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Fake news: a philosophical look at biased reasoning [excerpt]

No matter your religion, political party, or personal philosophy, you’ve likely met someone at one point or another and thought they’ve got it all wrong, or even, wow—this person is an idiot. In the search for moral truth, when we learn what is “right,” we in turn learn what is “wrong.” But how can we know whether our conclusions are sound, or the result of biased reasoning?

In the following shortened excerpt from On Truth, Simon Blackburn examines how our minds move, and questions whether or not we’re capable of seeking out “truth.”

As soon as we have perceptions of the world at all we think about what they imply and what we can infer from them—a perception has implications, whereas a sensation just happens. A glimpse or whiff is just something that happens, but when it is interpreted, consequences follow, expectations arise, and significances are discerned. And the ways in which people’s minds move are as much the subject of criticism and conversation as our other practices.

So what is meant if we say that a person, X, takes something, A, as a reason for some conclusion, B? A first stab would be that when X becomes aware of A, it moves him towards a mental state B. Notice that B might be a belief, but it could be something else: a desire, the formation of an intention or plan, an emotional reaction, or an attitude to something or some person. The movement towards B might be checked by something else in X’s mind, such as countervailing reasons against B. But X is, as it were, given a shove towards B.

This is a good start, but I think we need more than this. For X may find himself moved towards B but against his will or his better judgment. He wouldn’t endorse the movement from A towards B, or try to justify his ending up at B by citing A (he might feel guilty that A moves him towards B, so recognizing that it is no reason for B at all). So we can try instead that X takes A to be a reason for B if X does endorse and defend the tendency. He thinks that from the common point of view, a move from A towards B is one to be approved of. He can advocate it in a conversation designed to achieve such a common point of view.

A perception has implications, whereas a sensation just happens.

Such endorsements or approvals can come in degrees. At its most lukewarm it might be that X does not actually disapprove of taking a move from awareness of A towards B. Further along he might approve of it, and eventually disapprove of anyone who, aware of A, fails to be moved towards B. He would be holding that the move is compulsory.

The endorsements and approvals in question might be ethical, but they need not be. If someone moves from hearing a politician say something to believing it, one might criticize them as credulous or gullible, and these are criticisms of the way their minds work, but not in a particularly ethical or moral register. It is their intelligence or savoir faire that is at fault, even if their heart is in the right place.

Of course, I have abstracted a little for the sake of simplicity. As holism, which we met earlier, reminds us, any human being becoming aware of something is going to be adding it to an enormous background of things she already believes, knows, desires, intends, and so forth. It may be that a move from A to B is to be approved of against some backgrounds and not others. We may want to say that other things being equal, A is a reason for B, or just that A is sometimes a reason for B, deferring to such variations.

But sometimes we think it is compulsory or categorical. It doesn’t matter what else you believe if you learn that Y is in China or India, and then that he is not in India; it is right, then, to infer that he is in China. If you believe that there are five girls in the room, and then that there are five boys, it is right to infer that there are ten children.

Much of the philosophy of science is concerned not with questions of logical consistency, or with purely mathematical inferences and proofs, but with evaluating interpretations of experiments and observations. It needs to think about such things as our tendencies to generalize, the use of analogies and models, our bias towards simplicity in explanations, and the amount of confidence any one interpretation of things should command.

So we can discuss which movements of the mind are reasonable or unreasonable in much the same way as we discuss which motivations and behaviors are admirable, or compulsory or impermissible. It follows that skepticism about the idea of moral truth should suggest skepticism about assessment of mental tendencies as reasonable or unreasonable.

Much of our reasoning is automatic and implicit. A perception that there is a chair in front of me leads me to suppose that there is one behind me after I turn round. Isn’t it possible that I should have had the perception although the chair was an ephemeral being, a manifestation that itself carried no implications for the moment when I twirl around and bend my knees? Yes, barely possible. But a mind that took that possibility to be wide open, that failed to make the inference, is not one well adapted to life in this wonderfully regular and predictable world in which we live, and in which we have been adapted to live. It would be neither useful nor agreeable to possess such a mind.

Much of our reasoning is automatic and implicit.

When we talk of reason, as when we talk of aesthetics and morality, things become much clearer when we stop dealing with truth in the abstract and look at the “particular go” of it. We then understand why we want it: it is because we do not want people thinking badly, faltering along foolish paths of inference, and we need to signal what counts as doing so.

If we start where we are and look at our procedures of conversation, agreement and disagreement— and at our actual successes in learning how to live and what to believe—we can achieve modest confidences, although at any time we may encounter problems that stump us. In other words, we locate “moral truth” or “rational truth” as the axis around which important discussions and enquiries revolve, hopefully informed by whatever we know and think we know about human beings, their limitations, and their possibilities. The enquiry is essentially practical: we can say that its goal is truth, but it can as well be described as knowing when and how to act, whom to admire, how to educate people, what to believe, or, all in all, how to live.

Featured image credit: background-newspaper-press-1824828 by MIH83. CC0 via Pixabay.

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