In defense of rationalism
I have changed my mind.
It should go without saying that rationality is better than irrationality. But now I realize this does need to be said, again, loudly, firmly, and convincingly. It needs to be said in a way that reverses some recent social and cultural trends.
In past, I have criticized rationalism, as misunderstanding rationality, vociferously. I would like now to advocate and defend it vociferously—versus an apparently rising tide of opposition from multiple directions.
I haven’t got any great ideas about that. However, this post makes some distinctions that might help. Also, I hope I can at least avoid creating extra trouble for rationalism, by explaining that my own criticism of it aims at deploying rationality more effectively.
The “meta-rational” critique takes for granted that rationality is hugely valuable, and that irrational alternatives are mainly harmful. I hope it will help to clarify the distinction between this critique and others.
I will suggest an unusual threefold categorization of movements that oppose rationalism: ignorant, irrelevant, and inscrutable. Or, less flippantly, irrational, anti-rational, and meta-rational.
Effective advocacy requires understanding how the opposition thinks, and speaking in terms they can understand.2 Opposition to rationalism is diverse, implying different explanations for different audiences. Early drafts of this post tried to sketch three corresponding approaches to rationalist advocacy. I’ve mostly dropped that, because I’m not sure I have anything novel to say.
I’m explaining the categorization here anyway, because I have several upcoming posts about meta-rationality that will refer to it. I want it to be clear how meta-rationality differs from irrationality and anti-rationality.
And, at the end of the post, I will suggest arguments rationalists can use against meta-rationalist criticism!
Categorizing critiques of rationalism
The obvious way to categorize opposition is in terms of the content, or “beliefs” of the opponent:
- dualist religion (Christianity, Islam)
- monist spirituality (Romanticism, New Age woo)
- postmodern hyper-relativism
- political movements which deny that facts and deliberative procedures are relevant to justice or policy decisions (“tumblr SJW,” “alt-right”)
- miscellaneous delusions and faddish moral panics
This taxonomy is natural because opponents couch their arguments in terms of content, and so the natural thing is to respond to the content. However, if opponents have irrational reasons for holding their beliefs, rational arguments about facts may not help.
Often, supposed “beliefs” are held as tribal shibboleths rather than as truth-claims. In that case “but it’s not true” is not only irrelevant, it’s taken as an attack on the tribe, rather than as a morally neutral statement about the world.
Effective responses need to take into account the cognitive style of the opponent. Rational arguments, aiming to locate truth in an impersonal reality, may be counterproductive if the opponent’s thinking is communal and relational, locating truth in social belonging.
Cognitive styles could form an alternative categorization of opposition to rationalism. The three stages of adult cognitive development suggest a coarse first cut:
- Pre-systematic, irrational opposition has no understanding of rationality. It is tribal, emotive, and (by definition) unprincipled.
- Systematic, anti-rational opposition has at least partial understanding of rationality, but rejects it in favor of alternative principles. This category includes systematic theology and knowledgeable Romanticism. These two strands go all the way back to the Counter-Enlightenment, and were the anti-rational bases of the two counter-cultures of the 1960s-80s.
- Meta-systematic, meta-rational opposition claims rationalism over-reaches, and focuses on rationality’s limits. This category includes some Continental philosophy (including some “pomo”), and various American lineages of reflective practice, anti-essentialism, ethnomethodology, and so forth.
For fun, and as a mnemonic, I’ll also call these ignorant, irrelevant, and inscrutable:
- Irrationalism is ignorant of the value of rationality. We should try to educate irrationalists.
- Anti-rationalism is irrelevant because it can only repeat geriatric arguments that lost their teeth a century ago. The structure of the argument between rationalism and its systematic opponents is fixed; there are no new challengers. It’s probably not worth bothering with. Perhaps, instead, rationalists should ally with anti-rationalists against irrationalism!3
- Meta-rationalism is inscrutable because we meta-rationalists have failed to explain our claims in a way anyone can understand.
A more detailed categorization would be better—but this is a start. And anyway, this post’s main aim is to distinguish the meta-rational critique from the other two.
