Philosophy and the Illusion of Explanatory Depth


Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen?

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

That’s an excerpt from “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. Kolbert looks at this and other research on cognitive biases as a way of understanding our political predicament. What allows the illusion of explanatory depth to persist, she says, is our reliance on other people:

In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins…

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.

Sloman and Fernbach note that the fewer details about a problem a person’s familiar with, the more strongly held that person’s opinion about what to do in regards to that program will be. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.”

But once people become aware of how complicated something is, they moderate their views about it and seem to be more open to reason.

In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Confronting and working through the complicated details of an issue, Sloman and Fernbach say, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Isn’t this exactly what philosophy instruction is? We break down views and ideas into their various parts, looking at what supports them and what they support and what the alternatives are, all with the effect of showing that things that seemed simple and obvious are rather complicated and puzzling.

Have studies been done on whether confronting complications in a distinctly philosophical context leads people to “ratchet down the intensity” of their views, removing an obstacle to deliberation and cooperation on social and political matters? If not, sounds like a good project.

I know we like to think that philosophy has these salutary effects, but more than just anecdotal evidence would be nice.

Philosophy: shattering the illusion of explanatory depth since at least 470 BC.

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