Epistemic Insouciance

Epistemic Insouciance

Dictionary.com defines insouciant as free from concern, worry or anxiety; carefree; nonchalant. To be epistemic insouciant then is to be carefree or nonchalant regarding knowledge. Epistemic insouciance can be characterized as a lack of concern regarding accurate information, true beliefs, and verifiable knowledge. Whether you know something or not, whether what you think you know is correct or not is of little concern.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes the following about epistemic insouciance:
“Epistemic insouciance means not really caring about any of this [whether claims are grounded in reality or the evidence] and being excessively casual and nonchalant about the challenge of finding answers to complex questions, partly as a result of a tendency to view such questions as much less complex than they really are.”
Cassam continues to define epistemic insouciance as an attitude vice, different from other epistemic vices in the book that he characterizes as thinking style vices or character trait vices. To demonstrate how it becomes an attitude vice, Cassam uses reporting from the Brexit campaign to demonstrate how a lack of concern over evidence and the impact of complex questions reflected an epistemically insouciant attitude. According to Cassam, reports indicated that Boris Johnson, current British Prime Minister, did not care much about the actual outcomes of the vote on remaining in or leaving the European Union. Johnson eventually wrote an article supporting the decision to leave, but he reportedly had an article written supporting the decision to remain had that option won in general election. His interests were in supporting the winning position, not in the hard work of trying to determine which side he should support and what the actual social, financial, and future impacts of the choices would be. He didn’t care about the evidence and information surrounding the decision, but rather that he looked like he was on the right side.
Epistemic insouciance is not limited to politicians. We can all be guilty of epistemic insouciance, and in some ways we cannot move through the world without it. At the moment, I need to make a decision regarding a transmission repair for a vehicle of mine. I have a lot of important concerns at the moment outside of this vehicle’s transmission. I have a lot of responsibilities and items that require my focus that I think are more important than the transmission issue. I am not interested in really evaluating any evidence to support the decision I eventually make for repairing the transmission or just getting rid of the vehicle. If I were not epistemically insouciant on this issue, I would research the costs more thoroughly, try to understand how much usage I can get out of the vehicle if I repair it, and consider alternatives such as what it could be sold for and what I would spend for a better vehicle. However, this is a lot of work for an item that is not a major concern for me at the moment. I can save the mental energy and attention for more important issues.
Our minds are limited. We cannot be experts in all areas and all decisions that we have to make. Some degree of epistemic insouciance is sometimes necessary, even if it can be financially costly. However, it is important that we recognize when we are being epistemically insouciant and that we try to understand the risks associated with this attitude in our decisions. We should ensure that we are not epistemically insouciant on the most important decisions in our lives, and we should try to clear out the mental clutter and habits that may make us epistemically insouciant on those important issues.

Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking - Joe Abittan

Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking

My last two posts have focused around conspiratorial thinking and whether it is an epistemic vice. Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind argues that we can only consider thinking conspiratorially to be a vice based on context. He means that conspiratorial thinking is a vice dependent on whether there is reliable and accurate evidence to support a conspiratorial claim. Thinking conspiratorially is not an epistemic vice when we are correct and have solid evidence and rational justifications for thinking conspiratorially. Anti-conspiratorial thinking can be an epistemic vice if we ignore good evidence of a conspiracy to continue believing that everything is in order.
Many conspiracies are not based on reliable facts and information. They create causal links between disconnected events and fail to explain reality. Anti-conspiratorial thinking also creates a false picture of reality, but does so by ignoring causal links that actually do exist. As epistemic vices, both ways of thinking can be described consequentially and by examining the patterns of thought that contribute to the conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking.
However, that is not to say that conspiratorial thinking is a vice in non-conspiracy environments and that anti-conspiratorial thinking is a vice in high-conspiracy environments. Regarding this line of thought, Cassam writes, “Seductive as this line of thinking might seem, it isn’t correct. The obvious point to make is that conspiracy thinking can be vicious in a conspiracy-rich environment, just as anti-conspiracy thinking can be vicious in contexts in which conspiracies are rare.” The key, according to Cassam, is evidence-based thinking and whether we have justified beliefs and opinions, even if they turn out to be wrong in the end.
Cassam generally supports the principle of parsimony, the idea that the simplest explanation for a scenario is often the best and the one that you should assume to be correct. Based on the evidence available, we should look for the simplest and most direct path to explain reality. However, as Cassam continues, “the principle of parsimony is a blunt instrument when it comes to assessing the merits of a hypothesis in complex cases.” This means that we will still end up with epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking if we only look for the simplest explanation.
What Cassam’s quotes about conspiratorial thinking and parsimony get at is the importance of good evidence-based thinking. When we are trying to understand reality, we should be thinking about what evidence should exist for our claims, what evidence would be needed to support our claims, and what kinds of evidence would refute our claims. Evidence-based thinking helps us avoid pitfalls of conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking, regardless as to whether we live in conspiracy rich or poor environments. Accurately identifying or denying a conspiracy based on thinking without any evidence, based on assuming simple relationships, is ultimately not much better than simply making up beliefs based on magic. What we need to do is learn to adopt evidence-based thinking and to better understand the causal structures that exist in the world. That is the only true way to avoid the epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking.
Thinking Conspiratorially

