The Seductions of Clarity

~ essay on a contemporary philosophy paper by C. Thi Nguyen {https://objectionable.net/} on {false} clarity, conspiracy theories and bureaucratic quantifications, and the seductiveness of such systems of thought in the modern world.

https://twitter.com/add_hawk/status/1397978565619027969?s=20

Quite randomly, I came across this twitter thread yesterday, by the author of a paper with an intriguing — dare I say, seductive — title. “The Seductions of Clarity”, by a philosophy professor from the University of Utah, C. Thi Nguyen.

Now, reading contemporary philosophical research papers is not something I normally do in my free time. But reading the abstract — about our inherent cognitive limitations as human beings, and how there is a real philosophical and sociological phenomena underlying such falsely ‘clarifying’ systems of thought, which may help explain the meteoric rise of oversimplified conspiracy theories and consent-manufacturing governmental, academic, corporatocratic bureaucracies… well, it definitely struck a chord with me. Such things have become a point of interest for me, in media and politics, in understanding online life, fervent conspiracies and the undying, reactionary allegiances of so many of my fellow Men to what can only be called either tyranny or stupidity. Mr. Nguyen was kind enough to provide a free link to the full content of his 38-page paper at the end of his summary thread, and read it I did. I highly recommend it.

Free link: https://philpapers.org/go.pl?id=NGUTSO-2&aid=NGUTSO-2v1

Cambridge University Press link: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements/article/abs/seductions-of-clarity/5995DF2E11077CA54ED453A248E5A729

In a short format, and in layman’s terms, I wanted to write a little about the paper, its points and findings, which I found to be… clarifying. *insufferable light chuckling*

Clarity is pleasure {Nuance is pain}

So much of the modern world — its media and mediums of discourse — is about speed. With so many streams of information, it has become this way out of necessity, I think. We live in an advanced world, full of complex knowledge and its requisite challenges. There is so much to learn, so much to understand, so much to become clear about. We strive for clarity not just for our career, to become economically apt, or for our personality, to become romantically viable, or for political choices — but unto our existential place in the world. We seek to make full sense of the world around us in order to be OK, to derive meaning from our life’s struggle.

Namely, as Nguyen lays out, we seek clarity so that we can stop having to think. “The sense of clarity functions as a thought-terminating heuristic.” Achieving clarity means we can move on to more actionable and enjoyable modes of life, away from challenging critical reflections and energy-sapping cognitive dissonance.

“A sense of confusion is a signal that we need to think more. But when things feel clear to us, we are satisfied.”

This is the principal issue within Nguyen’s paper — clarity. Not the perfect guarantee of knowledge, the ‘Cartesian’ clarity as he puts it, but the “sense” of being clear about something. It is about intuition and not necessarily knowledge. For example, the undergirding foundations of our political beliefs or what makes one a good teacher at a University. People of a certain age or profession tend to have a pretty clear picture of why they believe what they believe, or why someone should excel within an organization. They stake their ground upon their chosen worldview or ideal, and often — that is the end of their thinking on the matter. This clarity comes from within, in response to their environment, the people influencing them and the media they consume — and it may be unique to each and every individual. It may be based more on subjective feelings than objective facts; there may not be much in the way of clarifying facts on the matter at all. But to many, at some point their worldview or opinion becomes clear, and from there, it dictates thoughts and behaviors.

Clarity, as Nguyen lays out — no matter to the subject or stakes of its procession — is an incredibly pleasurable, empowering, and even cathartic, experience. Clarity means, in some small regard, your life amidst the world is now explained. Clearness provides security, a foundation to survive upon and build a life from. You can move forward with such understanding in hand. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s evolutionary. But it becomes important to realize that our feeling of clarity is not the same as understanding. A true understanding, objectively speaking {perhaps forever out of reach! For many of us on many subjects}, often requires more work than we are willing to put in. Or have time for. Yet we can experience the pleasure of understanding via a sense of clarity, long before we have any real clarity. Thus, this paradox of clarity’s core psychological game plays out.

Clarity is pleasurable + Simplification accelerates our sense of clarity = We adopt more simplified worldviews, with less knowledge and less understanding.

In this way, clarity is pleasure and embracing nuance is pain; as human beings, we more readily adopt fast and easy answers in place of the complex, unjustified, and perhaps unanswerable nuances of our reality. It is only natural that few have the time or conviction to seek out the roots of any given problem needing its fuller, invested understanding. {Hell, the world is too complex for any one man to truly understand much of anything…}

In all, this means we are more easily manipulated by people and institutions.

