Why I Am Not a Rationalist

I am not a rationalist.

I have friends who are rationalists. I do my best to think of it as a nice little hobby of theirs. I do cryptograms and other puzzles in my down time. They spend time hacking their thinking processes, or trying to. We’ve all got our thing.

Every once in a while, though, they’ll promote some argument or another from another rationalist, and I have to speak up. Why? Because the argument is a dreadful bundle of wrong wrapped up in a “logic” bow. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how well you regulate your thinking. You could overcome the limitations of the human brain and turn yourself into a computer. (You can’t, but bear with me here.) You’re still going to get garbage out if you put garbage in.

I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data. Such arguments can only perpetuate ignorance by giving it a shiny veneer of reason that it hasn’t earned.

I boggle that we haven’t sorted this out yet. I particularly boggle that atheists of my acquaintance promote rationalism over empiricism. The tensions between basic rationalism and empiricism parallel the tensions between church theology and the philosophy of science. We have no problem rejecting church theology as not being grounded in evidence. Why do so many atheists praise rationalism?

Let me stop here and make it clear that I’m not rejecting logic or critical thinking. Goodness knows that I’ve spent hours just this summer helping people share useful heuristics that will, in general, help them get to the right answers more often. I’ve led workshops and panels on evaluating science journalism and scientific results. When I’ve spoken to comparative religion classes in the past, I’ve talked about religious skepticism with an emphasis on the basics of epistemology.

The problem isn’t logic or critical thinking. The problem is a tendency to view those skills as central to getting the right answers. The problem is a tendency to view them as the solution. They’re not, and the idea that they are is in distinct contrast with the way humanity has actually grown in knowledge and understanding of the world.

Rationalism is, at heart, an individualist endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the self, improving the thinking of one person at a time. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians. It focuses primarily on individual action.

That’s not how we’ve come to learn about our world, though. It’s not how science or any other field of scholarship works. Scholarship is a collaborative process. And I don’t just mean peer review and working groups, though those are important as well.

Scholars add to our knowledge of the world by building on the work of others. They apply tools and methods developed by others to new material and questions. They study the work of other scholars to inspire them and give them the background to ask and answer new questions. They evaluate the work of others and consolidate the best of it into larger theoretical frameworks. Without the work of scholars before them, scholars today and evermore would always be recreating basic work and basic errors.

All too often, I find rationalists taking this repetitive approach. They think but they don’t study. As a consequence, they repeat the same naïve errors time and again. This is particularly noticeable when they engage in social or political theorizing by extrapolating from information they learned in secondary school and 101-level college classes, picked up in pop culture, or provided by people pushing a political cause. Their conclusions are necessarily as limited as their source material and reflect all its cultural biases.

The situation is worse than that, however. Not only do these rationalists come up with poor conclusions, but they’re frequently convinced that they must be right because they know how to think better than other people do. A greater understanding of cognitive biases and traps should engender epistemic humility. It should build comfort with uncertainty and some ability to estimate how much uncertainty is likely to exist around a question. Instead, it often seems to foster arrogance, as though avoiding certain errors makes someone’s conclusions correct.

It doesn’t. Neither does identifying yourself as a logical person or critical thinker. Those probably even make the problem worse.

The problem is that there aren’t any real shortcuts to getting things right. If there were, someone would have gotten there long before us. Logic isn’t new. Critical thinking isn’t new. Rationalism certainly isn’t new. And none of them have ever stopped anyone from finding some subject to be grossly wrong about.

They never will. Hell, empiricism never will either. There are just too many topics for people to become educated enough in all of them that they’ll stop getting things grossly wrong. Adherence to empiricism does, however, limit the topics on which people feel qualified to opine. It reminds people that their conclusions are only as good as the information and evidence on which they’re based. It reminds them that experts matter.

Rationalism doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do it in theory, with the emphasis it puts on how one thinks. Even in the modern rationalist movement, which speaks more to collecting evidence than classical rationalism, I have yet to see any emphasis on epistemic humility. In fact, I see calls to apply rationalism broadly to people’s decisions, which adds to the uninformed arrogance I see too much of. This may be a marketing decision, made to help sell logic and critical thinking, as well as the classes that teach them, but in the end, it still pushes people to be wrong.

