Social Irrationality?

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But maybe “communal irrational behavior” is the heart of the matter and “a supernatural agent” is just a side show?

His point was that Communism, for example, has many of the traits of a religion, but without a supreme being , and his suggestion was that a non-theistic definition of “religion” which included Communism would be more useful than the theistic one normally used.

Like Razib, but probably more so, I am a “Chamberlain secularist” who does not expect religion ever to disappear. I think that the term

A lot of what is called “communal irrational behavior” I would instead call “social highstakes gambling”. If you cherrypick the disasters (the Branch Davidians, Jonestown, etc.) you have an open-and-shut case against belief. However, if you look at some of the successful social gambles in history (the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, the adventurism or “total committment rationality” of classical Athens, the Polynesian colonization of the South Pacific, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Christianity) you’ll find that a lot of those people were pretty fucking nuts. The colonization of the South Pacific is my model: fair-sized groups of people gathered all of their belongings and set off on the open ocean toward a destination which they had no reason to believe even existed. Most of them were never heard from again, but the lucky ones colonized Hawaii and New Zealand.

The rationalist assumption is that reality is known, and that progress is grounded on reason. But at any given point, key aspects of reality are unknown, and all enterprises are gambles. The winner of a high-stakes gamble profits enormously, but the losers (the majority, probably the vast majority) are destroyed. Don’t these gambles sound like mutations? Most mutations are harmful, some are neutral, and a very small number are beneficial. I am suggesting a social-history version of Donald Campbell’s “evolutionary epistemology”: blind social variation and selective retention (or, in Gould’s words, proliferation and decimation.)

Social gambling tends to be even crazier than individual gambling, because the followers tend to believe the prophets without really understanding them, so that the leaders’ errors can often be often magnified. But sometimes long-shot gambles work. And (as can be seen with the Mormons and the Hasids, for example) the craziest fanatics are often meticulously rational in significant areas of their behavior, and valuable technical innovations which are part of their grand scheme. The very craziness of a religion increases the selection pressures, thus forcing cult members to improvise survival strategies which prudent moderates would not need. (From this point of view, the down side of religion would just be its cost. There’s no free lunch, but on the net, a successful religion is beneficial).

Religions are a leading component of the cultural part of gene-culture coevolution. Crazy religions are mutants, and most mutants die — often because they kill their followers. But we cannot assume that the religions which have survived were rational at the time of their foundation. New religions never are; at the beginning they are always enormous blind gambles.

72 Comments

  1. Was the colonization of the South Pacific really so fucking nuts? I can imagine that much of the colonizing could have been done by people with little to lose – for example, the defeated group in a war, or a group without adequate food resources. Set sail for the horizon, ’cause you’re going to starve to death at home anyway…  
     
    People colonized Siberia not because they were fucking nuts, but because the Russian state put them there.

  2. People colonized Siberia not because they were fucking nuts, but because the Russian state put them there. 
     
    there were people there before the russians showed up :-) but yeah, i just read some stuff about the greek colonies, and most of the settlers were lower class males marginalized by resource scarcities or losers from the elite who were expelled. apparently few women went along so most colonial populations were the offspring of greek males and native women.

  3. The description I saw was of a planned expedition. Population pressure was a background factor, I’m sure, but the groups which were leaving were not leaving because they were starving.  
     
    The common motive for conquest expeditions is not lack of food, but lack of status back home. If you have 20 guys and only 10 of them inherit anything, the losers won’t usually starve, but they’ll be dependent and subordinate. Many extremely overpopulated areas (Bangla Desh, Egypt, and Bali) militarily pretty passive.

  4. The Cossacks who colonized Siberia did so to keep their freedom.  
     
    Anyway, I wasn’t developing a general theory of colonization, just commenting on one kind of group which sailed off toward destinations whose existence was unknown.

  5. John, 
     
    I remember reading years ago that Polynesians were able to tell a lot from the flight patterns of birds , ocean currents and even the smell of the wind, where the next landfall might be. They were also able to lie on their backs in the bottom of their outrigger canoes and sense or feel the direction of the currents, without a compass. 
     
    So they were able to navigate much better than one might think, given their material culture.

  6. Pconroy, I’ve read a lot about Polynesian and Micronesian navigation. Once they knew where someplace was, they were able to find it routinely. But the big colonization expeditions, AFAIK, went past the point of no return without being sure that their destinations existed.

  7. But the big colonization expeditions, AFAIK, went past the point of no return without being sure that their destinations existed. 
     
    genetics should illuminate some. some have hypothesized that large body size in polynesians was selected for to survive the sea travel (people get cold/wet/etc.). if selection occurs that implies differential survival/reproduction. we should see a gradient where the further out the islands are because of repeated selective events (if the mortality rate was high).

  8. Polynesians seem to be bigger than Micronesians. However, that’s just one possible dynamic, and we’re dealing with a rather small number of events. Success could have been controlled by physical endurance, or else just by steering in the right direction at the start.

  9. This is interesting, but Polynesian colonization was just one of several examples (though I did choose it for my model). What I’ve said here already goes beyond what I’m sure of re: Polynesia, and I’m not in a position to look things up.

  10. we’re dealing with a rather small number of events 
     
    yeah, but if the selective event was powerful, like truncation selection, then a small number of events could have a powerful effect. the % who die in each event, the difference between those who die and don’t in average body size, and the heritability of body size, is all we really need. also, we could check it against the effect on the neutral genome, that should also be sampled and less diverse cuz of bottleneck….

  11. btw, i have another example of mass irrationality (acting against very long odds) which resulted in a rather high yield: the first crusade. if you read about what they went through it is pretty clear they should have been massacred in anatolia, at the least. but they ended up conquering the holy land and a bunch of second and third tier nobles from europe because pretty significant figures (e.g., the ‘king’ of jerusalem the most prominent).

  12. I read Villehardouin’s history of the Fourth Crusade. They reached their destination with an adequate supply of wine, but no food. It’s like it was a fratboy invasion. (They also attacked the wrong city — Constantinople).

  13. the first crusade was even more nuts than the fourth. the seige of antioch was pretty much a miraculous victory. it bring it up because it was obviously one of those irrational and nuts decisions which probably changed the course of history and the reproductive values of those who engaged in it and survived.

  14. What is meant by “rationality” in this context? Are social institutions like religion or government “rational” if they: (a) promote human flourishing; (b) promote flourishing of the social institution itself; or (c) are consistent with the best evidence and understanding about the world? 
     
    I’m willing to by (a) or (b). But I just don’t see (c) as relevant.

  15. Well, my point is that (c) is less relevant to (a) and (b) than many claim. And (c) is, in fact, what most people mean by “rationality”. (A) and (b) are both something different. 
     
    I don’t see that you’re actually disagreeing with me. Somehow, though, you seem towish that I hadn’t said what I said. 
     
    I should clarify, however: success in projects requires lots of rationality. But some important successful projects were not decided upon by rational methods, and I think that to a degree it’s systematically true that big projects can’t always be decided upon by rational methods.

  16. Razib says: 
     
    the first crusade was even more nuts than the fourth. the seige of antioch was pretty much a miraculous victory. it bring it up because it was obviously one of those irrational and nuts decisions which probably changed the course of history and the reproductive values of those who engaged in it and survived. 
     
    I think this also highlights very nicely that what is rational, in terms of promoting reproductive success, for males, is very different that what is rational for females. It just does not male sense for females to take those sort of risks, since males can be found everywhere …

  17. A social initiative can transform its future social world regardless of the genetic interests of the actors. The social actor might becelibate, and the elite founders might be ethnically different than the population they lead which ultimately benefits from the innovation.

