Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

I hope everyone is comfortably recovered from both Skepticon and any holiday shenanigans. I’m not entirely, but it’s time to follow up on the reactions to my “Why I Am Not a Rationalist” post last week. There’s been a fair amount of heat in response to the post, as well as a good bit of confusion. Let’s see whether I can clear some of that up.

Here are the most common questions and objections I’ve come across.

Q. Bro, do you even philosophy?

A. As is fair for a post that touches on expertise, people asked what qualifications I have for dealing with philosophical concepts. The answer is that most of my formal training in logic is mathematical, not philosophical, in nature. I do, however, have an interest in epistemology that I’ve pursued on my own. With a background in psychology, I’m particularly interested in the way people work with conflicting and incomplete information as a contrast to formal ideas of proof and justified (warranted) belief. I rarely mention the topic, however, as I’m very much a non-specialist.

However, there’s next to nothing in that post that requires any kind of philosophical specialization. The post is about self-identification with one means of understanding the world and its effects on behavior. That’s psychology. More on that later.

Q. What do you mean by “rationalism”?

A. By “rationalism”, I mean what anyone with a basic understanding of the concept means, that it is possible for people to derive or generate knowledge of reality internally rather than by reference to experience. Rationalism comes in many flavors, which differ mostly in how broadly or precisely they apply the idea. That’s why I say very little about it in my post except to note that it’s an individualistic approach. I talked about “rationalists”–those who identify with rationalism the idea that promoting logic and critical thinking will lead to a more accurate view of the world–instead.

Q. What do you mean by “rationalist movement”?

A. The rationalist movement is, broadly, that group of people working to promote logic and critical thinking as the solution to the world’s problems. Critical thinking clubs, people who push to include more critical thinking and logic in schools, organizations that offer classes or other resources to improve thinking–all are part of the rationalist movement. They’re one of a number of overlapping movements that include self-improvement, atheism, skepticism, science communication, and futurism. However, they don’t include all of any of those groups.

Within each group, there are tensions between rationalist and non-rationalist approaches. For example, some atheists point to religion as a failure of critical thinking, while others note that many theologians have been quite sophisticated in their thinking. Some skeptics devote their resources to teaching about logical failures and fallacies, while others work to create repositories of expert opinions and analysis. The rationalist movement is diffuse and not always easy to identify because of these partial overlaps, but that’s true of skepticism too.

Q. This is an attack on Less Wrong, but you’re too cowardly/wishy-washy to say so.

A. That’s not a question. It is, however, a great example of coming to a conclusion with little reference to empirical evidence and treating that conclusion as reality.

If someone actually takes the time to review my blog, they’ll find that I’m hardly shy about naming names. When I have a problem with an individual or organization that is specific to that individual or organization, I say so. There are, in fact, many people who are upset at the degree to which I do this. If I’d meant to limit my critique to Less Wrong, I’d have named Less Wrong. I didn’t do that because I know that Less Wrong annoys a lot of people, and I didn’t want anyone fixating on them as the problem. I’ve found the behavior I talked about everywhere I’ve interacted with the rationalist movement. Given that I run in atheist, skeptic, and science communication circles, that’s a lot of exposure.

That doesn’t mean Less Wrong is exempt either, of course. Ironically, one of the easier places to find critiques of that community on this score is in the comments of Scott Alexander’s post defending Less Wrong from my “attack”. At least one of those critiques introducing the same general problem I’m talking about comes from within the Less Wrong community. Alexander’s post itself is also an example of “deducting” my motivation and meaning without asking me to clarify writing the author found confusing, then running with that interpretation.

Q. Is this about the Center for Applied Rationality?

A. Maybe. I can’t say for sure from where I sit. CFAR is on the self-help end of the rationalist movement, and I don’t have a lot of interaction with that group. I tend to like their advertising, which is goal-oriented and fairly limited in scope, but I can’t tell you how that plays out within the core group associated with the Center. I can’t tell you whether people who complete their workshops come away with a sense that they’ve learned some good brain hacks or that they’re better thinkers in general than they used to be. In short, I don’t have a lot of data. CFAR does research the results of their training, though, and I’d love to see them look at the question.

Q. I’m still confused. Who is this about?

A. Maybe it will help to take your focus off of “who” and think about “how”, because what I’m talking about is a form of cognitive bias. Specifically, it’s a form of the self-serving bias. This is a bias toward attributing our successes to internal factors and our failures to external factors. In other words, when we do well, we do well because of what or who we are. When we don’t, it’s because something else interfered.

