A Call to Reflection

(Last night, in the swirling waters of the hottúb, I had the opportunity to reflect for a while on reflection. Can there be anything more reflexive? No, indeed there can’t. I was thinking about the various processes of reflection that I’ve engaged in during my life, some more important and some less so, and it struck me that these times were always of immense value, though they were maybe attended (at the time) by strife, uncertainty, and even despair. I wanted, therefore, to define and recommend a life of reflection in an essay, which follows. But first, a disclaimer: to encourage certain types of detractors to read further, I need to say that I am not recommending a life solely consisting of reflection, of course–rather, I am recommending a life that appropriately integrates reflection, whatever “appropriate” means. I feel the need to write, not to settle what portion of life should be deliberation and what portion action, if these can even be meaningfully separated, but instead out of an observation that our culture certainly stifles reflection, and out of a desire to see that force balanced).

A Call to Reflection


First, let’s define reflection. What is it? I think it’s very simple; I’d define “reflection on/about X” as “purposive thought about X, particularly with regard to my own psychological, epistemological, and intentional relations to X“. In other words, thinking seriously and critically about X.

Second, it is widely recognized (following Quine) that all the (uncountable) beliefs that comprise our psychologies can be modeled as a huge interconnected web, with the more fundamental, tightly-held, worldview-level beliefs occupying the protected center of the web, and the less important, day-to-day beliefs occupying positions along the perimeter. It is these peripheral, maybe temporary beliefs, whether of my current sense experience, or of what I had for breakfast, etc., that border (from the perspective of my epistemology) most directly on extra-individual reality (reality outside of myself).

When I talk about reflection in what follows, I will be talking about it with reference to the more central, “core” aspects of our epistemologies. My observation is that these belief systems are often the ones we take the most for granted. We often find, as a result of this, people in our society whom we can observe to be perfectly “reflective” on peripheral beliefs and issues (perhaps political topics), but who have not, for whatever reason, engaged in any process of reflection regarding the cherished center of the web.

So far, I haven’t said anything about why I think reflection about these central nodes would be beneficial, or what side-effects such reflection might have. It will be my contention both that (a) serious and recurring reflection on these central beliefs is indeed valuable, while at the same time, (b) such reflection can come at a high cost. That the second contention is true should not be controversial–everyone has seen that a spider-web with damage at the periphery can be repaired quite easily by an industrious spider, but a web with destruction at its center is almost irreparable, and an entirely new web must be constructed. So it is with the web of belief–drastic central changes cause everything to be rebuilt, and this deconstruction/reconstruction is a vulnerable, time-consuming, and sometimes hopeless task. Thus the first of my two contentions becomes a contention indeed.

Before arguing the claim that reflection is valuable despite its cost, I want to put two enumerations forward which may be helpful. The first is a list of psychological attitudes one can have towards reflection on a given central issue. First, a person can be “unreflective” about X, meaning she has not thought about X as a distinct entity warranting reflection, or has assumed X to be so epistemologically sure that reflection is superfluous. Second, a person can be “reflective” about X if she satisfies the definition of reflection above with regard to X. Third, a person can be “anti-reflective” about X if she realizes reflection about X is possible, even warranted, but deliberately chooses not to engage in it. We could no doubt think of many examples of friends who fit into each of these categories. We could also name any number of reasons why a person would be anti-reflective, after realizing what a costly enterprise reflection is; cherished beliefs are exactly that–cherished! And to put our cherished things in harm’s way can cause extremely negative reactions. From this list we can generalize psychological or “personality” descriptors: some people tend to be unreflective, some people tend to be reflective, and some people tend to be anti-reflective, when it comes to their cherished beliefs. (Very few people are anti-reflective in all areas of inquiry, though most are unreflective in most areas of inquiry).

