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ADMITTING PARTIALITY: Is there any way to overcome partiality, especially when it comes to metaphysics, morals and politics? And by partiality I mean unavoidable bias. In my opinion (IMO), No. The closest we can get to impartiality is admitting we’re partial.
Nobody will admit without a struggle that he is prejudiced against anything, because such an admission is distressing to one’s vanity. For the same reason nobody will admit without a struggle that he holds irrational beliefs. One likes to believe that one’s views on all subjects are the product of calm, dispassionate reasoning on the available evidence. But in the case of other people, it seems quite obvious to us that many of their beliefs are not the product of calm, dispassionate reasoning. It is not so easy, however, to detect partiality or prejudice in our own thought processes—partiality at best, prejudice at worst—especially when our hearts are enlisted on the side of a theory before our heads have examined it. So, how do we go about it?
A good way to start, IMO, is by turning to something from George Bernard Shaw. There’s a view that Shaw got almost everything wrong. He had a sparkling intelligence but a low understanding, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it. Be that as it may, I think that highly intelligent people always get some things right, and often articulate what they’re right about brilliantly. So here’s Shaw being brilliant. Admittedly, he begins problematically: ‘A man has his beliefs; his arguments are only his excuses for them.’ Obviously, that’s an over simplification. But that’s just to get our attention and over simplification is a time honoured method of startling people and getting their attention. He goes on, ‘We only see what we look at: our attention to our temperamental convictions produces complete oversight as to all the facts that tell against us.’ Is he on to something there?
I think we can get even more mileage out of Shaw’s pronouncement if we paraphase him slightly: We only see what we look at: our attention to our temperamental convictions produces complete oversight as to all the interpretations of the facts that tell against us. Why is that? Because principles of interpretation are often heavily conditioned, if not actually inspired, by the world view that we have been holding before we ever came to look at the facts. I don’t know if the fashionable term “confirmation bias” is the best one for this phenomenon. Other candidates might be: reverse reasoning, conviction feedback, the looping effect, or the old standby, begging the question. To the degree that begging the question is unavoidable, it’s partiality, a legitimate form of bias. Nevertheless, I think unavoidable bias ought to be declared. But it can’t be declared unless people are aware of it, and it’s something that’s easy to overlook and convenient to ignore. Perhaps the best way to make people aware of unavoidable bias is by bringing it repeatedly to their attention with the help of well-chosen illustrations. Is there any reason this couldn’t be done in the schools?
One of my illustrations comes from Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion. He claims there that the existence of God is a scientific question, a question that science can, in theory, settle one way or the other. The reasoning he uses to arrive at this startling assertion—startling even to many naturalists—presumably goes something like this: I know, with a high degree of probability, that only Nature exists and therefore that Nature includes all of reality. Science, by definition, is the study of Nature. Therefore God, if He exists, is subject to scientific discovery, and if science discovers Him that makes Him a scientific fact. But if science doesn’t discover him, that means He probably doesn’t exist.
Does anyone else have problems with that kind of reasoning? I think it’s like saying that Shakespeare, if he exists, is a literary fact who can be discovered in his plays.
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