  18. We’re probably not disagreeing. I’m just trying to work my way through your ideas. 
     
    Over a long enough period of time, high-risk/reward strategies can move the ball a lot farther than low-risk/reward. Eventually, a high-risk/reward strategy is almost certain to succeed. As you point out, a lot of these things fail spectacularly. But the few that succeed can really shake things up.

  19. Another irrational example would be Cortez’s invasion of the Aztec empire, with a few hundred Conquistadors and about 40 horses – they would later conquer Tenochtitlan – aka Mexico City – which by some accounts had over a million citizens. 
     
    The first hand account of this adventure – “The Conquest of New Spain” by Bernal Diaz – recounts over and over the hair-raising incidents, where the odds were stacked mightily against them.

  20. Another irrational example would be Cortez’s invasion of the Aztec empire, with a few hundred Conquistadors and about 40 horses – they would later conquer Tenochtitlan – aka Mexico City – which by some accounts had over a million citizens. 
     
     
    alexander vs. the persians. the greeks vs. the persians. arabs vs. persians and arabs vs. byzantines. of course, some of this might be the victors making the odds seem way higher than they were…after all, arab raiders had conquered large swaths of the eastern roman empire in the in the 3rd century (google zenobia), and the reputed numbers in the persian army are clearly exaggerated.

  21. A lot of unsuccessful Mongol and Turkish armies just disappeared from history. Only the successful ones founded empires.  
     
    I should say that the social ventures I have in mind include religions. I might mention the Druze as an originally preminently insane religion which has, nonetheless, lasted for almost a thousand years. (Casey Kasem is the most famous American Druze).

  22. I don’t find much to take issue with here, although I’d propose that we’re *all* subject to enthusiasms, belief systems, dreams, stories, etc — that, basically, life simply has a religious dimension. You can tune into or out of it, you can be stupid about it or non-stupid about it, you can ignore it or ridicule it or embrace it (or just kinda, you know, allow it to be what it is and get on with life). But there it is. And a personal hunch: the people who are loudest about denouncing it are often the people most helplessly under its sway.  
     
    I like your idea about how religious conviction can inspire people to take risks. A related thing might be the way that much of the greatest art has been made with some relationship with some “God”-type power or figure in mind: in praise of, as a channel to, under the inspiration of, etc. Much art has been a kind of nutty adventure inspired by religious feelings, in other words. You might even say that today’s commercial art (movies, pop music, magazines, glitzy buildings, etc) is art made in praise of the religion known as “global capitalism.” If we can say that Renaissance art was made in praise of Catholicism and the Borgias, why shouldn’t we admit that today’s art is made in praise of the belief structure most of us inhabit? Global capitalism (or however you want to label it) promises earthly goods now and final deliverance eventually — what’s not “religious” about that?

  23. And a personal hunch: the people who are loudest about denouncing it are often the people most helplessly under its sway.  
     
    here’s another hunch: their hypocrisy is just more memorable.

  24. The Polynesian expansion was a remarkable feat, but probably non-nuts. Irwin has a superb book about working out how they did it. Small exploring expeditions find the new land and return. Later, colonising expeditions set out. The trick is to be such wondeful navigators and seamen that you can do this.

  25. I’ll have to check Irwin out, thanks. But some of the jumps they made (from the Marquesas or Tahiti to Hawai’i) seem to have been too far to scout safely.  
     
    Irwin, Geoffrey. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific

  26. The Irwin book is searchable. Pp. 102-103 talk about systematic exploration and scouting.

  27. The polynesians could sail very close to the wind using their version of the lateen sail. They made their voyages of exploration when the winds were against them, knowing that they could always turn around and get home quickly. They were very skilled navigators. They used about thirty stars to determine latitude and sailing directions and had many ways of determining when they were in the vicinity of land. Their explorations were a rational though perilous enterprise.

  28. I think Cervantes was way ahead of us all. Quixote never does get Dulcinea, but his inexplicably loyal disciple, Sancho Panza, does get the island kingdom he has been dreaming of, then finds it is too much trouble to rule the endlessly quarreling natives. And shortly after Quixote was published, the Spanish shrugged and gave up both their dreams and the insane glory of their distant conquests.

  29. Michael Polanyi and others have made the point that passionate (and even irrational) commitment to an idea (especially when the supporting evidence is not strong) is a critical element in scientific advance as well. Keep plugging when everyone else gives up, and occasionally a new truth is established against all odds (so to speak).

  30. Bill: As I understand, Lakatos combined that idea with Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm to suggest that research programs should be autonomous forever. No such thing as falsification any more.

  31. “Global capitalism (or however you want to label it) promises earthly goods now and final deliverance eventually” 
     
    Erm, where do I sign up for that “final deliverance” by means of Global Capitalism? Are we talking “post-humanism” here, or something similar? Because that is just pretty far out of the mainstream.

  32. While we are noticing that the homicidally irrational communism is a kind of religion, we should probably acknowledge that the wonderfully practical free-market model emerged in late 18th Century England, not entirely out of rational motives, but partly out of stubborn religious and political principles about how much power government should have over men, the ‘sanctity’ of property and mutual promises (contracts) and the state’s duty to protect these semi-sacred values. I mean, it’s not like the preceding English political philosophers actually expected the steam engine or the railroad.

  33. The English Revolution was of the 17th century made possible the 18th century revolutions. The 17th century revolutions were partly motivated by completely mythical notions of a pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon paradise, and also partly by a pretty far-fetched reading of the Bible. Some of the Christian revolutionaries of that time were millenarian fanatics who spoke prophetically (the Ranters). 
     
    By the 18th century a lot of the edges had been worn off and the development of ideas was more rational, though some of the fundamental givens were inherited from religious sources.

  34. Discussions of this sort are some of the most heavily-attended at the site but are too much like BS sessions and especially seriously vitiated (as far as promoting understanding) by 
    semantic problems. The one of which I write is alluded to in other posts and Henry Evans (in his first post) begins to address it but trails off before seriously digging in. 
     
    The tarpit is the use of the terms “rational” and “irrational.” As long as current practice in these discussions (because the theme is recurrent) mirrors commonplace idiom, there is little chance for energy to be expressed as light but plenty of chance for heat. Actually, there is a nearly unobstructed path to seeing and putting into proper context (understanding). And here I appeal to the common and well-accepted (among scientists and other serious inquirers) to narrowly delimit and define terms
     
    The term rational derives from reason; rational behavior is reasonable behavior–behavior which has been consciously considered, whether resulting in one form of behavior or another (and even abstention from specific behavior being a form of behavior in itself if the result of consciousness–what we call volition). 
     
    Very many will object at this point. Such a broad definition would restrict the term “irrational” to a very narrow subset of behaviors, all of which are more or less biologically determined: development and growth, body processes and functions, reflexes, etc. It would put virtually all of the behaviors under this discussion in the category “rational” and leave virtually none for discussion except with terms such as “nutty,” etc. But that is precisely my point: quite generally, all such behaviors are, indeed, rational and, I might add, equally so; there are simply no methods for distinguishing the relative rationality of behaviors except some conception (in the mind of the evaluator) as to whether the behavior in question were suitable to the attainment of the result sought by the behaving subject–the actor himself. Thus, in our modern age, we tend to apply the term irrational to a farmer who relies on prayer to provide water while abjuring effort to irrigate. Choosing to irrigate would earn the term “rational” and we might even include in that term the guy who irrigates but prays also–”just to be safe.” But these distinctions are useless. Our opinion on these matters has no effect on the farming techniques selected by the farmer in question but very definitelt interferes with our understanding of supremely important matters (that is, supremely important if human welfare be the end goal).(Posting here to avoid cutoff before continuing.)

  35. Gene, I unclear about your point. For example, Max Weber contrasted rational action (based on reasons) with evaluative (based on given values), traditional (given practices), and emotive action. The last of these is the only one which you would accept as irrational. 
     
