Confirming Our Biases

There’s this thing we do called ‘living’ only it isn’t living – it’s ‘bias confirmation’, which is actually a travesty of living. How do we get away with this travesty, then? How do we wangle it so that we get to believe that we are living when all we’re really doing is repeatedly confirming our sterile preconceptions?

 

Living is living and we shouldn’t be able to ‘make of it what we want’ (or ‘have our patented version of it’). We shouldn’t be able to live a ‘tame version’ of life that hasn’t got any actual existential challenge in it and yet still be able to get away scot-free! It would be a clever cheat if we could do this for sure, but since when has ‘cheating’ ever produced a good result? Can we really ‘cheat life’ and get away with it?

 

We go through the motions, we do the things that ‘pass for living’ (at least as far as we’re concerned, anyway) but there’s something missing. There is something not there that should be there! What’s missing is any kind of challenge to our mental categories, anything that might disagree with our pre-existing way of looking at things. What’s missing is reality, in other words….

 

It’s as if we read a book cover to cover, with interest, whilst being entertained throughout, only it’s the type of book that can be completely understood within the terms of the concepts which we already have. We don’t have to stretch our concepts in the least, let alone dispense with them entirely. Needless to say, there are lots and lots of books like this! The bestseller list is made up of books like this. But if we can read a book without it in any way changing the way that we have seen the world then that doesn’t really say much for the book. What we looking at here is ‘a non-event disguised as an event’. Nothing really happened during our reading of the book because nothing about us has changed – we’re exactly the same afterwards as we were before! We have received no information because information (in the proper, technical sense of the word) is always that which contradicts our assumptions. Information is ‘that which changes us’; or as cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson puts it, it is ‘the difference that makes a difference‘.

 

The very same is true for ‘living’ in general – if none of our (so-called) living calls upon us to change the way we have of understanding the world then what we’re talking about here isn’t actually life but something disguised as life. There are no new events occurring here, there no actual information content to what is going on – there is merely a ‘continuum’ that is made up of the same event stretched out indefinitely so that it seems like the whole of life. Yet this ‘one event’ that keeps on being rehashed and recycled, isn’t actually an ‘event’ at all because an event can only be an event if it gives way to something else, if gives way to something new. Otherwise we have eliminated all genuine change from the picture and replaced it with superficial change (which is ‘formulaic change’, i.e. ‘the same old thing revamped in some sort of a way’).

 

It is perfectly possible to read a book and enjoy it, or watch a film and be highly entertained, and yet for this not to be an ‘event’ in the strong sense of the word that we are using (rather than using the word event in the ‘weak’ sense, in which it signifies nothing more than a type of an echo). It’s also perfectly possible to live life without anything ever really happening – naturally this is possible, that’s just normal, that’s just the way we usually do it. But the question is, what happens to our ‘real’ life in this case? What happens in other words to the life that we would be living, if we hadn’t somehow fallen asleep at the wheel? What happens to the life we don’t live?

 

This turns out to be a very good question, a question that is well worth asking, even if the answer is hard to come by. Is there – we might wonder – anything that could wake us up to what’s really going on with us with our perennial obsessive ‘bias confirmation’? Is there perhaps some kind of sign that we could look out for to show us that we’ve gone wrong? Is there any way that we could cottoned on to the fact that something important has gone missing? Do you really want to know anyway? It is this last question that is – perhaps – the most significant. No doubt we could suss onto the fact that something is amiss but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that we don’t particularly want to. We are otherwise engaged’; we’re busy doing other things – ‘bias confirmation’-type things…

 

Somehow this business that we have called ‘bias confirmation’ not only substitutes itself very effectively for life, it also puts a kind of spin on things which makes us very disinclined indeed to ‘look outside of the box’. Getting hooked on bias confirmation very effectively ‘switches our curiosity off’, we could say. It switches it off as if it were a light switch – all our curiosity about the world vanishes and all we care about instead is ‘getting our biases validated’, getting our data-processing prejudices confirmed. Of all the ‘switch-arounds’ that there ever could possibly be in terms of our way of being in the world, this is the greatest therefore. This is a ‘one hundred and eighty degree turn’.

 

‘Bias confirmation’ simply means that we are busy proving that our view of the world is the right one – it is nothing more and nothing less than this. This innocent-sounding term ‘bias confirmation’ covers more than we might think it does – it accounts for the whole of our thinking process since almost of what we do in day-to-day life is based on thought. Everything purposeful that we do is based on thought after all and how often do we do stuff that isn’t purposeful, that isn’t goal orientated?

 

The ‘thinking process’ (whether we like to see it like this or not) is purely based on the principle of ‘jumping to conclusions’ – thought can never escape the assumptions that it is founded upon and so course it’s always jumping to conclusions. Thought always jumps to the conclusion that it was right in the assumptions that it has made! More technically speaking, we may say that thought operates in a self-referential way, which is undeniable. Thought operates by comparing all incoming data with the mental categories that already exist in our heads, and so this whole business of thinking is example of business of bias confirmation. Every day of our lives we confirm our own unexamined mental constructs with our thinking; we confirm them over and over again and we never get tired of doing so.

 

It’s not just thought-based perception that is based on the principle of bias confirmation but also thought-based action – we don’t see the setting and achieving of goals as bias confirmation but what else could it be? Being ‘focused on goals’ and ‘learning to see the world in a radically new way’ do not exactly go hand-in-hand. We all think that obtaining our goals (or ‘getting what we want’) is what life is all about but this is plainly ridiculous – ‘obtaining our goals’ (or ‘getting what we want’) is how we prove to ourselves (without admitting that this is what we doing) that our way of looking at the world is the right way. It isn’t though because reality isn’t ever going to agree with our biased way of looking at it! Reality isn’t going to match our bias because reality – unlike the thinking mind – isn’t biased. Reality equals ‘no bias’.

 

Our idea (or ‘version’) of living is based on us spending all of our time proving to ourselves over and over again that reality is something that it isn’t. The reason we have to keep on proving the point to ourselves over and over again (or trying to prove it) is precisely because what we’re trying to say is true isn’t true. If it were then there would be no need for this business of ‘bias confirmation’, obviously. What we’re doing isn’t living at all therefore – it’s actually denial, and when we are in denial we are not living.  On the contrary, we are engaged in an ‘inverted version of living’; we’re actually rejecting life because life (by its very nature) doesn’t agree with our biases…

 

 

 

 

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