In an earlier post, I used a hypothetical drugged-out kid as an example of confirmation bias. Because the kid believes the drug enhances his life, his view of people in authority who impose restrictions, punishments and fines upon him is skewed. And he can point to these sanctions imposed by parents and law enforcement as a way to confirm that figures of authority can’t be trusted. They are, after all, trying to limit his access to what he thinks makes him happiest. Blogger ‘dictionopolis’ commented on that post thusly:
…if you are a religious person, would your ‘truth seeking’ be just as tainted as the druggie kid? If you are religious, your confirmation bias will lead you to seek and fall back on answers that agree with your own viewpoint already? Would going to seminary really be the best place to test your assumptions? Wouldn’t going to a grad school by that atheist professor that you mention elsewhere in your blog be a true test of Truth seeking?
As I read it, he’s asking two things: 1) can we truly evaluate our experiences/beliefs as human beings (that is, can we escape our own confirmation bias)? and 2) if we can, is not the best way to evaluate those experiences/beliefs by scrutinizing them against the backdrop of opposition?
These are excellent questions and I’m glad to have time now that my semester’s over to try to answer them.
So can we escape our own confirmation bias? I would say, yes, but not on our own. Think about what this would require. Not only would one have to be completely objective so that he might interpret the data coming in without reference to his preferences and personality, but this same person would have to be infinite–that is, capable of collecting and processing all the relevant data (and, since we’re talking about truth here, the relevant data is all the data that there could be). Who is sufficient for these things? Certainly, none of us is or would claim to be. However, if we go through life with ourselves as the reference point for judging reality and deputize ourselves as the arbiters of truth, total objectivity and infinitude is exactly what we’re claiming for ourselves.
It is surely true that your biases might change due to experience or study (for example, based on reading a health journal, you might go from being a vegetarian to eating a strict paleo diet), but you’re still your own reference point. You’ve learned something (good!), but you’re still subjective and finite, and so still in the same epistemological cul-de-sac even if your nutritional condition has improved.
Another way of saying this is that ‘education’ happens all the time, but we if we’re to arrive at what’s true we need what I’ve been calling ‘transcendental education,’ or education that transcends our finiteness and subjectivity. This is why I said we can escape our confirmation biases but not on our own. If we’re blinded by our confirmation biases like an addict is blinded by his high, how do we receive sight?
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
To escape our hopeless condition, someone who is infinite and objective would have to open our eyes. And that’s exactly what God does! ‘The god of this world,’ the devil, blinds the minds of unbelievers, but God says to unbelievers, “Let light shine out of darkness,” so that we may see. And this sight means we’ve been “give[n] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” which is to say, the light by which we see is gospel light.
What am I saying then? No one is born a Christian. Everyone who truly is a Christian has been taken by God out of blindness into sight, out of death into life (Ephesians 2:1-10). This means that no one is born with biases in line with the Bible, but that what the Bible says about all the issues it speaks to is foreign to every one of us (to different degrees based on nature and nurture, no doubt–this is one reason why it’s such a blessing to be raised in a Christian home or country…less worldview upheaval to do when/if you’re converted). It’s not that a Christian is going to the Bible to have his own biases confirmed; a Christian, instead, goes to the Bible to have his own biases corrected. See Romans 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
That ‘living sacrifice’ language involves a dying to self followed by a transformation into what God’s called Christians into when he purchased their lives on the cross of Jesus Christ. You’re learning, yes, and you’re actively and intellectually involved (“that by testing you may discern what is the will of God”), but if you’re a Christian you’re doing these things in line with God’s will–not your own and not the world’s. That is, the Transcendent One who sees all and sees clearly has given grace to sinners so that they may see as He sees. That’s what the Bible is all about: God providing a way for fallen man to have perfect communion with him. And that way is Christ–trust that God’s wrath at your sins was satisfied by Christ’s death and trust that Christ’s righteousness is counted toward all who confess him as their Lord and Savior.
So then my answer to the second question (“if we can escape our confirmation biases, is not the best way to evaluate those experiences/beliefs by scrutinizing them against the backdrop of opposition?”) should be obvious. The best way to evaluate our biases is indeed to scrutinize them against the backdrop of opposition, but only if that opposition is true. While an atheist calculus professor might correct a great many of the errors that have crept into my memory since I took my last calculus class, I do not ultimately trust him to correct my larger questions about truth because he is not ultimate. He, like me, is a subjective and finite creature. The opposition I seek is instead provided by the objective and infinite creator. Hence, the decision to go to seminary.
Of course, the immediate answer of someone who isn’t a Christian will be either that they don’t believe in God or don’t believe in the Bible. How, then, do you escape your own limits? Where do you stand when you say you believe something is true? Is it not on your own finite and subjective experience? There’s surer ground, friend.
I should also note that while there’s a great deal of free material on the internet by people like John Piper and Vern Poythress on the inspiration of the books of the Bible and reasons to believe the Bible is the word of God, the best thing to do, I think, is to just start reading the Bible. Read a gospel, read through Paul’s letters. Over thousands of years, God has met millions of people through those pages. He may meet you there as well. He’s bound himself with a promise to look on those who read his word humbly with favor:
These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)