Thinking Conspiratorially

Over the last few years a number of wild conspiracy theories have become popular. Former President Donald Trump embraced a conspiracy theory that the 2020 Presidential Election was rigged (it was not), supported the Qanon conspiracy theory, and did little to push back against conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. His actions, behaviors, and beliefs demonstrate that thinking conspiratorially can be an epistemic vice. His willingness to believe wild falsehoods obstructed knowledge for himself and his most ardent supporters.
However, thinking conspiratorially is not always an epistemic vice. One reason why conspiracy theories become so gripping and why people sometimes fall into them is because real conspiracies do occur. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Trump’s withholding of financial and military aid unless Ukraine announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, and fraud schemes uncovered by inspectors general and government auditors demonstrate that nefarious conspiracies sometimes are real. While thinking conspiratorially can become an epistemic vice, the same is true for anti-conspiratorial thinking.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam quotes Dr. Charles Pigden from the University of Otago in New Zealand by writing, “there is nothing inherently vicious about believing or being disposed to believe conspiracy theories.” Cassam argues that conspiratorial thinking is not an epistemic vice on its own, but is instead a context dependent vice or virtue. He continues, “there are environments in which either way of thinking can be epistemically virtuous or vicious, and a way to capture this context-relativity is to describe these thinking styles as conditionally virtuous or vicious.”
The examples I used earlier show how conspiratorial thinking can be either virtuous or vicious. In the case of our former President, his conspiratorial thinking spread misinformation, suppressed true and accurate information, and created a set of false beliefs that some of his supporters believed so strongly that they stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the election. The context of his conspiracy theories obstructed knowledge and caused substantial harm to life and property. However, a government auditor who notices inconsistencies in paperwork and accounting practices may be rewarded for thinking conspiratorially, at least to a point. Believing that something nefarious could possibly be going on will encourage the auditor to review financial statements and testimony from personnel with more scrutiny, potentially helping them uncover real fraud. Of course, they could still go too far and push the issue beyond reasonable bounds by thinking conspiratorially, but this type of thinking is conditionally virtuous when it discovers true fraud and improves knowledge about fraud schemes.
Given the dramatic consequences of conspiracy thinking over the last few years, it is easy to dismiss thinking conspiratorially as an epistemic vice. However, we should remember that it is only conditionally an epistemic vice, and that sometimes conspiracies do turn out to be true (or at least partially true). We don’t have to give every conspiracy our respect and attention, but when a conspiracy does appear to be grounded in reality and supported by real evidence, then we should not be too quick to dismiss it.
Superstitious Thinking

