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Blog

Odd Bedfellows: Bias and Belief

Joy and Matthew Steem

In Aids to Reflection (1), Coleridge often throws in the odd Latin word or phrase. Mostly, he offers an accessible and useful definition. Sometimes not though, and I like to be sure I am catching everything etymologically. One term that intrigued me especially was lene clinamen, so I did a looking myself.

Lene- the root meaning of leniency. It also has hints of characteristically being soft, mild, and soothing.

Clinamen = an inclination towards something, a swerve, or a bias.

Coleridge’s own descriptor of lene clinamen is “gentle bias.” And, in his commentary on aphorisms, he employs that word combo for the purpose of explaining the importance of a proper bias in truth seeking.

I was intrigued: generally, in truth seeking, bias isn’t considered something desirable. In the same commentary, he discusses the ability of the will to influence belief – either towards or away from its object. People, he says, “must believe in order to acquire a reason for their belief.” This sounds circular in a way; and yet there are other more recent thinkers who have written on the topic of will and its role in belief. A personal favorite is Michael Polanyi.

A little while later I heard professor and friend, facilitate a discussion on one of C.S Lewis’s essays, “The Funeral of a Great Myth.” What was timely for me was the central theme: it examined what role motivation had to do with belief (in whatever happens to be the topic: religion, human rights, free speech, etc.); i.e. why we want to believe certain things and will thus be more prone to adhere to that belief. So here is my question about the role of bias.

As a word junkie I hold the OED dear. I also like to share.

Motive

That which ‘moves’ or induces a person to act in a certain way; a desire, fear, or other emotion, or a consideration of reason, which influences or tends to influence a person's volition; also often applied to a contemplated result or object of a desire of which tends to influence volition.

Bias

- An inclination, leaning, tendency, bent; a preponderating disposition or propensity; predisposition towards; predilection; prejudice.

- A swaying influence, impulse, or weight; ‘any thing which turns a man (2) to a particular course, or gives the direction to his measures’

But back to will, believing, and the role of motivation and bias. Lately I have been trying to implement more self-reflexivity. And this question of “why do I want to believe such and such,” is often revealing. Why do I want to think such and such of God? Of some theological issue? Or cultural issue? Of some political issue? Of some taboo (and here I keep in mind that one culture’s taboo is another culture’s delight). Why do I want to like some author and not another? I am learning about myself through discovering the motivations and biases behind my preferences.

Take reading Chesterton for example – and please forgive me for bringing him up so often – and my wanting to read him. I like him for a number of reasons, but I also like it that he gloriously and bloodily bashes, bombastically!, money grubbers (read, non-scrupulous capitalists). This tickles me. I like it. It makes me feel good. But here again, why. What does else does this personal motivation/bias of mine reveal about corresponding problems? Recently I saw Richard Dawkins sporting a T-Shirt which said “Religion: together we can find a cure.” I laughed, and thought to myself, “you, buddy, have a bias. You want to believe that.” And then I was, like, … wait. What do I want to believe or disbelieve?

  1. I have a lovely paper version, but the best online and searchable version I have found is this.
  2. Can you believe that OED hasn’t changed this to “person” yet!?
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