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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William Blake's 'Angel of Revelation' is a fitting figure of the inspirations of genius.

Thinking again of what I wrote few days ago in The Mind’s Singular Function, I realized that I should have said that, while the product of inspiration could be considered a memorialization of the singular, it is important to note that it is in no sense an attempt to reproduce, recreate, simulate, or imitate the singular episode of inspiration. In so far as a work of creative expression is a memorialization of the singular, it is an oblique memorialization, and mimesis plays no part in it. This follows from the fact I previously noted that inspiration is not identical to the products derived from inspiration. This makes of the intellectual singular a haeccietas more absolute than any chance event in the mundane world, which latter may have representational memorializations. Inspiration is not a representational memorialization.

I realize that my formulations are as yet highly imperfect, but I have at least the idea (more or less), which I can attempt to refine and to apply. One application is the possibility of defining genius, which is usually treated as an ineffable quality of mind. But in view of the character of inspiration as the singular in the sphere of the intellect, genius can be defined as the continual, or near-continual, immersion in the singular. This reminds me of a remark attributed to Blake’s wife, which I may have quoted previously (it is one of my favorite quotes): “I have little of Mr. Blake’s company — he is always in paradise.” This puts the matter succinctly, not to mention personalizing it.

This latter formulation — i.e., genius as the immersion in the singular — begs the question of immersion. I think that degrees of immersion need to be recognized, but that absolute immersion can be given a relatively simple formulation: it is when the mind is so concentrated on a single focus that the remainder of the world is relegated to the periphery. I call this the “undivided mind”. It is a rare but not unknown state of mind. Another formulation is suggested by the extrapolation that I made of the quote attributed to Paul Valéry, namely, to see is to forget the name of of the thing one sees. The idea implicit here can ultimately be pushed beyond the senses to the transcendence of thought itself: to think is to forget the name of the thing one thinks.

The two instances I cited in Interests and Identity, Camus saying near the end of his life that his work had not yet begun and Cézanne also near the end of his life saying that he is making slow progress, are perfect examples of genius utterly immersed in the object of its fascination. Kenneth Clark, in discussing Mozart, mentioned the “single-mindedness of genius.” This is of a piece with these fragments from the life of Camus and Cézanne.

Sören Kierkegaard, passionate Protestant preacher than he was, devoted an entire devotional work to the proposition Purity of heart is to will one thing. Kierkegaard writes in Chapter 3 of this work:

So let us, then, upon the occasion of a time of Confession speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle James’ words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8: “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded.” For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God’s drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.

Let us speak of this, but let us first put out of our minds the occasion of the office of Confession in order to come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition “purify your hearts ye double-minded” is condemning, namely, double-mindedness. Then at the close of the talk we may return more specifically to a treatment of the occasion.

What I have above called the undivided mind is here seen as the condition of having transcended double-mindedness — as much a concern for a theologian like Kierkegaard as for a thorough-going naturalist. This famous proposition of Kierkegaard can be given a reformulation much as I reformulated the famous line from Valéry, and Kierkegaard thus extrapolated would run like this: Purity of mind is to think one thing.

The single-mindedness of genius, the immersion of the mind in its object, is the purity of mind that comes from thinking one thing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Doors of Intellection

23 February 2009

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

William Blake is the source of the famous phrase “the doors of perception” — it is from his wonderfully Faustian The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — though most readers will connect the phrase to the novel by Huxley. Huxley, of course, took his title from Blake. Since in yesterday’s Algorithms of Ecstasy I mentioned religious experiences induced, at least in part, by chemical means, it is appropriate to mention in this connection Huxley’s drug-addled visions of “Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact” (in a letter to Humphry Osmond). Huxley represents a dead end in the scientific pursuit of the absolute; Huxley represents science that has lost its objectivity and has ceased to operate according to methodological naturalism, and therefore ceased to be science.

What Blake has observed about the doors of perception holds good also for the doors of intellection: if the doors of intellection were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he understands all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

I have just finished listening to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion on CD. From a philosophical perspective, the book is highly problematic, but Dawkins is quite explicitly coming from a scientific perspective, and he knows it. He often has difficulty concealing his contempt for philosophical argumentation, and this makes the book problematic as he takes on many paradigmatically philosophical questions and does so from a scientific standpoint. Thus much of the book is at cross purposes with its intended subject matter.


