Motivations and Results

Yesterday I wrote about Quassim Cassam’s suggestion that virtues are teleological and that as a result motivations are also teleological. However, that may not actually be correct, and that may not actually be the argument that Cassam puts forward.
Cassam writes, “there is no reason to suppose that epistemic vices are rooted in a desire for ignorance. Epistemic vices may result in ignorance but that is not the same as being motivated by a desire for ignorance.” Cassam is maintaining a consequentialist view that epistemic vices systematically obstruct knowledge. It is a consequentialist argument in the sense that the outcome of particular behaviors and ways of thinking are likely to hinder knowledge, and we can understand those ways of thinking and behaviors as vices based on their consequences.
Cassam continues, “the closed-minded needn’t lack a healthy desire for knowledge but their approach to inquiry isn’t conductive to knowledge. There is a mismatch between what they seek – cognitive contact with reality – and how they go about achieving it.”
From this point it is hard to argue that motivations are also teleological and consequential. Limiting our thinking to just epistemic motivations, we can see that someone may not be motivated by trying to prove what they already believe is correct or motivated by a prejudice against certain information and opinions, yet can still end up obstructing knowledge, developing epistemic prejudices, or being closed-minded.
The idea of a thought bubble is a useful demonstration. Few of us would say that thought bubbles are good for us and most of us would acknowledge that they obstruct knowledge by trapping us in an information ecosystem where everyone we know and interact with holds the same beliefs and views. But few of us ever really escape thought bubbles. We don’t necessarily aim to be closed-minded and chose to only surround ourselves with people who think the same as us, but our time, attention, and energy is limited. We cannot always go about finding people outside our place of work, our religious communities, or our families to obtain drastically different views than our own. We only have so much time to watch the news, read books, and seek out information about the minimum wage, the causes of WWII, and new cancer therapies. Thought bubbles are an unavoidable outcome of the huge amount of information available and our limited ability to focus on and develop knowledge of any specific thing.
We may not be motivated to obstruct knowledge. We truly be motivated by finding more knowledge, but environmental factors, other decisions that we have made, and potentially just ignorance of how to improve our information ecosystem could prevent us from eliminating or avoiding an epistemic vice. Our motivations in these instances cannot be thought of teleologically. Judging them by the outcome alone misses many of the factors beyond our control that influenced where we ultimately ended up and whether we developed epistemic vices. What motivations serve us well in some situations may turn out to be epistemic vices that hinder knowledge in other situations. While outcomes may end up similar, there does seem to be a true difference between making an error that hinders knowledge and deliberately hindering knowledge out of a motivation to hold on to power, prestige, influence, or prior beliefs. 

Remember Your Bubble

A huge challenge for our world today is the way we get stuck in our own echo-chambers and fact bubbles. The world is a large and incredibly complex place. We never truly know that much about any one thing. We might be an expert in our field of study, we might be an expert in the area we work in, and we might have a hobby that has made us an unofficial expert in a random thing, but we can never truly know everything there is about a subject or topic. As a result, we rely on a body of knowledge that is incomplete to make assumptions to form a belief about the world.

 

Colin Wright writes about these fact bubbles in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, “We also find ourselves stuck inside fact bubbles which reinforce our existing ideologies, and which fail to provide us with full context, with complete, accurate information, and which leave us, as a result, holding worldviews that are not based on accurate representations of what’s happening.” This is not a new problem in human history, but it feels like it is a more acute problem today than it has been in the past. We have more access to information today than any humans before us, but the overwhelming tidal wave of information that we can focus on puts us in a position where we have to make choices about the information we take in. We can build a world for ourselves in which our worldview is always reinforced, and never seriously challenged. We can create a world in which all of our problems are blamed on some “other” who we must vilify in order to improve things. We advocate for specific ways that we think the world should organize itself because it is what we see, what we know, and what is familiar for us.

 

These bubbles however, are incredibly limited and our singular perspective does not accurately represent the complete range of experiences and possibilities for the human condition. As a response to these bubbles, many people advocate for stepping outside our groups and tribes to understand the worldviews and ideas of others. I do not think this is realistic advice.

 

The world is busy and we only have a limited amount of time and attention to direct toward any given thing. Trying to take in information that we can understand and identify is in many ways a by product of long work hours, long commutes, too much information to know where to focus, and a world that seems to place unlimited demands on our thoughts and actions. Rather than trying to jam in more time reading things that challenge us or listening to news that might spike our blood pressure, I instead advocate for more self-awareness. Recognize how frequently we act and are inspired by a story that makes us look like the hero. Acknowledge the times when you select something to read because it looks like it will already fit in with what you want to believe. Be aware that your perspective on the world is incomplete and that the information you absorb is limited and filtered to present the world a certain way. We likely won’t be eliminating bubbles from our lives any time soon, but we can at least acknowledge their existence and recognize that we don’t have the certainty we would like about the information that helps us know what is really happening in the world.