Contrary to the name, one doesn’t have to be doesn’t have to be particularly selfish or self-centered to fall prey to this bias. There are a number of factors that make it more or less likely to apply. As this bias appears to function to protect self-esteem, we would expect to find it more often when we’re dealing with competencies that are important to our identities. We find it more in the young, in men, and in individualistic societies. All these things make it theoretically more likely that we’re likely to find a problem of rationalists overestimating the power of the reasoning skills with which they self-identify, which in turn, makes it more likely that they’ll overapply those skills in domains where they’re not warranted, producing the problems I mentioned in my first post.

The fact that we find evidence that this happens among rationalists isn’t definitive proof that this is a problem specific to people who identify as rationalists or critical thinkers. However, the combination of theoretical basis and a degree of empirical evidence suggests the problem deserves attention.

Q. You are aware that identifying as an empiricist comes with its own set of biases, right?

A. Yes. I intimated as much in my post. There’s a great example in the comments of a possible problem too.

While I’m functionally an empiricist, to the point that discussion of metaphysical questions makes my brain wander off and do something else because I have trouble convincing myself that it means something (it does, and I’m glad other people have the constitution for exploring those questions), I try mostly to recognize my own philosophical tendencies rather than identifying as an empiricist. Still, I find some degree of empiricist self-identification useful for maintaining my own epistemic humility, as it’s easy for me to visualize the amount that I don’t know about various topics.

Q. Can you point to specific examples of the behavior you’re talking about?

A. How about “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think”? Dawkins, who is commonly identified as a rationalist without complaint from him, reacted to people telling him that “ranking” rape is not only factually incorrect but serves–socially–to minimize the problem of acquaintance rape (well supported by literature on rape myths) by emphasizing the logic of his statement and accusing his critics of being unable to follow the logic.

Then there’s the phenomenon of rejecting social sciences and/or the humanities as insufficiently empirical, when the alternative is relying on intuition and common societal “wisdom”. That one is common enough that just about everyone who deals with rationalists should be able to call an example to mind.

See also the behavior and the comment thread I linked above in the section on Less Wrong.

Q. Are you trying to destroy the rationalist movement?

A. That would be silly. I don’t have that kind of power, even if that were my goal. Also, it makes many of my friends happy, as I mentioned in my original post.

Q. Then why did you write that post?

A. I wrote it for the same reason I wrote about a skeptic group thinking its inexpert membership had the background necessary to critique a controversial scientific proposition. I wrote it for the same reason I wrote about individual debate being orthogonal to the accumulation of knowledge. Those of us who value knowledge tend to easily recognize obstacles to achieving knowledge that rely on not sharing that value. We’re not as good at recognizing the obstacles presented by the tools we use to achieve knowledge. That means we often haven’t developed the vocabulary to have good discussions about the problems we present. We’ll only develop that vocabulary if we start having the discussion. In the future, when people run into the problem I described, they will, at the very least, have something to point to in order to talk about why it’s a problem.

Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

27 thoughts on “Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

  1. 1

    I talked about “rationalists”–those who identify with rationalism–instead.

    Isn’t this the core of the whole problem? Small-R “rationalists” do NOT, in my experience, identify with the philosophical position of “Rationalism”; the intersection between “people identifying with rationalist movements” and “Rationalism-ists” seems close to empty. So to base an article on the assumption that these are the same people – when they have little in common except the sequence of letters R-A-T-I-O-N-A-L – seems unduly confusing.

  2. 3

    I don’t think that I am confused. I think you are, and that you are confusing your readers as a result.

    Try this experiment. Delete all uses of the words “rational”, “rationalist” etc. from your original article, and replace them with distinct terms for “member of a rationalist movement” and “people who derive knowledge internally”. Do not equate the two except where you have a specific example of a person in category A engaging in activity B.

  3. Ed

    I don’t agree with everything in these “rationalism” articles, but I recognize the problems you’re talking about.

    A related phenomenon, I think could be called the linguistic authoritarian who argues from the root structure of words. The person who argues that there is no such thing as a Jewish atheist because Judaism is a religion or says that atheists have no right to celebrate Christmas because it is by definition.a Christian holiday and even has “Christ” in the name.