That’s why I’m not part of the rationalist movement. That’s why I’m not a rationalist.

Why I Am Not a Rationalist

37 thoughts on “Why I Am Not a Rationalist

  1. 2

    Reminds me of the Dr. Who scene with Davros. The Dr says how the daleks are purely logical, and asks davros “All elephants are pink, Nellie is an elephant, so what colour is Nellie?” and Davros answers “Pink”. The companion knows better, as does the Dr, saying that actually elephants aren’t pink, but grey. Davros answers “That is illogical”.

  2. 3

    I am worried about many “rationalists” being libertarians, being against Feminism, against (or very skeptical of) SJW. Self-labeling “rationalist” may lead to feeling superior in an argument, when you’re maybe just as wrong.

    That being said, I feel you are strawmanning rationality a bit. Firstly, rationality is not rationalism, and has afaik nothing to do with Descartes. It’s as much about evidence as empiristic science… ideally.
    I feel that trying to improve yourself, whether by learning about biases or any other method, should not be discouraged or frowned upon. Understanding the human mind, how we think and what errors we are prone to make, is to me valuable.
    And if it leads to feeling smugly superior to everyone else, you are simply doing it wrong. 😉

  3. 4

    Yes, what mfd1946 said.

    I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data. Such arguments can only perpetuate ignorance by giving it a shiny veneer of reason that it hasn’t earned.

    I’m reminded of a good friend who was raised by and surrounded by philosophers growing up. He could explain the difference between the analytic and continental schools of thought as a teen. He was the very model of rationalist so many in the atheoskeptics’ community aspire to.

    And yet, I could win many arguments with him because I had a lot of general knowledge, and could recall examples at will that demonstrated whatever “dreadful bundle of wrong wrapped up in a ‘logic’ bow” he was presenting was wrong, or at least, very limited in applicability. We both learned very early on that the very type of reasoning you describe above is damned near useless in telling us about the world.

    (My friend still has the rational cognitive tools he acquired growing up, but he’s a much more well-rounded thinker, and person these days.)

  4. 5

    Thank you so much for putting this so clearly. In my view, the fundamental difficulty is that reality is both more complex than, and fundamentally differently organized than, human thought. Reason allows us to build models that are extremely useful approximations of reality, but they are biased toward usefulness rather than accuracy. We can often use reason to prevent ourselves from making certain kinds of mistakes in understanding reality. I do not denigrate reason! But if reason is not grounded in continuing observation, it will inevitably lead us astray. (This, in fact, is what is wrong with dogmatic religious thought — it has come uncoupled from observation.)

  5. 6

    This is sort of the Athenian Philosopher issue… Plato in particular was very much a rationalist, in the sense that he felt raw thought was a far better way of getting at reality than dealing with the messy world of ‘phenomena’. Needless to say, this led to a number of cases of him following interesting ideas down to their logical but wrong conclusions, and then blaming the real world for not measuring up to the perfection of the ideas.

  6. 7

    “Rationalist” has been used by many people to mean many different things. There is some resemblence between the different uses, but they aren’t the same. Since it’s not clear to me, could you clarify what you mean by “rationalist” in this post?

  7. 8

    Firstly, I always thought that rationalism had to include empiricism. In my naivety I believed that since all the logic in the world is useless without excellent data gathered from the real world, therefore that it was a part of “rationalism”. If there are self-proclaimed “rationalists” operating without reliable data gathered empirically, I call that irrational.

    Secondly, there is a hideous trap set by an education in logic, which exists in an even worse form in cognitive science, and turns up very frequently with any rhetorical talent. Looking back at my personal debating history now, I see that I fell into it pretty much constantly. The trap is that when you get very good at spotting logical fallacies in arguments or cognitive errors in thought processes, it may do nothing but serve as ammunition in arguments and debates, allowing you to shred all comers regardless of the validity of their position, simply because their presentation makes use of or otherwise appears to originate from such an error or fallacy.

