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Anne Dalke's picture

On demarcation and cluelessness

Has anyone else been as captivated as I have been, this week, by Errol Morris's 5-part series in the Times' Opinionater column, The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is ? (I'd recommend especially part I, on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, about how our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence; and part IV, an interview w/ V.S. Ramachandran, on how such ignorance makes living palatable, perhaps even possible, by protecting us from all we don't know).

I'm going to take the time to write out some of the key ideas in this series here, both to fix 'em for myself, and because I think they provide such an interesting, illuminating larger context for (and perhaps way to move on from?) the two-pronged discussion below about always-challengeable first principles, and the concomitant need for "suspension" (or: being quiet long enough to hear out others' stories). The additional claim here is that there are always things we don't know we don't know, an ever-moving "demarcation" of "unknown unknowns," and that @ least part of our brain is actually structured to preserve that territory, to defend against opening it up.

My own thought is that our social systems are often likewise structured, and that in this group we've been trying to find our way into a different sort of structure, one in which talking to one another can identify and reduce what we don't know we don't know, by laying our stories alongside one another. We don't know/can't ever know that we have anosognosia. Feedback from others can help with such knowing, but we all have deep reasons not to want such "help."

The idea Morris traces in this series is what David Dunning calls the "anosognosia of everyday life." I'd call it a metaphoric and metaphysical extension of that condition in which a person seems unaware of a neurological disability; he terms it a psychological version of a physiological problem, in which we don't know that we lack knowledge.  Basically the idea is that we're not very good at knowing what we don't know, and that this self-deception profoundly channels our lives. It's a problem of hubris (we see the world the way we want to see it), but also one of epistemology (what we see is strongly shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires). This wider, broader usage of anosognosia, to describe other types of denial than that triggered by a particular neurological deficit (such as an unacknowledged paralysis), makes it clear that what we call "belief" is not monolithic; it has many layers. I'm really REALLY captivated by this notion of "layered belief - the idea that some part of the brain can believe something and some other part of the brain can believe the opposite (or deny that belief)." In Ramachandran's account, different parts of the brain argue with one another:

"The left brain seeks to maintain continuity of belief, using denial, rationalization, confabulation and other tricks to keep one’s mental model of the world intact; the right brain, the 'anomaly detector' or 'devil’s advocate,' picks up on inconsistencies and challenges the left brain’s model in turn. When the right brain’s ability to detect anomalies and challenge the left is somehow damaged or lost (e.g., from a stroke), anosognosia results."

(Paul frequently tells a similar story, in which these roles are assumed, respectively, by the unconscious and the storyteller.) The larger claim of this series is that, even without a stroke, we are all always in the process of denying physical reality in order to preserve our fantasies of what the world (and our selves) are like.  Psychologists have long thought of this sort of denial as "a somewhat knuckle-headed technique in self-deception," a conscious refusal to recognize the truth of something we don't want to confront. But Morris's column explores the idea that such "cluelessness" is something much more profound: "another way of expressing our relationship to the unknown unknowns.  We don’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer them." Our ability to convince ourselves of "congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones" we can call "self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning."


So where does all this lead us? Well, it leads me, first, to some speculations about the relationship between these constraints in our knowledge-gathering and our earlier discussions of free will. To be bound not to free does that make us? It leads me, second, to the recognition that there is--and will always be--much that we don't know we don't know; to recognizing our resulting need for one another, in identifying those spaces of unknowingness; but also to recognizing that, since not knowing may be palliative, such conversations can also be very threatening to our sense of what the world is, and where we are in it. So there needs to be a certain gentleness in the process of uncovering....

Also: looks like there's a book forthcoming by the philosopher Charles Silver on “The Futility of Consciousness” that might be of interest-and-use to us....


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