Rationalist ideologies as eternalism

Rationalist eternalism is the confused stance that there is a pattern to everything, that all patterns can be discovered by reasoning, and that they give everything meaning. The universe is reasonable, and so reason can master it. This stance is wrong and harmful, just as other eternalisms are.

Rationality, understood and used properly, is a good thing. In the everyday sense, it is wise to think clearly and to act sensibly. My criticism of rationalist eternalism does not reject reason for emotionalism, or for some sort of anti-rational spirituality. I think anti-rational stances are also wrong and harmful. (I’ll analyze their faults later, in the chapter on monism, and in the discussion of the anti-rationalism of the 1960s-80s countercultures.)

In addition to good common sense, there are technical methods of reasoning that can be importantly useful sometimes. I will criticize their misuse, but I value technical rationality itself.

My argument against eternalist rationality is that reasoning does not, in fact, provide explanations or meanings for everything. Reality is nebulous, so that is impossible.

The exaggerated claims of ideological rationality are obviously and undeniably false, and are predictably harmful—just as with all eternalism. Yet they are so attractive—to a certain sort of person—that they are also irresistible.

Rationality and the Big Three stance combinations

The actual basis for rationalistic distortion is not eternalism. The root distortion is dualism, as I use the term in this book. Dualism, in this sense, is the insistence on boundaries; that everything must be definitely this or that, and not vaguely in-between.

The methods of rationality require specific categories. If you keep in mind that all categories are partially-arbitrary, artificial constructions, and cannot fully capture reality, the distortions they create may not cause problems. Ideological rationality tries to force reality to fit categories—and that does not end well.

It might make better sense to postpone discussion of rationality into the chapter on dualism. However, ideological rationality is such an important form of eternalism that I want to cover it here.

You may recall that there are three main stance combinations: dualist eternalism, monist eternalism, and dualist nihilism. Monist eternalism is anti-rational, because rationality depends on specifics, and monism denies specifics.

Both eternalism and nihilism are compatible with rationalism, and in practice rationalists tend to swing between the two. Actually, everyone tends to swing between the two, but for rationalists the alternation is often extreme and violent. That’s because clear thinking easily reveals the defects in both eternalism and nihilism. I will cover nihilist rationalism (or rationalization) later. And I will return to rationalism for further analysis in the dualism chapter.

Methods of rationality

You may have little interest in the technical methods of rationality, because you believe you understand their limits and faults and harms. You might even be a bit smug about that—but if you don’t understand in detail how formal rationality works, you are probably partly mistaken. You are probably, without knowing it, under the sway of Romanticism—an anti-rational eternalist ideology that is just as bad. Also, you are missing out on a good thing.

The methods of rationality are powerfully useful, and everyone should learn them, I think. As with all power tools, such as chainsaws, you also need to learn suitable safety procedures. The problem with rationality is not that it is technical. The problem is not anything about the methods themselves. The problem is metaphysical claims about the power of the methods to explain the unexplainable.

The pages in this section are somewhat technical. They are meant mainly for those who know at least a little about methods of formal reasoning. My intention is to point out potential dangers (ways rationality can distort into eternalism) and antidotes (ways to avoid sliding toward eternalism, or to escape from it when you find you have fallen in).


Literature review

I’m not sure how much literature review I’ll do in the published version. Their work is definitely relevant, however!

Feyerabend, Gadamer &c.

Pobop's picture

Browsing through the epistemological anarchism of Feyerabend, the hermeneutics of Gadamer, even the wikipedia page about social constructionism, I can’t help but notice how these are all more moderate than the usual strawpersons made of them. Where are the notorious relativists who think reality is ontologically made out of narratives or social conventions?
There are some striking similarities to what you’re arguing here. Feyerabend and Gadamer seem to be motivated by humanitarian and anti-fascist feelings and so they reject fixed conceptions of truth as harmful. Feyerabend for example writes in Against Method

It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings.

I think you could get away with sneaking that part in there somewhere.

Has any of this been an influence?

The catastrophic dumbing-down of pomo

Thank you for the questions, which prompt a rant!

these are all more moderate than the usual strawpersons made of them.

Yes; more moderate, and also more complicated and interesting. And, yes, I draw on the tradition that Gadamer and Feyerabend worked in, although other specific figures (Heidegger and Foucault for instance) are a larger influence.

The major critical theorists—up to about 1985—were brilliant, and had been thoroughly educated in the Western intellectual tradition. They knew what rationality was, knew how to use it, and pointed out its limitations. Unfortunately, most chose to write in obfuscatory riddles. Their insights were difficult enough to understand without that.

Few followers were able to extract the insights. Instead, a couple of generations of academics have learned to imitate the obfuscatory jargon, while understanding and saying nothing.

Postmodernism can only be understood as an analysis of modernity. If you do not understand modernity (including the proper operation of rationality), none of it is meaningful. Instead, you misunderstand it simply as “all systems are false ideologies invented by the powerful as means of oppression, and must be destroyed.”

Where are the notorious relativists who think reality is ontologically made out of narratives or social conventions?

I gather you can find those easily enough in any American college English department. Or at least, you can find people who teach that in class. “Think” is another question. These are religious beliefs, like Young Earth Creationism. They are not actual beliefs, like “the bathroom sink has a persistent drip,” and they get compartmentalized from everyday functioning.

