A Personal Journey to Rationalism

(Reading my last post on hedgehogs and foxes is useful, but not at all required, to understand this post)

When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with the phrase “logically consistent worldview.” I really, really wanted one. It seemed like the kind of thing that good intellectuals needed to have if they were going to properly navigate the world. How could you even begin to respond to an event if you didn’t have a fully integrated ethics, metaphysics and epistemology? Sounds silly, I know, but the wikipedia article on Weltanschauung (worldview) became very important to me. I constantly made lists of what I believed at any given time, and what I was still working out. I even began trying to fill out this set of required building blocks for a worldview:

    1. An explanation of the world
    2. A futurology, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
    3. Values, answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
    4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: “How should we attain our goals?”
    5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
    6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.

I actually tried to have an answer for every single one of these. And what I figured out quickly was that it was incredibly hard. I would literally be kept up nights worrying about how I was going to reconcile environmentalism and a progress-appreciative attitude towards human society and civilization, or how I as a feminist was supposed to feel about breast augmentation surgery. “The environment matters!” I would say to myself. “But we can’t take a conservationist attitude,” I would also say.” It’s inherently conservative and stops us from making bigger and more technologically advanced cities! And maybe technology would make things more environmentally-friendly, if given the chance!” And then choice! Feminism is about choice! So women (/transmen, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then) should be able to do what they want with their bodies! But feminism can’t accept all choices, or what would be the point? Shouldn’t stop women from objectifying themselves? How can I support a cosmetic surgery that just makes women more sexually available to men? But also shouldn’t they be able to do that if they want?


It was an all-consuming, constant intellectual project. I would apply my model to new things, and it would work, and then work, and then every so often, not work, and I would watch it crash and burn. Then I would be uncomfortable and agitated until I came upon an epiphany wherein I could bring all of the parts together and once again have a unified model.

What was my problem? I was trying to be a hedgehogTrying very, very hard, in fact. I wanted a perfect, consistent model to explain and respond to the world. I wanted to understand it.

But in being beholden to a fundamental idea like “feminism is about choice”, I was either stuck when I hit things I would really rather not call feminist, or I had to somehow incorporate more than one fundamental idea together, which almost always causes problems.

(For people who know ring theory: It’s like trying to have a principal ideal with two generators. Doesn’t make sense)

If feminism is about choice, it partitions the world into two categories, feminist and not feminist. And if feminism is fundamentally about some other thing as well, we have another partition, which generally doesn’t map perfectly onto the first one (or there would be no point in having two). So now we have things that aren’t feminist in either sense and things that are feminist in both senses. Easy enough. But what about the things that are feminist in one sense but not in another? Either you have to start creating complicated rules about how the rules interact with each other, or you give up the crystalline, rule-based way of looking at things. Then you get to say that, according to your values, this kind of approach is X amount important, and this policy, according to the facts, helps women Y amount, and so on, and then form reasoned opinions about what will work out best, instead of what fits the model best.


What should the venn diagram look like?

And that’s my concern with all hedgehogish systems. Now, maybe I just didn’t alight upon the perfect model, or I didn’t work hard enough. But hedgehogs seem to want dichotomies and trichotomies, things that are in the set or not, ideas and facts that play off each other in rigid, predictable ways. And while I’d love those things too, they haven’t presented themselves to me.

The world, instead, seems to be far better modeled by spectrums, where things are mostly different in degree and not in kind, where ideas can be balanced against each other, where multiple seemingly contradictory facts can be true, if they’re carefully defined and discussed. Instead of irreducible descriptors like “liberal”, “just”, “feminist” and “environmentalist”, switches that are either on or off, I have knobs and sliders, continuous things that can be sort of true, or mostly right, and I am so much more comfortable with that. New things I didn’t know before make me update my position, shifting knobs bit by bit, sliding along continuous functions until I’m just where I want to be, with the full knowledge that I’ll have to move again. Say what you will about it, it’s much more comforting than the worry that one new idea could bring my entire palace crashing down around me as I plummet into the chasm between discrete points.

