The weirdness of rationality!

FOR most of human history the world has been understood by humans through the prism of mythology, superstition, magic and gods. Some would argue that it still is. But the Enlightenment was supposed to change all that, or at least some thought that tempering it with it with a bit of reason wouldn’t be such a bad idea. As D’Alambert wrote in response to Rousseau’s attack on science and rationality ‘even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even further from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it’. And, further, that ‘vice would remain with us, and we have ignorance in addition’.

An example of Slavic mythology.

But this idea of at least trying to deploy a little more rationality, even if humans are not always very good at it, has proved to be surprisingly controversial. Typically, opponents of the Enlightenment set up a strawman fallacy by characterizing it as placing the God of Reason above all else and then proceeding to knock it down. But true rationalists are acutely aware of how fragile and precarious it is; how easy it is to succumb to our cognitive bias and sink into our social political comfort zones and echo chambers – and mythology.

Intriguingly, Steven Pinker in his book Rationality acknowledges that no matter how desirable rationality may be, it is not the natural human way. He writes: “We children of the Enlightenment embrace the radical creed of universal realism: we hold that all our beliefs should fall within the reality mindset.”

However, Pinker argues, those who give credence to this creed are the ‘weird ones’. And he adds: “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated. And for all the conquests of the reality mindset, the mythology mindset still occupies swathes of territory in the landscape of mainstream belief.” As one example, he writes that more than ‘two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s saviour one will be damned to eternal torment in hell’.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

And when the so-called New Atheists – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Higgins and Richard Dawkins – dared to argue robustly that belief in ‘God fell outside the sphere of testable reality’ they became targets of some quite vicious attacks, not only from religious people but from mainstream intellectuals as well. Pinker also has an interesting take on the Trump administration: “The brazen lies and inconsistencies of Trumpian post-truth can be seen as an attempt to claim political discourse for the law of mythology rather than the land of reality.”

As you may have gathered by now Pinker is here to praise reason, not to bury it. Interestingly, he does not believe in progress – at least not as teleological force. He writes: “Progress is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.” And the explanation, according to Pinker, is rationality. “When humans set themselves the goal of improving the welfare of their fellows (as opposed to other dubious pursuits like glory or redemption), and apply their ingenuity to institutions that pool it with others, they occasionally succeed.” And when the successes take note of the failures, the benefits can accumulate, and we call the big picture progress.”

Rodin’s The Thinker

Rationality also has a role to play in moral progress, according to Pinker. “My greatest surprise in making sense of moral progress is how many times in history the first domino was a reasoned argument.” Eventually, after going viral, the conclusion would embed itself in society ‘erasing the tracks of the arguments that brought it there’. For example, a logical argument was required, and provided by the French theologian Sebastian Castellio, against the religious intolerance of John Calvin and the practice of burning heretics at the stake. Today, it just seems obvious, just as it seems obvious, to most people at least, that slavery is wrong. But it was Frederick Douglass, himself born into slavery, who used the rules of logic to demolish the case for slavery.

In essence, then, while rationality isn’t a universal panacea, it does have a universal appeal that transcends our individual concerns. As Pinker writes: “Our ability to eke increments of well-being out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends on grasping the impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.”

And interestingly, from the perspective of Salisbury Democracy Alliance, he argues that while elections ‘can bring out the worst in reasoning’, representative government ‘could be supplemented with deliberative democracy, such as panels of citizens tasked with recommending a policy’.

So, let’s hear it for that fragile capability humans have for reason. It may not be our natural habitat but it is for this very reason that it needs to be nurtured like the most exotic and rarest of plants.

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  1. Excellent. But I think Pinker`s assumption that rationality is not the `natural human way` spells doom for democracy, unless some way can be found to insist on a quasi – Popperian pursuit of logic in the formulation of policies (and why not ?).

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  2. Hi Trevor thanks for responding. To be fair to Pinker, although he believes that rationality is not the natural human way, he also believes that it is worth nurturing, indeed that it needs nurturing just as literacy needs nurturing. So I don’t think he is spelling the doom of democracy, particularly with his promotion of deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies. As you know I don’t believe that what we have got is actually democracy anyway. At best what we have is representative government as envisaged by the founders of the American Constitution – who did not regard what they were doing as democracy and intended to keep the hoi polloi as far removed from the decision-making process as possible – and at worst what Lord Hailsham in the 1960s and more recently Ken Clarke described as ‘elective dictatorship’. So, in that sense democracy is already doomed because it doesn’t exist in its current form. It’s a moot point as to when the word ‘democracy’ became attached to the word ‘representative’ as the campaign shifted to expanding the franchise, as opposed to creating democracy in the Athenian meaning of word. But some argue that it was Robespierre who began merging what were up until then thought to be two incompatible concepts when his own venture into direct democracy went horribly wrong. Of course, we could not replicate the Athenian model (and of course we would allow slaves and women to take part:-) but we could, and I believe we should, have standing citizens’ juries and assemblies in operation at every level of government to complement representative government culminating in a citizens’ assembly replacing the House of Lords. Then, and only then, would we have something approaching a democracy proper.


    1. Agree – we don`t have an acceptable democratic system, which is a key problem because so much western debate is conducted as if we do. So for example the case for the monarchy rests on the fact the Queen has lived such an exemplary life of duty and noblesse oblige, but fails to recognise that monarchy could not prevent elected dictatorship becoming absolute dictatorship ( cf Hitler). I think we are sleepwalking into a soft fascism – propping up staggering inequality and climate disaster …
      The question is : Will we collectively wake up to prevent this ? PR and citizen`s assemblies are a pre-requisite but most people cannot see this, and the Tories will do everything they can to prevent it. Fingers (and everything else) heavily crossed.

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  3. Regarding your comment about a ‘quasi-Popperian pursuit of logic in the formulation of policies’ I am fully in favour of using science to inform the policy-making but while I think it is a necessary condition it is not, in my view, sufficient. And the reason is that science, based as it is on inductive logic, can only ever be generally true not absolute fact. Admittedly, the theory of evolution by natural selection is as close as science can get to an absolute fact, but it can never quite get there. Indeed, as you know Popperian logic is itself contested, particularly by the likes of Thomas Kuhn who introduced the idea of scientific paradigms so that two scientific schools can disagree about what is a problem and what a solution, such that they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms (which is not to say, of course, that science is therefore rendered otiose – only more fluid and contested that we sometimes like to believe). There is also the problem first identified by the Scottish philosopher of the is/ought divide – that is it is not immediately obvious how anyone solely in position of the purported facts can infer from them the normative conclusion of what ought to be, at least not without an intervening value premise. So, even though I think we should deploy science more (itself a normative judgement of course) it can only be to inform our political and moral judgements in making policy, not decide it.


    1. Agree again. I am only arguing that policy decisions should be based on the best evidence available – not that the evidence providers should take the decisions. And that evidence will of course change as science progresses. But this would require a `rule` that would prevent decisions based on prejudice and cognitive dissonance etc, and that would require a commitment to Enlightenment values that seems to have been seriously eroded in recent decades. (except when threatened by pandemics perhaps).

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