Our need for bias

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still.

William Hazlitt, quoted in How to Think (p.86-87), written by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs continues:

“So we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”

Calling our collection of predispositions and biases ‘System 1’ (a term borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), Jacobs argues that our ‘System 1’ thinking can be “changed, trained; it can develop new habits.” He connects this with John Stuart Mill’s insistence that we consider our whole being in this arena- the emotions and the intellect. Jacobs writes: “This is what Mill meant when he spoke of the power of rightly ordered affections to shape the character. Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.”

This passage evoked so many from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love that I nearly brought that volume back upstairs. Some of the most splendid moments of my reading life occur when I witness my authors speaking to one another. Often they are echoing one another, or taking a drink further downstream. At other times they are sharpening the argument, flipping the blade to the other side.

These conversations are most easily perceived with the best writers, by the way. Often, the most important conversations span centuries. This interestingly brings me to a concluding comment that Jacobs makes about the role of rightly ordered affections in our thinking. He writes:

“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”

Alan Jacobs on Thinking for Yourself

I’m reading through Alan Jacobs’ delightful new book, How to Think. I’m still getting a feel for the general direction Jacobs proposes to take, but he begins with a wonderfully provocative take on the de-conversion of Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper. Following the interview of Adrian Chen of the New Yorker, Jacobs describes the slow process by which Megan began to slowly change her way of thinking about her beliefs. The steady and gracious engagement from a Jewish web developer named David Abitol was apparently instrumental for her.

What is interesting, and what I’m still not sure about, is one of the ideas that Jacobs encourages us to understand in light of this. He notes that we would have a tendency to think that Megan Phelps-Roper had finally “begun thinking for herself.” According to Jacobs,

That’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start ‘thinking for herself’- she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.

The social dimension of our thinking is something new to me that I would like to think through further. In the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, this was obviously a factor. Jacobs continues: “And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

He notes that we generally don’t refer to someone as “thinking for themselves” when they are running contrary to our guiding lights. When that happens, we tend to look for bad influences. “She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.”

Jacobs is an academic, so he points to the presence of this problem in his workplace:

“Similarly, people in my line of work always say that we want to promote ‘critical thinking’- but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.

Jacobs works very hard at his craft and I’m grateful to be able to follow his lead in this book. I’ll be- how shall I say it- thinking through his arguments very carefully in the days ahead.

P.S. I apologize for my longer than normal absence on this blog. My family has been supporting me through a process of ordination with our church. This has been a longer term project that has occupied a significant investment of time for all of us, so I’m eager to get back in the saddle here. More to come.