    Note that these games could be played by know-it-alls on either side. The practicing Jew could use my first example to exclude secular people from the Jewish community. Simplistic atheists could use it to demand that atheists from a Jewish background deny their cultural heritage.

    In the Christmas example, the obsession with definitions could be a weapon in the hands of either Bill O`Riley or some “more atheist than thou” jerk to unfairly attack an atheist who merely enjoys winter decorations and exchanging gifts and calls it “Christmas” because that’s what it’s generally called in his/her subculture.

    When we rise above this sort of thing into ACTUAL logic and critical thinking the level of discourse generally improves, but problems remain.
    Where I particularly agree with you are on these points:

    A. Garbage in/garbage out. A person can have excellent skills in reasoning yet will make the wrong decisions without good information to reason about

    B. People who over-emphasize logic and reason often assume that their powers of judgment and imagination are virtually limitless. This can be seen in people who make up an ideal solution to every problem in their minds and don’t see why the world can’t simply follow their obviously (they think) excellent advice.

    Cultural bias and other forms of ignorance are shrugged off because they assume reason liberated them from such human weakness.

    I might disagree with you on the following issues (or simply misunderstood):

    A. The “individualistic” nature of rationalism.
    Yes, the act of sitting there learning about the principles of deductive and inductive logic and logical fallacies is more individual than communal. Not entirely, though. The study of logic has been improved upon over time by philosophers and other scholars.

    But this doesn’t mean the person must be an individualist in the negative sense. For example, a member of a sports team might practice skills associated with the sport (running, throwing accurately, etc.) by themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good team player. Cooperation and collaboration requires that the individuals involved are competent to do so. Working on oneself can increase this competence.

    B. The idea(at least on an implicit level) that people can’t have a anything to say on a subject they haven’t studied extensively was a common theme in your articles. I agree in general that we should defer to the experts. But what about very accomplished scientists who use their position to promote theism, mysticism, mind,/body dualism, etc. ?

    In these cases, an atheist, agnostic or skeptic must have the independence of mind to not respect the declarations of the expert.–to say I respect your knowledge, but some of your inductions from it are unwarranted. Many highly educated people believe in dubious or utterly absurd things, and not all people with sensible views have a good education.

  4. 5

    So you’re not confused about anything. You recognize that this post and the last are talking about situations in which the rationalist identity and application of rationalism overlap. You’re just worried others will somehow be confused where you’re not. Okay. I’ll deal with that as it comes up. Thank you for your concern.

  5. 6

    Ed, I’d agree that A can be overcome to at least some degree and that modern rationalism is not absolutely individualistic but relatively individualistic. I also think segments and members of the modern rationalist movement vary in the degree to which they’re individualistic, though the rationalist movement in general tends more toward individualism than those who follow the other approaches I listed above. However, I think that individualism is an important factor in the shift toward overconfidence in one’s abilities and deserves attention for that reason.

    Can you give me an example of B where the person making claims about theism, etc. is an accomplished expert in a field related to the claims they make? The examples that spring to mind for me are people speaking outside their area of expertise, which I think is a phenomenon related to the one I talk about here. Someone is accomplished, overestimates how much their accomplishments are based in the collective endeavor of science, comes to believe they have superior intellect, and thinks that makes them an expert in an area they haven’t studied. What is jokingly referred as “Nobel syndrome” is an example of this.

  6. 7

    @6: One of my go-to examples of “expert saying absurd things” is Sam Parnia, who may well be one of the world’s leading experts in death and medical resuscitation, but who gets most of his popular press coverage from dualist “life after death” crap.

  7. Ed

    Thank you for your answer.

    And you have a good point that many times the big academics promoting supernaturalism are doing it in fields other than their own. But the people I was thinking about (sorry about misspellings of the names; I’m just giving them off the top of my head) are for one, Collins, the Human Genome Project head who promotes theistic evolution and is a moderately conservative Evangelical.

    I’m actually not sure if he claims that his scientific discoveries prove his religion, but he certainly uses his status to give fairly standard issue theism an air of respectability.

    There was deChardin, the Jesuit scholar who I believe was a respected mainstream figure in his day on issues concerning evolution and the fossil record (I forget his exact credentials) developed an elaborate mythology about evolution leading to the union of a collective global consciousness with God.

    A similar singularity enthusiast was the more recent physicist, Tipler, who advocated a scenario in which God is an infinitely powerful supercomputer from the distant future who now transcends time and has infinite power.

