Post-Truth and the History of Philosophy: Part 2

May 15, 2018

by Dr. H.A. Nethery IV
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Since Ancient Greece, and even more so since the Enlightenment Era, Western Europe has held as a general truth that the human mind is, from top to bottom, rational and that our will and desires are a result of our intellect. That is, we desire what we know about and know about what we desire. Under this framework, we are often told that some of our desires are irrational, and as such, must be eliminated. Ultimately, our intellect is seen as primary and our will and desires are seen as a kind of secondary effect.

“If our desires frame our intellect, then our intellect will always be at the service of these desires.”
H.A. Nethery IV

Schopenhauer, however, sought to invert this framework. For Schopenhauer, there is a kind of cosmological principle that he calls the Will. The Will can be found in every living thing, and is a basic drive for survival (both at the level of the individual and of the species). As such, he argues, our intellect is an effect of this general and subconscious Will, in the form of a kind of targeting device that allows us to achieve our desires more efficaciously. Take, for example, the phenomenon of love. While we think we choose who we fall in love with, Schopenhauer instead argues that our subconscious Will has already chosen a mate for us (on the basis of how fit they are to produce offspring that will continue the human species), and our intellect is simply justifying that decision at the level of consciousness.

So, I think I love my partner because of who she is, but instead my love for her is a surface phenomenon of my Will’s desire to continue the species with this particular individual. Furthermore, Schopenhauer argues that our Will influences our intellect in a number of others ways; anger makes us forget things we know, zeal stops us from weighing the arguments of others, and joy makes us act haphazardly through the forgetting of precautions.

What does this have to do with post-truth and confirmation bias? For Schopenhauer, human beings will always be prone to the phenomenon of confirmation bias because of the relationship between our desires and our intellect. Schopenhauer writes,

Truth vs. Post-Truth
"If our desires frame our intellect, then our intellect will always be at the service of these desires. - Dr. H.A. Nethery IV"

Love and hate falsify our judgement entirely. In our enemies we see nothing but faults – in our loved ones nothing but excellences, and even their faults appear to us amiable. Our interest, of whatever kind it may be, exercises a like secret power over our judgment; what is in conformity with it at once seems to us fair, just and reasonable; what runs contrary to it presents itself to us, in perfect seriousness, as unjust and outrageous, or injudicious and absurd. Hence so many prejudices of position, profession, nationality, sect, and religion.”

If our desires frame our intellect, then our intellect will always be at the service of these desires. And, if this is the case, then our desires can influence how and what we think. Ultimately, Schopenhauer writes, “A conceived hypothesis gives us lynx-eyes for all that confirms it, and makes us blind to all that contradicts it.”

In any case, the concept of confirmation bias has a rich history in the philosophical tradition. I highlight it here because, if Bacon, Schopenhauer, and cognitive psychology are correct, then the problem of confirmation bias is ingrained into the very fabric of the human mind. This is helpful for us to know because we can only fix or guard against a problem if we are aware of its existence. For example, I cannot fix a car engine if I do not know how a car engine functions. In the case of confirmation bias, there is no way to “fix” the human mind in this regard, so the best that we can do is to guard against it through education and the promotion of critical thinking.

In light of the problem of post-truth and confirmation bias, the humanities and the liberal arts in general are more important than ever.