    It’s very common for atheists, positivists, and various other people who think of themselves as rational to claim that the troubles in the world come from the irrationality of others, and that if everyone were rational everything would be much better. I personally think that this is not true, because many weighty choices are not completely rationally decidable — rationality constrains choice (by eliminating certain bad answers) but does not give unique answers, no matter how badly those answers are needed. Second, many succcesful choices in the past were not really rationally decided upon. 
     
    I don’t think that it’s meaningless bull session stuff to argue this. I very significantly disagree with a hefty chunk of the educated community about this point. (In my opinion, economics in particular is a loony bin of weird and unjustified rationalism).  
     
    I’m considering the possibility that at some level you more or less agree with me. But reducing the irrational/rational distinction as far as you’ve done seems unproductive to me. There are many activities (e.g. engineering and medivcine) which have been very successfully rationalized over recent centuries. I’m just saying that not everything has been rationalized yet, and I suspect that some things can never be.)

  36. The unique goal of science is to understand what we encounter in nature (including all experience) by application of the human categories “cause” and “effect.” In our thinking (and in conducting “experiments” –a product of our thinking), we must assume that the phenomena constituting reality are the effects of causes and that such causes are logically and temporally precedent to their effects. The efforts of the empiric sciences most frequently consist in pursuing, ever further back, the unknown cause of causes themselves understood in the production of effects.  
     
    In understanding various aspects of human behavior, a very analogous situation exists. In acting rationally (behaving consciously, under the defintition here promoted and defended as best for imparting understanding), we use the term “ends” and “means.” An “end” is a (necessarily) future state in accord with the wish, desire, or will of the actor. All action presupposes both ends and means, both of which are chosen by the actor himself from among alternatives available to him. Where choice in ends is nonexistent, there can be no question: no choice exists in means. Some might object: a man facing certain death may still have a choice of hanging or firing squad but, in such case, his end (manifested in his choice) is some alternative involving pain, dignity, etc. Similarly, where there is no choice of means, there can be no question of ends: que sera, sera, whatever might be one’s preference. 
     
    When this (preceding) is digested and understood, it will be seen that there is a great narrowing of matters on which discussion is necessary and that these mostly boil down to various opinions, sometimes, though comparatively rarely, concerning ends but usually, continually, deafeningly, and confusingly concerning means. The biggest arguments, the longest-running battles, and the sharpest divisions are not between people, parties, or nations who differ in their choices of ends but between those who mightily avow their pursuit of the very same ends as their opponents but differ in one respect or another (often quite small) over the choice of means to be pursued in the attainment of those ends. 
     
    So, it will be seen that the usual reason that people call another’s action irrational is because of their opinion that the means applied for the attainment of that end are unsuitable for its attainment or, possibly, that, even if suitable for its attainment, will likely lead to consequences even more undesirable (in opinion of the evaluator of the desires of the actor) than attainment of the desired end. Just getting to understand this much is a major “breakthrough” of sorts. Much of political harangue and ill-will is generated by disagreement over the suitability of various means, rather than being about ends, world-view, or any truly irreconcilable difference requiring the subjugation (or annihilation) of opponents.  
    (to be continued)

  37. Gene 10:23: I just don’t think that’s true. A lot of big disagreements are about ends. For example, Muslims think of the chastity of women as a prime value. Secular westerners don’t think of it as a value at all, though in an instrumental way they don’t want their daughters to catch diseases, be abused by men, or get accidentally pregnant. There are also massive disagreements about hierarchy: is it a great good, a necessary evil to be minimized, or an evil pure and simple. 
     
    Talk about “rationality” can be normative, descriptive, or both, and that’s a good thing. Either way you seem to want to flatten the distinction between rationalized action and other forms of action, and I don’t understand why. Historically the rationalization of forms of organization and technical processes has been a discernable trend, and by and large it has been a good thing (though the efficient rationality of the Nazi death camps was certainly not). 
     
    I am not anti-rationality, but excessive claims are often made for rationality.

  38. John: 
     
    Nowhere did I imply that there were no differences in ends–only that there are far fewer than appear (and some of those fade further when examined closely). 
     
    And I nowhere implied that rationality is a better way of proceeding than some other with which it might be contrasted. If anything, my statement could boil down to an insistence that rationality is the only method for resolution of choices. About that there is no choice whatever and bringing up the behavior of Nazis or any other group whose behavior most find abominable is a rhetoric tactic of questionable merit in penetrating to truth. The Nazis were no more rational than anyone else; if anything might be said of their behavior, it would be to observe that they were more consistent than most in the application of doctrines which, even today, are considered normal, acceptable, and unremarkable. In the main, their ends were not much different from run-of-the-mill for nations generally. It was most entirely in their choice of means that brought them afoul most of the rest of the world and assured their eventual defeat.

  39. Maybe the time has come to take a break from the terms “rational” and “irrational”… 
     
    Mah man Stephen Toulmin makes a distinction that I find very useful between formal-logic-style thinking and reason. In his opinion, we’ve drastically overdone the emphasis on formal logic and haven’t given nearly the respect it deserves to “reason,” which in his telling is the jumbled, multidimensional way (tradition, puzzle-solving, association, etc) we normally get through the day. 
     
    Nobelist Daniel Kahneman (PDF alert, but worth it) makes a similar distinction between System One style thinking and System Two. System One is everyday thinking-feeling-dreaming-etc. System Two is deliberate methodical step-by-step style thinking-thinking. His studies have shown that System One is far more powerful than System Two, and that even people who specialize in System Two fall back on System One hyper-often. He seems to think, I gather, that it’d be a good idea for people to use System Two as a way of reality-checking themselves, but that it’s pretty hopeless to expect anyone to rely on it 24/7.

  40. Gene, you seem to object to any distinction between rational and other methods of deciding, even the Weberian one I mentioned.  
     
    “Rationality is the only method for resolution of choices.” What can that possibly that mean? That any time anyone makes a choice, they’re being rational? It’s like you’re throwing away a usable word by making it mean everything. 
     
    What I’m saying is that the kind of rationalization that we’ve seen in the West has been very powerful, but that it can’t cover everything, and specifically that the (secular, positivist, rationalist) idea that rationality (in a specific sense) can decide everything and that all good things are specifically rational is ahistorical and wrong. In particular I think that religion functionally religion provides needed answers for difficult questions for which there are not unambiguous rational answers, under any specific definition of rational. 
     
    I mostly agree with what Michael B says.  
     
    And just to repeat, engineering has been successfully rationalized, and I generally want my engineered products to have been rationally produced. Likewise most of medicine.

  41. Above is me. Haloscan is fuckin wit me.

  42. Michael Blowhard proffered: 
     
    Global capitalism (or however you want to label it) promises earthly goods now and final deliverance eventually — what’s not “religious” about that? 
     
    Hmmm, I am not of the opinion that I need to be delivered of/from anything, nor do I need to atone for anything other than the transgressions I have committed against other humans. 
     
    So, I am not sure what you mean. I am keen, however, to get a number of earthly goods and services now.

  43. Richard — You sound very level-headed.  
     
    It can be fun, though, to look at TV ads and celebrity magazines as the religious art of our time, and at things like business and success books as the religious literature of our age. The imagery and sounds are full of rapture and bliss — ecstasy and transcendence are yours if you own a BMW! A long happy rewarding life is yours if you diet, think positive thoughts, and get an MBA! You might even become one of the Select and Immortal (ie., a celebrity or a tycoon) if you’ve got that special magic touch!  
     
    It’s a whole body of material that’s seductively peddling hyper-attractive myths, which a lot of people turn to consciously and unconsciously for guidance and spiritual sustenance. Religious, as far as I’m concerned. 
     