    When he started expressing these opinions in books like The Physics of Christianity and The Physics of Miracles in the 90s, scientific and skeptic publications took disapproving notice. But I assumed he was someone respected to begin with or why bother? Lots of people write weird books.

    Then there was that recent case of the neurosurgeon who wrote a bunch of stuff including a terrible Newsweek article about how “near death experiences” prove an afterlife.

    I suppose we could answer such people in the name of scientific consensus rather than rationality–I don’t have expertise in your field, but plenty of other people do and none of them are impressed either.

  8. 9

    Thanks, Andrew. Looks like even his own research doesn’t support his claims but that doesn’t stop him from making them. Lovely.

    Yeah, I’d chalk him up as a good example of the fact that any single heuristic will fail some of the time.

  9. 11

    You recognize that this post and the last are talking about situations in which the rationalist identity and application of rationalism overlap.

    … no, that’s not what I said.

    I think this overlap is negligible, and that by conflating movement-rationalism with philosophical-Rationalism you have taken all the force out of any criticism you make of either. Scott’s commenters can criticize LessWrong effectively because they understand that LessWrong is not philosophical-Rationalist in orientation.

  10. 12

    I don’t think that the members of the “rationalist movement” (as you’ve defined it) are adherents of “rationalism” (as you’ve defined it).

  11. 14

    Lol at the focus on “who”, or what a person practicing a form of rationalism does or does not identify with. This is bad rationalism at its finest right there. How bout we try to deduce putative real motives from putative subtext after we’ve responded to the actual text?

    Using logic and critical thinking is fantastic. But it isn’t worth squat when it is based on false premises (or better, someone’s imagination of what the facts are because they “just know”), and refuses to address any data offered or seek it out for itself. Then there is the case of people imagining they are following a logical method when, in fact, they are not.

    Oversimplified? Yes. But maybe small bites are best in some cases.

  12. 15

    Thanks for elaborating with a followup post!

    I was actually hoping you’d be willing to elaborate on the topic of arrogance; can you give a somewhat concrete (fictional, if you like) example of what you mean?

  13. 16

    Lol at the focus on “who”, or what a person practicing a form of rationalism does or does not identify with. This is bad rationalism at its finest right there. How bout we try to deduce putative real motives from putative subtext after we’ve responded to the actual text?

    Thanks for saying my words before I got here. Though I’d grant that in some instances it’s worth it, if you know a topic and the leading actors in it, to recognise and acknowledge the sources / attributions to positions advanced by specific individuals or groups. Having done so, you should then go right back to discussing the ideas and propositions in question.

  14. 17

    #13 strikes me as exactly the sort of hyper-pseudo-rational jujitsu that I thought these posts were meant to be criticizing. “Where did I say that?” is a dodge, a defensive maneuver designed to evade the thrust of a criticism rather than answer it directly. You never said that the rationalist movement as a whole adheres to rationalism, but I’m not saying “Not All Rationalists”. I’m saying that “rationalists” are no more likely to be adherents of “rationalism” than Republicans, dentists, or airline pilots, because the concepts are unrelated.

    You did, after all, define “rationalist” above as “those who identify with rationalism”, and that’s the crux of the problem. The rationalist movement does not identify with rationalism.

  15. 18

    Lol at the focus on “who”, or what a person practicing a form of rationalism does or does not identify with.

    But the original article was precisely about how people identify, no?

    I have to agree with Andrew G. and drewvogel (disclaimer: I don’t myself identify as a rationalist, or participate in anything I understand as the rationalist movement, beyond discussions in the atheosphere). The original post seemed to me to draw a clear line from “I have issues with philosophical rationalism as opposed to philosophical empiricism” to “I think self-identified rationalists in the ‘rationalist movement’ place too much value on making good arguments and not enough on checking their premises”. I can certainly see an argument that the history of rationalism as a philosophy has a lasting influence on the practice of rationalism within the movement which partly explains the issues you describe, but I suspect that would need to be made at more length and with more thorough support to be fully convincing, compared to the observation that in your experience self-identified rationalists tend to fall prey to certain sources of error.

    In particular, in your second answer here, you go from saying you mean “what anyone with a basic understanding of the concept means” to saying you’re talking about “those who identify with rationalism”. If many of the latter disagree with your understanding, you may have grounds to argue they’re abusing the term, but criticising them based on how you understand the term rather than how they’re using it seems like either missing the point or engaging in a rhetorical sleight.

