalist delusion, possibly more than but at least equal to, moral foundations and local culture of time and place, which explains cognitive distortions, Victimhood Culture, and the mindset of Social Justice Warriors like screaming Yale girl. It is the root cause of “Dead White Men” mindset, in which we eschew all sources of knowledge and wisdom in favor of our own reasoning
The abstract-reason-based rationalist, idealist, Platonic, WEIRD, technical knowledge trusting, pedantic tending, Cognitive Style is a great analytical tool that has helped to advance mankind’s knowledge and understanding of itself.
But….it is an utter disaster as a guiding spirit of political ideology and policy. This cognitive style “has the worst track record in the history of ideas.”
The reason for this is that abstract reason tends to be less connected with the realities of human nature – for example the three principles of moral psychology (and my fourth principle – another of my challenges) – than is the experience based intuitionist, empiricist, Aristotelian, holistic practical knowledge trusting cognitive style.
For these reasons the abstract-reason-based WEIRD Platonic cognitive style might ALSO be an utter disaster for the research and understanding of human nature. The Platonic style correlates with liberalism, and social science is almost purely liberal. It follows then that the Platonic style and all of its associated tendencies will tend to dominate the research and analysis, and the knowledge and insights that might be gained from the experience and reason based holistic Aristotelian cognitive style might be diminished or even lost.
I want to be as clear as possible with my next point:
THIS IS ABOUT COGNITIVE STYLE AND NOTHING ELSE. It’s especially not about ideology!!!!
The best exemplars I can think of to help emphasize this very important point are the following people who to the best of my knowledge are all liberal, but who in my estimation lean toward the experience based, holistic, Aristotelian cognitive style:
- Jonathan Haidt,
- Liz Joyner, Executive Director of The Village Square,
- Kate Braestrup, a minister in New England who wrote and gave this sermon,
- Jonathan Rauch, who wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition
On the other hand, people who are Social Justice Warriors, current campus protesters, and members of the Victimhood Culture generally, who seem to be also liberal, seem to lean heavily toward, if not think exclusively with, the reason-based WEIRD Platonic style of thought.
I think its unfair to lump Social Justice Warriors with the other liberals listed above. What separates the two groups, both on the left, is cognitive style. As a conservative I find it not only easy, but enjoyable and productive to engage in conversation with Aristotelian liberals like the individuals listed above. I imagine I’d have a similar experience were I to converse with any of the folks at Heterodox Academy who also happen to lean left. But through the conversations I have had with Aristotelian leftists I’ve learned that even they often find it next to impossible to deal with the “logic” of social justice warriors, or have meaningful conversations with them.
Does not reason and evidence lead inevitably to the conclusion that BOTH cognitive styles yield insight, and also to the conclusion that of the two styles holistic Aristotelian empiricism is more connected with reality and more likely to find truth than is WEIRD Platonic idealism?
And yet, the biases of conscious reason, including reason-based choice, naïve realism, and the naïve idealism and delusional rationalism of the abstract-reason-based WEIRD Platonic style of thought cause us to ignore or eschew wide swaths human knowledge and understanding and their sources.
We’d all be so much better off if we could do even a slightly better job of experience-based holistic Aristotelian thinking, which in turn would help us retain and apply the collected wisdom of our predecessors.
It’s precisely this that I believe the founders had in mind when they expressed the idea that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.
And it’s precisely this, arguably its most important job, that the education system fails at most profoundly.
If Heterdox Academy is to achieve its goals then among its recommended solutions should be a strong campaign to teach…
- methods of critical thinking (1) like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, rules of evidence and argumentation, and the traps of common logical fallacies and how to avoid them,
- the existence, applicability, and proper use of both major cognitive styles, and
- the principles of moral psychology and moral foundations theory (i.e., human nature),
…so that our children can think clearly in ways that allow them to see the trees AND the forest, and so they are equipped with a realistic grasp of fundamental human nature, such that we can finally escape from the two hundred year tangent in which we’re still tragically mired.
(1) I’m aware that “critical thinking” might be a loaded phrase that has a negative connotation for some. The reason for the negative connotation seems to be the fallacious notion that through teaching people to think critically we can de-bias them; turn them into logic machines like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. In this sense, trying to teach critical thinking is similar to Haidt’s description in The Righteous Mind of trying to teach ethical behavior. He says “Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to server their elephants more effectively.” (The Righteous Mind, page 95) I’m under no illusion that after receiving training in critical thinking people will be like Mr. Spock when they step out of the classroom; able to use pure unbiased logic to see the truth. But we do know that a great number of cognitive biases and logical fallacies are built-in to human thinking. And disciplined methods or processes of organized thinking like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and training in proper argumentation, identification and use of evidence, and the most common logical fallacies and how to avoid them, can go a long way to avoiding some of the worst and most typical traps of the cognitive biases we humans typically fall into.