Conviction Convicts

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Nothing is more dubious than certainty.

I find myself wondering about the people who read through Theo’s blog entries, nodding their head and thinking, “Yes–Yes!

What, if anything distinguishes us from these guys? Are we every bit as chauvinistic as they are, only in different ways? For a long time now, this has been my impression of many you find in the humanities: self-serving dogmatism concealed behind a facade of pseudo-critical homilies. Only sophisticated where Theo is crude, adroit where Theo is clumsy.

In teaching practical reasoning I’ve always been troubled by two specific fallacies: the arguments ad hominem and ad populum. If it is the case that we cannot help but unconsciously game ambiguities to secure status and prestige (which is to say, confabulate rationalizations), and if it’s also the case that the our cognitive incapacity and the complexity of the world are such that anything may be rationalized, then the who of the argument becomes all-important, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t the question of reliability or accuracy or veracity turn more on the issue of who is arguing, more than the arguments themselves? A troubling question for the humanities in general, I think. A troubling question for philosophy most of all.

Aren’t we talking about people with the right psychologies?

Aren’t we talking about us?

Pretty hard to outrun chauvinism, isn’t it? (This is the most insidious thing about ‘seeing through’ the incapacities of others. You always end up using your insights in the same self-aggrandizing ways.)

But after this debate I can’t help but ask the question of cognitive types. Are some people ‘just born’ with overdeveloped ‘rationalization modules?’ I don’t know about you, but it seems to possess anecdotal truth to me. Everyone knows some irritating, perpetually self-satisfied ‘know-it-all.’ People who have some way of spinning every self-serving intuition their brains offer up into universal truth: ‘good for them’ automatically becomes the ‘sad fact of the matter’ for everyone else. Pursuing self-interest becomes serving the public good.

A handy social adaptation, if you think about it.

To some extent I actually think I belong to this cognitive tribe! I’m certainly an insufferable know-it-all. I find myself reflexively theorizing everything all the time, too often through the same self-congratulatory lense. My only saving grace (and this is my rationalization module speaking) is perhaps an overdeveloped self-monitoring system, one that perpetually seems to be catching hypocritical inconsistencies–well, some of them at least. For some reason, I’m continually asking myself questions, and most importantly, I think, laughing at myself. Or cringing.

Which brings me back to the debate. I don’t know about you, but there really seemed to be a dearth of humour on the other side, mocking or otherwise. One of the most striking things about Theo’s responses, I thought, was how earnest and serious they were. I had to convince myself that he really believed he was as intelligent as he claimed–that he took himself as seriously as he seemed to. These guys not only believe in the possibility of univocal interpretation, they think they have hit the cognitve jackpot. The Magical Belief Lottery in overdrive.

But how? Millions of interpretations swarming out there, and they think they have just happened upon the one, that even though everyone thinks they are the cognitive exception, these guys are convinced they are for real (and likely look at tail-chasing reflections like these as symptomatic of spiritual decadence, as opposed to confused honesty). It still makes me dizzy, the human ability to commit–unto death and murder in some cases–to claims willy nilly, so long as they are bracing or flattering in some way.

The feeling of certainty is just beginning to be researched, but I see no reason not to assume the findings will be any less unkind to human vanity as, say, the research into our feeling of willing. Robert Burton, for one, argues that certainty is something that involuntarily accompanies cognition, rather than being the engine of it. That it is, in effect, deceptive through and through.

And yet there’s no escaping the experiential sense that certainty is the fuel that comprehension burns. We always begin with the feeling, then the reasons fall into obedient line afterwards.

So, let’s just say that personality is the sum of a number of neural modules exercising varying degrees of influence over the whole, that there is a rationalization module, a certainty module, a cognitive self-censoring module, and so on, each drawing differing amounts of wattage, depending on a soup of genetic and environmental factors.

So imagine that every population of humans possesses a certain number of individuals with powerful rationalization modules, powerful certainty modules, and vestigial cognitive self-censoring modules. These are the people who get dew-eyed when the minister says ‘turn the other cheek’ and then advocate invading the homes/nations of complete strangers for their own good within the space to two heartbeats. Who want to force the State out of the public market, but invite it into our bedrooms and wombs.

This is simply the hand they were dealt. They might be incredibly intelligent otherwise, but they literally have no choice but to buy their own bullshit, to keep piling their chauvinistic rationalizations to the sky, utterly insensible to the inconsistencies. They barge through debates leaving everyone save those who share their peculiar brew of assumptions alienated and mystified, and never pause to consider the out and out preposterous presumption that underwrites so many of their claims: that the world, everywhere and every turn, is utterly captured by their flattering interpretations. That reality not only loves them, but has raised them above others.

These people, it seems to me, have to be engaged, have to be challenged, if only so that the masses don’t succumb to their own weaknesses for self-serving chauvinism. These people are appealing simply because they are so adept at generating ‘reasons’ for self-serving intuitions that we all share. That we and our ways are special, exempt, and that Others are a threat to us. That our high-school is, like, really the greatest high-school on the planet. Confirmation bias, my-side bias, the list goes on. And given that humans have evolved to be easily and almost irrevocably programmed, it seems to me that the most important place to wage this battle is in classroom. To begin teaching doubt as the highest virtue, as opposed to the madness of belief.

The prevailing madness.

Funny, huh? It’s the lapse in belief that these guys typically see as symptomatic of modern societal decline. But really what they’re talking about is a lapse in agreement. Belief is as pervasive as ever, but as a principle rather than any specific consensual canon. It stands to reason that the lack of ‘moral and cognitive solidarity’ would make us uncomfortable, considering the kinds of scarcity and competition faced by our ancestors. (This is probably what brought tears to my eyes watching Tahrir Square in recent weeks: not so much the cause as the unity.)

We wouldn’t be so keen on policing the thoughts of others otherwise.

Like I’m doing right now.