Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Questioner Within Me, Part I — Confirmation Bias

Merode Altarpiece (Detail)
The Cloisters, New York 

Confirmation bias
is the phenomenon whereby a person believes something, and then looks around them for evidence to support the belief. 

It's a common mechanism in human beings; and anyone who wants to aspire to objectivity needs to be deeply suspicious of it in themselves. Yet we're all perpetual victims of confirmation bias; it's nearly impossible to avoid. One might just about say we are hardwired for it; it is built into us. And it is one of the favorite tools of the ego.

Confirmation bias begins with what I believe is mine — that is, my beliefs. This begins with an endorsement of my own agency and an unspoken — even unconscious — that "I" am the agent of my own activities and even my life itself. Simply put, it states that everything is about me.

Implicit in the endorsement of my own agency, in most cases, is an assumption that I am right about things. The via negativa — the "negative path" — attempts to avoid this by assuming that I am wrong about things, which can be quite useful. It attempts to head confirmation bias off at the path.

Gurdjieff was committed to helping his pupils avoid confirmation bias. "Question everything,", he advised them. "Even me.”

Well then. Let's question everything.

Ahhh…  Suddenly, it's not so easy, is it? When we encounter people who purport to embody true spirituality,  who say or do things congruent with our own beliefs and expectations, we’re eager to find what we expect to in what they do and what they say. Before we know it, we and other like-minded people find ourselves in a community where everyone agrees on things, quotes the same material, uses the same words (which spread through the community's language like a virus) and nods sagely at one another in rapt consensus. 

Outsiders, heretics — anyone who challenges these deeply held and deeply cherished beliefs and assumptions — are calmly and quietly nodded at sagely, and dismissed. That dismissal often comes in the form of passive-aggressive attack, where the collective membership of a group, organization, or cult dispassionately and patronizingly ostracizes the dissenter, advising them that they just do not understand the "higher wisdom" of the elders.

 Every spiritual organization is in danger of behaving like this. The sign of a solid one is that it tolerates and even encourages dissent —with love. 

We are supposed to fold both assent and dissent into the ranks of our practice; and yet the evil inner God of self-calming encourages us to edit out the dissenters. They make us feel upset, after all; and we shouldn't have to put up with that, should we? After all, we are intelligent adults who have spent many years on our spiritual search, and we shouldn't have to put up with these damned idiots who challenge everything. 

They are disturbing our carefully cultivated inner serenity, the fools.

Even though Gurdjieff told us they are the first people we need to keep things on the straight and narrow.

 Well, this sounds like a description of an outer process, doesn't it? Yet it isn’t. The questioner within us is treated in exactly the same way as I’m describing here. If I don't admit the one who objects to my inner practice — if I don't test its strength by doubting and looking at the opposite side of the question — if I don't disbelieve what I believe in order to see if I can truly believe it — I can't wear down the sharp parts and hard, resistant bits of the ego that insist on making everything its own. 

So I have to question even the inner questioner.

In the end, as harsh as it may seem — and it isn't meant to seem that way, as I don't think it's harsh at all in the end — I have to burn down every inner village I erect. Most especially, my assumptions and the things that I cherish the most. In my own case, as I grow older I see how I have nourished many opinions and ideas about other people that are dismissive, pejorative, destructive, angry, resentful, and so on. I have long-winded inner dialogues about how this or that person is, or — equally destructive — how this or that situation is, leaving me to opinionated and egoistic conclusions about how things ought to be — most of them designed to make me look better, if I'm honest and I peel away enough layers of this onion.

Once I have Potemkin villages like this built in me, my inner dialogues make sure that they are always nicely painted and properly populated.  At that point, every new incoming impression encounters my confirmation bias and is, in one way or another, co-opted as a support for the structures. 

I make the world say what I want it to say, inside me.

Generally speaking, in my own case, I don't realize that I am getting to the bottom of my own confirmation biases until I have to give up something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. An idea about another person, for example, that entitles me to hold on to my condemnation of their behavior. These things are extremely subtle, and capable of morphing into new forms the moment I confront them, so the only way to detect and question my own egoism is to dig down layer after layer through these sediments. All of them have been deposited through past associations; and it never occurs to me that, like an archaeologist to wants to prove a pet theory, I am arranging the layers to say what I want them to say. I have, in short, no objectivity about the nature of my own life.

Yet as a more objective perspective develops — and this is possible, to the extent I am willing to give up the things I love — the inner things, not the outer ones, let me stress that — I begin to discover what we might call objectivity. 

More on that in the next installment on this question.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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