Second, there is now an obvious way to chop up a person’s web of belief. Some beliefs will be pre-reflective, that is, beliefs held but not yet seriously questioned. Some others will be in crisis, or under investigation–held, but perhaps tentatively, while a process of reflection goes on. At the end of the process, the beliefs might survive unchanged, or they might be modified, or they might be transported to a different part of the web, or connections between them and other beliefs might be redrawn. They might also be jettisoned completely. Beliefs that do survive we can label as “post-reflective”, that is, beliefs that have a tested relationship with the beliefs around them, all the way out to the periphery and beyond, to the extra-individual reality itself (the universe). I find it important to insist not just on self-coherence (the result of reflection on beliefs vis a vis other beliefs), but on integration with what we can discover of reality outside ourselves (the result of reflection on beliefs vis a vis nature, other people, traditions both familiar and unfamiliar, scientific facts and knowledge, and any other kind of knowledge we can gain on any stratum of reality). More will be said about this later.

So, what I want to contend is that (a) ceteris paribus, it is better to be a reflective person than an un- or anti-reflective person, and (b) ceteris paribus, it is better to have post-reflective beliefs than pre-reflective beliefs. In (b), this amounts to saying that it is better to have beliefs that have been willingly put in crisis and survived scrutiny than otherwise. The way the argument proceeds is simple:

  1. Ceteris paribus, it is better (though perhaps less profitable or “fit”) to believe a true statement than a false one.
  2. So, ceteris paribus, it is better to have as high a percentage of true beliefs as possible.
  3. The process of reflection is the process whereby we seriously question and attempt, as far as we can, to discern the likelihood that a certain set of beliefs is true or false.
  4. Therefore, it is better to be a reflective person, and to have a preponderance of post-reflective beliefs.

As you’d imagine, there are a number of places one could ask questions along the way, particularly about truth. What is truth? While it would be sheer lunacy to delve into such a question here, allow me to offer a simple answer without justification, trusting that its sensible nature will be clear, however many objections could be raised to it. Truth is, essentially, a relationship between statements and reality. Reality itself simply is. A rock, for instance, is neither true nor false. It is simply a rock. Truth and falsity are predicates of statements about reality. That the rock is a sandy brown, for instance can be true or false (once the philosophy of language questions have been answered regarding the semantics of “rock” and “brown”–another rabbit hole we cannot dive down at this time–but I take it that you know what I mean by “rock” and “brown”).

On my view, the statement is true if it accurately describes reality, and false otherwise. Such a view flies in the face of some philosophers who complain that we cannot simply “compare” statements about reality and reality itself, or that reality itself is completely inaccessible in any case. While their concerns are valid, I take it for granted that human experience as a whole (not least since the advent of rigorous science) belies the notion that we are completely closed off from reality. It may be difficult–it may be the most difficult human task in general–to really discern whether words and reality cohere, but I believe it can be done, even if imperfectly.

Even if we take the question of truth as settled, why should we believe that it is better to believe truly than falsely? We are often told by psychologists how false beliefs can function as mental crutches in a confused and dangerous world. Likewise, we can all think of examples where believing a lie leads, at least in the short term, to greater happiness (or evolutionary fitness). This is actually a hard question, but I think my definition of truth above informs this discussion helpfully. If truth is ultimately about reality, not about relationships between words and themselves, and if we are ultimately creatures which inhabit that same reality, then it will be the case that, on the whole, true beliefs help us successfully navigate reality, whereas false ones don’t. This amounts to saying that the psychologists may be right about certain psychological benefits of falsehoods, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The general case is quite obvious–without such a view of truth, modern science would fail miserably, and humans would disappear rapidly off the face of the earth. If I stand on the top of a building and believe that I can run off the edge and fly, I will discover, when that belief is put to the test, the dramatic difference between the success rates of truth and falsity in general.

There is no reason to suppose that the general usefulness of true beliefs is a feature only of our physical relationship to air and pavement. But curiously, normally quite rational people who would never for a moment consider jumping off a building engage in much the same practice with philosophical or religious beliefs about reality. In other words, we have all reflected, however briefly, about the importance of not jumping off buildings (if we want to continue in life). But few, it seems, have chosen to deeply understand the realities which supposedly undergird our philosophical and theological discourses. That is where I recommend reflection, and where I propose that serious reflection in these spheres can bring success in reality just as reflection on the flightless nature of humans can provide success in another part of that same reality.

