Irrational and proud of it

10 05 2008

Ben Stein on science:

Anyway, I couldn’t give a [profanity] whether a person calls himself a scientist. It doesn’t earn any extra respect from me, because it’s not as if science has covered itself with glory, morally, in my time. Scientists were the people in Germany telling Hitler that it was a good idea to kill all the Jews. Scientists were telling Stalin it was a good idea to wipe out the middle-class peasants. Scientists were telling Mao Tse-Tung it was fine to kill 50 million people in order to further the revolution. [Via Memeplex]

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor on reason:

if you go just by reason, I think, without faith, without belief in God, you can imagine, for instance in the last century, some of the faith(less), or supposedly faithless societies – people, whether it’s like Hitler or Stalin, bringing up – having a country in which, if you like, a God free zone, a dictatorship ruled by reason, and where does it lead? To terror and oppression [Richard Dawkins.net]

Regarding the second quote, Richard Dawkins remarked that while the use of the reductio ad Hitlerum against science is commonplace, “this is the first time I have heard any reputable spokesman (a) say that Hitler and Stalin’s dictatorships were ruled by reason, and (b) say that reason leads to terror and oppression.”

Further reading: Memeplex and Terry Sanderson at <i>The Guardian</i>.


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25 responses

11 05 2008
Sean The Blogonaut

How many people did the green revolution save?

11 05 2008
Bruce

Yeah, I’m getting a bit tired of this strawman of using Stalinist Russia and NAZI Germany as exemplars of reason when they demonstrably are not. Between research bans, state enforced a priorism and pseudoscience and purges of the intellectual class in both, neither are even remotely possibly examples of societies of reason.

But then, I’m being reasonable. If I was being unreasonable I’d get to ignore the facts just like Stein and O’Connor.

11 05 2008
AV

You can do all kinds of reductios with Stein’s claim. Scientists were involved in the Holocaust, therefore science is evil. Trains were used to transport Jews to the death camps, therefore trains are evil. The railway tracks were made of metal, therefore metal is evil. And so on.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, on the other hand, cuts directly to the chase: thinking was used in the planning of the Holocaust, therefore thinking is evil.

11 05 2008
Bruce

Bingo. Quote of the week.

11 05 2008
11 05 2008
ozatheist

The ‘logic’ of these people astounds me.
reason leads to terror and oppression
so I guess it was ‘reason’ that led people to fly planes into buildings?
or ‘reason’ that led to the oppression carried out during the Inquisition?

IMHO there has been, and always will be, megalomaniac nutters who will use what ever weird and twisted ‘logic’ they want in order to justify their deeds. You can’t just accuse all scientists (or whatever sub-group) of being responsible for those deeds.

12 05 2008
SB

if you go just by reason

This is not really an option. Humans are incapable of using reason to decide most of their actions. The closest they appear to come is to support their prejudices with assertions consistent with their original propositions.

Most decisions people make in their lives are irrational. At best they use short-cuts which they hope will approximate rational outcome. More often their desires dictate the particular pretence at rationality used to justify their actions.

12 05 2008
AV

Humans are incapable of using reason to decide most of their actions.

I think there is a difference between claiming that humans don’t use reason to decide most of their actions–the behavioural economist Dan Ariely has some interesting things to say about this–and claiming that humans can’t use reason to decide most of their actions. The latter is a much bigger claim than the former, and demands substantiation and explanation (for instance, is there some kind of biological mechanism that prevents individuals from using reason to decide their actions?).

I find that kind of inquiry intriguing, and I think it can be very useful in promoting a kind of self-reflexiveness, helping us to spot the lacunae in our own thinking so that can avoid making the same mistakes and poor decisions over and over again. But the Archbishop of Westminster is saying something quite different. He’s saying that it is a good thing that we don’t employ reason, and that we ought to embrace unreason (in the form of faith). Otherwise, we could end up just like the Nazis and Stalinists, who embraced reason to the exclusion of unreason–which is, as Bruce pointed out, patently false.

12 05 2008
SB

AV, I don’t agree with the Archbishop. I was more intrugued by the assertion that it was even possible to live “just by reason”. The issue of human decision-making is intriguing. Most animals get by quite well without much in the way of rational thought. I’ll follow up on Dan Ariely.

I doubt we can live rationally, even if we wan’t to. Instead we have short-cuts, both rational and moral, which enable us to cope with all the decisions we make every day. I guess this goes to our inherent sense of right and wrong and also whether we have free will. Absent free will, rational (and moral) decision-making is an illusion. Can free will be defined in terms of our ability to change our behaviour based not only on our knowledge of facts, but on how our mind processes those facts? Is free will the result of us moving beyond “living in the now”, and appplying rational and/or moral reasoning about the type of world we want to live in, or even, shock horror, the type of afterlife we wish to enjoy?

