We often think that biases like prejudice are mean spirited vices that cause people to lie and become hypocritical. The reality, according to Quassim Cassam is that biases like prejudice run much deeper within our minds. Biases can become epistemic vices, inhibiting our ability to acquire and develop knowledge. They are more than just biases that make us behave in ways that we profess to be wrong. Biases can literally shape the reality of the world we live in by altering the way we understand ourselves and other people around us.
“What one sees,” Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, “is affected by one’s beliefs and background assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taking in what is in front of one’s eyes, and this creates an opening for vices like prejudice to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by perception.”
I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now where Pinker argues that humans strive toward rationality and that at the end of the day subjectivity is ultimately over-ruled by reason, rationality, and objectivity. I have long been a strong adherent to the Social Construction Framework and beliefs that our worlds are created and influenced by individual differences in perception to a great degree. Pinker challenges that assumption, but framing his challenge through the lens of Cassam’s quote helps show how Pinker is ultimately correct.
Individual level biases shape our perception. Pinker describes a study where university students watching a sporting event literally see more fouls called against their team than the opponent, revealing the prejudicial vice that Cassam describes. Perception is altered by a prejudice against the team from the other school. Knowledge (in the study it is the accurate number of fouls for each team) is inhibited for the sports fans by their prejudice. The reality they live in is to some extent subjective and shaped by their prejudices and misperceptions.
But this doesn’t mean that knowledge about reality is inaccessible to humans at a larger scale. A neutral third party (or committee of officials) could watch the game and accurately identify the correct number of fouls for each side. The sports fans and other third parties may quibble about the exact final number, but with enough neutral observers we should be able to settle on a more accurate reality than if we left things to the biased sports fans. At the end of the day, rationality will win out through strength of numbers, and even the disgruntled sports fan will have to admit that the number of fouls they perceived was different from the more objective number of fouls agreed upon by the neutral third party members.
I think this is at the heart of the message from Cassam and the argument that I am currently reading from Pinker. My first reaction to Cassam’s quote is to say that our realities are shaped by biases and perceptions, and that we cannot trust our understanding of reality. However, objective reality (or something pretty close to it that enough non-biased people could reasonably describe) does seem to exist. As collective humans, we can reach objective understandings and agreements as people recognize and overcome biases and as the descriptions of the world presented by non-biased individuals prove to be more accurate over the long run. The key is to recognize that epistemic vices shape our perception at a deep level, that they are more than just hypocritical behaviors and that they literally shape the way we interpret reality. The more we try to overcome these vices of the mind, the more accurately we can describe the world, and the more our perception can then align with reality.