Sunday, June 29, 2014

Confirmation Bias at Work

It seems to me that, when we lost our aesthetic pleasure in the human presence as a thing to be looked at and contemplated, at the same time we ceased to enjoy human act and gesture, which civilzation has always before found to be beautiful even when it was also grievous or terrible, as the epics and tragedies and the grandest novels testify. Now when we read history, increasingly we read it as a record of cynicism and manipulation. We assume that nothing is what it appears to be, that it is less and worse, insofar as it might once have seemed worthy of respectful interest. We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means. If truth in this sense is essentially inaccessible in any case, that should only confirm us in humility and awe.

--Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam

I have a lot of time for what Robinson says here. Unfortunately, she follows this paragraph, the last in the introductory essay of her collection, with an essay so thoroughly tendentious in its arguments (broadly, against what she calls "Darwinism"), so selectively blind to extenuating testimony, that it could have been the target of the quotation above. In the first essay, she castigates writers on Calvinism for having no works by Calvin in their bibliographies. I got so irked reading caricatures of various philosophers and scientists in the second essay that I flipped to the back to check out her bibliography. There was none. It's pretty shocking that she seems to have been deaf to these ironies.

Here is an excellent response to Robinson's essay.