Epistemic Closure–Willfully Biased

A story in today’s New York Times illustrates an issue which has always been endemic to human culture—an inability to recognize our bias, not only those who we have conveniently dumped into the category of “them.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/us/debate-on-a-jewish-student-at-ucla.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0)

A young Jewish student, being interviewed for placement on the judicial board of the student council at UCLA, suddenly found her self facing this question from a fellow student council member,   “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”  This is a stunning and vivid illustration of what lies at the roots our human drama—a complete failure to recognize that not only we seei the world through biases given them to us by background, just as it is with those who we see as biased.  Yes, this young woman would be at least subtly influence by dimensions of her faith and the rest of her life experiences.  But the interrogator revealed his naivety, failing to realize that the very question he posed revealed his bias toward Jews.

Each of us sees the world through a template formulated by our life experiences, all of which are also influenced by a neurophysiological substrate.  Poet Conrad Aiken offered my favorite p grasp of this truth when he wrote, “We only see the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the dark.”  But some of us are in positions of power in that our background teaches us that our way of seeing the world is the “proper” way while other’s will fail to see things “right.”  And the power I refer to here is the power that comes from being in the majority, being entrenched in the “consensually validated” view of the world.  Nietzsche understood this, noting, “All things are subject to interpretation.  Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Real power in any group lies in the agreed upon “truths,” the assumptions that are not questioned by anyone entrenched spiritually in this consensually validated prism (or “prison”!!!)  W. H. Auden noted the courage required to face one’s basic assumptions and be subject to the existential solitude that will follow, writing in  “New Year Letter”:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 Someone once noted that it is impossible to have a perspective on one’s perspective without somehow escaping it.”  But asking anyone to “escape” and enter the realm of meta-cognition is like asking a fish to see water. Auden recognized that this experience is disconcerting at least, and probably terrifying.  The following selection from his poem, “For the Time Being,” has the Star of the Nativity speaking to its followers:

Beware.  All those who follow me are led Onto that Glassy Mountain where are

No footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread

Where knowledge but increases vertigo:

Those who pursue me take a twisting lane

To find themselves immediately alone

With savage water and unfeeling stone,

In labyrinths where they must entertain

Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

Auden understood the need of getting out of one’s self to the point that the legitimacy of other view points could be appreciated or at least tolerated.  But his wisdom also reflects what Alan Watts described as “The Wisdom of Insecurity.”  Vulnerability always ensues when we get to the point where we own our existential plight, that we are but a finite creature with a finite grasp of our world, a world also being composed of other vulnerable creatures with the same tendency to absolutize his/her world view.


(NOTE:  Can any of you who are familiar with WP tell me why I could not get the poetry to copy to single-space????  Thanks.)







7 thoughts on “Epistemic Closure–Willfully Biased

  1. Anne-Marie

    I used to think that everyone thought in a similar way to me (thank goodness they don’t) and so for many years I was unaware. A big thank-you for continuing to expand my horizons.


    1. 21stcenturyxstian Post author

      Thank you. This blogging enterprise has expanded me horizons too as it has allowed me to “meet” people like you. The Enneagram is just one way in which you have been such a positive addition to my life. Yes, I’ve spent most of my life thinking that everyone saw the world as I did. “Twas so disillusioning to realize otherwise and to understand that efforts to “convert” anyone to my world view was futile and narcissistic I had to first learn to “let them be” which parallels this effort you of mine you are witnessing to “be” myself. Thanks again.


  2. Stephen

    Reminds me of how history is written , from where it is written and I also mean geographically /spatially which can indicate a worldview….


    1. 21stcenturyxstian Post author

      Oh yes, “history” is so much fun. It is a story of the human drama. Thanks. Could you elaborate a bit on the “geographical/spatial” dimension of the writing of history. The thought is very intriguing…


      1. Stephen

        I have not finely tuned my thinking on this aspect of history. It was a gut reaction to my own research. Somehow I think that our own context shaping our worldview (eg Rome, Salt Lake City, geneva, Washington, London , or Matthew mark luke and John) influences what we find or see or our interpretation of facts….but I have not developed this. I am sure others have somewhere…


  3. Sandeep Bhalla

    Jews themselves believe that once upon time human consciousness was a pure vessel which broke up and fragmented into present state. Any way we all represent a view produced by our memories, habits, dreamlike perceptions and motives.
    As regards your wp problem, it appears to be in style. Easy way is to copy the text and first paste it in text editor, edit and recopy it in wp editor.
    There is a text view option on the right corner of wp text editor. That view will reveal formating tags causing problem. You may edit the tags.



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