A Nice Quote for Countering Epistemic Closure and Confirmation Bias

R. Gordon Wasson has been a long time advocate of a seductive hypothesis: that entheogens (psychedelic mushrooms, etc) have played a significant role in the evolution of many religions, from Hinduism in the East to Persephone devotion in the West (a mystery cult that survived for 1500 years at Eleusis in ancient Greece). And in the preface to one of his books, Persphone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion  (Yale, 1986), he has a wonderful affirmation of intellectual skepticism:

In the opening chapter of my SOMA  I said that there always hovered in my mind’s eye the admonitory finger of Tristram Shandy’s warning against the occupational hazard of those who advance hypotheses:

‘It is in the nature of a hypothesis when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment, and from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows stronger by everything you see, hear or understand.’

It seems that once you buy a new car—say, a sky blue Volkswagen—suddenly you notice sky blue vehicles everywhere. So it’s fair to ask yourself, at least once in a while, three things:

  • In the realm of ideas, what have you bought lately?
  • Where do your confirmation bias “eyes” naturally land?
  • What would happen to your way of seeing the world if you made a conscious effort to downplay what you think you know, and notice other things?

Would that be perverse—not following your habitual perceptions and intuitions?

And why have you always trusted them in the first place?

Imagine someone who opened the doors on her most comfy and familiar epistemic closures and started walking through them. What would happen to her as a human being? Where would her life go?

Sounds like an interesting idea for a screenplay, doesn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to A Nice Quote for Countering Epistemic Closure and Confirmation Bias

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think another good question might be, “When is the last time you changed your mind regarding a moral, ethical, political or religious question, and what caused you to change your mind?”

    • santitafarella says:

      When I think about this question for myself, I think that boredom plays a role. A belief or an idea starts to feel stale, flat, or unfruitful, and then you start seeing its dead ends and oversimplifications.

      An example: a few years back (pre-kids) I gave Buddhism a serious go: I meditated, did vipassana every day, read Buddhist books. But I remember reading a book by a Buddhist that most Buddhists revere—Ahjan Cha. And I found myself bored with him, as if it wasn’t quite going anywhere really interesting. I had taken, as it were, the stairs to the ceiling.

      In other words, an emotion, an energy, an experience precedes the intellectual rejection. Maybe that’s the wrong way to do it—but somehow the theory has to go well with the practice—the theory rubber has to meet the experiential road—or you won’t have the “oommph” to do it. Then you start casting a critical eye on what made you think such ideas in the first place.

      Woody Allen’s movie from last year, “Whatever Works,” is perfectly titled. People generally stick with whatever works for them and won’t question it much till it stops working well in the real world.

      I think my Obama faith of 2008 has taken this bummer trajectory. I still love Obama, but he’s got feet of clay (something I perhaps didn’t see when I was totally in love with him in 2008). And he’s just about the only one standing between the Bill of Rights and the Herderians, so I continue to support him completely. But the world is more complicated than I wanted it to be in 2008. I forgot that.

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        Yeah, honestly I find myself being pulled more and more towards utilitarian libertarianism all the time (my recent reconsideration of intellectual property laws being a big factor).

        Despite all that I feel Rand got right, at the end of the day I have to admit to myself that I’m a family man by nature and that a small (almost tribal) collective based on family appeals to me much more than staunch individualism. I guess it’s much like how my propensity towards deism keeps my from going the all out atheist route. Logic be damned, I have a nature and it will not be denied or overcome completely by my fickle mind.

      • santitafarella says:

        Andrew,

        Well that’s also something in psychology called “the evocative object world.” In other words, we are all living, as it were, in dreams (even when awake) and we notice the things that match what we are dreaming toward—whatever that narrative is that moves us. If you feel the family tug, no matter how much you agree intellectually with, say, The Fountainhead, the novel might well fall flat on you because everyone in it is single and without kids. Other sirens may be singing to you.

        —Santi

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