12 05 2008
AV

I find the whole concept of free will a bit overwhelming, but I’d probably lean towards compatibilism, which would deny that rational and moral decision making is incompatible with determinism (if by “absent free will” you mean determinism; compatibilists would define it differently–see Dennett).

The idea that we might have an inherent (or hardwired) sense of right and wrong is one that is being pursued in biology and psychology at the moment, although it is still only speculative. That kind of research, however, can only describe what kinds of moral intuitions (or moral “grammar”) might be hardwired into us. There is a difference between having the intuition that murder is wrong, and reasoning why murder might be wrong.

Is free will the result of us moving beyond “living in the now”, and appplying rational and/or moral reasoning about the type of world we want to live in, or even, shock horror, the type of afterlife we wish to enjoy?

I’m not sure that it is advisable to apply any kind of reasoning about the afterlife other than the severest critical analysis of the reasons why it might be justifiable to believe that an “afterlife” exists at all. “Living in the now” probably does promote poor decision-making, and it would thus be preferable to move beyond that to a more global and long-term view of things. Reasoning about the kind of afterlife you want to live in is fraught, in my view, especially when such reasoning conflicts with real-world interests and the rights, liberties and well-being of others. Just ask the 3,000 or so victims of the 9/11 attacks.

12 05 2008
SB

AV: I’d probably lean towards compatibilism, which would deny that rational and moral decision making is incompatible with determinism

Isn’t this really question of definitions? If free will is really only the perception of free will, it is obviously compatible with determinism. If despite all the agonising over a particular choice, and the pretence that there is a real choice to be made, the decision was always predictable given enough information, then in spite of the perceived illusion of free will, the outcome was always determinable.

As to the afterlife, I was merely observing that this may be a consideration in some choices that some people make.

12 05 2008
AV

Isn’t this really question of definitions?

Isn’t it always?

If free will is really only the perception of free will, it is obviously compatible with determinism.

Inasmuch as I understand the concept (i.e. not greatly), then yes.

If despite all the agonising over a particular choice, and the pretence that there is a real choice to be made, the decision was always predictable given enough information, then in spite of the perceived illusion of free will, the outcome was always determinable.

I’m not sure about this. I’ve been reading up a little on Dennett, who seems to hold the position that, unlike perhaps other animals, humans have evolved the ability to model likely outcomes, to anticipate what the likely outcomes of different actions would be, and to choose accordingly. Interestingly, he claims that “we have more freedom if determinism is true than if it isn’t..”

Because if determinism is true, then there’s less randomness. There’s less unpredictability. To have freedom, you need the capacity to make reliable judgments about what’s going to happen next, so you can base your action on it.

Imagine that you’ve got to cross a field and there’s lightning about. If it’s deterministic, then there’s some hope of knowing when the lightning’s going to strike. You can get information in advance, and then you can time your run. That’s much better than having to rely on a completely random process. If it’s random, you’re at the mercy of it.

A more telling example is when people worry about genetic determinism, which they completely don’t understand. If the effect of our genes on our likely history of disease were chaotic, let alone random, that would mean that there’d be nothing we could do about it. Nothing. It would be like Russian roulette. You would just sit and wait.

But if there are reliable patterns — if there’s a degree of determinism — then we can take steps to protect ourselves.

Reason: Would a deterministic world mean that, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was going to happen ever since the Big Bang?

Dennett: “Going to happen” is a very misleading phrase. Say somebody throws a baseball at your head and you see it. That baseball was “going to” hit you until you saw it and ducked, and then it didn’t hit you, even though it was “going to.”

In that sense of “going to,” Kennedy’s assassination was by no means going to happen. There were no trajectories which guaranteed that it was going to happen independently of what people might have done about it. If he had overslept or if somebody else had done this or that, then it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.

People confuse determinism with fatalism. They’re two completely different notions.

As to the afterlife, I was merely observing that this may be a consideration in some choices that some people make.

Until it can be demonstrated that there is an afterlife to consider in the first place, choices predicated on the notion that it exists are nonsequitous at best (they may in some cases have good real-world outcomes, but these are purely incidental if the real-world is not factored into the equation); at worst, anti-social and dangerous.

13 05 2008
SB

AV: I’m not sure about this. I’ve been reading up a little on Dennett, who seems to hold the position that, unlike perhaps other animals, humans have evolved the ability to model likely outcomes, to anticipate what the likely outcomes of different actions would be, and to choose accordingly.

I am not sure this advances matters. Either the choice actually made is entirely predictable, given enough information, or it is not. If not, this could still be the result of natural phenomena, as would be the case with knowing whether Schroedinger’s cat was still alive.

As to the afterlife as a consideration, I can imagine some circumstances where this produces better outcomes than not having such beliefs.

