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?