Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Rational by Indirect Means

Jonathan Haidt:

Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.

I agree with Harris that the historical shift away from revealed religion as the basis of society and toward democracy, individual rights, reason, and science as foundations of moral and political authority has been overwhelmingly good for people in Western societies. I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision.

I prefer to think about how cultural evolution has made our society more rational by indirect means. Social institutions (such as science, democracy, markets, and universities) evolve in ways that we often don’t understand, yet they can end up fostering better reasoning and better lives as an emergent property of a complex society. I prefer to follow thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott who espoused “epistemological modesty” and were skeptical of aggressive rationalism.

The rest of the article leaves something to be desired — the "certainty words" metric he uses seems a bit ridiculous to me, and I think we've already seen that Sam Harris left enough wiggle room in his Moral Landscape hypothesis to cover any change of mind he might have without having to admit to any such thing — but I agree with this part, at least.