Conspiracies are fun — and communicable

“Let me be clear: the present inquiry is not a study in ideal rationality, nor is it a study of epistemic vice and carelessness. It is a study in the vulnerabilities of limited, constrained cognitive agents, and how environmental features might exploit those vulnerabilities. It is a foray into what we might call hostile epistemology. Hostile epistemology includes the intentional efforts of epistemic manipulators, working to exploit those vulnerabilities to their own ends. We might call the study of these intentional epistemic hostilities combat epistemology. Hostile epistemology also includes the study of environmental features which present a danger to those vulnerabilities, made without hostile epistemic intent. Hostile environments, after all, don’t always arise from hostile intent. Hostile environments include intentionally placed minefields, but also crumbling ruins, the deep sea, and Mars. An epistemically hostile environment contains features which, whether by accident, evolution, or design, attack our vulnerabilities.”

In effect, the modern world — of panoptic media influence from state and private enterprise, for the sake of everpresent control and consumption — has most certainly become a hostile environ. Thusly, conspiracy theories feast upon our vulnerabilities with cartoonish depictions of [us/them] x (good/evil) dichotomies, with the listener as an awaiting knight of justice able to enter the fray any time and any place {The Illuminati, QAnon, aliens and lizards, etc.}

Their manipulations work not just because we are vulnerable to such simplifying, satisfying answers due to our environment — but because conspiracy theories are fun, and fun to talk about. {For some, at least..} They are dramatic and existential — and imaginative, i.e. fictional — yet clear enough to be communicable. They provide a narrative for proponents to communicate — and inevitably, expand upon as well {might conspiracy thinking be the last bastion of creative control many modern American citizens have in their lives? Might that explain some of its power? After all, what is more human than the desire to be creative? and what is more rare in the average career, modern way of life…}

Nguyen explains why this gives the modern conspiracy, despite its absurdity, a competitive advantage within the hallowed halls of “the marketplace of ideas”:

…the moment when we come to understand often has a particular feel to it — what some philosophers have called the “a-ha!” moment. The moment when we come to understand, says Alison Gopnik, is something like an intellectual orgasm (Gopnik, 1998). And, as John Kvanvig suggests, it is our internal sense of understanding — our sense of “a-ha!” and “Eureka!” — that provides a sense of closure to an investigation (Kvanvig, 2011, 88). The “a-ha” feeling is both pleasurable and indicates that a matter has been investigated enough. If, then, hostile forces can learn to simulate that “a-ha” feeling, then they will have a very powerful weapon for epistemic manipulation.

~

“But our [the manipulator’s] most significant advantage is that we are unburdened by the constraints of truth in engineering our extra-tasty system of thought. Epistemically sincere systems — that is, systems of thought generated for the sake of real knowledge and genuine understanding — are heavily constrained by their allegiance to getting things right. We manipulators are unbound by any such obligations. We are free to tweak our system to maximize its appealing clarity. This is similar, in a way, to how unhealthy restaurants are free to appeal more directly to our sense of deliciousness, because they are freed from considerations of health.”

“We manipulators, then, can optimize our system to offer the sense of easily made connection and explanations. We can build a cartoon of understanding. And that cartoon will have a competitive advantage in the cognitive marketplace. It can be engineered for the sake of pleasure, and it will carry with it a signal that inquiry is finished, and that we should look elsewhere.”

Sum: It is easy to make delicious dishes when you don’t care about nutrition — just the same, it is easy to craft seductive ideas when you don’t care about the truth. Deliciousness overrules nutrition just as clarity overrules the truth.

The postmodern condition always implied a menu of disparate realities for the modern man to consume from. Not only the individualistic — “you can be anyone”, but also the conspiratorial — “anything you believe is true.” And today, amidst the undemocratic governance, economic austerities, and extinction-provoking nihilisms of late-capitalism handed down from on high to a powerless population — can we really blame anyone for choosing the most entertaining reality to adopt into their life? {Answer: yes, we still can. Conspiracy theories are oppressive and can/have lead to atrocity.}

“Quantity over Quality” standardized, consent manufactured

For the prime example of bureaucratic clarity-seduction and contradictory incentives, Nguyen brings in his own personal experience — that of the evaluation of university professors. “Educational Learning Outcomes” {ELOs}, from end-of-semester assessments and along the lines of critical thinking, writing, mathematical reasoning and moral reflection, become the master values of his worth as an educator to his superiors. Rated on a numerical scale, they serve the purpose of unifying an understanding of what is going on in the university system’s various classrooms, applying a common institutional value for the sake of minute comparison and generalized appraisal both.

