William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

If the Sun and Moon should doubt,
They’d immediately Go out.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I was thinking about confirmation bias today and what a perfect topic of study this would be for evolutionary psychology. It is one thing to get at exactly what confirmation bias is in itself, and how it functions in distorting our thinking, but it is quite another matter to get to the root of confirmation bias and understand it in an Aristotelian sense, i.e., in terms of its causes.

As soon as I started to think about confirmation bias in the context of evolutionary psychology, it immediately made sense and revealed connections to other things that I’ve thought about.

What survival benefit could possibly derive from self-deception? At first thought this seems counter-intuitive. The persistence of discredited beliefs would seem to have a negative survival value. That is to say, stubbornly persisting in believing something to be true when it is not ought to land an agent in a good deal of trouble.

Coming at this from a different perspective, however, one can easily imagine the survival value of believing in oneself. There are many situations in which the difference between believing in oneself and not believing in oneself could mean the difference between survival and death. If this is true, then confirmation bias may lead to differential survival, and differential survival is the conditio sine qua non of differential reproduction.

In the Afterword to my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to investigate what I called the “naturalistic basis of hope.” What does this mean? Hope has traditionally been treated as one of the three “theological virtues”: faith, hope, and charity. I wanted to investigate the phenomenon of hope from a naturalistic perspective; I would like to see hope understood in a non-theological sense, i.e., as a cardinal virtue rather than a theological virtue. (I made some remarks about hope in Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress, and continued in the naturalistic project with The Structure of Hope.)

I continue to believe that this naturalistic understanding of hope is an important undertaking, but when I wrote this Afterword about the naturalistic basis of hope, I didn’t make any connection between hope and evolutionary psychology. Hope comes in many forms, and one of these forms is a hope against all rational odds that things will go well for oneself. This kind of hope is a belief in oneself that would have survival value. (There are also forms of hope that are more explicitly supernaturalistic, and which nevertheless may also have survival value.)

This not only anthropocentric but also egocentric conception of hope has obvious limitations, but it stands in relation to other forms of hope that are less anthropocentric and less egocentric. In a more general sense than a belief in oneself that might give an advantage in survival, hope is an affirmation of one’s life not only in the present moment of struggle, but also throughout the course of one’s life — past, present, and future — and, in an even larger sense, one’s life taken on the whole, must be seen in the context of one’s life in the community taken on the whole. There is a sense, then, in which an egocentric hope is an affirmation of a wider community; this sense of hope may play a role in self-sacrifice, and the role of self-sacrifice in kin selection.

To live is to engage in an existential gamble. Pascal knew this, and this is why he framed his Christian (actually, Jansenist) apologetics in terms of a wager. The existential choices that we make that shape our lives (and shape the life of the community, to the extent that we are able to use our lives to shape the larger world) are bets that we place, and, when we act, we bet that the world is one way, and not another way.

If you place your bets unwisely, and invest your existential choices in dead ends, your life is wasted for all intents and purposes. To believe this to be the case — especially with a social species whose members need each other for cooperative survival — would be debilitating. To believe that one’s life was wasted because one believed the wrong thing would constitute a kind of spiritual suicide. I can’t imagine that many persons could keep this sense of wasted effort in mind and at the same time fully invest themselves in the business of furthering personal and communal survival.

To believe in one’s existential choices is probably a condition for optimal exertion in the struggle for life. In so far as confirmation bias makes it easier to believe in the rightness and righteousness of one’s existential choices, even in the face of conflicting evidence, it would have a substantial survival value, not only for the individual, but perhaps especially in regard to kin selection.

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Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

An unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy

The Truncation Principle

An Illustration of the Truncation Principle

The Gangster’s Fallacy

The Prescriptive Fallacy

The fallacy of state-like expectations

The Moral Horror Fallacy

The Finality Fallacy

Fallacies: Past, Present, Future

Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology

Metaphysical Fallacies

Metaphysical Biases

Pernicious Metaphysics

Metaphysical Fallacies Again

An Inquiry into Cognitive Bias by way of Memoir

The Appeal to Embargoed Evidence

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Metaphysical Modesty

17 June 2010


'Modesty' by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825 – 1905

When less than a week ago I had all my most valuable possessions stolen from my pickup in Portland (which I described in A Serious Loss) while walking in Tryon Park, I mentioned that I lost my recently acquired books on object oriented ontology (Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics and Meillassoux’s After Finitude) and that this has slowed down my work in this area. I didn’t mention that although I lost my computer, my books, and my notebooks of ideas, the thieves left my cassettes of lectures on the philosophy of science untouched on the seat. Am I to conclude from this selective loss that the thieves were speculative realists and therefore not the kind of people who would want lectures on the philosophy of science or to whom one would want to rent a room? Not likely. Just a few days ago in Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology I mentioned the engagement of OOO with contemporary science. The criminal mind must remain a mystery to us.

The lectures are a series of 36 half hour talks on the philosophy of science as delivered by Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser of North Carolina State University and published by The Teaching Company (whose lectures I have had occasion to mention many times previously). Since I didn’t lose these, I was able to continue listening to them even while the rest of my work was rudely interrupted.

Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser

In lecture 26 on scientific realism I was interested to note that Professor Kasser invokes what he calls metaphysical modesty. The Professor characterizes metaphysical modesty as, “The way the world is does not depend on what we think about it.” Now, this is simply an alternative formulation of realism, but Kasser has chosen to express realism as a moral virtue, and particular as the moral virtue of metaphysical modesty.

Metaphysical modesty may be a little more plain that the more traditional virtue, but it is more universally serviceable.

I particularly noticed this use of metaphysical modesty because I had written a post on metaphysical responsibility, a term that I had picked up from the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, which I initially mentioned in Back to shop class! Crawford introduces metaphysical responsibility as a responsibility that he has to inanimate objects (in his example it is a motorcycle that he is working on) in contradistinction to his fiduciary responsibility to the person paying for the work that he is doing. I suggested that this conception of metaphysical responsibility could serve as a point of entry to an object oriented axiology.

Three of the four cardinal virtues as depicted by Raphael.

Although Kasser is coming from a different perspective and from a different tradition, his mentioning of metaphysical modesty immediately made me realize that we could systematically expand our conception of object oriented axiology by re-formulating and re-conceptualizing all the virtues of traditional axiology in terms that are blind to human privilege and which make them metaphysically as application to any one object as to another.

Again, the object oriented virtues are plain in comparison to the tradition, but no less morally edifying.

For example, if we take the traditional cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, corresponding to these in an object oriented axiology there will be metaphysical justice, metaphysical temperance, metaphysical prudence, and metaphysical fortitude. For some of these it would be difficult, right off the top of one’s head, to form a clear conception of what such a virtue would be if conceived in the context of an object oriented ontology and axiology, but the investment of a little thought would probably make this clearer to us over time.

It might be a little more of a stretch to find object oriented equivalents for the theological virtues, but these will no doubt be forthcoming once an object oriented theology has been formulated.

If we wanted to go even further afield we could posit object oriented equivalents of the theological virtues, to whit, metaphysical faith, metaphysical hope, and metaphysical charity. While I certainly won’t be the one to attempt to formulate an object oriented theology, I am equally certain that it is not far in the offing.

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