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 3: Activism and Intellectualism

So that was issues within activism, which I’m sure I could talk about forever. But I sometimes feel the same conflict with activism as a whole, especially as it relates to intellectualism.

It doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict, when I think about it in the comfort of my mind. I have desires I can recognize by introspection relating to happiness, health and well-being, and I have a skill for empathy that allows me to see how other people would want those things as well, and how a properly flourishing society might benefit everyone. I then comprehend the concept of injustice as a deviation from this pattern and seek out its instances, in isolated events and institutionalized inequity. It then takes a great deal of work and courage to discover the causes. Plenty of people and institutions have it in their best interests to stop anyone from doing exactly that, and in the case of societally enacted injustice, the hypotheses can at first appear unfalsifiable without properly conducted longitudinal studies. The possible solutions and their implementations can be even more difficult given the lack of evidence for any particular plan we have to work with. All for the goal of human welfare. Sam Harris and Si Kahn would be proud. It’s an alignment of evolved, passionate instincts with the right way to achieve goals and sub-goals.

And yet, it sometimes feels that, to be an environmentalist, I have to think about the world in terms of inherent value and beauty and mystical energy, and I just don’t. In fact, I don’t even think that sustainability and keeping the environment pristine are intrinsically moral propositions. Genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy should be opposed on principle, but my consequentialist ethics just don’t get me there. Over the course of my life, I’ve switched from viewing feminism as making sure that individual women can achieve the goals they set for themselves, to seeing it as a social movement dedicated to eradicating institutionalized discrimination and sexism put into place by hierarchical, patriarchal systems. It explains why sexism and capitalism often go together, and why sexism is often perpetuated by non-sexists. It makes things like the porn and sex-worker issue rather poignant. I’m mostly drawn to Greta Christina and other pro-porn feminists who recognize the fantastic work that the second wave did to alert us to violent sexism in the industry and in the very concept of making money off of encouraging sexual objectification, but who have decided that the most empowering system we can currently support is one where instead of rejecting industries whole-heartedly, making them safer and less patriarchal places to be. But then I read something like this, and I have to rethink.

Rethinking is hard. It means a massive intellectual undertaking, and while I do it, I can’t define myself, I find it more difficult to take strong positions (because I don’t like to pretend to be sure about things I may be reconsidering), and I can’t take action. So people I might be able to help aren’t being helped because I’m having a philosophical crisis. I remember during the Obama campaign, I canvassed with my dad, and one day I was just having an intellectual breakdown. I couldn’t remember why I supported him anymore, why I was a liberal, why I was doing what I was doing. I asked my dad why we supported Obama, and he gave a good answer, but still an unconvincing one, and I felt terrible asking people to give their votes and approval to something I didn’t agree with. When I’d reconsidered, I felt terrible for not having been able to be sincere about something I believed in. I give credence to those mental glitches, but they make activism extremely difficult. In the political world, we don’t really let people rethink, and we give them hell for changing positions. But that’s exactly what being an intellectual is all about.


My grandmother doesn’t seem to have any problems with intellectualism and activism. She has dedicated her life to grassroots activism, advocacy at the highest levels, worldwide justice, rectification of historical inequities and giving voice to the voiceless, and that’s after her time in politics. At the same time, she introduced me to the joys of sudoku and ken-ken, and once got two bingos in a single scrabble game. One memorable holiday evening in Vermont was spent solving the full page Boxer Day puzzle in the New York Times, with witty repartee all around and compliments given as good answers warranted. I saw her call her sister when the finished a crossword to see who had finished it first. It’s pretty incredible.

Her mother, too, embodied these principles, serving as PR director of the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years after deciding not to be a professor of symbolic logic (on which she wrote a paper proving Bertrand Russell and/or Newton wrong) because being a woman in math, or in academia, was too much of an obstacle. We tell stories about her in my family, of how she used to start crosswords in the upper left corner and never do a word if it didn’t connect to another one. When my grandmother corrected me once when I said there were less moguls on one side of a mountain, I was told that in order to carry on my great grandmother’s legacy, I had better say “fewer.” I could go on.