“Seductively clear systems mask the fact that we should, in fact, be confused, and should be pressing on with our inquiries.”

In these ways, Nguyen discusses how universities, much like governments and corporations in recent decades, have increasingly adopted quantification as the prime methodology of their own mission’s self-evaluation. Their investment choices then stem from there and perpetuate a standardization process. He explains that quantity over quality comes due to the need for simplification, and from our “cognitive ease” of understanding numbers better than words. Quantities, or numbers, are more convincing and actionable than qualities, because of their presentation and portability — numbers, charts and graphs are easy to see, communicate to audiences, and begin to understand. Qualitative ways of knowing, on the other hand, not so much:

“Qualitative ways of knowing, he says, are typically nuanced, sensitive, and rich in contextual detail, but they are not portable or aggregatable. When we transition from qualitative to quantitative ways of knowing, we strip out much of the nuance and many of the contextual details. In return for this loss of informational richness, we get to express our knowledge in neat packages: in the form of numbers, whose meanings are portable, and which can be easily aggregated with other numerical results.”

“A particular quantification can get an excess grip on our reasoning, even in contexts when it is less appropriate, by presenting an appealing sense of clarity. And we will fail to investigate whether this quantified metric is the most appropriate form of evaluation to use, precisely because its clarity terminates our investigations into its appropriateness.”

For institutions with standardized methodologies such as this, always designed to better handle and evaluate their own growing complexity, their quantified indicators are not always reflective of reality. Or morality. They can end up as “gamifying” or oppressive simplifications. What they highlight as valuable or effective may not always be so {GPAs and citations as the best indicators of good education}; additionally, the incentives proffered by their focus from the authority figure can create wayward incentives {such as a teacher being conditioned to teach to the test and not for their students’ absorption of knowledge, development of critical thinking skills, etc.} This is, of course, because education, just like reality, is nuanced.

We all know many different things make for a good teacher. But when the principal outcome of a university is career placement / citation-gathering / {profit}… then it makes sense that what is considered a ‘good’ education, or what makes up a good teacher performance, may warp over time.

The institutionalization and standardization of these mores into universities, corporations, governments, the media, can serve to not only seduce a clarifying security {ignorance} into being — but also an ideological agenda along with it. Nguyen lays out the conception of ‘false clarity’ as a tool — an invisibility cloak — for preferred systems of thought {ala Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent}:

“If a hostile force could ape such clarity, then they would have a potent tool for getting us to accept their preferred systems of thought. This is because false clarity would provide an excellent cover for intellectual malfeasance. A sense of clarity could bring us to terminate our inquiry into something before we could discover its flaws. It would be something like an invisibility cloak — one that works by manipulating our attention. Our attention, after all, is narrow. We barely notice what‘s outside the focused spotlight of our attention. We can make something effectively disappear simply by directing their attention elsewhere. One way to make something cognitively invisible, then, is by making it signal unimportance.”

In the vein of ‘combat epistemology’, manipulators not only determine what is standard or right, but work to control what one even pays attention to {i.e. not just controlling the presentation of worldly events, but what makes the news}. Manipulators also preempt confrontation from opposing ideals by calling out their opponent’s corruption and the countervailing agendas ‘designed to silence them’ {e.g. Fox News}. Once more, with questions in the ambiguity of the moral domain, there is no clear way to disprove the manipulator’s claim or criticize their position, outside of appeals to emotion {“We should help poor people… because it is the right thing to do!”} The effective manipulator already controls the emotional field of view for their constituents; their ideology has already absorbed and disseminated a different sort of virtue within the conspiracy or the policy position {“People just need more personal responsibility!” / “Taxation is theft!” / “Unions are communism!” / “The __ control everything!” / “__ are evil and do not deserve our help.”}

The world a manipulator sells is clear and convenient, safe and especially designed for YOU. {what does America sell harder than: Everything outside of *you* is extraneous anyway…} In a society/culture/human mind structured in this way, anything outside of you — as a neoliberal consumer subject in 2021 — anything outside of the norms established from the top {from the ruling class} is necessarily suspect. Or in Nguyen’s words: “epistemically oppressed.”

