Epistemic Arrogance

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
--Mark Twain

When someone makes a statement like "I'm too busy to do X" or "I don't have time to do X" what they're really saying "I've chosen to not make X a priority in my life."

Long time Casual Kitchen readers know this already. In fact, readers--especially those familiar with various other articles here on excuse-making--might go even further and say that these statements say even more: something along the lines of "I've chosen to not make X a priority in my life, and my ego wants to protect me from true responsibility for this choice, so it concocted an authoritative-sounding statement about my not having time."

Thus we can see this genre of excuse scripts for what it is: an interesting mix of virtue-signalling (I'm busy! I've got a lot going on!) and passivity (I don't have time so it's not my fault!) all rolled into one quick sentence.

Okay. Now, imagine if you were talking to someone and they made one of the following two scripts:

1) You know, I really should cook some of CK's laughably cheap and easy recipes, but I don't have time.

2) I ought to open up a brokerage account and start learning how to invest, but I'm just too busy.

Further, imagine that instead of smiling and nodding and changing the subject like a normal person, you went full autist on that person and actually told them what they were really saying:

"You know, when I hear that pitiful excuse for an excuse, I hear a interesting mixture of passivity and virtue-signalling. Your ego is getting off on feeling busy, while at the same time it disavows agency in making an important and helpful change in your life."

Assuming the person doesn't slap you, most likely they'd instantly disagree. They'd completely deny they were being passive, they'd deny they were disavowing their agency. And certainly they'd deny they were virtue-signalling. After all, nobody ever thinks they're virtue-signalling when they virtue-signal. It's circular like that.

In other words, people don't really understand their own minds, and they often don't understand the full meaning of what they're saying.

A quick tangent before I go any further. Yes, I know, it is possible for someone to literally not have time to do something. It's not always an excuse. Note, however, that the more fragile our egos are, the more desperately we want this to be true in our case! What's also deeply interesting about verbal scripts like these is how quickly and autonomically our brain spits them out, and how little we really know about the various implicit and explicit assumptions underlying those statements.

And now, finally, two-thirds of the way through this post, we get to the concept of epistemic arrogance.

We "know" we don't have time to do something. And yet by virtue of the way our ego structures this very statement, it cannot be true. Yet we really think we know! We declare it, we state it, and we vigorously defend against it if somebody questions it. We don't doubt ourselves for a second.

That is what epistemic arrogance is in a nutshell. It's knowing we know when we really don't know.

Now, wouldn't it be interesting to take the excuse scripts above and "un-know" them, and articulate the exact opposite instead? If only to see what it feels like?

1) I have time to cook some of CK's laughably cheap and easy recipes.
2) I am not too busy to open up a brokerage account and start learning how to invest.

Hmmmmm. Interesting.

Of course, these are epistemically arrogant statements too! You don't know that these statements are true either... that is, until you attempt them and succeed or fail. But note: there are substantial elements of self-fulfilling prophecy in both the negative statements and the affirmative statements, isn't there? Which makes it pretty obvious which sets of statements are worth stating, and which aren't.

READ NEXT: Expediency and Treadmill Effects


Melissa said...

This post is such a good example of why I have followed you for so long. Great stuff here!

Daniel said...

Thanks so much Melissa! Grateful to hear it.