My dad is a professor of human development with a secondary appointment in pediatrics and a third in electrical engineering. He introduced me to activism of all sorts. He used to do the AIDS Ride for years, and I couldn’t wait until I was allowed to join. He and I have always done the Hazon ride together. He took me to my first rally in 2003, against the Iraq War. We also canvassed for Obama the summer of ’08. Maybe you really can have it all.

But for me, the dilemma remains.

This post is part of a series:

Example 2: Having Opinions

Activism, or even just strong opinion, provides the same set of problems, in a variety of ways. First off is a rethinking of the classic firebrand/diplomat dynamic, about which Greta Christina has written fantastically. The problem is that a brilliant analysis doesn’t make the issue go away, and also, I think she may be oversimplifying. Most social movements aren’t a one-dimensional spectrum; they are way more complicated than that. That’s fine, of course, but when you get people who are not only in conflict but not even addressing the same points, it’s much harder to realize we’re all on the same side.

Any movement can serve as an example, but I’m going to talk about religion. In everyday parlance, it’s easy to squish all of the nuances of thought about the metaphysics of existence, the ontology of the universe, the teleology of life, epistemological concerns about faith and reason into a religious on one side, atheist on the other, agnostic in the middle line. That’s ridiculous. It matters to me whether someone believes in god because they couldn’t imagine a meaningful life without one or because god is a source of morality. It matter whether they oppose religion on principle because of its false teachings or simply because of the disaster it’s wrought. It matters whether religious traditions are important culturally or accomodationist cop-outs. Also, it obviously matters to me whether secularist organizations care more about religious tolerance than they do about exterminating religion. They’re important distinctions, and they really should be talked about. At every moment though, we should be clear about what’s being discussed.

It’s really hard, you know. I just watched this video by TheAmazingAtheist, who I normally think yells more than he thinks. But this happened to be a justifiably angry response to idiotic bigotry, and a surprisingly fervent pro-American ideals stance. I liked it a lot, and I posted it on facebook. The worry, of course, is that my friends who are more in the liberal, tolerant camp will be frustrated that I’ve thrown in my lot with someone who makes a point in his video to discuss how much he hates Islam. It’s certainly problematic, but it’s not a conflict. It’s orthogonal; they have little to do with each other. This is addressing Pat Connell’s remarks about the Islamic Cultural Center and how it relates to the First Amendment. I support the First Amendment, quite a bit, in fact, and it makes me happy to see it defended to vehemently. It’s also great to see an adamantly asshole-ish atheist not take the cowardly stance of opposing the building just because “they don’t like any religious buildings.” The fact that he hates Islam as an ideological system makes his argument all the more powerful. In a video about religious tolerance in general, it might very well detract, but we need to recognize that these lie on non-overlapping categories, and I think it’s important to have people like him, just like him, not like him without the bitchiness, on our side.

On the other hand, PZ Meyers, who is a self-proclaimed dick, but who I admire and like on an intellectual and personal level (I met him! :D) recently responded in what I think is very poor taste to a writer. This commenter, with the moniker of EvolutionSkeptic, told PZ that he has recognized, after much research and self-reflection, the truth of evolution and the lack of evidence for god. He asked, earnestly, how to construct a morality without god. Now, this isn’t, objectively speaking, difficult. In fact, it’s hard to do just the opposite, as this video shows. There’s a wealth of options: Bertrand Russell has some things to say, as does Sam Harris. The classics, of course, are rule or act utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology, but there are more. Furthermore, our innate, evolutionarily designed moral senses tend to serve us just fine. But this person just came out of a long relationship with themselves and that moral compass, and PZ decided to start bitching about how the church isn’t moral at all, given its pedophilic priests and Inquisition and WBC, completely missing the point. Greta Christina has written about how we need to make atheism a more comfortable place to land, and I completely agree. PZ has taken a step in the wrong direction; when you’ve finally convinced someone is not the time to be a dick. Giving them praise, encouragement and some valuable links and resources is. So much as I may agree with the specifics of what were said, it goes contrary to my humanist values to agree with the method, tone and choice of strategy.