Distinguishing ways of thinking from content
Historically, anti-rational and meta-rational critiques have been somewhat effective, because they are partly right. Consequently, they carry considerable prestige. People who are cognitively equipped to understand rational arguments are also capable of recognizing the force of these critiques, so they still sometimes work. They can deter some people who might otherwise adopt rationalism. They can undercut confidence or even convert committed rationalists. And, they can do great damage even when wielded by irrationalists who don’t understand them.
Irrationalists often dismiss valid rational arguments using phrases taken from anti-rational or meta-rational movements. Anyone can parrot a previously-successful argument. When irrationalists brandish those without comprehension, it doesn’t help to explain the errors and limits of the critiques they’ve borrowed from.
It is easy enough for irrationalists to learn to imitate linguistic style. That reduces sophisticated critiques to buzzphrases, arguments repeated by rote, and grossly simplified conceptual structures. The ignorant may then sound like they understand lines of reasoning that they don’t.4 You may be tempted to address them at the level of that reasoning; but that is useless if they can’t follow systematic arguments. By definition, irrationalists can’t understand why they are wrong.
For effective persuasion, it’s important to address the interlocutor’s type of reasoning, more than the argument itself. Reasoning becomes apparent only when an argument is probed. Does the response advert to tribal defense, virtuous feelings, and “beliefs” no one actually holds? (Then their irrationalism is ignorant.) Or to chains of justification rooted in abstract, ultimate principles? (Then their anti-rationalism is irrelevant.) Or to system-boundary nebulosity? (Then their meta-rationalism is inscrutable.)
The American “right” mimics the language of systematic theology, and selectively invokes a handful of religious concepts; but few American Christians know the basic tenets of their faith. If someone rants against homosexuality and invokes “Biblical principles” but can’t explain their own sect’s take on the relationship between justification and sanctification, they are irrational, not anti-rational. The real basis of their opposition is tribal, emotional, and self-interested, not religious.
It was only when I learned to set aside the pious “divine law” nonsense mouthed by social conservatives that I came to understand the underlying, genuine basis of their seemingly-irrational “moral” concerns—and to sympathize with them.
American Millennial “leftists” ape the jargon of poststructuralism, which even their professors mostly can’t understand. At its best, poststructuralism was a meta-rational movement. Most current advocates misunderstand it as showing that claims to authoritative knowledge, by science and rationality, are nothing more than propaganda on behalf of oppressors. If someone rants against capitalism and invokes Foucault, but can’t explain how his archaeological method relates to Saussurean structuralism and existential phenomenology, they are irrational, not meta-rational. The real basis of their opposition is tribal, emotional, and self-interested, not poststructuralist.
It was only when I learned to set aside the pious “structural oppression” nonsense mouthed by campus activists that I came to understand the underlying, genuine basis of their seemingly-irrational “moral” concerns—and to sympathize with them.
Put up or shut up
Meta-rationality shouldn’t be inscrutable.
Meta-rationalists have been promising a coherent account of meaning for nearly a century. Somehow, we’ve never delivered, although we think we understand it quite well. It’s time we put up or shut up.
Why has no one done this before? Three reasons, maybe:
- The transition from rationality to meta-rationality involves an irreversible cognitive flip, after which it seems too obvious to explain.
- Rationalists are afflicted with a frustrating Dunning-Kruger illusion: they cannot understand that there is something they cannot understand.
- Meta-rationalists are prone to elitist in-group superiority-signaling.
The cognitive flip
Many recall the transition from rationalism to meta-rationalism as a sudden blinding moment of illumination. It’s like the famous blotchy figure above: once you have seen its meaning, you can never unsee it again. After you get meta-rationality, you see the world differently. You see meanings rationalism cannot—and you can never go back.
This is probably an illusion of memory. The transition occurs only after years of accumulating bits of insight into the relationship between pattern and nebulosity, language and reality, math and science, rationality and thought. At some point you have enough pieces of the puzzle that the overall shape falls into place—but even then there’s a lot of work left to fill in the holes.
