Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's Not Reason That Chooses to Live

Razib Khan:

For a rationalist, no practice is beyond examination and de­com­position. All are subject to critique. On this view, history, custom, and tradition hold no great weight; the past is mere prologue, not an informative precursor. This is why rationalists assume that they can model and create social arrangements, even whole societies, anew. In the rational vision, the basis of human flourishing is thin, insofar as a few principles serve as the foundations for human happiness. Because of this paucity of principles, the human mind is flexible and powerful enough to comprehend them all and refashion the basic elements so as to optimize them. In other words, a mathematics of politics is feasible.

The empiricist sees things differently. Human affairs are complex, contingent, and difficult to tease apart in their interrelationships. The empiricist is fundamentally an incrementalist, not averse to change on principle but cautious of overturning practices and customs that have served society and individuals in good stead. In many ways the empiricist may seem irrational. The utilitarians of ancient China mocked the Confucians for their devotion to the arts. After all, what use were those in the face of human misery? But today modern anthropologists and psychologists have made functional arguments for the importance of artistic expression in maintaining social cohesion and serving as focal points for collective unity. Music and dance in particular can bring people together. Confucius and his fellow travelers did not defend these practices on scientific grounds; they did not have modern science. Rather, they argued that the old ways were to be revered because they had worked since time immemorial.

This may be unthinking, but social empiricism is unthinking in the same way that natural selection is unthinking. It is an iterative process that sifts optimal solutions by trial and error and maintains previous patches along the way. It is never “perfect,” but it lives to see another day. More prosaically, it manifests in the banal behaviors we take for granted. When we wake up in the morning we brush our teeth, not because we reiterate to ourselves the reason that brushing our teeth is important but because it is part of our routine. This routine is not without ultimate reason, but that rationale has become absorbed into the fabric of communal wisdom, which now maintains it as a matter of habit.

This is along the same lines as what I was trying to get at here.