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The Consciousness Bias


[This essay is an extract from the much longer post: An Open Letter to Heterodox Academy.  It’s also portion of Thesis Part III: Cognitive Style is a Moral Foundation]

Conscious reason, or better yet consciousness itself, seems to be a form of cognitive bias in which we prefer our own consciously aware thoughts and reasoning in the present moment to other, often better, sources of knowledge and understanding like intuition and experience; and we prefer things we can explain (i.e., Oakeshott’s “Technical” knowledge) to things we can’t (i.e., his “Practical” knowledge.)

This manifests in at least two ways.

First, consciousness seems like a “not invented here” cognitive process in which we place disproportionately high faith in the self-generated thoughts that we “feel” in our “selves” and disproportionately low faith in thoughts of others, past and present, that we don’t “feel” because they are external to our selves and therefore seem detached and abstract. Ideas we come up with ourselves feel “right,” but we have to be convinced of ideas thought of by others including, and often especially, the collected wisdom of the ages.  This is sometimes called naïve realism, described as follows by Jonathan Haidt on page 71 of his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies. People acknowledge that their own backgrounds have shaped their views, but such experiences are invariably seen as deepening one’s insights; for example, being a doctor gives a person special insight into the problems of the health-care industry. But the background of other people is used to explain their biases and covert motivations; for example, doctors think that lawyers disagree with them about tort reform not because they work with the victims of malpractice (and therefore have their own special insights) but because their self-interest biases their thinking. It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.

If I could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.

Second, we tend to prefer a rationale that sounds right over our own conscience or intuitive judgment. We sometimes allow what seems to be a good argument at the time to overrule the better angels of our nature. We can be persuaded by seemingly solid reasoning to say and do things that don’t feel right and that we otherwise might not do. This “reason-based choice” is described as follows here:

When we make a decision, people try to reason about their decision. They try to see if they are making the right choice. But while they are trying to make the right choice, the effect their reasoning has on their decision is not necessarily to drive them towards a good decision, but simply to drive them towards a decision that they can justify.

We use whichever of these seemingly contradictory tools of naïve realism and reason-based choice that best fits the current circumstance. But either way, technical knowledge and conscious reason always get the benefit of the doubt and all other sources of practical knowledge and the collected wisdom of the ages in its many forms gets only doubt.

Naïve realism and reason-based choice are long-recognized forms of cognitive bias.  The point I’m trying to make is that bothe of them follow from the same root cause of the even more fundamental, deeply ingrained, elemental bias of consciousness itself.  

We humans have been around long enough and are seemingly smart enough to have learned from experience 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 process all of them, but that human society itself, in which each individual brain past and present is like a synapse of the collective brain of civilization, actually has figured out some things.

Do we trust those lessons collectively learned the hard way by our ancestors and by ourselves? Do we stand on the shoulders of giants? No. 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 beings, 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 ideas 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 (in business sometimes called “corporate” knowledge). The Consciousness Delusion is a prerequisite for The Rationalist Delusion.

Because of The Consciousness Delusion – cognitive bias by which conscious awareness and thinking overrules all other forms of knowledge – 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 syndromes of the rationalist delusion, naïve realism, and reason-based choice, 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.

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

Through the cognitive bias of The Consciousness Delusion 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.

I suggest that we crossed the Rubicon to the cognitive bias of conscious reasoning 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, naïve realism, cognitive style.  It explains, I believe, the Reason vs Experience split between liberalism and conservatism. This appeal and its consequences are 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.

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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