Still, the shape seems utterly obvious once you’ve got it. You can’t remember quite what it was like to not get it. You can’t help being impatient with people who can’t see it. “Look! Come on, it’s a Dalmatian! Just look, it’s right there!”6
The graph above is by Sarah Perry, from a writing course she co-taught. “Compression speed,” on the vertical axis, is an informal measure of the rate at which you find new insight. It peaks when a bunch of puzzle-pieces you’ve accumulated fall together into a pattern. This is tremendously exciting, and is the best time to communicate the insight—because your excitement is contagious! Once you’ve fully understood something, there’s nothing new to learn, and writing about it will bore your readers as well as you.
I realized only recently, gradually, as I was attempting to write an overview, that no one ever seems to have bothered to explain meta-rationality clearly. Somehow I had never noticed that!
If it’s obvious, it seems not worth explaining; anyone who doesn’t get it must just be an idiot. Anyway, it’s all perfectly straightforward, so you need hardly any explanation, right?
But having begun to try, I’ve found that an explanation is enormously complex. Reading it will be laborious; writing it, more so. Perhaps that is why meta-rationalists are often unhelpful. We are lazy, as well as arrogant.
Explaining something supposedly well-understood is more like writing a textbook than a blog post, thesis, or journal article. When you write a textbook—I am told—you discover there are many aspects of your field you thought you understood, but, actually, you don’t. Or, rather, you had a good enough understanding to use the concepts, but not good enough to explain them. You have been exploiting patterns that let you skate over conceptual nebulosity—but how does that work? You need to build a rigorous logical reconstruction of the foundations of your field.
That project is fun in a quite different way from explaining new object-level insights as they bubble up. (Well, I hope it’s fun!)
Rationalists may find it difficult to communicate with irrationalists, to explain to them what they are doing wrong in terms they can understand. It’s frustrating. Irrationalism seems like willful stupidity once you see the better alternative. “Look, this is just dumb! The reasons you give make no sense! Why can’t you just see that the evidence, and basic principles of reasoning, show your beliefs are totally wrong?” It’s hard to know where to start sorting out their confusion. It certainly doesn’t help to make rational arguments to people who can’t understand rationality and don’t respect it.
Just as irrationalists can’t understand the rationalist critique, rationalists can’t understand the meta-rational critique. That is frustrating for meta-rationalists, in just the same way. “Look, this is just dumb! The principles you are invoking are irrelevant here! Why can’t you see that the energetic texture of the situation, and basic methods of meta-systematicity, show you are going at it totally wrong?” It’s hard to know where to start sorting out their confusion. It certainly doesn’t help to make meta-rational arguments to people who can’t understand meta-rationality and don’t respect it.
In both cases, incomprehension is not because people are stupid, but because ways of reasoning haven’t been explained in terms they can yet follow.
However, virtually everyone can understand some simple rational reasoning. And almost everyone with a decent grounding in rationality can also understand some simple meta-rational reasoning. (See “A first lesson in meta-rationality.”) So it should be possible to build a continuous, step-by-step bridge from rationality to meta-rationality, just as the STEM curriculum provides a step-by-step bridge from pre-rational thinking to rationality.
Intellectual change occurs when someone points out a better way—not from explaining why your current paradigm is defective. So I intend to turn from griping about rationalism’s errors to presenting a better alternative. That’s more difficult, but I hope it will be more useful.
Most advocates of meta-rationality have gone out of their way to anti-explain it. This deliberate obscurantism is mostly sneery in-group elitism. Dense jargon and subtle, poorly-explained concepts are forbidding palisades against club entry. Fighting your way up does demonstrate intelligence and grit, but meta-rational skills are too valuable to allow them be monopolized by intellectual elites. Especially because those elites have mainly been satisfied to entertain themselves with clever in-jokes and displays of content-free virtuosity, instead of creating anything useful.
The bridge to meta-rationality must be supportive and respectful of participants whatever their level of understanding. It must avoid put-downs, hazing, shibboleths, and smug IQ-signaling. This is not particularly easy; it goes against the natural human tendency to create tribal in-groups.