    It breeds a false confidence and immunises yourself from discovering your own flaws. It seems obvious to be that the most important benefit of knowing logical fallacies and cognitive failures is to spot them in your own thinking, and if you aren’t prepared to examine yourself with the same sort of scrutiny as you do your opposition then all you do is risk mounting a brilliant defense of bad ideas that are ever-harder to fix.

    There is a meta-level trap. Knowing about the trap, you can spot enthusiasts of logic and rationalism falling into it. But since they are currently of the mindset that makes them vulnerable to this trap, if you tell them of it they will likely just assimilate the trap as ammunition to be used in the future (perhaps against you in that very same debate), so it will not help either of you. Furthermore, using knowledge of the trap in this way yourself may well be indicative of having yourself fallen into this very same trap *head explodes*

    This is about the point when I realised that some knowledge might actually harm the person who learns it if they have not in some way been primed to use it properly, but I do not yet know what would count as being properly primed. Alternatively, I made a mistake and it’s all nonsense. Either way, I worry about it.

  8. 9

    Rationalism and empiricism combined make for a powerful team. Using them in isolation often leads to hideous errors. Pure empiricism is just as flawed Platonic rationalism–after all, a huge batch of gender and race bias is based on the empirical argument that this is how things are–without ever really probing how they got to be that way, and thus, how another means might work better. (Rationalism in such cases usually is the best way to figure out a way to test the empirical evidence to see if the base assumptions aren’t correct.)

  9. 10

    It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians.

    I mean, empirically speaking (c.f. the Less Wrong census/survey) a person in the rationality community is significantly (iirc something like twenty times) more likely to be trans than average (most of whom are trans women) as well as significantly more likely to be queer than average. Also, iirc, more likely to be mentally ill. (I’m not claiming there aren’t methodological flaws in this survey, as in all self-reported optional community surveys, but I’m not aware of any better source of demographic information on self-identified rationalists.)

    Adherence to empiricism does, however, limit the topics on which people feel qualified to opine. It reminds people that their conclusions are only as good as the information and evidence on which they’re based. It reminds them that experts matter.

    This is not my experience, though, of course, my experience is only anecdotal.

  10. 11

    Very nicely-written, enjoyable essay. I can’t help but noticing that many/most arguments used by evangelists (christian and libertarian) very much rely on rhetorical tricks largely based on bad rationalism. Superficially, the arguments often seem convincing, but they always neglect various empirical counter-examples or a more thorough analysis of the problem that highlights the error. When you counter with a valid, empirical counter-example, they just switch to another argument. When you point out that their sources are unreliable, they accuse you of “poisoning the well”. This is also true in many debates (particularly when libertarians or christian fundamentalists are involved). Too often, it’s just one carefully-prepared highly rational BS argument after another. Of course, highly skilled moderators can in some cases help to avoid this.

  11. 12

    Some of this reminds me of debates within statistics about frequentist vs. Bayesian frameworks. Frequentist statistics is very much akin to “rationalist” argumentation – the assumption is that as long as things are INTERNALLY consistent, they will be externally consistent as well. But anyone who has looked at the world will be able to tell you that frequentist statistical approaches rarely survive first contact with reality. The world is muddy, and Bayesian approaches at least capture some of that muddiness.

    In fact, to my (untrained) eye, one could make the argument that the rationalists are simply failing to update their prior beliefs based on the empirical evidence. It’s certainly how I use rationalist tools – given that we know A, B, and C, where should the null hypothesis lie? Given that we know A, B, and C, what approach is most likely to bring us to our goal? Given that we know A, B, and C, what weight should I assign to these two contradicting arguments? Many rationalists seem to be entirely happy to disregard the prior beliefs (including the patriarchial and white supremacist societies that spawned the very tools of rationality themselves – a conversation for another time perhaps) that are irretrievably ‘baked into’ their axioms.

    It seems like there’s a philosophy thesis to be developed in connecting Bayes and rationalism. Someone smarter than me should work on this, please.

  12. 13

    Ugh, sorry. To save some people the trouble of looking it up, the difference between Bayesian and frequentist approaches to statistics can be crudely summarized as the difference between factoring in prior beliefs about the world when deciding how likely something is, vs. not doing that. If someone published a study tomorrow saying that homeopathy cures cancer, the archetypal Bayesian would say “probably not, because we know all of this other stuff about how it’s just nonsense”, whereas the archetypal frequentist would say “the p value is significant”.