The right color is somewhere in here….

I’m reminded of something a friend said to me once:

“If Osama bin Laden and I met each other, we would have nothing to say to each other.”

That is, hedgehog systems, totalizing systems that have something to say about everything, can’t interact with each other. They agree on some things, disagree on others, but there aren’t really ways to combine them fruitfully. The best you can hope for is non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where each system just stays within its own sphere and no one unbuckles their seatbelts and starts poking their sister.

(If people want to hear my model theory analogy for this, they’ll have to ask for it 🙂 ).

Plug in whatever appropriate for “religion” or “science”

That’s not enough for me. I want all the facts and values to get together and party. I want to knock down the jenga towers of ideology, and make every building block of every belief pay rent. I want to see which ones are true, or better yet, how true each one is.

I guess this is really all to say that I have become much happier and more comfortable in my beliefs since I became a rationalist and a utilitarian. I am now beholden to no specific thought structure or approach. Anything that gets the right answer goes. (Ideally speaking, of course. In reality, I am as flawed in my thinking as anyone else). And that means I’m so much more comfortable changing my mind, since I’ve linked my identity, not to a position, but to the pursuit of the right answer.

What’s especially great is that I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything. All the beliefs I had before, I can have now. Mostly, I have to ensure that they are suitably translated into empirical statements, so that each part of each belief can be examined separately. But their content remains the same. And as it happens, I don’t have any obligation to translate them that way. If the hedgehog form of atheism works for me, if I like it, if it gives me true and correct beliefs about the world, great. It’s mine for the keeping. Hell, I spend a lot of time immersed in religious thinking, and it works for me. But there’s nothing I’ve had to give up in my quest for foxishness, except what was untrue to begin with. And of course:

Some might say that rationalism and utilitarianism might themselves be the kind of Big Idea I claim to be trying to avoid. But I don’t see them that way. They are lenses through which we see things, certainly, but as I’ve just said, they don’t prevent us from seeing things in other ways. For instance, I find that utilitarianism allows me to still acknowledge that I care about fairness, beauty, and other fuzzy values in a way that other moral systems don’t. Furthermore, they don’t bind us to the narrative-based way of looking at things that has struck me as so problematic throughout this and the last post. Accuracy of belief depends on relying on more strategic, more empirical approaches, and that’s what matters to me.

I want the right answers to all the questions about the world: small ones, big ones, ethical ones. And for those, it seems, we follow the fox.

I mean, he seems to know what he’s doing.


Example 1: The Academic Community

I brought up a few small examples in the general post, but here’s a more in depth analysis of the issues of throwing out schools of thought within academia.

Let’s talk about disciplines of thought. Are you a math/science person or a history/English person? Divergent or convergent thinking? One answer or many? Black and white or shades of gray? The dichotomies abound, and you have to pick a side. Again, some of these are elucidating and important. Where would we be if the rationalists hadn’t furiously debated the empiricists? But just as importantly, we now know that they were both wrong, and that in fact, their positions, modified to be in line with modern thought, aren’t really in opposition at all.

When we talk about free will, for example, philosophy is obviously important. What does it mean to be free? How does this relate to consciousness? How does it affect choice and our understanding of the universe? When determinism comes up, physics inevitably does as well, whether the universe is being modeled as a game of pool, or the action potentials across the axons of the neurons in our brains. Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett then come in and remind us of the great importance of biology, not in terms of cells or motor proteins, but in evolution and the way that past successes and failures shape the way we do or do not make choices and perceive the world now. The social sciences then can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human in terms of universals, and then, finally, the humanities show us the great scope of what an overly large brain can create, in art and literature and the rest.

