While we’re on the subject of biases and the difficulty of spotting one’s own (especially compared to the extreme ease of spotting everyone else’s) – Nigel later asked me a follow-up question for that interview he did at Virtual Philosopher, about just this issue. I didn’t see it until after he posted the interview, so I’ll post the q and a here, on account of relevance.

NW: Do you really believe we can eliminate our prejudices, the political, ideological and moral commitments that usually infect our judgements? I’m thinking of what Nietzsche said about how philosophers end up simply confirming their own prejudices under the guise of applying reason dispassonately…

OB: Well, I don’t really believe there’s any certainty or guarantee of that, of course; I don’t believe we can or should ever relax into confidence that we have. But I think we can make the attempt, I think something is better than nothing, I think awareness of the issue at least helps us to be vigilant. If nothing else, I think understanding the mechanism helps. If we realize that X commitment influences our thinking and causes us to ignore or downplay or attempt to explain away evidence we don’t like, there is at least a chance we can try to correct for that. If we’re not even aware of the mechanism, there is little hope we will try to correct for it.

I could have answered more thoroughly, and better…Actually I argued with JS a bit about that part of B&W’s About page, which he wrote, and which is where Nigel got that phrase about the political, ideological and moral commitments that usually infect our judgements. I said (September 2002 it must have been) we can’t and don’t want to get rid of them, surely? And he said no, but that’s not what the about page says, it says B&W opposes ‘Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.’ It doesn’t oppose the commitments, it opposes schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the commitments. I think I went on arguing for awhile, not quite grasping the distinction, but then I finally did.

But there is still a question: do I really believe we can have thoughts whose truth claims are not prompted by our commitments? Then I’d give much the same answer – I don’t think we can ever be confident or certain about it, or that we should, but I do think we can be aware of the issue and try to correct for it, and that awareness is step one. So it is with biases, and with all quirks and habits that distort our thinking.

Along the same lines: I’ve been yapping a lot about taboos lately, so it keeps occurring to me to try to figure out if I have any taboos, and if so what they are. I can name some of my basic assumptions, and some commitments, but I’m not sure about taboos – which makes me suspect I just haven’t dug hard enough. Or, indeed, that I’m just flattering myself.

It depends what we consider a taboo, of course. There are some arguments that I find exasperating and don’t feel like bothering with, but I think not for taboo-like reasons but just because they’re familiar and fatuous – the ‘atheism is just another faith’ trope is high on that list. I’m thinking of taboo as an irrational revulsion – a Yuk – as opposed to a heightened or vehement or irritable reaction; I’m also thinking of it as morally righteous; as dealing in shame or guilt or moral blackmail of some kind. A ‘how dare you’ kind of thing. Holocaust jokes – that might be a candidate; except it doesn’t come up, so it’s not a very good one. I want some realer taboos than that.

Update: I suggested a spot-the-taboo game, but then when I saw the comments realized it was way too narcissistic. Enough about me; what do you think about me? That kind of thing. So never mind the game. Unless you’re up for a nice game of hockey? I’ll just get my skates.

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