    Nobody is truly a frequentist.

    Then again, nobody is truly a rationalist either…

  13. 14

    As far as I have seen, rationalism requires you to realize that you are not rational no matter how hard you try. Learning about cognitive biases does not make you immune to them, and frequently can make you more susceptible to them. Rationality means you must learn about cognitive failings and self-deception, and realize that fundamentally they are impossible to avoid on some level. There are both cases of active self-deception (as demonstrated with experiments with the Left Brain Interpreter, and cases where we simply don’t have the proper tools or information to make the correct judgement, like the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    So realizing that, I’m not really sure what a rationalist is at the individual level. I would prefer to say that there are rational communities that try to help each other point out the flaws and mistakes in each other’s reasoning.

  14. 15

    In my opinion, there are two fundamental issues.

    First, you can’t tell if you’re deceiving yourself about your own motives and reasoning. There’s just no way to do so, but we know people do it all the time.

    Second, you don’t know what you are unaware of. It sounds obvious, but this goes for all your reasoning and motives as well. There may be factors you are unaware of going into your reasoning and motives.

    Both these major issues are unavoidable.

  15. 16

    As a mathematician (well, most of my life so far) it’s worth noting that mathematics is not a science. Logic is not science. You can use logic and mathematics for empirical questions, but they are being used as tools. They just aren’t adequate to finding answers to any empirical questions.

    Something about mathematics, many mathematical results start by saying ‘let us DEFINE [x] as[definition].’ You define something, and then you reason about it. In the real world, things exist and we need to come up with labels. A ‘trick’ I have often seen in arguments is to get pedantic about the definition of a word like ‘racism’ in order to exclude some racist behavior as not fitting the definition. This gets the entire thing backwards since definitions in mathematics actually define things, but real world definitions describe things that already exist and are just an attempt at getting it right.

    On top of that, logical arguments can be quite pointless since you can’t necessarily translate real world problems into pure logic. Human language isn’t really precise enough. Many of the ‘logical arguments’ about real world issues end up being arguments about nothing but empty words. Plenty of arguments are logically consistent, but that doesn’t mean much. ~(A ^ ~A) is true, but if A is a statement using human language, totally vacuous most of the time.

  16. 17

    The more I read the comments here, the more confused I am. What is this article actually about?
    Is it about rationalism, or about rationality?

    I associate the term “rationalist movement” with sites like LessWrong and organisations like CFAR. They also fit your description, being founded by white male libertarians. But then, they have nothing to do with rationalism.
    So what other rationalist movement are you talking about?

  17. 18

    @Jundurg: I don’t have an answer to your specific question, as I think Stephanie would probably be more helpful on that, but CFAR was founded by two women, and employs mainly women. I worked at the (sometimes) third organization, Leverage which employs a significant population of women (something on the order of approaching 1/3 or 1/2) and was ~1/3 nonwhite during my tenure.

    This isn’t to dispute the large population of men, but I’ve generally felt like the rationalist movement had some advantages in terms of demographics and behavior towards those demographics, and wanted to say as much.

  18. 19

    I, like, 30% agree with this. I do think plenty of self-described “rationalists” have fallen, at times, into the trap of reasoning through a problem superficially, missing a lot of nuance, and then slapping a “LOGIC” label on it and acting like they’ve just given an airtight proof.

    On the other hand: humans in general are terrible at noticing their own blind spots and changing their mind, and it has not been my experience that “rationalists” are worse than average. I think they’re a little better than average. They’re just not as *much* better as one might hope (or as many of them think they are).

    This is part of why many people prefer calling themselves “aspiring rationalists,” to emphasize that their use of the word doesn’t mean they think they’re already perfectly rational, but rather that they recognize the importance of being more rational and are striving to be better. Not a super-catchy label, though…

    Anyway, I do recognize the problem of (unjustified) intellectual arrogance you’re describing, I just haven’t found it to be quite as common as you seem to think it is, among rationalists, and I have also found norms of epistemic humility to be more common among them than you seem to have.

