Rose-tinted Glasses

“Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions (perceptions) without concepts are blind”

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

In ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’, Prussian German philosopher, Immanuel Kant outlined his theory of perception. He propounded that our understanding of the external world has its foundations not merely in experience, but in both experience and a priori concepts (reasoning that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation). In a nutshell, he said that the external world provides things that we sense. Our mind processes this information and gives it structure, enabling our comprehension; in part, because space and time are pre-conditions of the mind. Therefore, in what he called the “transcendental unity of apperception”, “the concepts of the mind (understanding) and perceptions or intuitions that garner information from phenomena (sensibility) are synthesized by comprehension”.

He maintained that without this synthesis of understanding and sensibility the world is quite unintelligible. Which is to say that abstractions without perceptions are nondescript; perceptions without abstractions are featureless and unrelatable.

In a Kantian sense, our understanding of objective reality is tinted by our intuition. There’s no way of separating objectivity – the external world – and subjectivity – the internal world. Both are dependent upon one another. Because awareness of the external necessitates the internal. And so, in simple terms, perception of our surroundings is akin to wearing green-tinted glasses. All our experiences are filtered through them. We therefore can’t reliably conceive of an outside world that’s truly independent of the way we perceive it, just as someone who unknowingly wears green-tinted glasses would not be able to conceive of a non-green colour. The thought would be alien to them.

The summation of Kant’s ideas on perception can be found in his doctrine of transcendental idealism. He said that space, time and causation are mere sensibilities. Unlike George Berkeley’s subjective idealism, Kant’s theory maintains that the external world ‘does’ exist, but that its objective nature is unknowable.

Kant’s transcendental idealism concerns metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that examines first principles and the nature of reality). But we can surely apply much of his ideas on perception to how we process information in a more practical sense. In terms of personal preference and bias.

It seems all humans crave certainty – our unconscious abhors message incongruity. When a message is not internally consistent or does not fit surrounding information, a clash occurs. This clash can cause psychological discomfort. We will instinctively try to remove this discomfort by either eliminating dissonant thoughts or by incorporating them into our current belief system. Psychologists call this process ‘cognitive dissonance’. In other words, a mind with disunity of thought is a mind at war with itself. Sooner or later one side wins and imposes its tyranny.

Similarly, if a new message does not match preconceptions it will hit a defensive wall of incredulity. But if it does, it will be let through the gate of credulity. Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias’, which is one example of ‘cognitive bias’.

All of us are prone to bias of every shade. We’re all guilty of having our opinions colour and shape our thoughts to such an extent that what we wish to see can hardly be differentiated from what we end up seeing. So, in some ways, the green-tinted glasses metaphor, which clarifies the Kantian position on perception and the interplay between understanding and sensibility in a metaphysical sense, can equally be applied to all of us in a cognitive sense.

Our mind can be rather like a cookie cutter tray making the same shapes and designs. These tried and tested cognitive patterns have the allure of being able to be used in every circumstance, which has the effect of whittling the vastness of the world down to a more manageable size.

In fact, I’m quite sure life would be unnavigable without an inner compass pointing to our north star. It gives us certainty which cultivates action, whereas uncertainty cultivates inertia. The problem, however, is that reasoning requires inertia, and action negates reasoning. This paradox has been the bane of the human experience; for while the wise tend to be full of doubts, the foolish tend to be full of conviction.

Perhaps there are none more foolish than those who are locked up in the prison of ideology. In the cognitive sense, this is the ultimate manifestation of Kant’s green-tinted glasses. A one-stop shop for every problem, every situation. Ideologies feel good because they are familiar to us; they appeal to sentiment, not reflection. A kind of turbo-charged certainty fuelling a basic psychological need.

One method to unravel ideological thinking or extreme bias is to use somebody’s own argument against them. Because often every reason articulated to discredit an opponent’s position is one that will discredit their own. Essentially, an intellectual boomerang. Such as accusing somebody of indulging in conspiracy theories before proceeding to indulge in a conspiracy theory. Or saying, for instance, that women are exactly the same as men, but then insinuating, by effectively invoking special status for women, through the support for some diversity quota, that they’re different.

Thus, the ideological will naturally protect their ideas with huge impenetrable fortresses of doublethink (self-contradictory positions). Only that by some accident of arrangement the fortresses’ pieces of artillery are almost always set up with the tails pointing at their adversaries and the mouths pointing at themselves. This is most unfortunate because the most ideological are always the most defensive, and the greatest line of defence, of course, is to attack. Commonly, therefore, attacks are projecting and self-deceiving. Such as accusing somebody of being hateful while screaming at them. Or accusing them of being science deniers but maintain a position, on other fronts, that denies basic human biology.

To be ideological is to think in a general way, wanting to tackle complex social and economic issues with a broad sweep of the brush, rarely going to the trouble of being specific. This is because specificity requires a high degree of cognition, whereas ideology allows you to remain in that state when you are not thinking of anything and yet your thoughts come into your head by themselves, each more pleasantly self-affirming than the last, without even causing you the trouble of chasing after and finding them. In other words, ideology not only provides us with the comfort of certainty, but also laziness.

To find faults with ideological thinking, therefore, it is not so much through the Critique of Pure Reason, but merely through a critique of poor reasoning.

This is by no means to point fingers and declare myself immune. On the contrary, to a lesser or greater extent, we are all ideological. We all wear Kantian tinted glasses. Because what we see and hear are always pre-conditions of our mind. That’s how we make sense of the world. And of course, to make any kind of sense of it we must be confident in our own ability to do so.

Certainly, confidence is at the heart of it. As is optimism – ideologies invariably offer the reward of idealism. To metaphorize appropriately, then, we should say that we wear rose-tinted glasses. For often we are pretending to know a lot about things we really don’t know enough about, believing that to blindly follow these ideas it will lead to a future more advantageous than the present.

Whether everything is tinted in red, green or blue, or every hue in between, we can only begin to dim this tint by challenging and testing our own opinions at least as much as we challenge viewpoints which are at variance with them. This is the only antidote to ideological thinking that I know of.

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