Superstitious Thinking

Would you consider superstitious thinking to be a vice? According to Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, superstitious thinking is indeed an epistemic vice. That is to say, Cassam believes that superstitious thinking is a is reprehensible, blameworthy, systematically obstructs knowledge. By systematically obstructing knowledge, superstitious thinking causes people to adopt beliefs about the world that don’t match reality, leaving them vulnerable to poor decision-making that can have real-world consequences in their lives.
Cassam writes, “a gambler who sees a succession of coin tosses coming down heads thinks that the next toss will be tails because a tails is now due. This is an example of superstitious or magical thinking, thinking that posits a causal link between unconnected events, namely, previous coin tosses and the next toss.” This quote shows how superstitious thinking systematically obstructs knowledge. It causes us to see causal connections when none exist, distorting our perception and theory of reality.
A gambler making bets sees a causal connection between previous roles of a dice or spins of a roulette wheel and the next roll or spin. In reality, each time you flip a coin, roll a dice, or spin a wheel, the previous result has no bearing on the current probability. A coin toss is a 50-50 affair that does not change because the previous flip was heads.
This type of thinking is prevalent in more than just gamblers. Sports enthusiasts regularly see causal links that cannot possibly exist. The same kind of thinking also shows up in people who have lucky clothing, special rituals in aspects of daily life, or who avoid certain phrases or behaviors. In many instances, the causal links we identify are absurd but don’t incur real costs in our lives. Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk doesn’t cost you anything and growing a beard because your favorite sports team is on a roll might even provide some social benefits and save you time from not shaving. However, giving in to superstitious thinking, as noted before, distorts your view of reality.
The causal chains misperceived through superstitious thinking create false understandings of how the world works. While it is harmless to believe that you need to sit in the same exact spot for your sports team to play well, it is not harmless to believe that hiring a woman to do a certain job is bad luck, and it is not harmless to bet your life savings on a gamble because of superstitious thinking. What may be even worse is that superstitious thinking in one area could spill into other areas, creating a habit of seeing causal chains that don’t exist. Overtime, superstitious thinking will lead to worse outcomes and poor decision-making that will have real costs in our lives.
Epistemic Character Vices

Epistemic Character Vices

Quassim Cassam explores epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind to understand how certain vices can obstruct knowledge and why they matter. Such vices tend to be thinking vices, that is vices that relate to the way we think about and understand the world. They may impact how we view and perceive the world, how we communicate information, or whether we are able to retain and recall information when needed. For example, being closed-minded can inhibit us from taking in an accurate view of the world, being arrogant may prevent us from effectively communicating knowledge about the world, and being careless or easily distracted may limit our ability to remember and recall information.
However, some epistemic vices can also be understood as character vices. Cassam writes, “character vices actually have a dual use: they can be used to characterize a person or they can be used to describe their thinking, either in general or in a particular case.” Character vices are not just behaviors, but ways of being that are typical for a person, that embody some essential aspect of an individual. Instead of just describing an action or behavior to understand its consequence, we can use character vices to understand an entire string of behaviors and actions of an individual, to understand their larger life outcomes.
Wishful thinking is a good example of a character vice that can have dual use. If you watched more college basketball than normal over the course of the pandemic, then by the time the NCAA Tournament started, you may have engaged in wishful thinking, placing a larger bet than you should have on the outcome of some of the games. But being overconfident in a couple of bets and believing that the best possible outcome would truly come to pass is different than being characteristically a wishful thinker. Someone who we describe as a wishful thinker is likely to always see the upsides and believe that things will work out as desired. As a result, they may not be prepared when things go wrong, and may not be able to overcome or avoid obstacles.
Wishful thinking as an epistemic character vice can describe your individual action or it can describe you as a person. Either way, it is helpful to see that epistemic vices can operate on multiple levels. Studying epistemic vices so closely helps us understand our thinking, our behaviors, even our personalities. They help us connect specific behaviors or traits to real-world outcomes, hopefully allowing us to see the harms that can come from actions, behaviors, and traits that obstruct knowledge.
Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.
Exploring Level Confusion Through Vices

