Meta-rationality: An introduction

Learning to wield an invisible power

In fields requiring systematic, rational competence—science, engineering, business—some few people can do what may seem like magic.

They step into messy, complex, volatile situations and somehow transform them into routine, manageable problems. Textbook methods that were failing to come to grips with anomalies start working again.

Often these magicians have less relevant factual and conceptual knowledge than others who found the situation impossible. They may have no special skill in applying technical methods. Instead they may:

  • Notice relevant factors that others overlooked
  • Point out non-obvious gaps or friction between theory and reality
  • Ask key questions no one had thought of
  • Make new distinctions that suggest different conceptualizations of the situation
  • Change the description of the problem so that different solution approaches appear
  • Rethink the purpose of the work, and therefore technical priorities
  • Realize that difficulties others struggled with can simply be ignored, or demoted in importance
  • Apply concepts or methods from seemingly distant fields
  • Combine multiple contradictory views, not as a synthesis, but as a productive patchwork.

They produce these insights by investigating the relationship between a system of technical rationality and its context. The context includes a specific situation in which rationality is applied, the purposes for which it is used, the social dynamics of its use, and other rational systems that might also be brought to bear. This work operates not within a system of technical rationality, but around, above, and then on the system.

This is meta-rationality. This book is about that.

Meta-rationality is a craft, not a systematic discipline. It is not taught in the university STEM curriculum, although it is vital for technical progress. Currently, it must be learned through apprenticeship and experience. This book is the first practical introduction.

Meta-rationality is rarer than rationality, and has more leverage, but it is so rarely recognized that I had to invent the word for it. It is an invisible power.

It’s sometimes acknowledged that senior professionals with years on the job can somehow deal effectively with problems that junior technical hotshots can’t. They “have a feel for things” that finds shortcuts through difficulties, devises better approaches in ways that can’t be explained at the time, and makes projects run smoothly. This value may be acknowledged in individuals, but its source is not named or inquired into.

A meta-rational insight may seem exciting, magic, an incomprehensible breakthrough, for those restricted to a rational framework. “Wow, how did they do it? How could I learn to cut through problems like that?” Alternatively, since the results are retrospectively understandable within a rational system, the insight may be attributed to luck, or to inscrutable “intuition,” and so overlooked. Competent technical rationality has considerable prestige; competent meta-rationality has none, despite its extreme value, because there has been no word for it.

Is The Eggplant for you?

This book aims to help you level up from systematic rationality to meta-rational competence. I wrote it for people with strong technical backgrounds; it uses mainly science and engineering examples. However, no specific knowledge is a prerequisite. Expertise in another discipline of rationality—organizational management for example—might do. All the same material could be treated using transformational business case studies; and indeed we will also look at a few of those.

Because meta-rationality operates on rational systems, mastery of at least one such system is a prerequisite. Because it selects among systems, or combines several, understanding the distinctive rationalities of multiple fields—ideally several quite different ones—is a plus.

Beyond that, meta-rationality is particularly useful when rationality isn’t working well. Its value comes into view when you have seen rational systems fail enough times that you start to notice patterns of limitations to their use in practice. You realize that solving technical problems within a fixed set of concepts and methods is not always adequate. You become increasingly curious about why, and what to do about it.

You may find this book exciting if:

  • Sometimes you’ve applied textbook rational methods, and they didn’t work, due to factors they didn’t consider; but you figured out why, and devised workarounds
  • You’ve worked on a team project whose rationally-constructed plan seemed initially sensible, but increasingly dubious as unanticipated obstacles came into view; and eventually delusional; and the team kept pursuing it anyway, leading to failure
  • The technical problem-solving work that you used to enjoy for the sense of flow, of smooth confident competence, has come to seem a bit dull
  • Instead, you are increasingly interested in the preliminaries, in figuring out what a problem is
  • Your whole scientific or engineering field has stagnated; methods that used to be productive no longer generate much progress—or turn out to have been unreliable all along.

Meta-rationality also becomes increasingly important as you move from being an individual contributor into leadership, management, or entrepreneurial roles. Solving well-defined problems using standard techniques no longer cuts it. Your job is to make sense of messes in which even the problem—never mind the solution—is obscure. Done well, technical leadership is an inherently meta-rational activity: it is about selecting, modifying, and creating systems. Entrepreneurship is even more obviously meta-rational: you create an organization out of nothing, with no rules to guide you, only a nebulous understanding of an opportunity.

Meta-rationality is not attractive for everyone. People differ in cognitive style, personality, and preferences. Some continue to enjoy working inside a rational system indefinitely. If that is you, you may not find this book relevant. Nevertheless, I commend you! The ability to think and act using systematic rationality is precious, and far too rare. I worry that it is waning, due to current cultural dysfunction. Wielding rationality, and defending it against irrationalism, is urgent and important. You are keeping the world running, for everyone else, in the face of mass idiocy, hysterical delusion, and tribal selfishness. Please continue!

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