In “Learned Optimism” Seligman notes that people who have a slightly more optimistic approach to life do better at most occupations than those who are either pessimistic or more realistic in approach to life. He asserts that a little of the right sort of ‘irrationality’ generally leads to better outcomes. Some people might call this the virtue of hope. (interestingly he says people in some occupations such as law are better off without it). Thus if your belief in the afterlife facilitates you behaving in this (slightly) irrational way, you might be better off than not having such beliefs.

13 05 2008
AV

I am not sure this advances matters. Either the choice actually made is entirely predictable, given enough information, or it is not.

That’s possibly a moot point. Are we ever given enough information?

I think Dennett’s simply trying to reassure us that we still have freedom in every sense in which it matters.

He asserts that a little of the right sort of ‘irrationality’ generally leads to better outcomes. Some people might call this the virtue of hope. (interestingly he says people in some occupations such as law are better off without it).

He’s asserting a connection between optimism and positive outcomes, given that an optimistic outlook encourages perseverance. This is a pretty mundane observation, in my view, since it is obvious that individuals who persevere at a task will have a greater chance of success than those who don’t persevere.

13 05 2008
Bruce

Either the choice actually made is entirely predictable, given enough information, or it is not.

I’d rephrase this as “Either a choice…

Also, I don’t think that a choice not being entirely predictable means that it isn’t amenable to reason. Reason still has a roll to play in guessing (i.e. educated guesses).

I fully concede that reason and reason alone doesn’t work, but I don’t think that it needs the involvement of metaphysics (theistic or non).

Moreover, I don’t think that any moral system (rational or otherwise) should be faulted due to human limitations that the application of all moral systems can be subject to (failures of communication, absence of knowledge etc).

If you told someone that you mix 1 part fertilizer into 9 parts water to grow a nice lawn, and they didn’t hear properly and added the fertilizer pure and burned the grass, it wouldn’t make it a bad fertilizer. Blaming moral systems (not just the reason based ones) for human limitations is the same as blaming the fertilizer for a lack of knowledge on the part of its user. Blaming the tool so to speak.

He asserts that a little of the right sort of ‘irrationality’ generally leads to better outcomes. Some people might call this the virtue of hope. (interestingly he says people in some occupations such as law are better off without it).

I’m going to refer ti Seligman’s irrationality as delusion, because that’s what it is; convincing yourself of things that you know aren’t true.

Personally, I prefer to keep self-help authors like Seligman on the bookshelf. His stuff is great for propagating pointy-haired types.

Calling said self-delusion a virtue of hope is to my way of thinking, an is-ought violation. You need some moral heuristic to bridge is and ought (determining what ought be and confirming that it is the case); the two are naturally separated by a logical chasm (or Hume’s Guillotine if you want to give credit where it is due).

All virtues are oughts (i.e. ought to be by virtue), whereas Seligman’s observation is purely is; it is the case that the self-deluded do well in certain circumstances (also with the unspoken but unavoidable observations that the un-deluded go unrewarded relatively speaking and that more tasks are performed by the deluded).

As a reductio, consider also that sub-criminal psychopaths fare above average in managerial positions, but act in a manner that would violate the morals of almost anyone between Martin Luther and Peter Singer. Should sub-criminal psychopathy be given the status of a virtue simply because it is the case that they fare well? If delusion can be a virtue, then so can psychopathy!

Or for a real world reductio related to Seligman’s observation and a more explicit example of ought-from-is; Nick Keelty. I see little of virtue, and much of harm (and for those using other criteria than harm I am sure you can find similar objection) in continuing the delusion that Keelty has done his job as well as he should have.

The Haneef case and the subsequent lying as well as his own breech of anti-terrorism laws by inadvertently revealing that detainees were being investigated is enough to mandate (at least on grounds of merit) that he be sacked.

Delusion is keeping him in the job, but it ought not be the case. I can’t see a virtue of delusion bridging the is and the ought by demonstrating that “is” is the same as “ought”, rather I think delusion, by way of pretending “is” and “ought” are the same (that Keelty by merit ought to be commissioner), implies its own failure.

Seligman’s irrationality, his employee says “I feel I can do it!” – employer says “therefore I know you can, you have the job!” – sane public say “he just stuffed up because he never had the skills” -scenario-delusion, isn’t a virtue.

All it can be is an observation. Things aren’t as they should be. Human resources on average doesn’t monitor merit with accuracy, just the same way that it struggles to deal with workplace psychopaths.

Incidentally, I’ve been given a copy of Seligman’s Learned Optimism before back in the 90s by someone who didn’t appreciate my skepticism (yet failed to demonstrate that I was a pessimist) and I stand by my prior assessment; cognitive behaviour therapy theory for dummies, with dumb bits added for dummies to feel less dumb.