Exploring Level Confusion with Vices

Level confusion is an incredible challenge, and one that I grapple with all the time. I am never quite sure when to pin something on personal responsibility and when to pin something on structural factors. It is not just vices and negative aspects of an individual I often struggle to attribute to either personal or structural factors. I often cannot tell whether I should praise someone for the good that they do, or praise the structures and systems which allow the individual to do such good. My challenges with thinking about personal level versus societal level responsibility are an example of level confusion and why it can be an important factor to be aware of when we think about the world. According to Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, I am not alone in this dilemma.
“Vices themselves,” writes Cassam, “have a deeper explanation in the social circumstances of their possessors. … It could still be true … that some doctors are overconfident but to explain what is actually a systemic or structural phenomenon – medical error – in such personal terms is to be guilty of what might be called a level confusion.”
Vices are in many ways personal. We are often to blame for vices and often have control over whether we acquire a vice or whether we improve our behavior and eliminate vices. But how often we can pin a particular harm or bad outcome on our individual vice is hard to say. Certainly any of us who are called out for our vices could come up with numerous structural factors which enabled our vice or compelled us toward such a vice. Cassam’s quote shows that this can be done within medicine. How much can an individual medical error be pinned on a doctor? Arrogant doctors can probably be expected to make more errors than humble doctors, but how often can an individual error be pinned on a doctor’s arrogance rather than another factor that allowed the error to take place?
Cassam continues, “this discussion brings out just how difficult it can be to decide whether a particular outcome is best explained in personal or structural terms. Having said that, it is also true that the personal and the structural are often intertwined, and that one and the same phenomenon can sometimes be explained at both levels.”
Level confusion is going to always be unavoidable given how complex and intertwined our world is. Ultimately, what I think is important is that we step back from our preferred view, either the personal or the structural, and think more deeply about the alternative role in the outcomes we see. If we typically blame people for their outcomes, then we must step back and recognize the structural and systemic forces that make some decisions and outcomes easier for some and harder for others. If we typically adopt a structural view, then we must step back and recognize the importance of personal responsibility and the necessity of personal responsibility in decision-making. With such level confusion we may never be able to agree on how much personal or structural factors matter, but we can accept the complexity and at least begin to address those factors which allow people to take more personal responsibility, initiating the changes we want to see within the larger structures.
Behavioral Consistency

Behavioral Consistency

An interesting observation that Quassim Cassam highlights in his book Vices of the Mind is summed up with a simple sentence from the author, “some vices require a great deal of behavioral consistency while others do not.”
The technical term for describing a vice or a virtue that requires consistency is fidelity. When we think about virtues, we probably think of characteristics, traits, and behaviors that necessarily must be consistent within an individual across time, space, and circumstances. To be a generous person, you must be generous in all aspects of life. To be kind, loving, trustworthy, and brave require the same. Vices, however, seem to be more on the low fidelity side, at least for some.
Cruelty is an example that Cassam uses to highlight a low-fidelity, or low-consistency vice. You don’t have to be cruel to everyone and every living thing you meet, but if someone sees you be cruel to another person in a stressful situation, or be cruel to an animal, a single instance of cruelty is all that may be needed to brand you as a cruel person.
Other vices, like laziness or gullibility, seem to exist more along a spectrum. I’m sure that many of us know people who are incredibly hard working in one aspect of life, but very lazy in others. Perhaps you know a great athlete who is too lazy to apply themselves fully in their professional career, or a motivated professional who seems to lazy to get to bed early so they can get to the gym in the morning. These people are harder to categorize broadly as lazy, and instead are categorized as lazy in certain regards. Cassam shows that the same can be true of someone who is gullible. People can be gullible across the board, gullible in narrow and unusual situations, or only occasionally gullible.
When we think about whether we or other people are virtuous or full of vices, we should consider whether our virtues or vices are high or low fidelity. Should we consider wealthy business owners as greedy or cruel because they laid off their employees, or should we take a larger view of the economic and structural decision-making? Should we consider the wealthy donor to our hometown university as generous with just a single large donation? Thinking about behavioral consistency within virtues and vices can help us better understand or own behavior and better contextualize the behaviors of others, hopefully helping us better think about good or bad behaviors in society.
More About Closed-Mindedness

