Tuesday, 22 June 2010

On Rationality (The Perfect Solution Fallacy)

My job requires a high degree of logic and mathematics, something I've spent years of my life training specifically for. Programming isn't innate in our brains, it's something that is learned. Perhaps I have a brain that is more mathematically-inclined than others and mathematics / logic come more easily to me than other people, but still it's taken a lot to train my brain to think that way.

One of the more interesting things about the Dunning-Kruger effect was that people who had higher abilities tended to underestimate their the superiority of their abilities in regard to other people. Perhaps one can be forgiven for thinking that because they are logically inclined that while they are good at it that there might not be such a gap between the top and bottom.

Trained scientists and philosophers have spent even more time honing their respective skills. So it's again no surprise that there's a disparity between scientific acceptance of ideas or between abilities of philosophical reasoning and the general public. It's no wonder that so many people reject scientific ideas, they are essentially relying on the authority of the discipline. The layperson isn't trained to understand the evidence and that needs to be taken into account.

What compelled me to write this post was a quote put on the blog Reasonably Aaron. I find that quote quite appalling because it's in effect a resignation to the irrationality of society. No point in expecting others to be rational, the expectation is too unrealistic.

And there is a truth in there, it's the way things are. How can trained scientists and philosophers possibly grasp how untrained people think? The futility is no more evident than in accounts of "debates" between creationists and biologists where biologists wipe the floor with the argument only to find the crowd eager to congratulate the creationist for sticking it to the evil Darwinists.

But is all hope lost? While an IS doesn't imply an OUGHT, an OUGHT has to apply an IS. If society is irredeemably irrational, then however noble the goal it is an exercise in futility and false hope. And a society full of Spocks is an impossible dream, even among those most trained in rational thinking there are bursts of irrationality that shine through. Is anyone arguing for that, though?

To quote David Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Starting with reason gets us nowhere, we can't start from a pure idea and get anywhere meaningful. What makes us human is not lost by the use of rationality, but it has its place.

And what of sciences? Does participating in the scientific process itself fall into absurdity because of the unscientific population? Perhaps Hypatia would attest to this, the symbolism of her death as a transition to the dark ages is exceeded by the brutality she was subjected to. The futility of the scientific method perhaps embodied in bringing on society's own demise? Fuelled by the fast depletion of resources, building more destructive weaponry and handing powerful knowledge to people who don't understand the power they wield... it would be a great irony if our own progress led to our eventual demise.

But our demise is guaranteed anyway. Eventually our species will go extinct, we will eventually leave no descendants and all that matters in our world will be for nothing. Even if our species can last, we are going to eventually face an inhospitable world, giant asteroids, calderas, the death of the sun, eventual destruction of matter and of the universe itself. Take your pick, we are doomed to extinction. Talk about building castles on sand, we know that all castles will one day be nothing more than rubble in a lifeless (let alone humanless) reality.

Of course, such an example is absurd. We don't consider finality even though it's an inevitability. Finite and contingent beings looking at the infinite makes no sense! Yet what is the difference between the billion years that will mean the earth is uninhabitable and a thousand years or even 100 years? There is a difference, but only one of those targets is really one that makes sense on the scales we can look at. 100 years is still 4 or 5 generations, more than the lifetime of all but a few individuals. Yet 100 years is less than the reach of Einstein, it's much less than the reach of Hume or Newton, or Descartes, or even Pythagoras.

To put this into perspective, it was only 5,000 years ago that we discovered writing. It was a little bit over 10,000 years ago that wheat was first domesticated. Fire perhaps 1.5 million years old. Hunting tools maybe 2.5 million years ago. Each one we can accept as a product of rationality, a cultural additive that has stood the test of time through its functional use.

Think about that for a moment. One of a member of our ancestral species was able to craft a rock into a means to hunt. And that means was so successful that it was copied and copied and modified and copied - so much so that 2.5 million years later we have the legacy of that piece of rationality with us. However our ancestors first harnessed fire, we have many ways of using it now.

We have minds that are semi-rational to begin with. As Michael Shermer puts it, our brains are great at finding causal connections. We are pattern-seeking creatures. Of course this brainware isn't perfect, but it's something. Likewise we are intuitive physicists, intuitive biologists and intuitive psychologists (for discussions of the evidence for this, see Bruce Hood's Supersense). Our brains are wired for a particular level of rationality intuitively. Again, not perfect but it's a start.

So where can I evidence the OUGHT? I think there are two different cases to be made for this. The first is in learning skills that almost all society has which we aren't exactly wired for. The second is looking at the role of rationality in society.

To take two examples: writing and mathematics. Storytelling seems to be something that goes back before homo sapiens, but transmission of stories and information is a modern (relatively speaking) invention. It was only a few thousand years ago that writing was discovered. Yet now we are in a society where it's extremely abnormal to come across anyone who can't write any more. We spend years in school learning how to do this abnormal activity, completely alien to our ancestors but the brains we have make it a possibility.

Mathematics too is something we use every day. While so many will say they aren't good at maths, they are able to function in an environment where maths is the basis for trade. Again for the purposes of rationality, we can see a rational activity being part of everyday life. The irrationality we talk about with people's use of money is its use in relation to future prosperity and wastefulness. But again, that's something that can be taught.

So within a society we can see both the value of rational activity as well as widespread propagation, what about of societies themselves? Again, two examples. Italy in the 17th century and South Korea in the 20th century. To very much simplify history, the renaissance in Italy was shut down with the Catholic Church wielding its power as the source of knowledge. As a result, nations that were more susceptible to the Enlightenment thrived while Italy did not. It's a terrible shame what happened to Galileo, again a symbol of the struggle of rationality against irrational forces but it should not be forgotten what he had to sacrifice because he refused to relent.

South Korea is a much more optimistic story, ravaged by war and with an economy equivalent to Mexico, instead of using labour to bring economic prosperity, it invested in education. It has paid off remarkably, with South Korea being one of the world's most advanced technological societies as well as an economic powerhouse.

I hope from those examples, there are reasons to encourage that the OUGHT is more than just a pipe-dream of the idealist, but something that can realistically be obtained. Given the problems that we know the would could and will face in the coming years and decades, protecting rationality IS a must because rationality IS the only way we are going to be able to beat these problems and maintain our prosperity. We OUGHT to protect rationality because rationality IS the best tool we have for achieving our desires. It's an extension of what makes us human, not an alien way of thinking but an idealised form of what we do now. A goal, an aspiration, however you want to put it, is in a realistic form still better than to ignore it completely.

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