Seems unproblematic. Obviously, the existence of an evolutionary explanation in no way necessarily implies anything about meaningfulness or goodness or badness or how we should try to structure our society these days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Stephen Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, wastes a great deal of time bitching about the academic feminists and the Marxists and the café intellectuals and the social scientists. God, they’re all such post-structuralist, postmodernist, constructivists. They hate science, they’re ruining everything. But, to be fair, there are indeed intrinsic problems. Science has been fraught with pseudo-scientifically justified racism, ethically questionable studies and poorly done analyses of non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich democracies) societies. Nonetheless, it has advanced our understanding of the universe far beyond any armchair analysis has ever done or ever could do (Einsteinian thought experiments included). And while I could go into an analysis of what each “side” (they’re not really that easily separated or compared) has historically gotten right, the fact is it doesn’t matter. The facts do. Whatever is true, is true, and any discussion of what is right or what should be needs to start with what is.

There’s certainly room for improvement. Instead of working assiduously and transparently to understand the world and society and people on a variety of levels and tolerating dissent as it comes up, these different types of academics seem to hate each other. So perhaps we need to restructure the fields we have at our disposal, make sure we’re not committing any category mistakes, be clear and transparent about the assumptions under which we’re operating and ensure, above all else, that our moral claims stay separate from our truth claims and our truth claims are based on solid evidence. That makes all disciplines more flexible, more adaptable and more likely to be right. It allows the feminists and constructivists (who, by the way, Pinker, are not just looking for legal equality or individual empowerment or specifics of that sort. This is social change we’re talking about) to note that it’s been shown that people are exquisitely sensitive to context in terms of the way they see themselves and others and the way they behave. From that empirical basis, they can criticize prevalent racism and sexism and genderization in the media or in our commercial lives. It also allows others trying to effect social change to frame it in a way that, while non-utopian, may be more effective, such as looking closely at in-group and out-group formation rather than trying to eliminate difference or utilizing incentives instead of good will.

So everyone stays on their own turf, understanding and being clear about their own assumptions. That creates a specialized intellectual world that provides a myriad of ways through which to analyze the world. Nonetheless, they learn from each other, not in arguments and axioms, although those might translate, but in the findings that they reach, so that truth can grow as it is shared.

If only, if only.

This post is part of a series:

The Importance of Stories, Part II: Groups and Communities

Now I want to connect the idea of stories back to my post on the Texas schoolbook issue. My last post ended up focusing on individual stories, which are very important, but neglected group stories. Political campaigns, concepts of nationhood, genealogies: these are all about stories, lived, and narratives, constructed and imposed. Leftist radical groups, royal monarchies, families, religions, any sort of community. They have stories and narratives. Sometimes those stories are fraught with atrocities, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with both. They can be long or short, monotonous or conflicted. They give people focus and community, happiness and hope. They deeply affect the way that people think about themselves and they way they act in relation to each other. So when we talk about understanding humanity, we need to understand stories.

Just to preface, I don’t have nearly the reverence for group stories that I do for individual stories. I think they are just as important in many respects, which I will discuss later, but groups are just less inherently valuable than individuals, and in fact their main source of significance is the way in which they affect individuals, rather than the way in which they interact in the group space.

Right, ok, so, the importance of group narratives:

I mean, where to start?

Anyone who’s at all interested in what it means to be human should care. Philosophically, our connection to the people around us, and the communities we belong to, and how those interact with our ‘selves’, should those exist, is a vitally important question. It’s essentially what defines a Rawlsian liberal versus a communitarian. What defines you? Environment, genes, soul, beliefs, values, self?

That tends to matter politically, too, when we investigate things like social engineering and policies that affect groups rather than individuals. Staunch individualists have one view of human nature, other people have many others. If we ever want to come to any sort of agreement or consensus or merely a better understanding, looking at groups and communities is probably a good place to start. The narratives imposed on groups also matters a lot in foreign policy. What does nationhood mean? What does it mean to be part of a people? Nationalism, terrorism, radicalism, it’s all in there, it’s all composed of stories. Maybe it would be a good idea to understand that others feel as strongly a part of their peoples’ stories as we feel of ours.
Of course, this all matters very much to academia. Sociologically, anthropologically, biologically, psychologically, groups matter. How do individual stories coalesce to make group stories? How much does it matter to people to feel part of a group? How have we evolved as social animals? What does that mean evolutionarily or morally? Studying how the stories that groups tell themselves and each other is vitally important in understanding these things, those elements they have in common and those in which they differ.

