...in which the author studiously avoids the term “scientism.”
Epistemic and instrumental rationality is a breath of fresh air into conversations about... well, virtually anything. The news says that cell phones may cause brain cancer. Cue panic and hand-wringing among your friends and co-workers. But you ask yourself: (a) what is the evidence for this causal relation? (b) Assuming it is real, what is the actual level of risk? (c) Is the risk worth accepting, given all the benefits you get from cell phones? Most likely, after this analysis you keep on using your cell phone, without being much more concerned than you were before.
This is the kind of thinking that makes me love the rationalist/skeptic/analytic philosophical tradition and the people one finds in it.
To be honest, it has grown difficult for me to enjoy non-fictional (or even fictional) material that is not authored by rationalists of some description. Although I’m well aware of the problem of groupthink, it can sometimes be simply too painful to read anything else. Political discussion, in particular, which I used to find engaging, I now find infuriating — especially when it comes from people who agree with me. They usually agree for all the wrong reasons, dammit!
But because my preferences have narrowed somewhat, I am getting pickier about what I find in “our” tradition as well, and the mistakes one finds in rationalist thought tend to... recur, a lot. Sometimes this is because of the personality types drawn to rationality. Sometimes this is because of the political clusters that identify with rationality. Sometimes this is a simple matter of bad ideas spoken by other rationalists that have taken hold. Sometimes this is a result of what one might call domain-chauvinism, in which someone understands a particular field reasonably well but discounts everything outside of it as worthless. In this post I attempt to point out a few of the vices of thinking that the rationalist tradition is prone to. I do this because I want to make that tradition improve further, not because I think some other tradition is better. Indeed, it is often true that other traditions suffer more from these vices or at least just as much.
Vice #1: Philosophical Unreflectiveness
(pause for readers to roll eyes)
One popular story about the origin of morality told by skeptics and atheists goes something like this:
“In our prehistoric past, different groups competed for resources. Groups in which individuals helped each other out survived better than groups in which individuals cared only for themselves.”
Well, there is a problem with this account. A non-cooperative individual in a cooperative group still reaps the benefits of the group’s cooperativeness, and so non-cooperative genes increase in frequency. A more sophisticated story, then, would go something like this:
“In our prehistoric past, most people you met would be either kin, or people in a position to reciprocate your help to them later. Because helping kin increases inclusive genetic fitness, and because helping people who will later help you and your kin increases genetic fitness, these dispositions became established in the population. The strangers we currently meet are not necessarily likely to reciprocate, but we do it anyway because our programming has not been updated since our evolutionary past.”
Now, this story may actually be correct. I have heard famous evolutionary biologists put it forward seriously as a possibility, and it seems quite plausible to me, though I am no expert in evolutionary biology. Something in this ballpark may be correct as at least a partial explanation for human moral behavior.
The mistake I wish to highlight lies in thinking that once you have told this causal story of how morality arose in Homo sapiens, you have answered every interesting question about morality.
There are at least two other relevant questions here that still have to be answered. For one thing, this account is descriptive, whereas morality is generally supposed to be normative. Where does the normativity come in, if anywhere?
Suppose you have robbed my home and are about to shoot me, the only witness. I say, “You can’t shoot me! Evolution has programmed you with prosocial psychological tendencies!” You reply (quite correctly), “So what? Obviously, I’ve managed to overcome those tendencies.” *BANG*
You see, I successfully explained the general rarity of violent criminals, but I failed to give you, personally, a reason not to shoot me — which was the most important part! “Where does the normativity come from?” — this is the problem of meta-ethics. It is not answered by knowing the evolutionary history of ethical intuitions.
The second interesting question is the object-level question, “What is actually moral (if anything), and how do we find that out?” Again, it is not clear that looking at our evolutionary history would answer that question, even if we could do so. Suppose our evolved intuitions say that killing animals is morally permissible. Does this make killing animals morally permissible? No, it does not, and to think so is a fallacy of reasoning — the naturalistic fallacy.
Or maybe you're skeptical about the whole idea of morality - maybe it's just an illusion? Even then, you still have some work to do explaining what to make of people's constant moral statements. Are they expressions of attitudes, or are they aiming at the truth (and missing)? Why do we feel so inclined to act as though there were a moral fact of the matter? And several more interesting questions.
