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Articles, Commentaries, History, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Humility comes from realising that all understanding is biased

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, March 2017.

“The Present” is a strange concept. For one thing, it is really not possible to think of “The Present” without relying on images of “The Past” and imaginations of “The Future”. They are after all three sneaky sides of the same strange coin. (Yes, a coin has three sides).

Memories and expectations are always present at the very moment we see, hear, smell, taste or touch something. So when we look at our adult children, imprints of them as infants in our mind colour our emotions. When we hear the ominous sound of an approaching car, we draw quick and useful conclusions about it and we immediately decide what to do next.

We would not be able to perceive things functionally—and “functionally” is the operative notion here—if we are not able to draw on our past in order to handle the present and decide the future.

I find this immediate and intuitive “drawing on the past” fascinating. You wouldn’t able to read this sentence if you had not already read similar sentences filled with similar words arranged in a similar pattern many times before. You remember, you guestimate and you conclude, almost without effort.

It is this effortless “drawing on the past” within a present context in order to know how to act that is called thinking. This means that we understand situations, people and words based on notional tendencies developed over time in our own unique existence. We are necessarily biased, and we always act based on limited knowledge.

That is really not essentially a problem though. That is simply a truism. What is devious is the fact that we almost always do not see this to be the case. Instead, we almost always assume that our senses receive impulses that are both natural and neutral, which we then consciously process. We may agree that the computing process is prone to biases, but not the sensory data themselves. The latter we consider as being beyond doubt, because it is so genuine, so familiar and so immediate.

Let me illustrate what I want to say here by keeping to the example of the parent and the child. This is always a strong bond, and it goes in both directions. We all have parents, and many of us have children. It is obvious in these relationships that there is history involved and that the emotions run deep. We allow ourselves to be overtly biased in these cases, and we are assumed and allowed to be prejudiced as well.

That is one end of the scale of social relations. At the other end are interactions with people whom we have no ties to and who are merely fleeting images in our consciousness. There is thus a decisive, specific and unique history of events, emotions and meanings that informs and configures our relationship to a specific person, and this forms the basis and bias with which we understand and give meaning to the concept of that particular person.

We assume that the less history there is between subject and object, the more neutral the impression will be.

Now, let us return to the example of the approaching car, and apply what I have been saying to how we relate to any concept we have in our head. We understand what is happening as the vehicle zooms towards us, and we jump aside. Experience of similar situations comes into play immediately, providing us with the confidence that we need to act immediately.

What I am drawing attention to with these examples is that not only are relationships necessarily based on a historical bias and therefore that each is necessarily unique, our understanding of any concept is also necessarily learned through the unique experiences that make up our lives.

Often enough, we do admit that our reactions are stained by biases. The hard thing to do is to realise that all understanding is coloured that way. There are no neutral notions in any specific mind. Why we think there are is through continuous collective affirmation from our surroundings. This also means that biases are collectively sustained.

It follows that he more we rank collective understandings above the uniqueness of our individual experiences, the less we are able to realise our prejudiced state of being. Humility in its general existential sense, I believe, comes from realising that an understanding is a experientially and culturally conditioned state.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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