The Importance of Being Biased

This is a post about British philospoher Mary Midgley’s book, The Myths We Live By. It’s a good book filled with tons of sturdy good sense. It’s hardly a harbringer of revolution in the philosphical world or a candidate for greatest book of the decade but it touches on some very imporant points and lucidly presents arguments similar to those found in far more complicated (and far more accomplished) thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein and MacIntyre. Anyway… here you go.

A revolutionary moral, cultural and philosophical movement known to scholars as “the Enlightenment” has shaped the modern world profoundly. The modern man’s faith in the uniquely rational character of the sciences as well as his reverence for such concepts as “facts”, “hard data” and, ultimately, the supremacy of universal, objective reason unshackled from the restraints of a particular tradition and narrative can all be traced back to the influence of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers believed that through such a process of universalization and reduction, their movement, for the first time in human history, had succeeded in overthrowing the pernicious, benighted reign of those age-old enemies of Reason, prejudice and bias.

Against the sober austerity of the standard Enlightenment narrative, with its heroes of objective, impersonal “data”[1] and “facts” in service to the most eminently reasonable lordship of Science, Mary Midgley, in her book, The Myths We Live By, stresses that, whether we wish to recognize them or not, it is myths and imaginative visions that ineluctably shape our thoughts and actions. Neglecting this crucial aspect of thought does not create the conditions for objectivity and impartiality, as Enlightenment thinkers would have it, but for stuttering inarticulacy. By pointing to the unarticulated myths from which “enlightened” thought derives its moral and cultural punch, Midgley is able to catalogue the many opportunities for insanity our time has inherited from the Age of Reason and demonstrate that, paradoxically, it is objectivity that is the most crippling of biases.

Foundational to Midgley’s argument against the Enlightenment-sponsored reduction of all forms of knowing to facts and data is her thorough criticism of the fact/value distinction. Those who accept the validity of the fact/value distinction claim that a rigid divide can be established between the natural sciences and the humanities, the former dealing with facts and the latter with values. Such a distinction is not mere pedantry but packs a powerful ideological punch. It is thought that the natural sciences, which uniquely deal with facts, can alone make substantive truth-claims, as it is only facts that are truly reasonable and objective. All else, labeled deprecatingly as “values”, is dismissed as subjective and arbitrary mush.

Against the fact/value distinction and its accompanying reduction of all forms of knowing to the supposed facts dealt with by the natural sciences, Midgley argues that objective facts stripped of any type of value implication are utterly meaningless, unbiased and irrefutable perhaps, but more importantly, mind-numbingly trivial. All of the ideas and rhetoric that shape our thoughts and actions are inherently value-laden. She writes, “No doubt information on its own can be said to be ‘value-free’ but this is because information on its own has no value. It only begins to have a value when it supplies a need… when it becomes relevant to people’s beliefs and attitudes”[2]. Facts can never be considered in isolation, according to Midgley, but must always be contextualized into the larger, value-laden human project from which they spring and from which they derive their relevance. Thought not blinded by its objectivity realizes that information cannot be considered in abstraction from “people’s beliefs and attitudes”. Information is not an independently existing, reified thing, unextracted from the world through human activity with an accompanying human purpose. It does not just sit there in its shining neutrality, but has its roots in human purposes and motives.

To drive her point home, Midgley provides the example of how those she describes as “scientists” often ascribe to the authority of science that which has nothing to do with the work of actual scientists. She cites Pandit Nehru’s address to the National Institute of Science of India in 1960. Nehru preached of how “it is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of deadening custom and tradition… The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science”[3]. Despite his claims to be invoking the authority of “science alone”, the progressive narrative Nehru relies upon to formulate his argument is far more complex and value-laden than the bare facts of science could ever be. Despite what defenders of the fact/value distinction might want to believe, reducing all forms of knowing to the “facts” discovered by the natural sciences does not create the conditions for a uniquely objective form of knowing but for either meaninglessness (if it is truly only barren, de-contextualized facts that are dealt with) or the inarticulacy and self-delusion of the scientistic prophet, unaware that the hope of a sweeping utopian transformation he credits to science is actually not a part of science proper but an accompanying myth.

Urging the thoughtful to take notice of the importance of human motives in all disciplines, even the supposedly objective, Midgley further demonstrates the unavoidability of value judgments through a focused account of the immense importance of language. In its ubiquity and in its variety, language colors and shades all of our dealings with the world. The danger is to succumb to an imperializing impulse and elevate one description to an exclusive position of dominance due to its objective, scientific character thereby deadening our varied power of perception by way of a rigid metaphysical essentialism.

