I wrote last week about the idea that bias is inescapable because the world that we experience is not a fixed reality, but the product somehow of our perceptions. A related idea is that we each experience the world differently because we each have a unique relationship with it. I think that gives an insight the previous statement does not.
In any case the word “world” is a difficult study, and here I mean it as something like all that exists within the meaning-making organs of our awareness—not all of which is present to our consciousness at any given moment—and which would include sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, concepts, beliefs, ideas and our various forms of self-identification. They’re all in there. Try to explain this to someone who insists the world is a perfectly obvious thing, and notice how quickly you start mumbling quietly to yourself with all the phonetic acumen of a person who has just had a tooth extracted.
Whatever such a world is, it’s not easily grasped. And this is partly why the perception of bias in one another is all but inescapable. We tend to see what we call bias most readily when critiquing a person whose opinion is at odds with our own, and not at all when it comes to our own thinking. An alleged means of keeping the peace when any two persons interact is to stipulate some rules about what is admissible and what is not admissible when one is trying to explain why one is right and the other wrong. This assumes one is right, and the other is wrong, of course, which is itself a mode of thinking that reflects an inherent bias. We could call such a bias “reasonable” if the contents of the worlds we each perceive were the same for all of us, but they quite obviously are not.
There are a couple of considerations here. The first is that nothing we see really means anything in the absence of a tremendous chain of conceptual logic that we apply to it. And I would also say that everyone’s chain of conceptual logic is tremendous. If you get the smartest weasel you can find and set it up in a well-maintained aquarium in front of two tiny lights that flash every once in a while following the parametric down conversion of a photon, it may become interested, but it probably won’t realize that the flashing lights are proving the validity of Bell’s Inequality. I’m not sure there’s a single human being on this planet who would be able to ascertain what two lights had to say about Bell’s Inequality without considerable knowledge of how those lights came to be where they are. The difficulty here is that it’s really, really hard to set up little calamities on a work bench that definitively mean one thing and could not possibly mean anything else whatsoever. It takes vast stores of knowledge to make inferences about the nature of the universe from two flashing lights. But let me say that I think we do amazing work in this regard.
It’s just that to unpack the slightest observation requires a considerable conceptual scaffolding, each tier of which is often predicated on the previous and thus, as a whole these structures can be subject to assumption, bias and misperception that is thousands of layers deep.
The second consideration is that people simply don’t have the same experiences. For starters, we’re almost never in the same place at the same time looking in the same direction paying attention to the same little bits of energy. And when we are, we’re certainly not considering those little bits of energy in light of the same histories, memories, training, life conditions, or ideals. One argument is that if we were in the same place looking in the same direction at the same things, then all else being equal, we’d be having the exact same sensory impressions. But for me, even that’s a bit tricky. We can probably agree that if we use a device that’s not smart enough to be distracted to record those sensory impressions for us—something like a photographic plate—then we could agree on certain aspects of what just happened.
The real issue is when two people who were in two different places, and who occupy two very different relationships to what we call the world, try to tell each other what could or couldn’t have happened where the other one was. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that one Friday evening Person 4,327,005 elects to attend a Native American ceremony known to be useful in the recovery of lost items, while Person 1,983,411,309 elects to attend the symphony. Person 1,983,411,309 reports that the lead cellist was a sublime musical talent, and Person 4,327,005 reports that a flying gourd almost hit her in the head during the ceremony, and that Mrs. Smith’s great grandmother’s diary, which had been missing for thirty years, was located and placed on the altar by the spirits.
What happens next depends upon all sorts of factors, but we know that a very common scenario would involve Person 1,983,411,309 telling Person 4,327,005 that she ought to submit herself to some sort of psychological or medical evaluation; that she should avail herself, when time permits, of the Laws of Thermodynamics; or that she should consider the possibility that she has been the brunt of a joke. Basically, Person 1,983,411,309 means to say that Person 4,327,005 is wrong.
Now why is that? Why do we do this to one another?
It’s a good question I think.