Friday, July 22, 2011

Your Own Worst Enemy: Knowing Both Sides of an Issue

I try not to be one of those people with lots of pet peeves, but I do not like hearing people talk about truth as if there are many different truths.  If there really are many different truths then there is no point to discussing anything.  What is true for someone else is true for them and what is true for me is true for me.  No need to discuss anything there, we are both right in our own truth.  When people talk about different truths from different people what they are really doing (hopefully, otherwise they just love wasting time) is discussing a challenge of epistemology, for all they know what you believe is true but it is ultimately unknowable; or they are arguing that the topic of discussion has no objective truth, like what ice cream flavor is best.  When two people disagree about something other than what rock band is the greatest or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin there are two possibilities: one of them is right and the other is wrong or neither of them is right.  While thinking about things this way allows you to hold to a belief in objective truth that makes serious discussions meaningful it can have the unfortunate side effect of making you overconfident in your beliefs.  To prevent the errors of either the extreme of metaphysical non-realism or the extreme of radical obstinacy we need to agree that there is one real truth but that we often fail at properly accessing it.

Humans are plagued by multiple biases that cause us to believe things without evidence or to only look at evidence that supports our preconceived beliefs.  The main reason we should listen to opposing viewpoints is not because everyone has a valid opinion or because we need to develop strong arguments against those who disagree with us.  It is because we are our own worst enemy at getting to the truth, the only truth that exists; and that awareness of this fact helps mute its effect on us.

While our genes have given us cognitive biases to deal with our society has given us cultural bias by providing us with assumptions we have developed over years of interacting with people who tend to look and think the same way.  Because of this there are certain ideas we have that we have never questioned, but are unjustified.  It is only through interaction with people without our particular cultural bias (though admittedly with a cultural bias of their own) that we can even think to question these things.  

Educating students who do not have our cultural assumptions can be a challenge if we do not listen to their viewpoints and consider the assumptions their culture gives them.  In a previous post I said that educating students requires teachers to find some commonality they share with them to build lessons on top of.  If a teacher refuses to listen to the viewpoints of his students (or at least someone who can explain the cultural assumptions of his students to him) then it is unlikely he will ever find that commonality.  Teachers do not have to agree with their students culturally imprinted assumptions, they do not even have to think they are reasonable.  All teachers have to do is be aware of them (and their own) so that they can effectively build additional information on top of the foundation our unconscious minds have laid.


  1. It has been hard to formulate my thoughts about this blog, as I think I'm not exactly sure there are just two sides or any sides at all of "issues", and that is why I really like how you started out your blog saying what I felt as I typed up my own blog since I found a bit hard to explain myself, unless I just completely missed the point of it. In any case, I love the idea that you presented that we each have our own cultural bias, I have to say it is true, and for that I question it myself, what is a bias or truth. What I may perceive as a truth or bias I may have I may not see it as such until, someone else with different truths and biases comes and makes me question my perspectives. It really is a riveting idea, and I have o say that I completely agree, but we may just be getting a bit philosophical.

  2. Hi Eduardo,

    Thanks for the comment. I do not mind getting philosophical. At the end of the day everything reduces to philosophy. It is essential that we get input from people to point out our "blind spots" of rationality. All that stuff that we have picked up from our culture that we cannot even fathom challenging until someone with different assumptions comes along and points them out. This does not mean that there is no objective truth that transcends cultural assumptions nor does it mean our cultural assumptions are wrong or even that it is arrogant to defend them when challenged. It just means we have to do better to find the truth than go along with our cultural assumptions.