Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In defense of rationality   posted by Razib @ 4/08/2009 04:13:00 PM

Michael Vassar emailed me the following in response to my indicated skepticism of rationality:
First, it seems to me that it is much easier to measure the aggregate power, across human history, of rationality, than to measure its power in individual manifestations. In aggregate, rational thought is what's responsible for not living in mud huts that fall down frequently if not built by following one's proper tribal rituals of mud-hut-building. I would expect that we would all agree on that. Likewise, most of what's wrong with the world is in an important respect the result of lacking rationality. Arbitraging the potential gains from trade between Saddam and the shrub would have been more productive and rational than the Iraq war, as a trivial instance. Well then, most of the evidence regarding the impact-per-manifestation for rationality comes from dividing "everything" by "frequency of manifestation of rationality". As one learns more it becomes increasingly appearent that X is not about Y and that most actions are not rationally derivable from their alleged (and explicitly believed) goals. This means that rationality manifestations are less common thus more powerful than is commonly believed.

What I have strongly moved away from is the attitude that classes of people such as nerds, scientists, skeptics and the like who like to describe their membership in terms of rationality are noticibly better than average at behavioral rationality, as opposed to epistemic rationality where they are obviously better than average but still just hideously bad.

I agree with Michael. I think rationality, and more specifically science, is our hope in the great sea of noise. It is after all what we depend on to enable the affluent life which we all take for granted. But on an interpersonal level I'm rather skeptical of great rational systems which very smart people attempt to convince me of, and which I was rather attracted to as a younger man. I'm also skeptical about my ability to judge the plausibility of many the rational systems which I encounter in my conversations as well. My skepticism varies a function of domain. In mathematics and the physical sciences rationality has enormous utility. In much of the life sciences rationality has some utility, but it has far less power than in the physical sciences. And so on down the great chain.

My skepticism manifests in rather concrete ways. I would rather have a drink with someone than listen to their grand theory of history, no matter how smart they are. On the other hand if they are able to illuminate the Feynman lectures with exceeding clarity because of their intelligence and knowledge I am definitely interested in passing on the alcohol to maintain my mental acuity.