By Pretending Everyone Is Locked in ‘His Own Bubble’, You Give up What’s Needed to Get at the Truth

“Anyway,” he said after making an insightful comment about people in a relationship with someone they met online. “That could also just be my traditionalist bubble.”

When I heard someone excuse himself for his “bubble” for the millionth time, I’d had it.

Do you really have to have been in a Tinder conversation with half the planet before you’re allowed to voice some reflection on digital romance at all, I thought.

I’ve noticed myself adding “but that could just be me” disclaimers to things I say too.

“I’m pro-immigration, but that could just be my academic bubble.”

It gives me a bad taste in my mouth every time still.

I’ve started to doubt: may I still have an opinion with pretenses beyond my bubble? Or, put another way, how can I burst out of it?

How not to ruin dinner

Some person I don’t remember told me earlier this year that in our culture,the ‘right to be offended’ is becoming more important than the right to free speech. This strikes me as an apt observation. We are keen to interpret mere differences of opinion as justifying an angry reply.

The tendency to put a disclaimer on everything we say might be an attempt to avoid disagreements in light of this.

Hedging your opinions with “but that’s just me” (or “my bubble”), implies something disarming. It suggests: “I’m not really asserting my opinion. I’m merely expressing my personal preference. There is no right or wrong here. So if we disagree about politics, it seems significant but actually it’s more like ‘hey I like vanilla ice cream and you like chocolate let’s just be friends flowers sunshine lalalala smiling people.’”

You relegate serious opinions to matters of fancy, mention you’re solely pro-immigration since you’re from a certain bubble, add “there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose,” et voila, you’ve steered clear of a kitchen-table argument with your bitey mother in law who loves to play the look-at-me-being-so-indignant-over-here-now-I’m-morally-superior-to-you card.

Let’s talk about kittens?

Comfortably numb

This is one part of the story. The other factor in why fake modesty has become so popular is that it unlocks the superpower of holding on to our beliefs even if they’re in all likelihood false.

It’s an Inconvenient Truth that people, at the end of the day, believe what they want to believeirrespective of what evidence suggests:

For some strange reasons (but explainable at least in principle, nothing is strange if you truly understand it), humans are wired to sometimes let their beliefs slip into what they would like to believe instead of what the evidence suggests. That is like erasing a mountain off a map because you would like to pass there or drawing an oasis on the map in a desert because you would like some water. — LessWrongThe map is not the territory

In weaving our web of beliefs, drawing our maps, making up our minds, we are not scientists trying to figure out what is most accurate. We are lawyers who try to make everything fit into the story we would like to be true.

My opinions are my personal sanctuary. If you come close to it, I will burn you. These are my facts. Even reality can’t touch them.

I’m going to bury my head in the sand now. Have a good day.

Don’t feign neutrality…

But wait.

If this is how cognition works, some self-effacement might actually be called for.

Factors that are irrelevant to the truth of the proposition in question influence many of our views. I happen to be an atheist. Had I been socialized in, for example, Yemen, I would probably have very different ideas regarding the correct metaphysical theory describing our universe.

Doesn’t this show that the way we arrive at conclusions can be glitched up? So isn’t it, by extension, good manners to mention my bubble and add a that’s-just-me disclaimer to my takes on things?

Well look at you being all polite all of a sudden! I have even more grist for your mill.

It’s not just that you would have held contrasting views if you would come from another bubble.

The key driving worry in such cases is that had you been in the other situation — born in Yemen — you would have thought you were right too. You would cite various reasons for your different conviction and it would seem to you that these considerations were rationally persuasive.

So — indeed — rather than feigning neutrality, it’s better to be transparentabout where you’re coming from than to pretend your beliefs came out of nowhere.

The problem, though, is that you can go too far with this line of reasoning and start proving no opinion is more likely to be true than any other.

Interlude: truth, maps, and territories

I need a small digression here.

Myself, I go and sing and jump around the room when we go philosophical and ask what it meansfor a belief to be true.

It has come to my attention, however, that this enthusiasm isn’t shared by most of my dear fellow homo sapiens. Philosophical reflections on ‘truth’ are, to put it mildly, not necessarily immediately useful for the layperson.

For 99% of the discussions on ‘truth’, the metaphor of the map and the territory suffices.

