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Science is Rational. Rationalism Isn’t Science.

Science rests on the assumption that the human brain is NOT capable of finding truth through observation and reasoning alone.  Science is epistemically humble.  Science assumes there are things we don’t know and can’t possibly know through brainpower alone. The best we can do is make educated guesses. Based on those guesses we then make predictions about what we expect will happen if our guesses are correct. Based on those predictions we then perform tests, experiments, studies, and research designed to find out if our guesses were right. We call these guesses theories. Theories are guesses that are yet to be proven wrong. Science is rational. Science is a process. Science is epistemically humble.

Many scientific discoveries are just that; discoveries; things we never imagined, nor could have imaginied, but stumbled upon when we were looking for something else. Scientific discoveries are often little more than fortuitous accidents. One of the greatest benefits of science is that it can put us in the right place at the right time when these happy accidents occur. And sometimes, maybe based on education and experience, or maybe based on a heightened level of sagacity through which we can see the relationships among seemingly unrelated things, or maybe through plain dumb luck or a flash of insight, we are able to recognize the happy accident for what it is; a new “scientific” discovery.  There are  books full of examples of this, like Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century, Accidental Inventions: The Chance Discoveries That Changed Our Lives, Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be.  

Rationalism,on the other hand, rests on the opposite assumption; that the human brain IS capable of finding truth through observation and reason alone. Rationalism is epistemically confident, often certain, sometimes arrogant. It assumes there is nothing we can’t know through brainpower alone. Rationalism is not science,it is the opposite of science.

Ironically, science proves this belief to be a delusion, and the delusion proves the necessity of the process-based epistemic humility of science: The Rationalist Delusion, from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”45 As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).46 The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.47

From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers-who reason about ethical principles all day long-should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students.48 And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.49 In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”so This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do it. It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind).

I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments,  but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.53 Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Many people think rationalism IS science. They don’t see the distinction between the two. They think the two are one and the same. They believe that when they make observations and then use their reason to think things through that they are thinking scientifically; committing science.  They believe that their thinking actually is the road to truth, and based on THAT belief they conclude that other people who don’t see things a different way are therefore bad at reasoning, anti-science.

On multiple occasions throughout human history rationalism has led to horrors. Rationalism – the Rationalist Delusion – is arguably the root cause of every genocide in human history. Some examples, from a lecture at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, are below.  The lecture is available on video, here. From that video I typed a verbatim (including “um”s and “ah”s etc.) transcript of that talk. This is an excerpt from it, starting at 1:03:48 of the video:

The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. Um, in the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the, uh, is the servant of the, wait what is it, David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.”I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists, but what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one, no what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right we have reason on our side, they called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. They committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.”So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris (gesture, admitting the joke), people like that.

Um, other research, on 19th century communes. Richard Sosis, anthropologist compared, he found the records of communes in the 19th century. Many were organized, were socialist communes based on equality and openness, many were religious communes. And he looked to see how long did they last. Answer, the religious ones tended to last two to three times longer than the liberal, than the secular ones. Because, if you bind people in, you, it turns out the active ingredient was demanding sacrifice. Making them change their names, wear funny clothes, cut all contact with the outside, give up certain foods. If you ask for sacrifice, if you constrain people, they form a community of trust, and they don’t cheat each other.

And if you say, “Welcome everyone. Constraints are bad.“ It quickly decays into a moral, into moral chaos. Again, the unconstrained vision, when it gets a chance to run things, screws it up.

Twentieth century communism, fascism, any any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.

Science is good. Rationalism is disastrous.


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