Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Thinking "rationally"   posted by Razib @ 10/04/2005 01:10:00 PM

Over at Sepia Mutiny I got into a small argument with multiple people in regards to the Bali bombing, and its "root causes" and what not. I understand that politicians have to express vague platitudes, after all the public is so stupid that 1 out of 5 people think that the sun goes around the earth, but I'm not as patient with it on weblogs. Perhaps I should be, but here is the problem I have, people seem to transform Islamic fundamentalists into inscrutable forces of nature, capricious, irrational, maniacal and/or mentally ill. My main point was that one can have very strange and alien views and intents and still be rational. Rationally is the working out of inferences from starting assumptions, and if the axioms differ one would expect that the conclusions would vary. I hold that Al Qaeda and its ilk are rational in a fashion, that is, their behavior is not faulty reason or psychopathology, they have a coherent and clear world-view which they act upon (coherent and clear is a relative judgement, humans are fuzzy about values and the meaning-of-the-world). That doesn't mean that I agree with their world-view, their reasoning can be defended from where I stand (looking at the broad sweep of Islamic history I think it has clear precedents), but their axioms need not be conceded or apologized for. Recasting them as vague and almost elemental beings who we don't have reason to understand really pisses me off, because this sort of attitude gives everyone a free reign to propose multitudinous solutions. Without any theoretical framework to conceptualize and model the problem our only recourse in guides to picking a solution are particular biases and norms which might not steer us to the optimal response. In other words, you need to understand local weather dynamics before you decide to build a bridge across a gorge. Instead, people strike me as looking for hexes and amulets to defend themselves against the demons that rage in the night. When you point out to them that men, not demons, are the source of their evil and that their hocus-pocus recitations of communally agreed upon mantras doesn't do jack-shit, people get pissed....

Update: Please address what I said, not what you think I said, or what you think I believe. My contention is rather narrow, a rational way of thinking has its place, even when it comes to world-historically significant clashes of civilizations. Passion and ferocity also has its place, but from what I can see there is plenty of passion and ferocity in evidence. David Hume said that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." I agree, the norms and premises we accept are to some extent outside of reason, they are common points of reference between fellow travellers. The slavery of reason has no moral cost, it does not suffer when we use it toward our ends. Granted, it is a difficult servant, and only a few can truly be bothered to master it, but it seems that far too many of those who could snap the whip to reason have abandoned their role as hard field masters for the more congenial company of the house slave that is passion for the sake of passion. And yet in the end it is the laborers in the field who provide the sustenance for the big house.

Update II: I wasn't going to make this analogy, but think of the Bene Gesserit. They use passions as tools, but don't delude themselves into thinking that their tools are anything but that.