The objective, morally neutral language of the natural sciences functions well when confined to its own domain according to Midgley. But, when science leaves the laboratory and enters the public square its supposedly scientific, objective descriptions often abandon their value neutral character and pack a powerful ideological punch[4]. Unfortunately, what so often happens is that such morally loaded uses of scientific language are presented as neutral, infallible facts uniquely capable of bludgeoning enemies into submission with the power of science. In Midgley’s own words, positions are not “defended in the appropriate moral terms, but always as being in some mysterious sense ‘scientific”[5]. Scientific sounding language in the public square is often not a legitimate extension of physical science but “an imagery which is welcomed, not for scientific merit but for moral reasons, as being a salutary way of thinking”[6]. Through an analysis of the language chosen in argumentation, Midgley points to the unarticulated moral sources that inevitably accompany political arguments seeking to enlist the authority of science, hoping to unveil the illusion that causes such arguments to be considered distinctively rational.

When speaking of that which is not part of the formal scientific work occurring in laboratories (in other words, pretty much everything) there is nothing like “the antiseptic, artificially unchanging language of physics. There are no neutral, naturally given units of selection as there are when we talk about the evolution of an animal species [or any other scientific matter]”[7]. Human involvement and choice of language cannot be overlooked in the illusion that scientific language in the public square is uniquely pure, beamed down without alteration or remainder from the infallible information-station of “science”; or in Midgley’s words, “neutral” and “naturally given”.[8] Against the “antiseptic” language of science, Midgley proposes grittier, organic metaphor to describe the activity of human thought. She writes, “the conceptual skeleton of scientific thought has to grow from somewhere, so it grows from the rest of our thought, and it always brings traces of that origin with it”[9]. Knowing is not a so antiseptic, objective process capable of being scrubbed clean of all bias as reductionist-Enlightenment thinker would like it to be. Instead, knowing is an organic, gritty exercise, that by necessity grows from somewhere, from certain images, symbols and imaginative visions that lie ready-to-hand in our given cultural environment.[10]

For Midgley, knowledge cannot be sanitized from all bias because reason does not consist in a collection of facts gathered by a wordless, Cartesian subject floating in the void[11] but is always rooted in a particular place and culture. Thought has to “grow from somewhere… and it always brings traces of that origin with it”[12]. The Enlightenment sought to forego origin, particularity and bias in the hopes of securing a uniquely universal, objective, squeaky-clean kind of knowledge. What they did not realize, and which Midgley admirably makes clear, is that bias is the soil from which all thought grows.

[1] A crucial word for the thought of David Hume among others yet reviled by Alasdair MacIntyre as a “barbarous neologism” in After Virtue; Midgley apes MacIntyre throughout her book, but that is neither here nor there.

[2] Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (New York: Routledge, 2004): 21.

[3] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: 20-21

[4] Charles Taylor would say that our descriptions “secret” moral evaluation.

[5] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: 60

[6] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: 97

[7] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: 123; my gloss in brackets.

[8] In fact, while Midgley does not make note of it, the information provided by modern science is anything but “given”. Instead, it is forcibly extracted. A summary of the thought of Francis Bacon, a serious candidate for the title of founder of modern science, is enlightening. Patrick Deneen writes, “Francis Bacon – who rejected classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence and justice, arguing instead that ‘knowledge is power’ – compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets” (Why Liberalism Failed, introduction, 14). Ratzinger makes a similarly disturbing point about Bacon in the appendix to his collection of homilies on a Catholic understanding of creation and the fall. In short, Bacon is the main figure responsible for a shift in human perspective of the cosmos from divine Creation to mere inert matter, secular “nature”.

[9] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: XIII

[10] Bishop Robert Barron expands eloquently on this theme, writing of certain critics of Enlightenment rationalism, “These thinkers all realize that knowing is a muddy and bloody process – not simply a bland looking at things from a pristine height. They tell us that we have to plow, climb, will, act, decide, push our way to insight – like painters learning their craft, or baseball players learning how to swing a bat… They know that minds are incarnate and that bodies are ensouled and that all of us come to knowledge in a community of fellow searchers, players and apprentices” (Seeds of the Word, 28).

[11] When writing of the contrast between his own hermeneutic phenomenology and the philosophy of Descartes, Martin Heidegger, in typically enigmatic fashion, makes a similar point: “Descartes narrowed down the question of the world to that of the thingliness of nature as that innerwordly being which is initially accessible. What is at hand in the surrounding world is, after all, not objectively present for an eternal spectator exempt from Dasein, but is encountered in the circumspect, heedful everydayness of Dasein. On these paths Dasein does not traverse like an objectively present corporeal thing, a stretch of space, it does not ‘eat up kilometers’; nearing and de-distancing are always a heedful being toward what is approached and de-distanced” (Sein und Zeit, Stambaugh translation, 103). Chesterton’s definition of insanity is also relevant. He writes, much more charmingly than the grumpy old neo-Pagan Nazi, “the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary… is reason used without root, reason in the void” (Orthodoxy, chapter two, 20).

[12] Midgley, The Myths We Live By: XIII

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