I mention Dawkins not to criticize him, however — many others have already done so, and I genuinely enjoyed the book — but to take up some of the themes with which he closes. The book has a fine peroration, and I was pleased with this as many authors on such subjects don’t bother to craft a good closing so that the book just lurches to a halt without any sense of climax and resolution. Dawkins delivers nicely on this score.

In the last few pages Dawkins introduces a number of notions, among them the Middle World and the motif of our sense perception being like the slit of light admitted by a burka. The Middle World is the familiar world of things not too large (like the objects of cosmology), not too small (like the objects of quantum mechanics), and not too fast (like objects approaching the speed of light), so that they obey the familiar laws that seem to hold for the greater part of things of our experience. dawkins_spine

The final sentences of Dawkins’ book thus proclaim, “Could we, by training and practice, tear off our black burka, and achieve some kind of intuitive — as well as just mathematical — understanding of the very small, the very large, and the very fast? I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”

Dawkins is here suggesting the equivalent for physical science of opening the doors of intellection, as well as the doors of perception. Prior to this passage the motif of the burka is used to emphasize the narrow range of phenomena to which our senses give us access, and he rightly generalizes to the possibility of understanding that similarly throws off the limits imposed by the anthropocentric origins of our ideas about the world.

However, there are limits. We already know this, and we can prove it. Dawkins’ mention of “just mathematical” in this passage — as though to say “mere mathematical” — provides a clue as to the false hopefulness of this otherwise inspiring conclusion. There is a highly developed branch of mathematical logic that deals explicitly and systematically with what are called the “limitative theorems”, i.e., theorems of formal logic that demonstrate the logical limits of our thinking.  The formal treatment of these limits is daunting, but it has been well-put (intuitively so, no less) by Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.6)

The limitative theorems are especially interesting in relation to Dawkins’ book given an amusing formulation given to the most famous of the limitative theorems, viz. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems:

“Suppose we loosely define a religion as any discipline whose foundations rest on an element of faith, irrespective of any element of reason which may be present. Quantum mechanics for example would be a religion under this definition. But mathematics would hold the unique position of being the only branch of theology possessing a rigorous demonstration of the fact that it should be so classified.”

F. De Sua, “Consistency and completeness — a résumé” American Mathematical Monthly, 63 (1956)

The kind of intuitive mastery of concepts that originate in mathematics and advanced recent work in the physical sciences is difficult, but we have ample evidence that it is achievable. The concept of zero was once advanced mathematics; today it is elementary, and most people experience little difficulty in mastering the concept. The truth table method for semantic decision procedures was advanced logic when Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus; now it is familiar fare for elementary logic textbooks.

We create intuitions through the labor of the mind, and once an adequate intuition is obtained we can let the labor fall away as though it had never existed, like the scaffolding that held Michelangelo up to the underside of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That is to say, it is possible to transcend the process by which we arrive at our ideas — the ontogeny of cognition, as it were — and to grasp the idea beyond its own history. When we do this in the social context of the idea (as with the examples above of the concept of zero and the truth table method) we even transcend the phylogeny of cognition. To invoke Wittgenstein again: .

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

This motif of throwing away the ladder after climbing up it has become widely quoted in philosophical literature. Wittgenstein gives the paradoxical tension between intuitive concept and formal surrogate in its strongest form. Even when the tension does not appear in this radically paradoxical form, it is still present, informing our conceptions of logic, mathematics, and science. Sometimes the intuitive conception comes first, and we struggle to formalize it; sometimes the formal concept comes first, and we struggle to find an intuition adequate to it. In either case, it is a philosophical labor of no mean order (and one rarely appreciated for what it is).

This notion was also given a surprising and equally paradoxical (i.e., counter-intuitive) formulation by Alfred North Whitehead:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, Chapter 5

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Birth Lottery

15 January 2009


“Quand je considère la petite durée de ma vie absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante (memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis), le petit espace que je remplis et même que je vois, abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, car il n’ya point de raison pour quoi à présent plutôt que lors.”


“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then.”

