Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Leap of Reason Produces Monsters

Razib Khan:

In my post below in regards to Sam Harris’ recent interactions on the web I reasserted by suspicion of reason. This naturally elicited curiosity, or hostility, from some. I’ve talked about this before, but the illustration to the left gets at my primary issue. When individuals are reasoning alone they often have a high degree of uncertainty as to their conclusions. But when individuals are reasoning together they seem to converge very rapidly and with great confidence upon a particular position. What’s going on here? In the second case it isn’t reason at all, but our natural human predisposition toward group conformity.

...This is not to say that reason and rationality are not without utility. These are humanity’s great cognitive jewels. But great tools can be used to various ends, and true reason and rationality are very difficult. Mathematics for example is undoubtedly true rationality, with crisp and precise inferences being derivable. But most other intellectual structures are not so clearly self-evident as mathematics. Verbal logic and reasoning are riddled with the pitfalls of cognitive bias. Because most people share the same systematic biases it is very difficult for groups of individuals engaging in self-reinforcing masturbatory ‘rationality’ discourses to perhaps step back and wonder about their motivated reasoning.

When people try to “reason” with those they disagree with it is rarely a matter of convincing them that 1 + 1 = 2, rather than 1 + 1 = -2. Rather, their arguments tend to be embedded in a complex chain of propositions, with unspoken assumptions. You, as the reasonable person have axioms which aren’t out on the table, and these axioms may not be shared by the person whom you are trying to convince. Additionally, the chain of propositions may not be quite so clear across the two individuals. The most extreme skepticism of reason comes from those who we might term as “post modernists,” but even though this extremism is folly we do need to keep in mind that skepticism of truth claims are often rooted in the genuine malleability of interpretation. If the heuristics & biases literature does not ring a bell with you, and you do not have Asperger, I strongly suspect you’ve been engaging in motivated reasoning without even reflecting upon it. The main issue I have with Sam Harris (and many self-described rationalists) is that I think they underestimate the herculean task which true rationalism really is. It may not even be possible to construct a mathematics of morality, and we certainly aren’t close. In everyday discourse, even the highest levels, it is passion which has reason on the leash. And I do not even see this as problematic necessarily, for reason is a tool toward particular ends, which passion may define.

Speaking of which, what's the progressive atheist community banging on about today?

Tear it all down.

They’ve built cages for themselves and their children, and have beliefs that harm others. I can see that they’re quivering in fear at the modernists, the liberals, the gays, the atheists, all coming to expose their ‘worldview’ for the rickety tissue of lies and hate that it is, and I say…no mercy. No hesitation. No apologies. Break it apart, and set those people free.

Pointing and laughing is just one step in the process of liberating those Christians trapped in their prison of lies. I can feel pity for them, while I let reality crash into their delusions and send them scurrying. They fear change, but they must change.

Snort. I wonder if he stands around practicing his best hand-in-coat Napoleon pose in preparation for that glorious day.

The contentious issue for me isn't over whether public school curricula should cater to evangelical sensibilities, obviously. It's the blithe way that ordinary opposition to such efforts shades into this kind of pomposity and bombast. Whether I agree with the general impulses or not, I have no patience with the useless, self-congratulatory theatrics, or the malignant snarkomas that riddle the insular discourse among the commentariat. Reassuring yourself that the enemy "must" change in the face of your inexorable laws of social progress, when the whole history of humankind suggests that ignorance is far more resilient and deep-rooted than that, does nothing but inflate your own self-importance, especially when performing for the rest of the in-group. Are you actually trying to write something challenging and enlightening, or are you just playing to the groundlings?


  1. The "passion which has freedom on the leash" most of all is insecurity (including fear of death), which is powerfully motivating; blinding, even. But some people who believe stupid things will be embarrassed by it being pointed out. I don't read PZ anymore, but he does that job. His bombast gets him attention. Maybe that's a good thing.
    People who use reason solely to justify their beliefs, rather than to increase their understanding of the world, are only hurting themselves by defending a limited model of reality. This tendency seems to afflict some of the smartest philosophers, as well as the simplest believers. My attitude is like, "Really? You're going to plant your flag on that hill when clearly the trail keeps going?". The problem is, the trail keeps going. And we're back to the subject of insecurity.

  2. The "passion which has reason on the leash..."! Wow. Is that a Freudian slip?

  3. Just as a Nietzsche fan, how could I not appreciate bombast? It can be a valid rhetorical tactic, if it's used to accentuate rather than to replace reasoning. But that's just it -- you have to be an extremely skilled stylist to be able to employ it judiciously. Sometimes a pinch will do; no need to always unscrew the lid and empty the entire jar.

    Plus, I think it's best leavened with a lot of humor. Mix it with self-righteousness, and you get absurd results like this. I realize he's not a professional writer, but as Matt Taibbi said about Thomas Friedman, sometimes language choices are highly revealing. When somebody metaphorically portrays school board politics along the lines of Napoleon spreading the ideals of the French Revolution at swordpoint, freeing people for their own good through destruction, it might indicate a troubling lack of intellectual subtlety.

    Bombast just too easily becomes a performance, a way of strengthening group identity at the expense of saying anything insightful. You act like a snide asshole every chance you get, then all your followers try to match you in order to fit in, you alienate those who don't care for the abrasiveness, which you interpret as weakness/cowardice on their part as well as further confirmation of your righteousness...

    I just find the psychological aspects of all this, the kind that Razib mentioned in those excerpts, much more interesting than the ideological stances.