Both anthropologically and political, the notion of the family is very important. Families are repositories of stories and arbiters of group involvement in a way that few others are. Their genealogies, pedigrees, albums and trees are testament to the importance of stories.

And now we come to history, the academic discipline completely consumed with the telling and retelling of stories:

As I said up above, I have a far more skeptical attitude toward group stories than I do towards individual stories. After all, individuals matter more. But I mean something very subtle by this, which is that while every individual story demands respect (though perhaps some are more inspiring or interesting than others), not every group story does. They are all important in order to learn more about ourselves as humans, individually and otherwise, philosophically, personally and academically, but they are not all as important to learn. By this I do not mean that we should only focus on those groups that made the ‘largest impact’ on current events. That same filter could be applied to individual stories and it would be just as nonsensical, given that importance is largely decided solely by those individuals or groups with the ‘largest impact’ or at least the most highly ingrained power structure within a given society.

No, what I mean is that some stories, while intellectually engaging, are dangerous. The story that nations sometimes tell, or races tell, that they are Divinely chosen, better, smarter, stronger, more valuable. Individuals tell those, too, but it wreaks nowhere near the immense damage. It might damage by tolerant cred, but I declare here and now that those stories are, if not worthless, meaningless. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from stories, it’s how many of them are valuable, and any story predicated on the extirpation of others can be philosophically, if not historically, ignored.

Unfortunately, those stories are repeated across the world regardless. And this is where the proper teaching of history becomes very important. The way we teach history is, essentially, the narrative our society is creating, and we want it to be a good and accurate one. That means including the stories of those groups that aren’t us, that will never be us, that failed, in some way, to be us. It means avoiding Euro- and ethno-centrism. It means working hard to locate the stories which are the most telling and instructional, as well as inherently meaningful or inspiring, wherever they come from. It means deciding, as a society, how we are going to best learn from the stories that have been told in order to create better stories going forward.

And that’s why the Texas textbook issue needs, desperately, to be paid attention to and rectified.

The Importance of Stories, Part I: The Individual

Disclaimer: This is somewhat incoherent. There is so much to say about this approach to humanity and knowledge, and this alternate approach to truth. The implications are wide-ranging and somewhat radical. It would take me years to fully flesh this out. But here’s the germ of an idea.

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stories and how they relate to truth and understanding. Stories are everywhere. Everyone has one; they spend their entire lives living out stories, as a matter of fact. I would never claim that objective truth could be arrived at based on some kind of abstract averaging of all the different stories. But there’s a different kind of truth that is based on stories, that it based on looking at humans as inherently valuable and thus placing value in their stories. Those stories are vast – repositories of knowledge, memories, hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions. About themselves, about other people, their families, their communities, their histories. They’re beautiful, too, and their individual beauty along with the diversity they exhibit, is reason enough to maintain them, pass them on. Which is why we protect ancient cultures and traditions, even as we march onward to a brighter future. Which is why we bother to listen to people without power, without elite intellectual or financial status. Because they have stories to tell. We are a community of learners, knowers and we communicate this by being also a community of story tellers. It would be a grave misfortune, a travesty, if that aspect of our humanity were to be lost.

The implications of this value are immense. It means that despite our own biases, prejudices, opinions, preferences and aesthetic desires, we simply cannot write off other people as useless or worthless. We don’t have to respect their ideas, or spend our time getting to know them, but we have to acknowledge their power as storytellers.

