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If one want to develop the skill that optimises the efficiency of the constant feedback loop that we engage in with ourselves (with intentions of self-development or a better understanding of the world), it is required that our judgments avoid implicit bias (SEP) as much as possible, such that our actions align centrally to our ideals. What can we do to centrally align our judgments of ourselves (or of the world) to what is most accurately true (according to the theories generally)?

According to epistemologists, how can you know if your views are as unbiased as possible? Is the bias in information one consumes a determining factor, or is it much more determined by psychometric traits such as self-awareness and intelligence? Or rather, is it a skill, that is, is it a stand-alone trait that is acquired over time with practice and due-diligence? Or a combination?

How do philosophers deal with recognizing bias in judgment?

I could extend on this question by perhaps conditioning on a definition for truth, but I imagine the generalisation of this question will invoke the type of response I am looking for.

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  • Welcome to Philosophy SE! Be sure to check out the FAQ. Added tags and shaped bias question in the direction of epistemology.
    – J D
    Mar 11 at 20:10
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    Let me offer a (biased) comment: don't worry about bias. Worry about evidence - whatever that is- for P. If you have good evidence, then all accusations of bias do not matter. If you don't, then no amount of bias will save it. Of course, this is completely different than coming to the realization that one may be biased- which is why this is a comment
    – Papuseme
    Mar 12 at 4:39
  • No you are using the science definition. This is defined differently in philosophy. Objective here is extended more than just being unbiased. You don't need to state it at all. Objective knowledge is independent from observation & independent of human beings. Your notion of knowledge is probably off also because you believe the science version. Knowledge in science requires observation & human awareness. This is bad. Can there be planets outside of our technology abilities? Well that is beyond human awareness does the claim have no truth value. Because you don't know means absolutely nothing.
    – Logikal
    Mar 12 at 13:30
  • Objective knowledge is by definition CONSTANT. The truth value of a proposition will not alter from true to false over time. A proposition is always true on Earth when it matches reality in all cases.There will be no false instances or exceptions. That type of proposition is an Objective truth: i.e., All women on Earth are also human beings is an objective proposition. Niether you or me make that always true. It is true independently of us. Jupiter being a planet is independent of us even if there were no humans. Life in another galaxy could be true without our awareness. It can still be true.
    – Logikal
    Mar 12 at 13:39
  • @Papuseme That begs the question. How do you know whether your judgement of this 'good evidence' is unbiased?
    – user58150
    Mar 13 at 12:44

5 Answers 5

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First, it helps to know what the common cognitive biases are, so that you can be aware of the possibility of being biased whenever they might apply.

In general, to eliminate bias you need to construct systematic justifications for why you think what you think. These come in the form of rules: "Under conditions A, B, C, I can reasonably conclude D, unless there's some more specific condition to the contrary." The rules need not be deductive; they may be simply heuristics.

If you can justify your conclusions in terms of application of such rules to undoubted premises, and if none of the rules individually involve undesired bias, then you can have some level of confidence that you have a low level of undesired bias.

The thing to be wary about is if under conditions A, B, C, you conclude D, but under conditions A, B, C, F, you conclude not-D, when F shouldn't affect the outcome. If you find yourself doing that, then you may have a cognitive bias involving F. For example, an employer whose hiring decision depends on the race of the applicant, even when the rest of the application is completely the same, would be biased. Here, D is whether to hire the candidate, the race of the applicant would be playing the role of F, and the other information in the application would be A, B, C.

We can never completely eliminate bias, but we can at least try to analyze the way we think. By analyzing it we make it more transparent what is going on in our heads, which allows bias to be detected.

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  • Thank you - as I am just getting started with Philosophy, this is a great reply. Also excuse me for my question, if it is simplistic
    – Mike
    Mar 11 at 21:25
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Short Answer

For the philosopher, bias is generally engaged through metaphysical discourse and an investigation of 'what is objectivity' through the lenses of epistemology, ontology, and axiology, which is to say, how a thinker conceives of bias itself in questions of knowledge, existence, and value.

Long Answer

Bias, Normativity, and Objectivity

It is arguable that judgment itself is bias, depending on one's views on objectivity and normativity. As a person who believes knowledge and truth are constructed from the existence and agency of embodied intelligence (SEP), I, like others, hold that values perforate every aspect of information, from language to ethical preference. This of course can be a disputed notion, since what constitutes agency and free will, intelligence, and normativity are themselves open to discussion and debate. Some hold that objectivity is simply a part of intersubjectivity. In the philosophy of science, theory-ladeness suggests, if true, that our linguistic expressions of our realities are unalterably contaminated by our conceptual theoretical presuppositions.