The plainspoken American philosopher John Searle was a friend of Michel Foucault, who had important meta-rational insights. He asked Foucault why his writing was so incomprehensible, given that in person he spoke perfectly clearly. Foucault said that in France, no one would take you seriously as a philosopher if they could understand you, so you had to pad your writing with a lot of nonsensical verbiage.
This was a huge moral failure. If the poststructuralists had written clearly, the world might be quite different now, and for the better. By the 1970s, they had acquired enough personal power, prestige, and position that they could have safely defied, and replaced, French academic conventions.
Their legacy is mainly pernicious: they are mis-taken as underwriting irrational tribalism that has done great damage in universities, and has started to spill out into the real world. Their valid insights are not widely understood, and little-used. And, they are little built-upon: if they had written clearly, we might have had much greater progress in meta-rational epistemology over the past few decades.
Instead, the voluminous, blatantly self-interested and irrational “pomo” blather spouted by their academic heirs discredits meta-rationality in the eyes of sensible people.
Responding to inscrutable critiques
As I mentioned, I’m not sure I have anything useful to say about defending rationalism against irrationalism or anti-rationalism. However, I want to suggest two ways to defend rationalism against meta-rational criticism.
The first points out that that an inscrutable argument is highly likely to be nonsense:
If you have anything valid to say—which we do not concede—you need to explain it in a way more people can understand. You have completely failed to even try to do that! This strongly suggests that you don’t have anything to say, but are just spewing meaningless jargon as part of a career-enhancing academic ritual.
In other words, the subjective prior probability that a “meta-rational” argument has any bite should be very low. (Bayes!)
Of course, one can never be certain, and should always consider the consequences of alternative outcomes. (Decision theory!) So a second response is:
Possibly you are right that rationalism isn’t The Answer, but it’s extraordinarily useful and we can’t do without it. At the moment, it’s more important to defend rationalism against irrational attacks than to point out possible, obscure defects. “Meta-rational” criticism has negative expected utility, due to strengthening irrational forces.
- 1. The etching, by Francisco Goya, is one from a series, published in 1799. These were “a medium for Goya’s condemnation of the universal follies and foolishness in the Spanish society in which he lived. The criticisms are far-ranging and acidic; he speaks against the predominance of superstition, the ignorance and inabilities of the various members of the ruling class, pedagogical short-comings, marital mistakes and the decline of rationality.” (Wikipedia.) The line about fantasy and reason is Goya’s full epigraph for the piece: La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos imposibiles: unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas. It might, perhaps, be taken as a meta-rational maxim? In any case, I love the idea of a fecund lesbian marriage of the two.
- 2. Empirical studies suggest that effective political argument—if the goal is to change minds—depends on talking in terms your opponents understand and care about. This is rare because most political argumentation preaches to the converted. The typical aim is to gain status among your own crowd, not genuinely to persuade opponents.
- 3. For instance, serious Christians are as appalled by pomo nonsense as rationalists are, and for some of the same reasons. Both groups value coherent thought, even if they start from different axioms. Is it worth trying to find common cause? Perhaps movements such as Heterodox Academy can include that effort.
- 4. “Bayes! Bayes! Bayes!” is a rationalist equivalent: parroting sacred jargon without having thought through the implications, and sometimes even without understanding the concepts named. Some beginners adopt rationalist language mainly as a tribal membership signal; most grow out of it.
- 5. That’s my Quest this week, anyway. I wouldn’t want to make an eternalistic mission out of it. Anyway, I inevitably get distracted by side-quests. “To sail the Sea of Meaningness, first must you raise the Complete Ship from the Swamp of Nebulosity!” “Uh, ok, I guess I’ll go and try…” “Do, or Do Not! There is no Try.” [Puts on engineer hat, orders block, tackle, winch and cable from Amazon] Did you know that “Dagobah” is the Chinese name for a Tibetan-style temple? Lucas named the planet that for a reason.
- 6. It’s facing diagonally away from you, in the right half of the image. Look for its head, sniffing the ground, close to the center.