    Which doesn’t mean there might not be something to watching what you eat and getting an MBA, of course …

  44. Mike and John:  
     
    Now we’re getting a little closer to it. John raises, as a dispute to my contention, that we’re throwing away a perfectly good word (“rational”) by making it cover more than people usually ascribe to it and thereby rendering it less meaningful. 
     
    Just as their are “sins of ommission” as well as “sins of commission,” just so there are errors in thought and consideration tracing to the use of words that convey non-existent distinctions. 
    Just such is the case in the common (and commonly used here in the expositions of many) use of “rational” as a synonym for thought or action whose method or result “makes sense” to the evaluator as opposed to similar that seem misguided; in this sense, there can hardly be any difference between “irrational” or the common terms “stupid” or “ignorant.” A case in point is the entire therapeutical enterprise covered by the term homeopathy. The original ppropositor, a Dr. Hahnemann, apparently believed that he’d discovered a principle wherein small (vanishingly small, in cases amounting to none at all) amounts of a pathogenic or poisonous substance constitute an adequate or even the most desirable counteraction of the undesired condition. He was (and we are) familiar with various forms of inoculation conferring immunity on those so treated; Hahnemann (assuming no charlatanic intention) merely made incorrect assumptions as to the nature of the benfit conferred. We would simply say he “was mistaken.” In the truest sense of the word, we see the effect of ignorance (of the human immune system) and a certain innumeracy (or naivete) involving the amount of the operative remedy available after the multiple dilutions recommended. Move along, folks, nothing happening, at least nothing new here. Human history is a continuous process during which better ideas of one or another sort have supplanted older, less-satisfactory methods. And, sometimes, it even works in reverse to usher in less satisfactory ideas under the influence of error of one sort or another. “Irrational” is just a bogey-man, a pejorative intended to demean what one doesn’t like or approve without resort to explanation of just wherein error lies or might lie. And it’s extra-handy in many cases for those who are, themselves, ignorant of the fact that the disapproved action is the result of quite rational considerations–just not those with which he’s familiar or with whose assumptions he agrees. 
     
    Let’s take a very famous example from the history of economic thought. The late economist, Keynes, wrote, in the thirties, in comment on his own treatise and adoption of its recommendations by governments (especially in the US and UK) that: “we have witnessed the miracle of turning a stone into bread.” Keynes was no believer in miracles–the “miracle” to which he referred and in which he believed, was an improvement in human welfare that could be had through government interference in the market as compared to its operation without such interference. My own hero (virtually unknown then in the US and barely now known anywhere) made the remark at the time (though in German): “What we witness is not the miracle of turning a stone into bread but the very non-miraculous event of consuming one’s seed-corn.” 
    At another time, he observed that Keynes’ methods could be likened to burning one’s furniture–OK where survival was at stake but not recommended as a method of heating one’s home.  
     
    Keynes is disavowed today. But those very same disavowers continue fiddling with various of the same methods recommended some 70 years ago (and with results that may bring catastrophe on a scale unimaginable in former times. 
     
    I didn’t want to get into economics. But the very same principles apply in many spheres of life. And, as long as differences are to be seen as between competing “irrational” and “rational” 
    ideas competing for mens’ subscription and action, not much progress is to be made in melioration of many unsatisfactory conditions–that is, not much progress that cannot be undone at a stroke (or push of a button). 
     
    Of all the places I’d expect to see Muslim preoccupation with female chastity described as an “end,” GNXP would have been the last. What appears an “end” is, with great frequency, when examined, merely a provisional end, more a means to a more remote end and the one I’d suggest is assurance of paternity (and concern with loss of “face” involving cuckoldry or even non-chastity of relatives). Moreover, in their conquests, Muslims were hardly abstainers from rapine inflicted on cowed populations; in this respect, they differed not at all or only slightly from conquerors since the dawn of time. And surely, those truly interested in chastity 
    (as opposed to paternity) would be loath to employ slave eunuchs as harem guards–a goodly number are quite capable of intercourse, though not insemination. 
     
    Ends are irrational–not subject to examination on the basis of reasonableness or even attainability. But, if subject to consideration, even what formerly seemed ends, in being reduced to the level of provisional, are no more than means, subject, as are all means, to questions of whether or not liable of success and delivery of satisfaction associated with the term “end.”  
     
    Anyone, of whatever culture or religion (or none) who seeks earthly welfare for himself or his people (and thus confirms a commitment to principles of social cooperation–whatever they might be)–questions of society’s arrangement and the conduct of social affairs are no longer a matter of “world view” but ideological issues–technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible. Even among the most fervent enemies of “western civilization,” for instance, few there are who would prefer the complete disintegration of all society everywhere, including their own, and return to the primitive level of animals–merely to defeat those opposing their world view. Even though the religious roots of different groups are truly of the sort that might qualify for the term “ends” and irrational in and of themselves, the leaders of such do not tell their followers that the way on which they lead will certainly condemn those same followers to poverty, a miserable existence, and death. They make quite different promises, all of which are associated with making of threats, bluff, compromise, diplomacy, conciliation of dispute and disagreement, etc. Ends themselves cannot be reconciled where differences exist; conflicts regarding ends must impel fighting till death. But where the impulse to continue living exists (even to “fight another day”) the conflict has been brought into an arena of disagreement over mere means and the way opened for some resolution.

  45. I’ve always wanted to write something about the merging of psychology, self-help, stock market and investment advice, career counseling, business management handbooks, futurology, pyramid marketing, homemade spirituality, new age thinking, cult religions, and some forms of organized christianity,  
     
    It functions as I said in my post, and as with mutations generally, much of it is pretty toxic and parasitical on the believers, but you can never be sure that somewhere in there there’s not something that will work. (For the record, though, it’s not for me, regardless. I have known people whose lives improved after involvements of that sort, though in many cases the improvement was temporary and left a hangover.)

  46. This is John Emerson again, posting anonymously because haloscan hates me. 
     
    Gene, Muslims think that female chastity is a good thing as such, but it’s the property of the woman’s family and worth stealing. Some Christian groups think the same way. Most modern seculars do not: they do not think of my daughter’s chastity as a valuable family resource, and (by and large) they do not have sex with women as a way of shaming their fathers. 
     
    First, you seem to say that all action is instrumental. Weber said that it is not, and that traditional, evaluative, and emotive action are not instrumental (calculated for effect). He did not call the latter forms “irrational”, which has been appropriated as a smear word, but said that they were distinguishable from rational action. I think that this is a useful distinction. 
     
    However, when I was talking about the irrationality of the successful social projects I named, I was not specifically using Weber’s definition. I was using (and speaking against) contemporary secular / scientific / utilitarian ways of discussing rationality (related to Weber’s, but more normative). I was basically saying that knowing what they knew, all the groups I named were taking very long, unreasonable gambles, and furthermore, most of them were making their decisions on the basis of principles (drawn from the Book of Mormon, for example) which were pretty clearly false or ungrounded (and in any case, dependent on revelation, which is a subcategory of “trditional” action.) 
     
    Now, my point has been that a.) many successful ventures were not grounded on rationality the way contemporary secular scientific rationalists think they should have been, and b.) the secular scientific rationalist ways of deciding questions are not adequate to decide many important questions having to do with future-oriented action. So I am hardly a rationalist or a preacher against “irrationality”, but I do think that the term “rationality” should be kept (granted that “irrationality” is not its exact descriptive opposite, but a normative slur.)

  47. I think in respect of actions, Gene is exactly right. The process of matching means to ends is rationality itself. People may err, but being in error is not the same as being irrational. 
     