This has clear consequences for our systems of morality. For example, personhood might be defined as having a story. That’s not an entirely well-formed idea, but I kind of like it. Humanistic morality might benefit from approaching self-actualization in this new light. We help people live out the stories they would want to later tell, stories that are fulfilling, that can help and inform and inspire future generations of storytellers. We have no right to write the stories of others, or to tell them how to make their stories more like ours. Also, everyone should have the chance to tell their stories, both for their sake and the value that can be transferred to the community at large that can benefit from it. That allows us to pursue the value of tolerance without relinquishing our ability to note where harm is being done, stories and being censored and humanity is being lost.

If one prefers, they might reconceptualize this idea as placing the value of knowledge above all else. I’ve already discussed here and elsewhere that the stories people tell are extremely valuable sources of knowledge. This could inform our views on language extinction (see here and here) and biological diversity (over here and yonder). There’s no need to posit objective values when we understand that valuing knowledge and understanding is a human value we can all support, and we can achieve those through a variety of methods. Some are biological, scientific, what have you. But some are stories, those sets of experiences that seem so meaningless on an individual scale. Why bother listening to what people have already done when there is so much more to do? I counter that not only do those stories provide a treasure trove of knowledge relating to history, politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more, but they also help us see what the future holds. Most importantly, they help connect us to our fellow humans, in a way that can only be mutually and communally beneficial.

Public Reason and the Treatment of Knowledge

Sounds like a book title, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the previous post is important by itself, but it brings us to a larger issue of public reason and the way decisions that affect government policy are made.

Certainly, as a first principle, decisions about textbooks and anything like them should, by any means necessary not be left in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in getting their point of view across, evidence be damned. This is dangerous if we care at all about our children, their education, and in general the route that knowledge takes to get through this country. Knowledge is valuable, it is a gift, and it should be treated with reverence. We need to be sure that we are teaching the best we have available, along with the appropriate critical thinking skills that will allow the next generation to improve on what we have.

One way to do both of these things is to teach several sides, which will not only expand on the knowledge we are imparting to students, but also allow them to see how many sides there really are, and how they are all important and inform what might be mistaken for a coherent body of knowledge without dispute or dissent.

If you want to teach the controversy, teach something that’s actually instructively controversial, like the validity of evolutionary psychology as a field, or FDR’s reactionary attitudes towards immigration, or the value in having both militant and diplomatic groups within any political movement in order to shift debate. These things are interesting, instructive and important, and set the stage for vastly more inclusive studies and approaches to learning. Also, keeping the decision making within the field allows experts to take over. Because at the end of the day, there are people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of knowledge, and their expertise, in a given field as well as in the instruction of knowledge generally should be brought to bear.

Basically, my rationalism leads me to the obvious conclusion that once goal-related decisions are made, the path should be charted essentially by the experts. The goals are difficult to ascertain, true, but that’s not the issue at hand. Depending on the topic, they might be decided by the people, derived from first principles or empirically obtained. At that point, however, consequentialist ethics demand that the best way to attain the decided-upon goals must be put into place, and in cases like this, experts are definitely called for. What do I mean by ‘cases like this’? Well, it regards facts (in this case historical) that are studied and ascertained by experts. The disputes within the field must be analyzed and a conclusion arrived at by experts who well understand the arguments for and against any particular analysis of history. The right mix of experts, too, can ensure a diversity of approach and opinion. Political stances certainly come into play even in expert analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that for another post. Nonetheless, any difference of opinion can be treated as an academic exercise and thus analyzed properly, within its directed field. Any assertions must be backed up with sufficient evidence and be subject to criticism from the academic community.
The same applies, not only to the subject at hand, but to the subject of education generally. People who work in education and who understand cognitive development and neurobiology probably ought to be in on this. They have the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how children learn, what methods might be the most effective in getting across the information, and where the line might be drawn between instruction and indoctrination. We may worry that children will be taught only one side, or that no matter how many sides we try to teach we will still not be teaching what it means to go after the truth, wholeheartedly, with an open mind and the tools of rationality required. These are valid concerns. However, while it might be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to discuss these topics in a casual setting, when the time comes for real decisions to be made, the only people who ought to be at the table are people who actually know what they’re talking about. They might be able to add to the debate instructively, informing the masses, for example, at what age children can begin to be taught abstraction rather than fact, or which should come first at all.