    (Also, @jundurg, you seem to have gotten the demographics of CFAR wrong; founders and staff are mostly female, and although I haven’t chatted with everyone about politics yet, those whom I have would not fairly be described as libertarian.)

  19. 20

    “‘Rationalist’ has been used by many people to mean many different things. There is some resemblence between the different uses, but they aren’t the same. Since it’s not clear to me, could you clarify what you mean by “rationalist” in this post?”

    By rationalist, Stephanie means someone who isn’t an empiricist. An empiricist? Well, someone who’s not a rationalist. That’s not a very good way to go about defining terms.

    The philosophy of knowledge has progressed way beyond such a simplistic, false dichotomy. Newton’s dead, so is Russell. A fundamentalist atheism, in the end, isn’t going to be that helpful long term.

    There are many ways to explain and defend atheism but the ones most widely employed today, while passionate, and, perhaps, superficially effective, don’t use the most complex philosophical arguments. Maybe that’s the way it has to be to reach a broad audience that has no particular expertise in philosophy.

    While we all have to start somewhere, and for many of us that means just finding the means to escape religions, there are better arguments for atheism that what ones usually runs into in the popular press. People involved in the rash of modern date atheist organizations would be doing everyone a favor to learn them and see if they can use them effectively.

    For example, what is Noam Chomsky’s philosophical approach to atheism? Or rationalism and empiricism for that matter? Does it move beyond the blogger’s? Is it better?

  20. 21

    Julia said what I was thinking, although I’m more in the 50% agreement range. I’d like to think of myself as a rationalist. I do care about rational thinking, and I want to practice it as much as possible. The whole reason I’m interested in rationality as a ‘thing’ is that I don’t think it comes naturally, and so practice helps. And I tend to see empiricism as a prerequisite for rationality in my own head, but that isn’t universal. You are pointing out a thing that I have noticed in communities that are about rationalism. But I don’t think it’s an inevitable thing. Rationality doesn’t have to be divorced from epistemic humility any more than critical thinking has to be divorced from accepting the consensus of specialized experts. Your point about how important collective effort, compared to individual effort, is to getting things right is insightful. I definitely agree that no matter how hard I work at being a rational thinker, I will probably not be able to actually contribute to a more rational society as an individual. That low hanging fruit is long gone (if it even existed to begin with). FWIW, I’m female, mid 30s, white, cis, liberal, grew up in a conservative backwater, and I have been thinking about rationality for more than 20 years now, but I only found out that there were actual communities about this stuff maybe 2 years ago.

  21. 22


    “It seems like there’s a philosophy thesis to be developed in connecting Bayes and rationalism. Someone smarter than me should work on this, please.”

    this statement is currently making a number of LessWrong Rationalists double over with laughter. Normally the criticisms of them revolve around them being too obsessed with Bayes (your post is specifically mentioned at slatestarcodex as an example of people here not even bothering with the most cursory look at the community they’re talking about. )

  22. 23

    When it comes to feminism, Zvan is one of the first to go back to the dictionary definition of the word and the fact that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. That’s a fine way to look at it, of course, but then you’ve got to stay consistent. If you choose to judge feminism based on what it means and not on the beliefs of those who practice it, then you have to judge other beliefs by the same metric. For example, if I wrote that

    “Feminism is, at heart, an collectivistic endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the group, improving the thinking of the community as a whole. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to women, to left-wingers. It focuses primarily on collective action.”

    I’m sure you would accuse me of strawmanning feminism. But tell me how it’s any different when you attack rationalism (another generic word which means many things to many people) because you don’t agree with the politics of its followers. Personally, I consider myself both a feminist and a rationalist. But then again I’ve got a thing for lost causes.

  23. 24

    When it comes to feminism, Zvan is one of the first to go back to the dictionary definition of the word and the fact that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people”.

    Got some empirical evidence for that?

  24. 26

    I’m also confused. The post is anecdotal, and without saying much about which people or communities or people it’s talking about.