    But what about matters of opinion divorced from action? Doesn’t it make sense to label certain opinions at certain times as irrational? Buying a lottery ticket is rational behavior in the sense that doing so satisfies the purchaser, but expecting to actually win the lottery is a different matter. Why isn’t such an expectation, if held, demonstrably irrational? And aren’t there many other opinions that can legitimately be described as irrational?

  48. John Emerson here 
     
    Well, Weber describes three types of action which are not done by matching means to ends. Not all action is instrumental. Impulsive action or action prescribed by religious revelation also does not seem to be rational except insofar as it is somehow voluntary. 
     
    What I do is define rationality as opposed to other sorts of decision making, but deny that all action can or should be rational in the defined sense. What you seem to do is define all instrumental action as rational and then describe all action as instrumental, in order to get rid of the terms “irrational” or “non-rational” entirely. I don’t see the point of that.

  49. Henry: 
     
    As a general matter, opinions are not the subject of my interest–or even knowledge (except those expressed in some concrete action). I hardly need point out to you or anyone here that what seems to be a person’s opinion, especially that shared with others, has, potentially far more content and purpose than mere expression of opinion (which it may also be, at some times). 
     
    The lottery ticket example isn’t bad. The person is merely satisfied that his purchase is “worth it” with respect to the price paid. Nothing more complicated about it than that. Among the purchasers, there may be those with an extremely accurate idea of the probabilities involved and even the concrete knowledge that, after 50% taken off the top, maybe 5 cents for sales services, and an obligatory 25% or so of the 45% proceeds (taxes), his actual “expectation” in mathematical terms is just about 34%. So what? He’s feeling lucky today! A “bad bet” may be stupid but only to some–others find it the “stuff of life”–and who’s to tell? No one who goes to casinos on a regular basis comes out a winner (it’s not the odds, per se, but the “Law of Large Numbers” that sees to it that casinos cannot go broke and rarely even post a loss on a gambling unit–machine, table, etc.) An empirical scientist with the right hook-up might determine that, at some threshhold risk level, a “win” produces endorphin stimulation of a level, which if repeated often enough and at sufficiently short intervals, counteracts whatever negative feeling arise upon each loss–and thus keeps him from leaving. That’s nice, but hardly sufficient to understand ordinary, purposive behavior. “I’m feeling lucky today!” is all we need to know. 
     
    But with respect to people’s actions, whether or not an opinion about the end of that action be expressed, we are frequently able to make some judgment as to the suitability of the means; not a judgment as to whether or not the means were rational but whether suitable. There is a universe of actions (called policies) pursued by governments for the attainment of particular results or at least promoted in that fashion. I could go on about these and the utter and demonstrated unsuitability of most but this is not a forum for that sort of thing.

  50. Michelle Malkin points to a monstrous piece of news 
     
    However, in some sense, despite the monstrous nature of what that muslim male did, perhaps it is a good thing, because, to the extent that genetics helped him arrive at that situation, his daughters could have passed those same genes on to their sons, if they had any …

  51. John Emerson said? 
     
    Now, my point has been that a.) many successful ventures were not grounded on rationality the way contemporary secular scientific rationalists think they should have been, and b.) the secular scientific rationalist ways of deciding questions are not adequate to decide many important questions having to do with future-oriented action. 
     
    I think you established both, especially the first, pretty well in your post. As such it was definitely thought provoking. Many of the comments, especially some quick supplementary examples from Razib and yourself, added to the argument. 
     
    Or at least you established both quite well within the parameters or implicit assumptions you were using about where the limits of what?s ?rational? are. Or perhaps I should really say, about the point of view of the rationality. 
     
    It may well have been irrational from individual participant?s point of view to charge off on the First Crusade, given the long odds. (Assume here for the moment that retaking the Holy Land and Jerusalem in particular was an important goal for Christendom (with plunder along the way also nice but secondary), rather than inherently an folly because not conceivably net economically positive.)  
     
    If it was a worthwhile goal but the odds were long, was it really folly for the Pope or Christian society as a whole to keep throwing large but non ruinous fliers off towards that endeavor, to see how long it would take one of the campaigns to succeed, and perhaps durably? I guess we are again talking here at the level of group selection of one sort or another. In this case largely group cultural meme selection.  
     
    I guess in the end this isn?t so dissimilar to your arguments about competing memes, most disastrous if they?re radical, but out of that mess of experiment, some survive by providing success. I?m just saying if you shift your level of analyzing the level or for whom or what ?rationality? should be measured, taking regular flyers that don?t risk the whole enterprise can make sense. 
     
    Finally, seems to me that some of this rationality even applies to individuals. Most are no doubt caught up in enthusiasms. French Foreign Legionnaires were (somewhat still are) famous for routinizing the process of the previously disgraced or relatively disgraced having an opportunity for salvaging themselves, or perhaps a more glorious form of suicide.

  52. Last sentence should start with a “but” or “however”.

  53. dougjnn: 
     
    You’re evidently persuaded towards John’s support for a (vague and variable) defintion of “rational,” which is (not at all coincidentally) identical with common usage. I’ve no objection with the common usage in everyday speech but in discussions intended to be scientific or, at least, analytical, I’d simply point to the disutility in making distinctions which exist only in the mind of the utterer, need explanation or amplification to convey actual meaning to the listener (or reader), and, to the degree successful, actually divert attention from what very well might be fruitful avenues for resolution of conflict, melioration of conditions, etc. Whether a “lone voice” or not, and with no intent to impugn the motive or demean the intelligence of anyone at all, I categorically dismiss the arguments advanced in opposition to mine (above) as unproductive of any increase in understanding (and counterproductive in that they simply continue what is–recognizable to all as–an unsatisfactory status quo). 
     
    Any stridency noted in my post(s) is bound up with a degree of frustration at my obvious lack the expressive ability needed to bring about the change in othres’ minds of that I believe will benefit not only them but the larger society in which they continuously express interest. 
     
    Quite fittingly, we are presented with a horrendous example (the Muslim murderer of his wife and daughters while his son lay dying of cancer) said to be an example of extreme “irrationality.” Apart from jokes about “Darwin Awards” or the like, I’d simply insist that the action of the man was completely rational, as must be all choices: irrationality is applies to ends, never to means. If that seems a “stretch,” so be it–I cannot minimize the distinction. I can only point out that most of the world’s conflicts and problems are caused (or exacerbated) by that very same mistake and that resolution and/or melioration are only possible where there is more widespread appreciation that what most frequently appear as irreconcilable (irrational) ends are, under scrutiny, disagreements about suitability of means–an area in which (unlike the other) science and reason have important roles to play.

  54. Quite fittingly, we are presented with a horrendous example (the Muslim murderer of his wife and daughters while his son lay dying of cancer) said to be an example of extreme “irrationality.” Apart from jokes about “Darwin Awards” or the like, I’d simply insist that the action of the man was completely rational, as must be all choices: irrationality is applies to ends, never to means. 
     
    OK, now let’s discuss this notion somewhat. 
     
    The first point I would make here is that human choices are never perfectly rational in the sense of the individual having consciously weighed all courses.  
     
    To a large extent, our actions at important points of our lives are driven by genetically (and of course to some extent environmentally) shaped emotions. For example, the decision to do something completely foolish to try to impress a female (or male) is surely, in the late teens and early twenties, totally driven by our genetic imperitive to reproduce and the fact that extreme or quirky actions have succeeded for us in the past. 
     
    In the case of this muslim male, I imagine that the single thing most likely to have informed his decision (although I would hesitate to call it rational) is his fear of rejection by his society because of the impending un-muslim actions of his offspring. 
     
    But his action is surely irrational because he actually destroyed his genetic heritage! Unlike men who get women pregnant and then abandon them (in the hope that the woman can successfully raise the child–and I know of enough cases where this has happened) that muslim man in England acted against his own interests.  
     