It’s not that I need a label, but it can be difficult to navigate the enormous number of choices and spectra in a consistent way, especially when, in the case of orthogonal issues (belief and god and appreciation for religion come to mind), a position on one doesn’t actually necessarily help with a decision on another. The sex industry vis a vis feminism poses many of the same problems.
On an intellectual level, it can feel like getting battered around, fighting off the internet idiots claiming that I’m going to hell on one level, engaging on very hard to follow moral philosophy on another, discussing science and religion while having Francis Collins in the back of my head, getting mad at fellow atheists for forgetting that they’re not actually better than everyone else, taking action on what I believe in while making sure that I’m open to changing my mind at any time, worrying that I’m being too accomodationist in the privacy of my mind while fighting off accusations that I’m overly militant from people who know me. My about me is a good set of examples.

There are just too many positions on too many spectra on too many intellectual levels in too many different contexts to keep track of.

What to do?

This post is part of a series:

Confronting Conceptual Conflicts

I’ve written about 3-5 blog posts in the last few days, and I had thought about posting them, but they all seem to be missing something. I pondered it for a while, and it struck me that the problem was, they were really all talking about exactly the same struggle, from several different vantage points.

The problem is one of categories, levels and points of view. One of the most incredible things about being human is the diversity of options available, in action but particularly in thought. For someone who aims for logical consistency, however, this can pose some problems. There are ways of living that are applicable in different circumstances, and acting differently in accordance with separate situations is perfectly rational and justifiable. Regardless, even if the modes of thought or action do not come into direct conflict, their orthogonality can be troubling. Sometimes, too, they do seem to be problematically counter-aligned, and I am forced to make a choice, or at least come at the problem in a more sophisticated or nuanced way.

In general, my feelings about orthogonality or interconnectedness or conflict between conceptual frameworks rest not on an underlying feeling that there actually are deep cracks in my worldview as a result of being a feminist and a scientist or a constructivist and logical postivist, or some such. My problem comes more as a result of the fact that other people tend to draw lines in the sand, and since I either agree with both or neither, the lines themselves, usually taking the form of false dichotomies, tend to make me very uncomfortable.

One of the supreme ways in which to understand the world better, more complexly and more deeply is to jump into different axiomatic structures and see where they take you. It is this opportunity that prompts my profound appreciation for a wide variety of fields, systems of knowledge, cultures, subcultures and simple sets of interests or hobbies. There’s not only the chance to open up new worlds, but also to see the old ones differently. In an idealized intellectual space, a holistic understanding could be reached by integrating ideas and strategies from every subset and class one could think of. Obviously, that’s not always, or maybe ever, possible, but with that as my ideal, it makes sense that hardline ultimatums about belief or thought are irritating.

I’m not saying that we should all be gently accommodating and discuss our differences over cheesecake and coffee. Obviously, strong belief arising from strong evidence is to be admired, and academic debates are actually pretty excellent. They tend to be based on a controversy that no one outside the field knows about, and new data comes in all the time supporting one or the other. That makes them birth grounds of new knowledge, ideas and conceptual frameworks, and also very very exciting. Gould vs. Dawkins (as a general debate) gripped me for over a year, and I just recently threw in my lot behind evolutionary psychology as an extremely important and relevant and valid field of study (for example). What’s especially wonderful about this kind of debate, however, is that at the end of the day, the debate went to rest. The punctuated equilibrists weren’t accusing the gradualists of being awful people who are ignoring the importance of science and empiricism. They fought viciously, certainly, but only within a scientific framework, criticizing the validity of findings or interpretations. On the other hand, Stephen Pinker (whose book was, in general, amazing, by the way, and who I respect a great deal) sounds like an idiot when he accuses intellectuals and Marxists of denying the importance of science and evolutionary theory. There’s just so much wrong with that.

Essentially, I think that the reason categorically throwing out disciplines and groups of people is that, if we don’t recognize the importance of multiple sides, with underlying assumptions of sufficient evidence and valid reasoning to make the time worthwhile, we’re going to get a ton of false negatives, and that has extremely deleterious consequences for an advancing, knowledge-based society.

I go into more detail with these examples:
1. The Academic Community
2. Having Opinions
3. Activism and Intellectualism