    To add to Julia Galef’s comment (“This is part of why many people prefer calling themselves “aspiring rationalists,” to emphasize that their use of the word doesn’t mean they think they’re already perfectly rational, but rather that they recognize the importance of being more rational and are striving to be better”) I gather that quite a few people in the CFAR community are actively uncomfortable with being called rationalists. But yeah, need a catchier name than “aspiring rationalists”.

    I’m inclined to agree about 20% with this post – that might be partly because of who I’ve avoided, and because I’m in a privileged demographic. I’ve moved in fairly limited rationalist circles (those in Melbourne, Australia, and some of the CFAR people from North America). I tend to avoid highly argumentative people – e.g. while I appreciate Penn Jillette, “Bullshit” often fell short of impressing me (even when it amused me), and I gave up watching. Respect, self-improvement and recognising one’s own fallibility are important to me, and when they are lacking I tend to look for a different conversation. I’ve rarely needed to do that in Less Wrong & CFAR, especially in in-person interactions.

  25. 27

    One of the interesting quirks of the world is that some skills are broadly applicable, and some skills are unreasonably powerful. Evaluating evidence is one of those. Information theory, probability theory, model-building are a few other ones.

    In specific fields, you get super-skills, like “understand evolution”, that carry similar broad application (within the field) but then oddly enough lots of the principles there seem to have implications about social networking, meme propagation, markets (probably because they are general principles!).

    It can and does happen that you know things that another person does not, and that person – an expert in some topic – says something on that topic that is almost certainly an error for reasons you are very familiar with.

    When it happens, after making sure you’re not just nuts/google-fixably misinformed about an underlying assumption/rehashing a tired issue, my feeling is that you ought to approach the expert and have a friendly conversation, because with any luck, you’re going to learn something bizarre and interesting, or the expert is going to gain a new tool and be able to approach more problems.

    I don’t think that’s what you’re complaining about with respect to rationalists and expertise. But maybe it is?

  26. Ben

    This post has been comprehensively demolished here: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/27/why-i-am-not-rene-descartes/

    The main problem with this post is that it conflates two distinct intellectual movements, which happened 300 years apart, because they’re both called “rationalism”, but I encourage you to read the thorough refutation available through that link. If you found this blog post convincing then you are very far from being either rational or empirical.

  27. 29

    Ben, it’s not even conflating anything because there’s probably not a single group of thinkers that has ever actually held that thesis. As Scott from SSC pointed out, the most famous rationalists were supreme experimentalists. Maybe Plato and maybe 19th century German idealists held something as close to that view as has ever historically occurred. A post that promotes “empiricism” (whatever that means to the blogger) over “rationalism” (whatever that means, in this case, not much), you’d think there’s be some citations, links, or evidence to support that any group of people actually holds the views that are being attacked.

  28. 30

    Given that Ms. Zvan went out of her way to avoid identifying any specific “rationalists” in particular, it’s odd that there are any “rationalists” who, upon noticing that the OP wasn’t an accurate depiction of their part of the “rationalist” movement, would nonetheless assume that Ms. Zvan was totally talking about them rather than some other part of the “rationalist” movement.
    Guys? If the shoe fits, wear it.
    But if the shoe doesn’t fit… why did you force your foot into it, and then complain about the poor fit?

  29. 31

    Cubist, that’s very clever. By not providing any actual evidence, the post suddenly becomes unfalsifiable and anyone who protests is suddenly implicated as the very type of person the post is talking about. Well, that’s the logic you’d ascribe to, anyway, if you were an insane person rather than seeing the post for the contentless nonsense that it is.

  30. 32

    Urstoff, the OP is about ‘rationalists’ that Ms. Zvan, herself, has had experience with. That means the OP is evidence—evidence of Ms. Zvan’s personal experience. Now, I suppose you could be arguing that the OP is, in large part, a fabrication that Ms. Zvan pulled out of her lower GI tract; if that is, indeed, your argument, then yes, the OP does not “provid(e) any actual evidence”. But if that is, indeed, your argument, you are arguing that Ms. Zvan lied about her personal experience. It is unclear why she would lie about her personal experience, but if you want to go there, hey, be my guest.