So in this particular case, the vice is to treat a scientific explanation of ethical intuitions as if it were the last word on ethics. The general case of the vice is to act as though empirical questions were the only interesting or relevant questions. In reality, there are usually attendant philosophical/psychological questions that are at least as important as the empirical questions.
Most importantly, educated members of other groups (e.g., the religious) know this very well, and so to them the vice seems to display a sort of shallowness. A religious person, upon hearing the above story, might say something like “But that means a mother only protects her child because it increases her genetic fitness! That is not what it’s like to be a mother!” That objection can be answered effectively only by somebody who has thought through both the scientific inferences and their philosophical implications.
Vice #2: Explaining Away Things that Just Need to Be Explained
Here are two superficially similar opinions on love:
(1) Love is just a bunch of chemicals, like dopamine or whatever. It doesn’t really exist.
(2) Love is a high-level phenomenon of human psychology. It has no ontological standing on its own (in other words, the LHC isn’t going to discover any Love Bosons).
Statement (2) is roughly true, in my opinion. It is also sometimes worth saying to people who naively treat love (and other such concepts) as if it were a Platonic solid. However, statement (1) is batshit insane, for a few reasons.
Reason number one is that it is equivocating between two senses of “exist,” one in which “exist” implies ontological basicality (in this sense, electrons exist but tables don’t), and another, everyday sense of “exist” in the sense of featuring in our best explanations of the world (here, both tables and electrons exist, as different zoom levels in the same model).
Reason number two is that that word, “just” a bunch of chemicals, smuggles in a hidden value judgment that has not been justified (compare: “She’s only a woman.”). In fact, I would go further and say that that value judgment comes directly from religious/dualist habits of thought about “base matter,” so that a rationalist who denigrates the “merely” material in that way is buying into superstitious value judgments even as they condemn superstitious fact judgments. (This tendency to believe by rational criteria but value by superstitious criteria is surprisingly common, once one starts to look for it.)
Reason number three is that statement (1) denies the phenomenon. So love doesn’t exist, eh? In that case, why do you use the term in your daily life (I’d be willing to bet), as in “My friend Sally is in love with my sister”? Is it just a convenient fiction? Because if you believe in convenient fictions, you do owe us an explanation for why the fiction just happens to be so convenient.
- “There is no such thing as evil.” (Translation: “My intuitions are so dualistic that I can’t cash out the word ‘evil’ without making crazy metaphysical claims.”)
- “Choice is an illusion.” (Translation: “I think that the only kind of choice worth having is the supernatural kind where you can break the laws of physics on a whim.”)
Vice #3: Unexamined Political Baggage
Rationalists tend to cluster into (1) social liberals*, and (2) libertarians. For example, I have never heard a self-described rationalist argue against homosexuality (except, once, to decry its mixed Greek and Latin etymology!).
It is not the purpose of this post to argue against liberalism or libertarianism; however, we can see these two movements driving the rationalist movement’s priorities in odd directions sometimes. For example, although I am glad of the stout defense that natural selection receives from atheists and skeptics, I cannot help but marvel at the extent to which this particular concern overrides others that one might care about — for example, energy policy or world poverty. I suspect that at least part of this imbalance is caused by the juicy political hits one gets to score by arguing against the fundamentalist right if one is a liberal rationalist. One cannot get these sucker punches in as easily if one is discussing, say, how much overseas aid we ought to allocate.
I think a rationalist who considers himself a “liberal” (or whatever other stripe) should take a good, hard look at what that concept means, and at the sheer historical contingency of it. “Liberal” tracks a cluster of more-or-less objectively unrelated positions (high taxes and... abortion rights?) that comes to us from the murk of history. To find yourself, as a rationalist, in agreement with most standard liberal positions is, um... quite a coincidence. It reminds me of what is said about Descartes — a 17th century Frenchman who bravely threw out all knowledge except that which was utterly certain, built on this unassailable foundation, and arrived at... - ta da! — the typical beliefs of a 17th century Frenchman.
If that doesn’t sway you, then at least consider (like a good consequentialist) that your voice may be most effective at correcting sloppy thinking within your own political tribe, rather than outside of it. This is a very important consideration even if you think that the enemy tribe’s mistakes are much worse than those of your tribe.
Are there any other vices you can think of? Do you think I’m talking through my hat altogether?
*I am using the word "liberal" in the North American sense here.