  16. 19

    “Where did I say that?” is a dodge, a defensive maneuver designed to evade the thrust of a criticism rather than answer it directly.

    No, actually, it’s a question about what words in a 1600-word post you’re objecting to. Thanks for your answer. I’ve made an edit in the post that will hopefully help to clarify. Let me know if you still disagree with it.

  17. 21

    Maybe I am not understanding you but I don’t think you are being fair.

    In your first post you laid out a critique of the idea that it is possible for people to derive or generate knowledge of reality internally rather than by reference to experience. Then you lay out a bunch of consequences of this. All of that is fine. Call this “idea 1”

    Then you hold these consequences to the rationalist movement, and say that it is what is wrong with the rationalist movement. This is where I get confused. I am literally not aware of any “rationalist movement” that holds to idea #1. But what ever. I just figured it was some internet culture I wasn’t aware of.

    But then you made this post, and in this post it seems like you are holding the consequences of idea #1″ to those who identify rationalism with the idea that promoting logic and critical thinking will lead to a more accurate view of the world. But this claim, lets call it “idea 2” is a separate thing from “idea 1.” The flaws and consequences of idea #1 are not at all entailed from idea #2.

    So it seems to me like your saying is the bad stuff about idea #1 is why you don’t identify with the proponents of idea #2, and that the bad stuff with idea #1 is a problem with the proponents of idea #2. Am I wrong? That doesn’t seem fair. It seems like criticizing a common christian for the flaws that come with believing the bible is literal factual truth.

    What I am not understanding?

  18. 22

    If you want to bash Dawkins, go for it. However, conflating philosophical rationalism with rationalist movements still seems dishonest to me.

    Dawkins is more commonly associated with movement atheism. Yes, atheists also claim to be rational, as in “it is rational not to believe in a god”. However, even that is not philosophical rationalism – non-belief is commonly based on evidence, particularly ancient history showing that the bible is not a reliable source.

    Your criticism of “rationalists” may apply to some people, like Dawkins’ “logical” analysis of rape, or your average MRA troll.

    In your original posting you wrote about rationalist movements “founded by libertarians”. The only group I know that fit the description is LessWrong, and they are very much for empiricism. You stated that we should not ask “who”, and ask “how” instead – well, then you should not have written about movement rationalists, because they do not fit in the slightest to what you claim that you wanted to criticize.

  19. 23

    It is important to note that terms like rationalist get used in different ways by different groups of people.

    There is a large group of people who actively use the term “rationalist movement” in India. There are regional organizations all over the country and a national organization called the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). They are about to have their 9th annual congress later this month.

    What you are describing here bears little relation to what they are up to. They are much closer to what some in the US would call “scientific skepticism” with an large dose of anti-theism thrown in.

  20. 25

    Still confused. You seem to be using “rationalist” in a way wildly divergent from how I use it (which in turn suggests that at least one of those uses is divergent from the mainstream consensus).

    In particular, I gather in these two posts “rationalist” means someone who constructs elaborate edifices of pure reason with no attempt made to ground them in anything empirical, and then attempts to apply that to the real world (reacting with anything from indifference to frustration when it almost inevitably turns out to be a poor fit). I’d been understanding it to mean someone who updates on evidence. I guess that’s what you mean by “empiricist”?

  21. 27

    What I am about to say only applies to me and no one else. I try not to let emotional reasoning influence my
    thinking. I try to be as objective and logical in my thinking as possible. But unfortunately I am human and so
    therefore that cannot be absolute. And I think the best method against emotional reasoning is to avoid fixed
    opinions on any thing less it is either objectively true or morally defensible. The best way to guarantee that
    is to educate oneself first and foremost in whatever capacity and also to be surrounded with individuals who
    are more intelligent and who therefore will not hesitate to tell you when you are talking rubbish. I never went
    to university and so am a bit thick so it is not hard finding many who are more intelligent than myself. Being
    aware of Dunning Kruger should make me less prone to being caught out by it but as I do not think l am any
    great thinker anyway that is not really a problem. I do like the fact Stephanie has raised this topic since it is
    highly relevant. For just because someone is a sceptic or a free thinker does not mean they have no biases
    in their reasoning so it is important to be aware of that. I hope she regularly returns to this as it is something
    which needs to be constantly addressed for that reason

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