More About Closed-Mindedness

“As an intellectual character trait that obstructs effective inquiry,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “closed-mindedness also looks like a trait that gets in the way of knowledge systematically.”
Cassam writes that closed-mindedness has been extensively studied, which is relatively unique among the epistemic vices that Cassam considers in his book. He uses a deep dive into closed-mindedness to help demonstrate how epistemic vices obstruct knowledge, how they do so systematically, and how epistemic vices can describe people’s actual conduct.
Closed-mindedness is a general obstacle to knowledge by hindering effective inquiry. Being closed-minded or engaging in closed-minded thinking means that we are not making honest and complete efforts to investigate the world around us and answer questions. Instead, we hold onto specific answers that are preformed, that match what we want to believe, or that support another motive of ours. We don’t look for information that may contradict what we want to know and believe, and we discredit such information if presented to us. We fail to truly take an objective and comprehensive view of the situation before making a decision when we are closed-minded.
Closed-mindedness is an interesting epistemic vice because it can be an individualized behavior and also a character trait. As an individual, you might generally be open-minded, making good efforts to think critically about the world around you, however, through biases or other errors, you may from time to time engage in closed-minded thinking. Specific situations and some context-dependent decisions may draw out closed-minded decision-making in otherwise thoughtful individuals.
On the other hand, you can generally be a closed-minded person. You might be someone who always wants to have the last word, to always feel like the smartest person in the room, or to believe that your view of the world is correct and that there is no room for change. In most of your decisions, thoughts, and behaviors, you can be closed-minded, failing across the board to make full inquiry into the world around you. You might be open-minded in some situations or thoughts, but on the whole, you can tend to be a closed-minded person.
Whether it is a single decision or your general epistemic approach to the world, closed-mindedness is likely to obstruct knowledge, and to systematically lead to worse outcomes. A closed-minded army general who won’t acknowledge new information is going to leave his army vulnerable to an attack that he did not expect. A closed-minded sports fanatic is going to place unwise bets that won’t pay off. A generally closed-minded mother is not going to help her child when she fails to accept their errors, creating a situation that could compound small flaws into larger tragedies. Closed-mindedness prevents us from seeing the world clearly and leaves us vulnerable to decision-making based on poor information on a systematic level. As Cassam closes his thoughts on closed-mindedness, he writes, “Closed-mindedness, then, is an intellectual character trait constituted by intellectual dispositions that aren’t subject-specific.”

The Need for Closure

Humans have a need for closure that varies from individual to individual. Some of us don’t mind too much if the internet cuts out before the last minute of a March Madness game while for others of us, the madness would multiply far beyond the basketball game. Closure helps us conceptualize, frame, and learn lessons from events in our lives. A lack of closure leaves things open and ambiguous, with unclear conclusions and conflicting lessons to be drawn.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes about the need for closure and how it can build into the epistemic vice of closed-mindedness. He writes, “The need for closure comes in two forms, non-specific and specific. The non-specific need for closure is the desire for a confident judgement on an issue as compared to confusion and ambiguity. A need for specific closure is the desire for a particular answer to a question.”
Closure can build into closed-mindedness because once we have made a judgement, we don’t want to accept new information. Once we feel that we have a specific answer, we don’t want to take on new perspectives, reconsider information in a new light, or listen to others who may disagree with us. The more certain we feel, the more we strongly we wish to hold to our conclusions. According to Cassam’s quote, the greater our need for closure, the greater the potential for us to become closed-minded in our decision-making.
“Open-minded individuals have a lower need for closure,” writes Cassam. More open-minded people are less likely to be paralyzed by a lack of information. They are more likely to accept ambiguity, make progress, and adjust when new information arises or as new perspectives are formed. In other words, they can facilitate knowledge by adjusting and adapting to new information and data. Closed-minded people obstruct knowledge by adopting a stance of certainty and ignoring new information as it becomes available.
The need for closure itself isn’t a bad thing. An open-minded person can still feel a need for closure, and that need can drive them to seek more information, to learn more, and to develop new lessons to use in future situations. It can be a motivational driving force for good. At the same time, it can push people to become recalcitrant, to adopt simple and incomplete answers, and to drive people into self-destructive behaviors seeking closure that can never be attained. Our choice (or unconscious disposition) to be closed-minded or open-minded can greatly influence whether our need for closure drives us toward virtue or vice.