This is important in history, where children must be taught to understand that objective truth may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, in science, where they must be taught to understand that the scientific process is an arduous one characteristically marked by a great deal of failure, in math, where abstractions are as important as formulas and any other subject that might come up in a textbook.

These are actually really important discussions, of the type that most people, even those who enjoy entering philosophical or intellectual debates, might never realize are the most crucial. And at this level, once the goals are enumerated, it really needs to be left to the experts in the relevant fields. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Which fields are included, who is asked to join, how those individuals happen to interact – these are all variables that range from needing to be tested by the most rudimentary method of try-and-see to the generally unforeseeable. It also might be the case that eventually you just have too many people at the table, and that creates problems in and of itself.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Firstly, because that will give us knowledge of its own kind, and secondly, because it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

And we fight, because knowledge, the way we treat it and the way we pass it on – these things are that important.

The Nature of History

So this is fairly late in terms of when the news broke and outcry erupted across the interwebs, but this is something I wrote at the time, and I want to use it as a basis for talking about something else.
You all know, I’m sure, about Texas and the textbooks. A recap: every year, the textbook curriculum standards for a different discipline are reviewed and changed. Last year, science was on the table, and that was also highly contested. This year, the stakes were generally thought to be higher because California, the largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation, put a moratorium on purchases for budgetary reasons, meaning that Texas, the second largest purchaser, has an inordinate amount of influence. Things have changed since, and there was lots of controversy and lots of things to talk about, but there’s something I think people missed.

The liberal/progressive blogosphere was freaking out about Texas and the textbooks, specifically talking about the closing of the gap between church and state. But what I’m much more worried about is the scope of minority influence on America that’s being diminished. Maybe I’m just a Howard Zinn fangirl, but when you stop talking about blacks, latinos, women, nineteenth century catholics, native americans and their contributions and interactions with the mainstream American culture, you are perverting history. You are allowing history to be a one-sided account written by the winners. I know in many ways it already is, but if we know that, we can work to change it, to allow ourselves to be informed by the vast amounts of information and stories that are often ignored.

If you hope to ever be considered a well-informed intellectual, or a well-researched social scientist or a well-instructed student, you need to be very careful about allowing your view of history to be constructed solely out of mainstream history/culture. I’m not one to have a knee-jerk reaction to the ‘mainstream media’, but pretty much by definition, some stories are going to be left out. And no matter how you perceive this country, whether through the lens of American exceptionalism or as a nation of immigrants or whatever, you need to learn about Castro, not just as evil, but as having improved the literacy rates in Cuba to above ours. And not just Rosa Parks or MLK Jr, but the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey and Mumia and blacks now, in this country now, having median earnings ten times less than those of whites and maybe never being able to achieve parity, even with an African-American president. And how immigrants to this country looking for freedom from religious persecution turned around and persecuted others and how the temperance movement was targeted against Irish, Polish and Italian Catholics and how Muslims in this country are marginalized and pushed aside and are not. all. terrorists and how violence in the middle east might be a backlash against American actions.

Political affiliation aside, if you don’t understand history as more than a series of events, as a history of people and movements and ideas that need to be studied from the point of view of both the culture in which they existed, and often were submerged in and fought against and the point of view of that movement and they way they saw themselves, you are missing something. Something big. And you may always be missing something, I suppose. What did the Jews think of the anti-war hippies, for example? But missing the massively obvious question of what at least one other side thought is a fairly egregious error, and it will send you to Social Science Hell. Willful ignorance tends to do that.

If you don’t care to read the whole post, though it’s one of my shorter ones, just check out this comic.