    Thus I would distinguish between two forms of the irrational. The hopefully irrational where the actor is shooting for a very large payoff that has a low probability of occurring, and the totally irrational where the actor’s actions destroy every possibility of any gain. 
     
    Now, of course, some actions, like suicide, can be explained as the normal mechanisms that prevent us from making such mistakes again in the future being in overdrive. Some individuals will have a most likely genetically enhanced sense of guilt that drives them to commit suicide when others will simply feel depressed or bad for a period of time.  
     
    C’est la vie!

  55. Per Gene: 
     
    Mr. Emerson is using ‘rational’ in the ordinary sense that it is used, that being “doesn’t violate one’s sense of the normal”. It means the same as “reasonable” and also “sensible”. I’m not sure, but it may say something rather profound about humans that the two ‘ways of knowing’ as it may be, the reason and the senses, used as adjectives, have ended up as meaning “behave in a way that I find ordinary”, as they evidently have. I guess I’d have to see if that’s the way it is in other languages or it is incidental to English. 
     
    It seems that very few people would call a ‘rational’ person as someone who assigns causes to contingent things, thereby necessarily making the distinction between ‘contingent’ and ‘necessary’, which one needs to do in order to reason as described above, and does so by noting that contingent things are described by synthetic statements and necessary things are described by analytic statements. If one does so as far as one might go, let the chips fall where they may, where one ends up might violate Richard Dawkins’ sense of the normal, and you know what he will therefore call you.

  56. Michael Blowhard: 
     
    I didn’t respond to your post (above) because it was a departure (though related) to the thread of the discussion. But a response it does deserve. 
     
    I don’t know either of the folks to whom you refer; to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never even run across the names before (but then, I don’t get out much). But the stuff you cite as contributions seems just more suppositional BS of the type characteristic of some professional intellects. 
     
    Actually, you were doing better and more productively with your own thought. 
     
    Reason and logic are not two different thing: they are different aspects of the very same phenomenon. Reason is the process involved in action, in choosing between alternatives; logic is the way in which our minds work–the pattern or program, if you will–in the reasoning process. Reason and logic are not synonymous but coterminous.. Now, I recognize that no one need subscribe to the view I’ve expressed and, as a plain matter of fact, though much evidence may be advanced to support my contention, the entirety cannot be said to constitute “proof” under any rigorous interpretation of that word; furthermore, similar evidences might be advanced for opposing views–of the type suggested in your post. It might be suggested that it’s a case of “well, you pays your money and takes your choice” (candy store, horse race, brothel) but, at this juncture, up pops the old “rule of thumb” known as Occam’s Razor, which, though unverifiable in any demonstrably causal way, has support in being so many times (overwhelmingly) correct. 
     
    Thus, I would point out that, both in my opposition to what your guys have to say about thinking and modes of thinking and in my opposition to the use of the word “irrational” in the fashions employed by those posting in oppositon to my position and explanations (in other than casual, BS-type conversation), the ol’ Earl of Ockham is most clearly (and heavily) on my side in the matter, though I did not (and do not now) offer that as proof (even parsimony may be in the eye of the beholder).  
     
    The point is actually simplicity itself and of supremely practical value. As long as some of the actions of others can be described as irrational, there exists no method to eliminate potential conflict except those of rigid segregation, incarceration, or annihilation. And, though these practices have, indeed, been all too common in Man’s history, it is apparent as well that, from very ancient times, men have actually behaved in many instances as though guided by the ideas I here advance , even without support of the formal expression of the underlying reasoning. That men more frequently do not engage in wars of extermination but clearly think ahead 
    to more peaceful times (in which they shall have been victorious) that, in much of their behavior, men are prone to treat their enemies as rational, no matter their propaganda on the topic.  
     
    The whole point is that (in serious discussion) improper use of the word “irrational” is a detriment to understanding ourselves and others– not merely imprecision in language (though it is that, also). Over a hundred million have been slaughtered in just the century past arising directly from failure to practically apprehend this difference; many more will, unfortunately, succumb similarly before it be more widely understood. I just don’t like perpetuation of such nonsense in a forum supposedly devoted to scientific advance and human progress.

  57. j mct: 
     
    Reason and the senses are not “two different ways of knowing.” Our senses are systems for the reception of sensory stimuli; the stimuli, if sufficient, may cause responses such as reflex, change in function under control of the autonomous system, cognition–and may impinge one, two, or all three. We do not automatically “know” (but we may) of reflex or autonomous response; neither can we be sure of what we know–only of what we are aware in a conscious state.  
     
    Because you seem to be “coming from” a different language background, I’ll merely reiterate for you here that the object of discussion is merely my contention, which I believe to have been demonstrated fully, that the common term “irrational,” as used frequently in ordinary discussion to denote either a lack of adequate consideration, a faulty selection of information, a too-hasty weighing of selected information, etc.–is inadequate and incorrect in serious discussion of peoples’ actions–on the very simple basis that it boils down to an opinion expressed by the user as to the adequacy of the reasoning of the actor. The simple fact that we observe any action whatsoever is prima facie evidence of a choice, the employment of reason. Where there is action, choice is a necessary precedent and rationality is involved. Where no action is observable, we cannot always know whether choice has occurred without knowing something more about the case. (It is sometimes, very frequently, the case that inaction itself is a choice, and therefore action of a sort, itself.)  
     
    As you will have observed, my only purpose has been to point out the degreee to which the term “irrational” in the common usage (impulsive, ill-considered, impractical, unlikely of success, crazy, “nuts,” etc.) lacks the precision necessary to proper discussion, especially of serious matters; more than that–it suggests strongly that the “irrational” actor is beyond ordinary efforts of reason, legal or moral strictures and codes of conduct which otherwise might be available to change the mode of conduct in some wise in the future. 
     
    None of my respondents has offered a single rebuttal to my contentions. Rather, all have simply repeated that which had been criticized without any comment which might have been intended to explain or expand their reasons or their insistence (except Michael Blowhard, addressed above).  
     
    The important point is that, when we speak of irrationality, we speak of something beyond the power of reason to affect and, therefore, assign the supposedly irrational to a category of others to be dealt with in other ways, which I’ve mentioned. But (and, again, to repeat myself) the plain fact is that almost all disputes among men are disagreements over the suitability of means to be applied for the attainment of ends.  
     
    Insofar as men actually perceive their differences with others as conflicts involving mutually exclusive ends (which are by definition, irrational and beyond examination, even by themselves), they will perceive one or another form of aggression as an entirely suitable, the only suitable, means for their own happiness and fulfillment. But the plain fact is that men are not often quite that misguided and, even when they are, it is most usually because they have fallen into the logical error I’ve described (very often under the influence of parties, leaders, etc.)

  58. A big part of things like the decision to sail off and try to find a better land, or to go and settle the praries, or whatever, is acceptance of a new assumption about reality that you don’t know enough to evaluate yet. It’s common not to have enough information to make a really good decision about what to do next, and so people and large groups sometimes have to just make a guess and then commit to it, and follow that guess for a long time to have some chance of success. 
     
    When Pa Ingalls took his family off across the plains to homestead some new land, he was making all kinds of assumptions about what their new life would be like. Indian troubles, malaria/yellow fever/whatever, etc., could have easily cut their homesteading adventure short. It’s not that he was behaving irrationally in any normal sense that the word is widely used–he was making a decision of means consistent with his ends, his ends are ones that many others could agree with, etc.–but he had to make a bunch of assumptions about the world in order to try homesteading, and to leave a relatively comfortable life back in the Big Woods.  
     