“Some epistemic domains have obvious litmus tests. It is easy to check for mistaken reasoning in them because successes and failures are obvious to any onlooker. For example, we can tell that our theory of bridge-building has gone wrong if our new bridges keep falling down. But other epistemic domains have no such easy litmus tests — like the moral and aesthetic domains. If one’s reasoning has been systematically subverted in such a subtle domain, there is no obvious error result that could function as a check.”

“Some empirical claims cannot be straightforwardly checked by the layperson, such as scientific arguments for climate change or sociological claims how oppression perpetuates. If the manipulators’ targets have been given a seductively clear explanation which dismisses, say, sociologists and climate change scientists as corrupt, those explanations will be quite hard to dislodge. Most targets will be unable to see that they have been led astray, and so won’t update their heuristics (Nguyen 2018b; Nguyen 2018c).”

“Bureaucratic and institutionalized language can enable a particular kind of epistemic oppression. Ideas that can be easily expressed in the institutional language are readily entered into the shared knowledge base. But the standardization of language puts a special oppressive power in the hands of whoever creates the standardization. Once the standardization is in place and widely accepted, anybody who uses it will demonstrate cognitive facility and demonstrate communicative facility. They will seem clear precisely because they are using language for which a system of reception has been pre-prepared. … Those whose ideas don’t fit comfortably into the regularized institutional language are at a significant disadvantage in participating in the production and dissemination of knowledge.”

~

Ultimately, Nguyen’s paper makes it crystal clear:

We fall victim to the seductions of conspiracies and bureaucratic falsehoods or simplifications because we are ever seeking clarity. And we seek clarity in order to end the arduous, annoying, altogether challenging process of thinking, so we may move on to more pleasurable action and experience and life. Clarity gives us pleasure because it leads right to it. Quantity supersedes quality and morality is oft forgot within our worldview because both require nuance to work within to try to understand, and thus, pain.

Regarding a perspective shift and a potential solution to our cognitive biases, Nguyen ends his work with an apt comparison to our diet:

“How do we resist the seductions of clarity? One possible defensive strategy is to develop new counter-heuristics, designed to sniff out the seductive manipulation of our original heuristics. Here’s a rough analogy: a certain kind of culinary yumminess was once a decent heuristic for nutritious eating. But our nutritive environment changed, especially when various corporate forces figured out our heuristics and tendencies and started to aggressively game them. In response, we have had to adapt our heuristics. We have needed to become suspicious of too much yumminess. Many of us have already trained ourselves to notice when things are just a little too delicious. The crunchy, sweet, salty stuff that hits us just so — we have learned to taste in them the engineer’s manipulative touch. We have developed an intuitive feel for designed craveability. This is a counter-heuristic, designed to trigger in response to signals that outside forces are trying to manipulate our more primitive heuristics. Sweetness, crunchiness, saltiness — our counter-heuristic makes us immediately suspicious when we find these in plenty.

“In fighting the seductions of clarity, we need to develop new counter-heuristics in a similar key. The sense of clarity is something like cognitive sugar. Once upon a time, using our sense of clarity as a signal to terminate our inquiries might have been a good and useful heuristic. But now we live in an environment where we are surrounded by seductive clarity, much of it designed to exploit our heuristics. We now need to train ourselves to become suspicious of ideas and systems that go down just a little too sweetly — that are pleasurable and effortless and explain everything so wonderfully. Systems of thought that feel too clear should make us step up our investigative efforts instead of ending them. We need to learn to recognize, by feel, the seductions of clarity.”

So: Clarity is like sugar, and therefore bad for us. Yes. Well, to be clear — the sugar sourced from our overlording corporate x state media enterprises designed to fool us into forever blithely consuming all their stupid bullshit. Sugar from those with something to sell us. Sugar offered in bad faith. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the “clarity” they offer us is usually pure bunk.

My own perspective is that we should be more comfortable with uncertainty. We should be able to live within the nuance, and act on principles if we cannot trust the ‘facts’ delivered to us. Life is ever-changing, much will remain unclear. It is up to us as responsible adults and citizens to think critically, and for ourselves — no matter to the pain. ~

Think America, Think! From the halls of power, control and coercion always come before truth!

Bibliography:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements/article/abs/seductions-of-clarity/5995DF2E11077CA54ED453A248E5A729