These preachers are second-generation professors who didn’t understand pomo when it was new, and third-generation ones who were mainly taught dumbed-down second-generation pseudo-pomo. They were never taught to think, and can’t. In fact, what they learned was not to think (because that would lead to questioning the bullshit, which gets you ejected from pomodom). What they learned was to replicate the jargon, plus “all systems must be destroyed.”

I worry that this may be catastrophic. Up until the 1980s, a university humanities education did teach you how to think. Since then, it has taught you not to think. What happens as people trained that way move increasingly into positions of power?

Searle on Foucault

It’s probably well known by now, but John Searle recounts meeting Foucault and getting on very well with him. After talking to him for a while and realising that the guy was a very lucid thinker, Searle asked Foucault why he wrote in the difficult style he did. Foucault replied that in France at the time one had to write in an obscurantist style to be taken seriously. To write clearly would cause one to written off as a lightweight. So they wrote the way they did and they are at least partly to blame for being misunderstood.

Only themselves to blame

Yes, that’s a great story. And yes, those guys should take much of the blame for the subsequent disaster. It was a deliberate choice to be obscure, which they made for selfish reasons of academic status-seeking, without regard for the consequences.

This pattern goes back to Hegel. Not that he was the first to be obscure, but he may have been the first to revel in it and make a central modus operandi, and he was certainly the major influence on subsequent Continental obscurantism.

Much of what is wrong with the Western tradition is Hegel’s fault. Unfortunately, he also did have some important good ideas, so one can’t just dismiss him.


Dan's picture

An “obfuscatory jargon” anecdote that my friends are probably tired of hearing: I’ve read the first few pages of Simulacra and Simulations in both English and French. In English I struggled to make any sense of it at all, but I found the French original totally straightforward! English is my native language so this is obviously backwards.

(As I recall, basically the translator was following the French text too closely; a lot of things that sound natural in French are terrible style in English.)

Transfuscra and Transfuscation

Interesting, thank you!

My mentor in this area is fluent in French, and has often said the same about texts she recommends I read. Unfortunately, I don’t read French, and so have to rely on transfuscra exclusively. (“The translation is awful; it’s much better in French, but you can probably still get the gist of it.”)

Many-worlds Interpretation

James's picture

I was thinking recently about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as a candidate for “rationalist ideology”: an attempt to deny the nebulousity of indeterminacy by constructing near-infinite alternate universes which we likely have no way of interacting with. In fact, to the extent that it has any practical applications, they seem to be ones no one can reasonably accept (ex: the controversial possibility of quantum immortality).

Two features I find especially bizarre: (1) The assertion that Occam’s Razor supports the MWI since it requires the fewest assumptions. If so, I don’t think this is a version of the Razor I can accept. (2) The acceptance of the MWI by people otherwise devoted to rational decision theory. This strikes me as odd because if MWI is correct, then no matter what decision you conclude is rational, there will be a version of you for every possible decision in that situation.

As I understand it, all available interpretations have problems and none can be tested experimentally. Unless actual experimental evidence arises to support one interpretation over the others, this seems like a good place to shrug our shoulders and admit we don’t know what’s going on.

Many Worlds


Many worlds requires the fewest starting assumptions - just Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. These are common to all current approaches to quantum mechanics. The “many worlds” are implicit in Hilbert Space and other interpretations have ad hoc ways of eliminating the unwanted worlds. Many Worlds does make falsifiable predictions and these predictions are currently being tested.

I highly recommend this lecture. Extracting the Universe from the Wave Function

In this lecture, Sean makes a compelling argument against the Copenhagen interpretation and did convince me to take Everett’s ideas seriously. In fact, I was so inspired that I have started working through Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum series of lectures to revise my maths and physics.

It is absolutely the case that there is currently no consensus amongst physicists on how best to interpret the measurement problem.

This strikes me as odd

Dan's picture

This strikes me as odd because if MWI is correct, then no matter what decision you conclude is rational, there will be a version of you for every possible decision in that situation.

This is a common misunderstanding of many worlds. Wave function collapse is a process where a pure (non-random) quantum state changes into a mixed (random) state when it is measured. Many worlds lets you avoid this by saying that the state and the measuring device become entangled instead, in a pure (non-random) superposition of all possible measurement outcomes (“worlds”).

This is not the same thing as non-quantum processes with more than one possible outcome, such as a coin toss or human decision. From a quantum perspective, these are deterministic. We can reasonably treat a coin toss as random, though, because it is chaotic; there are too many factors that affect the outcome to account for. A human decision is somewhat less chaotic than a coin toss; in that we can usually attribute it to something or other. But in neither case are there pure quantum states or measurement outcomes.

This is the real reason you can’t use many worlds to deny nebulosity: The physics is wrong. You can’t substitute one physical process for a totally different one, just because they both happen to be described by probability theory. No matter which interpretation of QM you choose, the macroscopic world is still full of chaos.

Isn't everything quantum?

James's picture

This is not the same thing as non-quantum processes with more than one possible outcome, such as a coin toss or human decision.

Aren’t all events at some level a composite of quantum events? I get that the probabilities general cancel out at macroscopic levels, but I don’t see how that effects my point. If all macroscopic events are a composite of quantum events, then there should still be a world for every event with non-zero probability.

Now, if that assumption is wrong, and there are both strictly quantum and strictly non-quantum events, then I’m curious (a) how we know this and (b) what causes events to be one or the other.

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