Also, questions of cognitive biases, for instance, which are of great interest in the philosophy of mind and psychology demonstrate there seems to be systematic neurological biases when dealing with information. Behavioral economists like Kahneman, Tversky, and Ariely rail heavily on how the philosophical notion of Homo economicus is a myth in the face of empirical evidence. Just like the lungs show teleological bias (SEP) in their behavior, so too does the brain. What has come out naturalized epistemology is the idea that our knowledge isn't simply understood as true or false, and that traditional philosophical notions of semantic theories of truth themselves are biased towards rationality that takes a lot of logical and mathematical training to arrive at.

Understanding and Overcoming Bias

The first step to dealing with bias is to define it. What is bias? Here, it can be seen that implicit and explicit biases exist in various domains of discourse. Implicit bias such as racial profiling is a question for ethics and social justice. Cognitive bias is a question for psychology. Biases in IQ tests. In rhetoric, there can be biases inherent in word use, such as loaded language. In logic, popular informal fallacies show that reasoning can be biased. And of course, media bias has half a dozen recognized forms (FAIR.org).

To overcome bias requires among other things:

In short, there is no royal road to defeating bias, but rather pursuing a life dedicated to the study of reason, philosophy, and science. Of course, in English, we have a short-hand term for this: critical thinking. This is an idea that is rooted in Western philosophy with claims like "The unexamined life is not worth living.". There certainly is no shortage of challenges to our knowledge, such as the defeasibility of reason, lies, propaganda, illusion, delusion, and apathy. But though knowledge may be inherently fallible, it's Philosophy with a capital P that is constantly seeking to understand, define, and expose bias, which unfortunately for Socrates led to a rather noble, but painful end.

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  • Thank you - as I am just getting started with Philosophy, this is a great reply. Also excuse me for my question if it is simplistic
    – Mike
    Mar 11 at 21:26
  • @Mike No need to apologize. The ratio of what someone knows to what they don't is always near zero.
    – J D
    Mar 12 at 3:44
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Humans are very bad at identifying and eliminating cognitive bias in themselves. Everyone likes to think they are unbiased. But talk to anyone you know on a subject you disagree on, and you will clearly see the other person’s bias. A reasonable inference is that we too will be biased, and not be able to see that bias.

There are several skills which are highly useful for pursuing the minimal bias you seek. The first, is an attitude of questioning one’s own assumptions. This is a venerable skill in philosophy, as Socrates himself focused much of his thinking on identifying invalid unconscious assumptions that his peers widely held by.

The Socratic assumption questioning attitude can be taken to extremes, as discoveries in reasoning have shown how basically none of our assumptions are "justifiable". See the Münchhausen trilemma for an explanation for why this is so. What one can do, with "unjustified" assumptions, is decide consciously whether to accept them or not.

A second highly useful tool is an attitude of seeking refutations rather than confirmations of a view. This is to apply Karl Popper’s science approach to all views, not just science views. Only accept a view if it can survive "steelman" critiques from the best rival POVs (as opposed to "strawman" critiques).

A third skill is to seek out others for dialog — preferably others whom you are not already in agreement with. Talking to people with different cognitive biases helps us to see alternatives to our own biases. In reading philosophy — look for authors you expect to disagree with, and take notes and even write responses to articulate your disagreement. Reading is of only limited use in dialog, because the author will not be actually responding. So seek out a philosophy meetup group to join as well.

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[this is an extended comment]

Any time our model is missing information, whether structurally or in parameter values, we are left with a probabilistic prediction or judgement. The question is about how we handle this gap of certainty. The most honest thing is to accept the size of error and give a probabilistic assessment. But practicality, comfort, and pride often want to assume we have more certainty than we do. Perhaps the simplest way to recognise bias is seeing when the purported precision exceeds the model and information available. Basically: Do we have enough information for this conclusion?

The problem is, the information we lack, both in parameters and functional relations, is often hidden from us. For example, when you are sitting there and an unrelated thought comes to mind, do you always know why that thought came when it did? Such unconscious processing is often oblivious to us; yet without magically knowing the answer, we can give only a probabilistic guess at best. The key is accepting our ignorance and working honestly from there.

On personality, a possibly related construct is ambiguity intolerance, where a person feels threatened by ambiguous stimuli, sometimes resulting in rigid, categorical thinking. The question is whether this ambiguity relates to uncertainty of assessment, as discussed above.

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There is only one SURE method: start with Truth. If you don't know who you are, you cannot ever arrive at that power of certainty. You will forever be a heretic espousing "truths", which are in fact, opinions, beliefs, desires, theories.

Once you have the starting point, you can gather all of the experiences of your ancestors, which are shared in common somewhere amongst most of your fellow Man. Much of it can be found in books. Then you know mutually what Truth is. Once you have no more dissent anywhere in your own soul, you have arrived, if not at Truth, what is the Best Knowledge known by anyone. That's the best you can hope for.

After that, you need to stay open to further data that refines what you already know.

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