So, I think we have established my main point, and it is not, in any case, often questioned by serious philosophers (if only because they wish to justify, after the fact, their having spent obscene amounts of time in perhaps-useless reflection). More must be said, however, to forestall a few conclusions that could be reached, given only what I have said so far.

First, a preponderance of true beliefs is not the be-all and end-all of psychological success. I have listed it here as a motivation for reflection, but it is not the only one, even if it is the one most-touted. An anti-reflective individual may happen to have a higher percentage of true beliefs than a reflective individual. While this could be so for any number of reasons, it is, in the limit, accidental (hence all the “ceteris paribus” clauses throughout this essay). But even in that case I would say that it is better to be the reflective person, and not just for the long-term truth benefits. I see a life typified by reflection as having moral and social dimensions as well.

While it is the case, for example, that reflection can lead to knowledge, in many of the areas most worthy of reflection, it may lead simply of an awareness of the vastness of the problem. Often our pre-reflective state is actually much simpler than our post-reflective one. In the process of reflection, we do not simply move from false assumptions to true answers. Rather, we are forced to engage with a reality that is incredibly complicated. We are forced to examine positions and ideas we had not before even considered existing. In many cases, what we find when we do examine those positions and ideas are yet further subdivisions, further choices to be made, and, as it often feels, further ways to be wrong. Reflection is rarely about moving from tightly-held, unjustified beliefs to tightly-held, justified beliefs. Rather, the awareness of the immensity of the scope of possible answers to a particular question breeds an awareness of the infinitesimal chance we have of being exactly right in anything we say, which therefore compels us to be tentative and cautious, to take reality seriously and to not be hasty in decisions about it. Answers are adopted loosely and their mileage is tested, and the experience of past reflections develops a character of inquisitiveness and tentativeness.

Now that I have spoken about character, you can see some of the non-truth-related benefits of reflection. To sum up its developmental benefits, I would say that reflection encourages humility. While the motivation for reflection is truth in the sphere of reflection, be it religious or otherwise, the result of reflection is typically the appreciation that truth is much harder to grasp than we originally thought. Prior to reflection, we come to reality brazenly, arrogantly, telling it how we think it is and assuming that it will respond thusly. After reflection, we realize that, vis a vis the infinitely complex reality of the universe and God, there is very little we can say. At that stage, having bowed respectfully to our partner, we can begin to cautiously build up theories and test them, perhaps (and hopefully) eventually coming to true knowledge. Any other method attempts to ravish reality for what we can strip from it to use for our own ends, which are usually (however subconsciously) abusive. This attitude is not only an intellectual but a moral failing. In short, echoing Proverbs, reflection gives us wisdom, and systematically avoiding it makes us fools.

(Briefly, I should also mention, without attempting to substantiate, a social benefit to reflection: I have observed, and it has been my personal experience, that it is more enjoyable to be around reflective people than anti-reflective people. The latter are often loud, brash, unwilling to compromise, and closed-minded. While these are all concepts unrelated to truth and falsity, they do have a sociological component that makes their carriers unpleasant.)

Anyway, at this stage in the essay the reader may be forgiven for feeling confusion. Further above, I praised reflection for delivering truth. Just above, I praised it for delivering an awareness that truth is well-nigh inaccessible! Which is it? I think both are important for reasons already mentioned, and I think holding both together is the key to engaging in reflection successfully. It should be remembered, incidentally, that knowing what is not true is often as valuable as knowing what is. If the result of reflection for an individual is merely the discovery that a certain set of beliefs is false, well, she has eradicated those beliefs from her web, and added a true belief (the negation of the old ones), thereby causing a net increase in her percentage of true beliefs. So perhaps the conflict isn’t as grave as it looks. Moreover, we have been talking all along as if it is possible for us to know when our beliefs are true. While this knowledge is often possible, it is often not, and so the situation “on the ground” may not be as clear cut as we have made it.

