Blinded by Insight

by Chris_Leong 2y7th Dec 2017No comments

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Insight is often dangerous to the intellect because we may be so captivated by what we have discovered that we take it too far or bundle it with other falsehoods. We can be so focused on the strength behind this nugget of wisdom, that we fail to realise other claims sneaking their way in there.

Examples:

  • Postmodernism makes a few important insights - that we should be suspicious of grand narratives, that we should be very skeptical of claims that one particular model has all the answers, that society often distorts what counts as "reasonable" or "logical" or "scientific". However, they try to universalise this to the point where if they took their own arguments seriously, they would have to believe that throwing darts against the board is just as reliable as the top researchers running randomised controlled trials with large sample sizes.
  • Pragmatists are blinded by the idea that knowledge is an instrumental, rather than a terminal goal. This leads them to a incoherent definition of truth - that truth and usefulness are always the same thing. In many ways, it can be understood as a reaction against the idea that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake. We should always be especially suspicious of these reactive insights.
  • Someone will discover a new philosophy or intellectual movement, discover that it is way more persuasive or insightful on the topic then they are currently and then adopt it wholeheatedly, to the point of becoming an ideologue.
  • My last post, The Basic Object Model and Definition by Interface was so focused on explicating the idea that we often use the same word to cover ontologically different situations when both situations share a similar "interface", that I managed to give a definition of existence that didn't create a divide between existence and non-existence.
  • There have been times when I've been really proud of something that I've written, because I know that it is so much better that what I could have written before. It's possible to be so proud of implementing a particular strategy, that you forget to ask about whether you could have done something even better.

My main motivation behind writing this article was answering the question, "How can intelligent people believe things that are obviously stupid?". There are a few posibilities:

  • That they are actually stupid
  • That the belief isn't actually obviously stupid, but is instead quite reasonable if you adopt particular assumptions
  • That they are biased and are not trying particularly hard to find the truth

But nonetheless, some of these beliefs seem clearly unsupportable by anyone who is both intelligent and sincerely seeking the truth, yet there seem to be some people who support these beliefs without being stupid or a raging ideologue. How can we square this? My answer is that they are probably Blinded by Insight.

One reason why I really like this term is it allows me to comment on the epistemic status of a person or movement in a more charitable way than simply saying that they are stupid or ideological. I think that this framing is important as it will make it more likely that you will treat them better. Of course, there is a danger in that it is very easy to label people as Blinded by Insight, but I don't believe that you can save people who are determined to misuse it.

Mitigating Strategies

Here are some questions that you can ask yourself to reduce the chance of you falling into this trap:

  • Even if my general thrust is correct, could I be going too far? Is there an intermediate position I haven't considered?
  • What claims am I implicitly making, other than my main claim? Are they well supported?
  • Even if my current idea is great, could there be an even better idea?
  • Could there possibly be more to the story?
  • Suppose I was blinded by insight? What would this look like from the inside?

Related:

  • Resist the Happy Death Spiral - Describes the extreme case when there is a feedback loop between the strength of your belief in the theory and how much it seems to explain. I was only made aware of this link after I had finished writing. If I had known about it before, then I would have differentiated this concept more. The first three examples I provide my article are happy death spirals, while the last two refer to more moderate, temporary blindness. So being Blinded by Insight is really a broader concept.

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