What I Can’t Believe

Last week, I said that one of the things this blog is about is how societies come to some kind of public understanding of truth. That’s rather vague, so consider this post an example.

As WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban nicely illustrated last Thursday, you have a lot in common with every other human, but there’s also a lot about every other person you’ll never fully understand.

As a consequence, I might be unable to grasp certain things others experience, or see certain things apparent to them.

For example, I’m a white male and have lived a relatively sheltered life. This makes me privileged, and as Paul Graham notes:

“There’s something to the idea that privilege makes you blind – that you can’t see things that are visible to someone whose life is very different from yours.”

So privilege leads to some blindness, but blindness for what?

Often, the things that are – it is claimed – invisible to me go beyond me not knowing ‘what it’s like’ to be someone who is different from me. It’s not just about me not grasping some phenomenological features of their subjective experience. It’s also about me not having access to facts about objective reality (not about the phenomenology of their subjective experience), which their subjective experience grants them access to but which I could never know about (unless they choose to reveal them to me).

Philosophers who call themselves ‘standpoint epistemologists’, for instance, maintain this when they assert that who we are as knowers affects what we can, in principle, know. Specifically, they often add, marginalized groups can spot racial and sexist biases that the dominant group in principle cannot see. Analogous to how only the pope can talk to God, or Derek Ogilvie to my great-great-great grandmother, and we mere mortals have no way to check on them. We have to take their word for it.

What should we make of this?

II.

This idea of ‘subjective visibility’ strikes me as both intuitive and suspicious.

It’s intuitive because everyone knows people who are more prone to notice certain things than you are. For example, I have a friend who is way more adept at observing body language than I am, and he often reports that something I said to someone apparently evoked a reaction in that person of which I had been oblivious up to this point. It was there for everyone to see, but I missed it.

Most talk about privilege, however, is meant to get at something deeper.

In the body language case, I didn’t spot the (e.g.) angry non-verbals, but could have if I knew what to look for. If my friend tells me that crossed arms indicate anger, then when I see someone crossing her arms in response to one of my remarks, I may now infer she might be angry.

Just tell me what the directly-observable proxies are, and I can deduce the not-directly-observable anger.

In cases of privilege, by contrast, it’s not so simple as learning what to look for. My inability to detect, for example, racism is not due to a lack of knowledge that I can overcome by learning more. The epistemic gap is unbridgeable, since my “lived experience” as a privileged person could in principle never give me access to the facts the oppressed can discern.

As a result, the grounds for their beliefs about things like racism and sexism are only accessible to the right kind of people.

And I’m a white male, so I’m not one of them.

III.

Minorities are surely right that people in a majority make a mistake when they don’t believe descriptions of discrimination because they haven’t experienced it. Moreover, it’s only reasonable to privilege the voices of those affected by a problem, and polite to take someone at her word when she says she experiences racism and/or sexism.

Taking this line of thinking a step further, though, many people these days appeal to their “lived experience” as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and use the phrase “do not refute my lived experience” as a tool for shutting down discussion.

Here I get off the bandwagon.

Using one’s “lived experience” as an argument-winner and a free pass to upgrade one’s belief into knowledge is dangerous. If it’s allowed, then what is important—indeed, what’s actually believable and convincing as truth—is that what’s stated feels authentic or conforms to a preexisting sentiment held by some group, not that it’s accurate in some objectively demonstrable and verifiable way.

This helps us see why ‘subjective visibility’ is also suspicious. Knowledge, after all, is supposed to be publically available.

As a rule, you may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to falsify it.

We can’t accept subjective standards for what is ‘known’, ‘true’ and ‘a fact’.

IV.

What’s so bad about that, though? And why is falsifiability a necessary condition on knowledge? Because, as the great American philosopher C.S. Peirce already recognized over a hundred years ago,

“Unless truth be recognized as public—as that of which any person would come to be convinced if he carried his inquiry, his sincere search for immovable belief, far enough—then there will be nothing to prevent each one of us from adopting an utterly futile belief of his own which all the rest will disbelieve. Each one will set himself up as a little prophet; that is, a little “crank,” a half-witted victim of his own narrowness.”

‘Fact’ is not anybody’s experience; it states the experience of no one in particular. When the policeman says, “Just the facts please, ma’am,” he is asking, What would I have seen, what would anyone have seen, what would no one in particular have seen, at the scene of the crime? “Special” experiences such as revelation or being a particular kind of person cannot be the basis for fact. They are not publically available.

If your “lived experience” is an argument-winner, truth is no longer public. I can tell you that the Netherlands has a tropical climate, and then when you tell me it doesn’t, derive special authority from my “lived experience” because I live there.

This line of thinking invites a dangerous relativism, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. And it is implied each time “lived experience” is referred to as though it’s an argument-winner.

V.

We all believe that there must be, “out there,” an objective reality of the world as it really is, independent of the vagaries of human perception and misperception, a world that we would all see identically if we could all see perfectly. Yet the social fact is that we live in a world not of agreement but of discord, of perceived realities as multitudinous as people.

We live in the same world and on different planets at the same time.

Rather than claiming priority for anyone’s subjective experience in particular, that means we should be less certain about the veracity of the way things seem to us, and be skeptical of claims that some particular group of persons is favored with special insight. 

There’s no reason to think that, of all the billions of people who experience the world differently, the experience generated by your brain happens to be the most truthful one (what an amazing coincidence that would be). In fact, falling for this is a documented psychological bias known as ‘naive realism’.

Inconveniently, though, we often feel as if our senses provide us with a direct, unmediated understanding of the world, and think that on any given subject our views are essentially objective, the product from a dispassionate, realistic accounting of the world. 

But of course, they are not.

Assigning epistemic and moral authority to one’s “lived experience” fails to realize this. It fails to realize the way the world seems to you need not coincide with the way things really are

It seems to me that both sides of the racism debate make this mistake. People from the majority do when they remain oblivious to racism and discrimination on the grounds that they don’t experience it so they don’t believe it when described. And people from the minority do when they treat everyone who argues that any particular “lived experience” might not accurately reflect objective reality as “invalidating my existence”.

Of courseboth men and women and both whites and blacks are biased. The point is not to be unprejudiced; the point is to recognize that your own bias might be wrong and to submit it to public checking by people who believe differently.

VI.

Arguing on the basis of one’s lived experience is an ideal go-to phrase for anyone who doesn’t have good reasons for her position, because no one can refute your personal experiences.

Which is why I don’t understand why it’s a standard tactic for minority activists to appeal to it, because there are good arguments for (e.g.) the claim that systemic racism exists. They can play the game of public checking, and win.

This essay is already too long, so I might write about that next time. Today, I want to end on a personal note.

As David Roberts correctly points out: “The only way to [adjudicate who’s right] is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy.” You have true beliefs only when your conclusions are checked out by others.

I don’t want to affirm anyone’s claims – whatever their identity – because I ‘wouldn’t understand’ and just have to take their word for it (or because they cancel those who don’t). Rather, I want to agree with them because, by our shared standards of evidence and accuracy, their claims pass the test.

Otherwise I wouldn’t even know what I’d believe – how to update my model of reality accordingly – when I believe in (the existence of) ‘racism’ on the basis of someone’s testimony about it.


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