    It’s interesting to ask how this happens. And the analogy that comes to mind is the way the body produces antibodies–your society produces a huge range of people whose strategies and beliefs and ideas and abilities will “bind” selectively to a wide range of possible situations. Those who find a good fit reproduce, and also recruit like-minded others (okay, it’s not a perfect analogy). Some people can’t abide living within sight of the neighbors, others are endlessly combatative, others want to find a niche in which they’re needed by lots of people around them, others want to accumulate lots of wealth, etc. At different times and places, these strategies pay off well or poorly. When circumstances change, new strategies pay off, and that diversity of starting assumptions and tendencies makes it possible to quickly adapt.

  59. Albatross: 
     
    You are quite right in the picture you present. Whether it has occurred to or not, the general, common component among those “venturing out” is a consideration of future conditions and the mental contrast with those of “what might be,” tempered by some (unknown to us but doubtless present) conception of costs and risks. These are similar, if not identical, to what occurs in virtually every mind not yoked to the status quo and repetition of past routine. And, included in the routinists also are those who merely daydream, whether to themselves or aloud, these activities being primarily a form of entertainment. 
     
    Pioneers are similar to entrepreneurs in this respect–it’s the unifying substrate of all innovation through with progress occurs and is marked by a further commonality: a need to have accumulated, by one means or another (but most usually by deliberate restriction of current consumption), the werewithal with which the new plan is to be carried out. To a great degree, whether pioneer or entrepreneur, both risks and penalities of failure accrue primarily to the account (and life) of the risk-taker himself (and family, in many cases) while rewards are spread widely among both those who follow later and even to those remaining behind. The general rule is that the reward, if any, reaped even by the successful, pales to insignificance as compared to benefits conferred on those others through the fruits of his forward-looking spirit.

  60. My point in expressing the above is simply to observe that the thread of the post is concerned to understand the cause of certain population movements and that task is enormously complicated by the fact that we are not even in position to explain in any satisfactory manner why an idea, seemingly obvious in retrospect, occurs to the mind of one individual and not to his slower fellows; even further are we at a loss to explain why ideas occurring to some enable them to persuade those slower others to the action necessary to their execution while the same or similar ideas conceived and expressed by others fail to excite or mobilize action. 
     
    Until more is understood of the questions I pose, most explanations advanced will remain conjecture–hypotheses which carry differing degrees of persuasiveness–rather than some actual form of knowledge.  
     
    Nearly 60 years ago, I read the very famous– Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire–by Gibbon, a massive, 3-volume work. Though I was young, I wasn’t stupid, nor had I any trouble in digesting what was contained. Forever after, I was aware that I “hadn’t a clue” as to how that civilizational enormity had happened–beyond a few vague generalizations that really didn’t explain anything at all. Then, in 1972, I happened to read an explanation of exactly that occurrence (whether it’s considered an event or a process is immaterial), after which I had as complete and satisfactory understanding as is possible and the entirety could not have been more than 5 pages–maybe as few as three. But, quite beyond clearing up a mystery (about which I no longer cared anyway), the new appreciation made me aware just how dependent certain types of understanding are on other knowledge (whose central importance cannot even be imagined by most). I am reminded of that whenever I see such conjecture, no matter how honest or well-intentioned.

  61. “Chamberlain secularist”? 
     
    Neville? 
    Wilt?

  62. Steve: 
     
    “Wilt” put me in mind of two stories of mine–both true, if that makes any dif. 
     
    First, when I was in HS (soph, I think) at Upper Darby (suburban Philly), our school played a football game with Overbrook (Philly). On our way home, 3 of us saw an apparition walking–we thought it was two kids, one on the other’s shoulders–in a big, long overcoat. We tailed him enough to be satified it was just one kid and one guy said, “I’ll bet that’s “Wilt the Stilt” (whom I had never heard of to that time–I think he’d have been in 8th or 9th grade at the time and the one who knew of him was an avid B-ball follower). 
     
    Wilt was also the last name of Fred, well-known 
    FBI agent in the area, in the news from time to time, and a sought-after speaker to all types of groups, including HS “assemblies” on law-related topics. I remember he was a frequent winner of middle-distance AAU running events (as was Horace Ashenfelter, Collegeville, PA, another FBI guy who won the steeplechase in one of those “ancient” Olympics.)  
     
    Anyhow, Wilt addressed our class, warning of dangers associated with hitch-hikers. He said “43% of hitch-hikers have fingerprints on file with the FBI.” After his presentation, he called for questions and I rose. Everyone (in my class of 500+)) knew of my thumbing “exploits”–I’d even been front-page news in virtually every major newspaper in the country. I asked Mr. Wilt if it weren’t true that those who’d served the military in WW II and since “had prints on file with the FBI.” “Yes” was his answer. “Aren’t prints of nearly all government employees, State and Federal, including law-enforcement officers, in FBI files?” Again, “Yes” was his reply. “And schoolkids–haven’t most of them been printed on a voluntary basis for ID purposes for Civil Defense? Another “Yes.” Similarly to the question: “Isn’t it be safe to say that 60% or more of all Americans’ prints are on file?” Again, “Yes, that’d be true.” It looked like I had him dead to rights! 
     
    But ol’ Fred never got flustered, never broke a sweat. “That’s just the point,” he told everyone, “the fact that so many fewer hitch-hikers are on record with the FBI proves that, as a group, they have something to hide.” Now, Steve, he didn’t fool any of my friends or classmates (I’m out on a limb here– but would guess most that I had classes with–the same group of 30 or so together from 7th through 12th–were in the over-125 IQ range) nor any of our teachers as I remember. But the general reaction of most was that he had “had” me–and the matter of fact is, he had. And, I thought that story was particularly appropriate because the original thread topic was deceit of roughly similar sort.

  63. Chamberlain: it’s Neville, and it’s Razib’s term, Razib basically doesn’t think that religion will ever cease to be a factor in society, and accepts that atheism will always be an elite minority position and isn’t going to fight it. 
     
    I am more or less in agreement with Gene at 1:38. When I say that pioneers are “irrational” I somewhat mean that they are altruists, taking enormous risks that they personally might not benefit from much (and sometimes not at all).  
     
    One definition of rationality is the pursuit of individual self-interest according to some standard definition (excluding definitions customized to prove that all actions are rational). 
     
    A second definition would be carefully calculating the odds on everything and choosing the courses of action with the best odds of success. 
     
    Entrepreneurs, prophets and culture heroes choose neither of these forms of rationality. Often they take big gambles where neither the stakes nor the risks are known, and in many cases there’s a bit of craziness in what they do.

  64. John:  
     
    If you don’t sprawl out your four legs and dig in your heels, you’re gonna be over on my side in no time. You’re tough–but I can see you headed my way and I’ll just grease the skids for you a bit. 
     
    I don’t want to exaggerate or make a big deal out of this, but: 
     
    Stop and consider a moment a guy–any guy–going into a new business venture. It could be just a sidewalk hot-dog or fruit-stand, nothing complicated. That guy has done whatever thinking he’s had to do to convince himself that, with whatever he figures are the chances of success, it’s THE BEST THING HE COULD BE DOING WITH WHATEVER ARE THE INVESTMENTS OF TIME AND MONEY AT HIS DISPOSAL at that particular time and juncture in his life. Furthermore, he’s doing THAT particular thing in DIRECT DEFIANCE OF THE CONSIDERED JUDGEMENT OF EVERYONE ELSE (on the entire planet, actually). IF HE WEREN’T, THERE’D ALREADY BE SUCH AN JOINT IN JUST THE NICHE HE’S CHOSEN. Now, I’m not going to insist that everyone else would call him “irrational” (though a few might even do that) but his “rationality” in others’ eyes, in your view or definition of that term, has to do with assessments of risk/reward, etc. in the minds of those who’ve already decided and shown (by their non-action) that, in their own rational assessment, “that’s not for them.” He’s made a rational choice to do it, with which the whole world disagrees. But that nonconformance he’s shown is by no means “irrational” and the fact is that it’s done every day. We, the rest, standing on the sidelines and denied examination of the guy’s thought processes, are simply unqualified even to judge the risk/reward considerations he’s processed, even though we might be experts on fruit, sales, traffic, accounting, or what-have-you.  
     
