The seductions of clarity

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 89:227-255 (2021)
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The feeling of clarity can be dangerously seductive. It is the feeling associated with understanding things. And we use that feeling, in the rough-and-tumble of daily life, as a signal that we have investigated a matter sufficiently. The sense of clarity functions as a thought-terminating heuristic. In that case, our use of clarity creates significant cognitive vulnerability, which hostile forces can try to exploit. If an epistemic manipulator can imbue a belief system with an exaggerated sense of clarity, then they can induce us to terminate our inquiries too early — before we spot the flaws in the system. How might the sense of clarity be faked? Let’s first consider the object of imitation: genuine understanding. Genuine understanding grants cognitive facility. When we understand something, we categorize its aspects more easily; we see more connections between its disparate elements; we can generate new explanations; and we can communicate our understanding. In order to encourage us to accept a system of thought, then, an epistemic manipulator will want the system to provide its users with an exaggerated sensation of cognitive facility. The system should provide its users with the feeling that they can easily and powerfully create categorizations, generate explanations, and communicate their understanding. And manipulators have a significant advantage in imbuing their systems with a pleasurable sense of clarity, since they are freed from the burdens of accuracy and reliability. I offer two case studies of seductively clear systems: conspiracy theories; and the standardized, quantified value systems of bureaucracies.

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C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah


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