How does that metaphor go? It turns out humans have an innate understanding of ‘true’ in the sense of a map that reflects the territory, and can imagine causal processes that produce good maps, that are ‘truth-conducive’.

If a belief ‘matches’ reality, the map is accurate and the belief is true. And if I believe the cat’s on the mat while he’s chasing a mouse in the garden, the belief is false.

‘Truth’ is about comparing beliefs to reality(or the map to the territory).

… But don’t discard the very possibility of truth either

Okay, back to the main point.

The core claim of the bubble-ideology (yes, it’s an ideology now) is this.Since you and me, we’re both locked in a bubble — we’re both from somewhere, belong to a specific social group, like to frequent particular bars, read a different paper, and so on — I have no reason to think my map would somehow be more accurate than yours.

After all, why should the causal processes — the news I consume, the people I talk to, the shows I watch, the books I read, and so forth — that gave rise to my beliefs be more truth-conducive than whatever figures in the causal explanation of why you believe what you believe?

Therefore, it would be arrogant of me to think my map is more accurate than yours. I should hedge all my assertions with a “but that’s just me” disclaimer.

To use another metaphor: the bubble-ideology suggests we all treat ourselves as having a black box receiver (our brain) which produces a signal (opinions), and treat other people as having other black boxes producing other signals. We all, secondly, received our black boxes at random. Hence we can’t think our signal is more likely to be accurate than average. “I suspect AI is super important, but, oh well, that’s just my bubble, my randomly generated signal.”

Avoiding the comparison

In a way, this line of thinking makes us all — *sucks on pipe* — cultural relativists. I think Universal Basic Income is something to look into, but that’s just because of my bubble.

And before you know it, this attitude makes it impossible to say that some opinions are more warranted than others.

Say “that’s just me” often enough, and you’ve made it impossible to talk about truth — to make a comparison of belief to reality — altogether.

The danger of “You just believe that because of…”

Take the example of (a)theism and being from the Netherlands or Yemen again.

Sure, it’s likely that a big causal factor in me believing atheism to be true, is the way someone raised me (and where). But just because my take would have been different would I have been born in a religious family (and/or culture), that doesn’t mean my grounds for believing atheism to be true are thereby invalidated.

Obviously, the correct metaphysical story about the universe has nothing to do with my upbringing.

In a nutshell, the move from (i) the shocking discovery that you hold a belief because your life went a certain way to the conclusion that (ii) you’re therefore biased in having this conviction is too quick.

Here are three ways of putting the same point. It’s a distinction.

  • Observing how some opinion fits some bubble might make it unoriginal, it doesn’t make it unsupported.
  • The fact that my judgment results from having a particularly cultivated psyche doesn’t tell us whether it’s true or false.
  • Analyzing my socio-cultural location is one thing. Figuring out what theory is best-supported — which map is more accurate — is another.

By annihilating this distinction, “that’s just my bubble” is an attempt to murder another the difference too: that between true and false statements.

As all opinions come from a bubble, there’s nothing to say one way or the other.

It’s a dangerous conversation-stopper, intended to (i) avoid honest discussions and (ii) remain blissfully ignorant about reality.

You can disqualify too much by pointing to “the bubble” it comes from

We just saw that by pretending that everyone is locked in ‘his own bubble’, you give up what’s needed to get at the truth.

What’s more, you also start thinking all beliefs can be explained without appealing to their alleged truth. That, in other words, everyone regards as true what she does not because of the world we all share, but just because of her bubble.

Talk about bubbles often enough and you can disqualify every fact, argument, and person by pointing to “the bubble” they come from.

Perversely, the only way you cancome out of your bubble depends on doing the exact opposite. Bursting your bubble requires believing there is a universe that doesn’t consist of bubbles — a world in which who you are or how you think you cannot be fully explained by the group you belong to, the country you come from, the coffee you drink, the neighborhood you live in, or the YouTube channels you watch, but alsohas to do with the reality that we all share.

When you add a that’s-just-me disclaimer to everything you believe, there is no shared right or wrong, no shared true or false. No common reality. Just bubble.

I want to leave you with this line from my favorite writer Timothy Kreider:

I was never as idealistic as Kate — or rather, I was never as hopeful; my idealism is too fragile, too easily disappointed. What she and I share is that foolish, ineradicable belief in art and the written word: That there is such a thing as truth, and that it matters when it’s spoken, even if no one listens.