    My point remains: Self-described ‘rationalists’ are looking at a blogpost that does not identify any specific persons or parts of the rationalist movement… noting that said blogpost does not accurately describe the part of the rationalist movement they happen to be familiar with… and instead of concluding okay, Ms. Zvan’s experience is different from mine, they instead conclude that Ms. Zvan is misinformed/wrong/evil/lying/whatever. And that ain’t so very rational.

    I am, of course, utterly and totally confident that this phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with (possibly unconscious) sexism/misogyny on the part of those self-described ‘rationalists’ who concluded she’s wrong! rather than her experiences differ from mine.

  31. 33

    Addendum to my comment @32: The self-described ‘rationalists’ who concluded that Ms Zvan was wrongity-wrong-wrong-wrong have not indicated that they have had any personal experience with Ms. Zvan. One might suppose that this lack of personal experience with her is, itself, evidence that provides more support to the her experience differs from mine hypothesis than the she’s wrong! hypothesis. Or, apparently, one might not.

  32. 36

    After reading this intriguing post, I felt like there were a few misunderstandings about the definitions of Rationalism and Empiricism. I do not think it was intended as a straw-man argument against Rationalism, although it does lead one to think Rationalism is far less reasonable than it is. I am going to provide my defintion/understanding of the two terms (an amateur’s understanding, admittedly). It is worth noting that perhaps not all Rationalists/Empiricists define their philosophy in the following way.

    The easiest way to distinguish between the two and grasp their fundamental meaning is to think of the two philosophies as a disagreement about epistemological starting points. Both try to answer the question, “How do we know what we claim to know?” Rationalists say that one must begin with pure (or abstract) reason, while Empiricists tend to argue that experience is the starting place.

    It’s all about what I have heard called “First Principles.” I think that it is necessary in any philosophical framework to have fundamental axioms (“First Principles”) that define the system and serve as the foundation on which the rest of the philosophy is built. These axioms must, in principle, be assumed, and this is most likely where the controversy lies. The question must be raised, “how do you know which axioms are correct?” I suspect this is where the OP would take issue, because a rationalist might say something like “those axioms are true which appear intuitively so.” I confess that “intuition” is a poor term to employ, because intuition nowadays typically is defined in terms of “gut feeling” or “emotional perception.” I prefer the term “self-evident,” which, unfortunately, is no less controversial, but it does eliminate the connotations of emotion and “commonsense knowledge” (or it ought to). An example we are most likely all familiar with is the axiom A = A. A rationalist argues that this is self-evidently true when grasped by the mind, without any appeal to either experience or emotion (gut-feeling). This is because its denial produces absurdities, which are likewise self-evident.

    Now, the Rationalist is aware that such axioms cannot be proved via logical reasoning: why? Quite simply because those axioms are the rules of logic themselves. To attempt to prove that logic works by using logic is circular; it assumes the very thing it is trying to prove. So what can be used to prove that these axioms are true? In essence, nothing–that, however, is not a reason to reject them. These axioms are, for the Rationalist, the starting point, the First Principles, beyond (or behind) which nothing else lies–there is no going further back, no seeing through them any further. They are assumed not because we’ve got no idea what we are talking about, but because we consider logical discourse (even thought itself) impossible without the implicit assumptions of these axioms.

    A philosopher may react either of two ways to this, I believe. One may either be a skeptic, doubting even these axioms (and thus being left in eternal epistemological uncertainty), or embrace these axioms as the logically necessary constituents of thought, and build all other knowledge upon them confidently.

    The Empiricist, on the other hand, does not typically grant these axioms (or thinks they are important, or practical, or some such variation). The Empiricist tends to believe that experience must be the starting point. Now, I have a great deal less to say about Empiricism, since I am not one, and I am wary to misrepresent a view that is not my own. So perhaps an actual Empiricist can correct me here. Generally speaking, however, the Empiricist argues that all knowledge must be rooted in experience and observation, and that there is little reason to believe any claim that is not backed by empirical observation.