It is indeed astonishing to find oneself here rather than there, now rather than then. Pascal is especially remembered for expressing his consternation at finding himself thrown into the world (i.e., the concern with “thrownness” did not originate with Heidegger). It is frighteningly arbitrary, or, as is said today, “random.” And one ought to be astonished not only at being here rather than there, but also at being this rather than that, or of one condition rather than another.

William Blake — himself no mean social critic — put it all more poetically (as is to be expected from a poet):

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

This is one of my favorite passages from Blake, and I can recite it by heart, not from effort of memorization, but from having returned to it time and again over the years. However impossible it is for me to inhabit the world of Blake’s imagination, this speaks to be quite directly for reasons that I cannot articulate.

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

For Blake, there was the ultimate promise of divine intervention. At the end of the world, all would be put right. For us, there is no such consolation. We must take the fact of the matter at its hardest point or betray ourselves by living in untruth.

It would be humorous, were it not so pathetic, to see how many people tracing their genealogy look eagerly for some signs of privilege in their family tree. Even Americans, who have little love for royalty or the idea of royalty, seem to take a perverse joy in finding some titled aristocrat connected to their lineage through the most tortuous and tenuous of relations.

The fact of the matter is that in the past — up through the nineteenth century for most regions of the world — the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) were anonymous peasants engaged in subsistence farming. While the industrial revolution profoundly changed societies around the world, since the advent of industrialization the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) are working class wage earners. In other words, most of us are unlikely to find an ancestry of wealth, privilege, or title.

While much has changed in history over the past thousand years or so, truth be told, much has not changed. The more things change, the more things remain the same. Human nature is durable, and human societies grow out of human nature. Indeed, society is a fractal that emerges from innumerable repetitions of the same, essentially simple, unit, and, for the purposes of society, the initial unit for iteration is the individual person.

What has not changed since the time of the very different civilization of the Middle Ages, with its rigid system of feudalism? What has not changed is that the political order of the world is run by a small number of elites who represent the interests of a small number of well-positioned and well-connected persons. This is not a conspiracy theory, it is historical fact, although a fact upon which most do not dwell. Why bother, after all? Nothing will change.

The hold that elites have over the world has not been diminished by the progress of industrialization, urbanization, and democratization. The historical trend, on the contrary, has been the opposite. As time passes, the elites become a progressively smaller minority. This happens for simple demographic reasons.

At present, the world is politically divided into nation-states. Each nation-state has its ruling class. There are perhaps a hundred or more people with real power in each state — more in some, fewer in others. There are fewer than two hundred nation-states. Do the math. That isn’t a lot of people. Even if we allow a thousand influential persons per nation-state, it is still a small number in comparison to the six billion or so of the rest of us. (Specifically, the elites in our more generous calculation above represent a third of a hundredth of a percent of world population. Expressed as a decimal, it is 0.003333…%)

the cover of yesterday's FT. Chelsea Clinton will likely not end up cleaning toilets for a living, and the person who does clean her toilet is not likely to have a daughter who becomes US Secretary of State.

Keeping it in the family: the cover of yesterday's FT. Chelsea Clinton will likely not end up cleaning toilets for a living, and the person who does clean her toilet is not likely to have a daughter who becomes US Secretary of State.

The essential institutions of government can be maintained by a skeleton crew of elites even while population expands. As population relentlessly expands, the small number of people with real power expands at a much slower rate, and as a consequence it represents a progressively smaller slice of the world’s population.

One could only be reasonably angry with the birth lottery (if one is inclined to be angry about it at all) if there were some kind of plan, human or divine, involved it. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is simply the way the world is. Privilege emerged in history by the actions of a few energetic men, and it has been maintained by their heirs who find it pleasant. Thus, from the naturalistic perspective, there is no reason to be angry about the birth lottery. However, while there is no reason to be angry about it, there is also no reason to be happy about it. Like any other feature of the world, it is what it is.

My remarks here on the birth lottery are obviously inadequate. I should return to the topic. What I wrote above about privilege having its origins in the efforts of a few energetic men invites a treatment in terms such as those Locke used to defend private property in his second essay on civil government. And such a treatment invites a critique such as that to which Rousseau, and many others, subjected Locke.

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