Essentially, holding these two aspects of reflection together is where the “critical realist” viewpoint of this essay becomes clear. The modernist, Enlightenment mentality would suggest that reflection is a straightforward process of doubting all non-“rational” beliefs, and then building the belief web back using only “rational” beliefs. Of course, such a project is not only arrogant but untenable (“reason” turns out to be a moving target). On the other hand, the post-modern mentality would suggest that the purpose of reflection is to realize that nothing true at all can be said about anything, or equivalently that the way I have defined truth is wrong (perhaps sentences carry their own truth).

Over against both of these, I want to recommend a process of reflection whereby we acknowledge the over-simplicity of our pre-reflective beliefs, but interact courageously and respectfully with reality to, as best we can, find out what really is the case. This process will not be easy or obvious, and it will involve many dead-ends, getting lost in circles, and reversals of program. But, after slogging through the morass, we will find after an appropriate amount of time and honest effort that we have actually gone somewhere, even if the net gain is only a few feet forward.

Lastly, I want to suggest that good reflection consists of at least two important stages, namely deconstruction and reconstruction. Deconstruction is the process whereby beliefs are doubted and dismantled, and reconstruction is the process whereby new beliefs (or even the same ones) are developed from the debris, albeit always in a critical manner. Deconstruction, then, is what encourages the humility and respect for reality I mentioned. Reconstruction is the ensuing dance with reality whereby we cautiously build up beliefs, consistently testing them and using only the strongest available materials we have on hand.

Neither of these processes are perfect. We rarely deconstruct wholesale, because of the psychological wounds it leaves. A ship (Neurath’s ship, it’s called, after the philosopher who coined the analogy) traveling on the sea in need of repair can indeed be repaired–but it cannot be re-built from the ground up while on the waves, or it would sink. Likewise, during reconstruction we often have to use imperfect materials–whatever reality has laying about. But we should not, just for that reason, despair of reconstructing at all, because if we leave off this task, a slow leak in the ship’s side will cause the whole thing to sink after a while, anyway. Eventually, judgement calls must be made, or the whole enterprise founders! The goal, then, is an ongoing process of deconstruction and reconstruction based on the best available bits of reality. If the ship can survive long enough, perhaps it can make it to land and harvest new timber!

All of the foregoing means, of course, that two people reflecting on the same questions, even if in largely similar environments, might come to differ on certain points. This is an unfortunate, but unavoidable, consequence of the “critical” nature of “critical realism”. Ultimately, only reality itself is the arbiter between two different answers, and given that we do not have immediate and direct access to reality (as in naive realism), we are not guaranteed that such arbitration is shortly forthcoming. This does not mean that all answers to all questions are equal, only that in some cases, if two competing answers both adequately and excellently explain certain features of reality, we may not be able to decide between them on their own merits. In such a case we can zoom out to a wider network of beliefs in which each answer resides, and perhaps put these wider networks to the test. (And even there, we could run into a similar problem). The hope is that as our respectful engagement with reality proceeds, new material will come to light that will arbitrate helpfully. Such has been the founding hope of the sciences, and many examples could be given of how the hope is constantly fulfilled (the discovery of cosmic background radiation, for example, helped to arbitrate between Big Bang theories and their competitors).

So, there is an exhortation to a life of reflection! It can be a frightening proposition to take a cherished belief (say the resurrection of Jesus for a Christian, or the non-existence of God for an atheist) and really hold it up to the mirror of reality, but ultimately there can be no better exercise. Granted, the boat of our psychology must stay afloat to sustain this reflection in the first place (and therefore it may not be wise to completely sink it with undue skepticism). Still, if we choose to avoid it, we are denying ourselves that growth (intellectual, psychological, spiritual) which gives us such benefits as knowledge, wisdom and humility. Therefore out of love for your cherished beliefs, submit them to reality and decide whether they really are worthy of your admiration.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

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