    Now I must explain why I am not an Empiricist. I am not, because I do not believe that the Empiricists have answered the fundamental questions concerning epistemological uncertainty. Unfortunately, it is quite simple to ask questions like, “how do you know that observation produces accurate results?” One may answer, “the scientific method allows for repetitive experiments to confirm claims, and it allows anyone to independently verify them.” But unfortunately that does not quite answer the question. The question, why does observation work at all, cannot be answered by appealing to observational practices, just as logical reasoning cannot be proved by logical reasoning without being circular. The scientific method–while I wholeheartedly embrace it–cannot be verified by empirical methods, because it is the empirical method itself, and the whole subject in question. Thus, either one must grant that the scientific method is axiomatically valid (which I do not think), or that one must simply assume it because it produces useful results (which is not very philosophically satisfactory). From my readings of the great Empiricists, I found that virtually all of them undermined their own Empiricism in the end–Hume being an excellent example, who tore to pieces the concept of Cause and Effect (which Kant restored). I’m afraid I need to brush up on my Empiricists, all the same.

    Furthermore, I do not think that logic and logical forms can be empirically observed; rather, they are the framework in which empirical methods operate. The scientific method must frame its conclusions in logical type: e.g.,

    If I observe X, it implies Y, given a,b,c, etc.
    I observe X in addition to a,b,c, etc.
    Therefore Y.

    That’s exceedingly simplistic of course, but the logical form is necessary to make empirical conclusions. Perhaps most shockingly, then, this implies that logic (and, I argue, mathematics) are prior to and independent from empirical observation, and that without them having been axiomatically assumed or otherwise epistemologically validated, the whole of Empiricism falls to pieces at worst, or leaves one an eternal skeptic at best.

    That is why I am not an Empiricist. However, it ought to be noted that most Rationalists do not reject empirical methods (or they certainly ought not to). While I believe that pure reason and its axioms are necessarily prior to empirical observation and serve as its foundation, I do still believe that empirical observation has and will provide us with a wealth of knowledge, both practical and true, and almost certainly in quantities greater than any other epistemological tool that we have. A = A is true, and important (and saves against hordes of nonsense), but it tells us very little about the world we live in. Now, Kant believed that pure reason could add useful knowledge that what not definitional in nature, but I think it would be overkill to delve into his philosophy if not strictly necessary.

    While I am a Rationalist, I do believe that the two schools of thought work best when combined. We definitely need empirical observation to confirm and validate many (most) of the knowledge claims we make. Observation supplies the information (“content”) that is make logical forms meaningful. I observed in one of the comments an amusing Doctor Who reference concerning syllogistic logic:

    All elephants are pink.
    Nellie is an elephant.
    Therefore, what color is Nellie?

    Logically, the answer must be pink, indeed. That is to say, the logical form is perfectly valid. But empirical observation informs us that the content of the premises is false. Thus the argument is valid, but not sound. Experience informs us that elephants aren’t pink, and that Nellie probably isn’t an elephant. So while it is logically valid to conclude that Nellie is pink, it nevertheless is unreasonable to do so because we have good grounds to reject both premises. This is an example of empirical means complementing Rationalism. For a counterexample, consider the following:

    If the earth is round, it is not flat.
    The earth is not flat.
    Therefore it is round.

    Now, while the conclusion is in reality true, the logical form is most certainly invalid (though it is not flat, it is not necessarily round–it could be square or some other shape). So while a Rationalist (or really just any average logician) could reject this argument with good reason, it is not because Rationalism is “better” than Empiricism. The logician merely recognizes that the form of reasoning was incorrect, and may use this to guard against future errors. After all, in a real-world example, we may not know on other grounds whether the conclusion is correct, and thus may make a false conclusion simply because we have had faulty logic. While this may come across as either annoying or simply the show-offish tactics of a professional debater, it is extremely useful, because one should never accept a conclusion for the wrong reasons. Perhaps that conclusion is true, but one must be compelled rationally to search for the right reasons. Undoubtedly, that attitude has and will contribute more to scientific discovery.

    I apologize for the length of this post, but I did wish to be as precise as possible.

  33. 37

    This is such a deliciously ironic post, this is the best part by far:

    “theorizing by extrapolating from information they learned in secondary school and 101-level college classes, picked up in pop culture, or provided by people pushing a political cause.”

    This essay is a total fail… even for secondary school.

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