    The point is that you, me, we all–LIVE IN A WORLD CREATED, VIRTUALLY COMPLETELY, BY INNOVATORS–those whose changes to the status quo were originally made “against the grain” of the popular or prevailing thought (whether or not actual opposition from entrenched interests of one sort or another were involved–as is quite frequently the case). All you or I can pronounce of someone’s idea is that it’s “good” or “no good” and we usually have the luxury of speaking as “Monday-morning quarterbacks” in making even that opinion known.  
     
    Forget “irrationality” as an explanation for anything; it’s useless at very best and downright dangerous and destructive in very many cases. In the best of cases, it’s simply demeaning of that we don’t understand properly but, even more frequently is both pretext for and prequel to far less savory intent and action.

  65. Michael Blowhard: 
     
    You’ve likened capitalism, or at least “global capitalism” to some sort of religious belief. 
     
    Quite plainly, capitalism is not in any way a “belief system,” although it might be said that many “believe” in it. I’m most definitely one about whom that could be said and I’m emphatic in my belief. And, by the way, I believe in “good health,” “prosperity,” and other, similar “belief systems.” 
     
    I cannot explain in short space or time just why capitalism is the best possible–even the best imaginable–system for the realization of human aspiration, whether material or spiritual. But I can explain that capitalism, in its modern sense, is the product, first and foremost, of a long evolutionary process occurring (with fits and starts, interruptions, etc.) more or less continuously theroughout known human history and especially accelerated in relatively modern times. 
    The foundation of capitalism is peaceful exchange between persons, peoples, and nations in which all are free to exploit their own nature-given and acquired advantages and, in so doing, bring about a specialization of effort tending toward a production greater than that of any alternate system imaginable and, particularly, toward a regime of individual reward based primarily on the evaluation (and reward) of the efforts of each individual by EVERYONE ELSE. The system characteristic of capitalism is the “free market” and its mechanism for determination of reward to each participant is the “price system.” 
     
    The system I describe cannot relieve men of all care. It exerts a relentless pressure on all to serve their fellow men in the very best way that they are able and punishes every departure from that injunction with reduction in income and whatever well-being that income might represent. But, other than that pressure, it leaves men free in all other respects to pursue what they will. 
     
    The system depends, above all, on a recognition by at least some, that increase in the production that represents well-being is possible only by working harder, working longer, or by working with better tools; further, that those better tools can ONLY be realized through a process in which not all produced is consumed but part set aside, first for maintenance but primarily for improvement in the stock of such goods (called, fittingly, “capital goods,” and sometimes, simply “capital”). As anyone can quickly learn, the major difference between the productivity of workers in similar industries in different places is closely aligned with the amount ($) of capital invested per worker in each place. 
     
    Capitalism incentivizes industry, thrift, and innovation and, in a sense, punishes opposing behaviors by withholding the extra rewards. Exceptionally incentivized is innovation, one of the great engines through which every type of living condition is improved; but, even were ALL INNOVATION TO CEASE TOMORROW, the steady increase in capital would yet mean a never-ending improvement in year-to-year conditions (given more capital, virtually everything existing can be made better, more durable, etc.). 
     
    I’m about out–but that oughtta hold you for awhile and give you a few things to think about.

  66. Gene —  
     
    1) I suggested ditching the words “irrational” and “rational” in this discussion. We all seem to have our pet definitions of them and were talking at cross purposes. 
     
    2) Global capitalism may not be a belief system let alone a religion to you, but I’m not sure why you seem convinced it isn’t one for many other people. Boiled down to a popular level, it’s the religion of success, and its holy books (Dale Carnegie, many others) and its holy art (Business Week, The Star) are all around us. On a more elite level: Davos Man, anyone? With enough guidance from our cosmopolitan elite, we’ll finally all be rich, and everything will be great. Priesthood … Deliverance …

  67. gene: Then, in 1972, I happened to read an explanation of exactly that occurrence (whether it’s considered an event or a process is immaterial), after which I had as complete and satisfactory understanding as is possible and the entirety could not have been more than 5 pages–maybe as few as three. But, quite beyond clearing up a mystery (about which I no longer cared anyway), the new appreciation made me aware just how dependent certain types of understanding are on other knowledge 
     
    I would be very much interested in WHAT was that “explanation” which brought you the insight you were still missing after digesting the massive, 3-volume work from Gibbon. 
    Not that I really care more than you about the mystery of Roman Empire but rather, exactly as you put it, “just how dependent certain types of understanding are on other knowledge”.

  68. Gene, I think now about the same as I did before I wrote the article. You still seem to believe that all action is by definition instrumental, purposeful, or rational, so that neither the word “rational” not the word “irrational” has any meaning. I think that the word “rational” distinguishes some kinds of action from others and should be retained, whereas the word “irrational” is a smear word used by believers in some sort of rationalized system. I would thus lump contrastive forms of action as “non-rational”.  
     
    In my original piece I did use the term “irrational” bcause I was picking up on someone else’s statement and arguing against it. My reason for doing this was to point out that certain kinds of successful social innovations or explorations were seemingly “irrational” (in the normal loose meaning of the word) at the time of initiation, for example because grounded on evidently false beliefs of a religious or superstitious kind. I think that while some of “rationality” (loose popular meaning) is respect for facts and logic, a big part of “rationality” is just caution, prudence, and conventionality, and thus makes long-shot gambles of any kind less likely.  
     
    The context of my whole discussion was the question, “Why is religion so persistent when it’s usually based on a musunderstanding of certain facts and often leads to irrational behavior?” My answer, which was only partial, is that religious innovators are entrepreneurs of social organization who recruit others to large gambles which, at their inception, usually include wishful thinking and false assumptions along with whatever useful innovations they offer.  
     
    And while I don’t think that “irrational” is a good analytic term anymore, as a pop term I think that it still is a pretty good label for cartain kinds of mistaken ways of thinking.

  69. John: 
     
    I didn’t mean any more than what you’ve come around to acknowledging above. The common term is OK for common usage in most cases simply because most understand it in that sense. But the label of “irrationality” in its pejorative sense is applied widely in hortatory effort, frequently without using the word itself, especially in urging action of one or another kind against those thus demonized. In itself, that’s reason enough to shitcan the word in discussion aimmed at real understnading. 
     
    The religion bit I’d just as soon leave without remark, though my “take” is not that far from your own. basically, it’s a design for injection, especially (but not limited to) into the young, of a behavioral-control, a druglike meme to reduce or eliminate the need for direct or constant oversight in inducing behavior already believed to be in acordance with or in furtherance of social norms, goakls, etc. But another time.

  70. Kevembuangga: 
     
    Please excuse delay in replying. I’m pressed for time now, so won’t engage in any expansion or story-telling. 
     
    Ludwig von Mises’ HUMAN ACTION (p. 767-9 in my 4th rev. ed.). If it’s not readily available to you, it can be read online or downloaded at mises.org 
     
    Will be more than happy to discuss that or related topics at another time. 
     
    A brief qualification. I think you’ll be suitably impressed with the explanation provided on the cited pages but, of course, it can’t hurt to have had the advantage of having digested the preceding 766, either. Nothing quite like it anywhere else.

  71. People colonized Siberia not because they were fucking nuts, but because the Russian state put them there. 
     
    incidental note: amazingly, there were colonies of siberian people who had never heard of the russian revolution, lenin, stalin, etc., so far removed and isolated were they. not that surprising I suppose, but still remarkable.

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