Incidentally, my second run-in with a Seligman proponent (circa 1999) who hated my skepticism (with somewhat of a passion) was with a young earth creationist who I caught using the search string “Silvia Saint*” on the computers as a client at an AngliCare training facility. Speaking as a former SysOp and a future biology teacher (whom this guy hated), this is one of those anecdotes I’m never going to forget the minutiae of!

Maybe I’m tarring Seligman by association. ;-)

* Contains profanity, but not pornography.

13 05 2008
SB

AV:I think Dennett’s simply trying to reassure us that we still have freedom in every sense in which it matters.

So you think that it doesn’t matter whether we have free will or merely the illusion of free will?

This is a pretty mundane observation,

He is asserting a rational reason for choosing to believe irrational things.

13 05 2008
arthurvandelay

So you think that it doesn’t matter whether we have free will or merely the illusion of free will?

I don’t know enough about the subject to give an adequate response. I guess it depends on how you define “free will.” My intuition on this is that worrying too much about whether we have free will or the illusion of it takes us too far into is-ought fallacy territory. If it happens to be the case that free will is an illusion, then free will happens to be an illusion. Why is there any reason to think that such an insight would necessarily change anything? What are the predictable or demonstrable outcomes, negative or positive, of the idea that free will is illusory?

He is asserting a rational reason for choosing to believe irrational things.

Bruce’s answer (esp. the stuff on the is-ought fallacy) is more than sufficient. My point was that optimism –> perseverance –> good outcomes is a mundane observation, because not persevering –> no outcomes, good or bad. And you can easily imagine instances where optimism –> perseverance –> bad outcomes, such as optimistic but persistently luckless gamblers.

13 05 2008
Bruce

He is asserting a rational reason for choosing to believe irrational things.

He’s going from is to ought which is irrational, so this is just wrong. Oh bum. I just read AV’s comment… Speaking of which…

And you can easily imagine instances where optimism –> perseverance –> bad outcomes, such as optimistic but persistently luckless gamblers.

Which is why many utilitarians consider circumstance when trying to predict/make projections of harm (e.g. the C in “CURF” by Collins and Knight).

Seligman made the mistake of not being critical of if his observed irrationality ought to be. If he presented an outcome caused by said irrationality in a certain context AND justified that outcome (which I don’t think he could anyway*) without simply referring to his observation, then I’d be willing to accept irrationality only in that context/circumstance as being moral, or at least not immoral.

* The closest I think he could get to a rational justification would be a fatuous egoist justification in the vein of Ayn Rand, or at least an extreme version thereof (Randians are good at coming up with ad hoc contrivances to make it look like their heuristics don’t produce absurd outcomes).

13 05 2008
SB

Bruce: Why is there any reason to think that such an insight would necessarily change anything? What are the predictable or demonstrable outcomes, negative or positive, of the idea that free will is illusory?

It would probably change our notions about right and wrong, and maybe also crime and punsihment.

More interestingly it might provide another example of where an irrational belief (in ‘illusory’ free will) produces better outcomes than acceptance of reality.

As to sub-criminal psychopathy, to determine whether it is’ virtuous’ we would need to weigh the benefits to the psychopath and others against the detriments to athers by virtue of the breach of their moral code. Who knows, maybe society is optimised with a few psychopaths around.

I think you are being harsh on Seligman. I was originally taught psych by a behaviourist who provided gays with electro-shock therapy. Compared to behaviourism and Freud, cognitive psychology was a breath of fresh air – people who behaved strangely might actually be thinking strange thoughts. This was certainly news to those who insisted on treating the brain as a black box, or those who thought most problems stemmed from ones troubled relationship with their father.

13 05 2008
Bruce

Um, I don’t remember talking about free will. I think you’ve got AV there.

As to sub-criminal psychopathy, to determine whether it is’ virtuous’ we would need to weigh the benefits to the psychopath and others against the detriments to athers by virtue of the breach of their moral code. Who knows, maybe society is optimised with a few psychopaths around.

Which is pretty much what I was suggesting with delusion.

As fog cognitive psyche vs the Skinners and the Freuds, I’m with you on that one . It’s just that I don’t appreciate Seligman’s commercial publications (too much thought on what’s good for the self rather than what’s good for/least harmful most, which is to be expected of self-help books).

13 05 2008
AV

It would probably change our notions about right and wrong, and maybe also crime and punsihment.

Perhaps, perhaps not. Dennett again:

If people are determined to act as they do, then what about personal responsibility? How can we hold people responsible and punish them for their behaviors if they have no choice in how they behave? Dennett gives a two part answer to this question. First, we hold people responsible for their actions because we know from historical experience that this is an effective means to make people behave in a socially acceptable way. Second, holding people responsible only works when combined with the fact that people can be informed of the fact that they are being held responsible and respond to this state of affairs by controlling their behavior so as to avoid punishment. People who break the rules set by society and get punished may be behaving in the only way they can, but if we did not hold them accountable for their actions, people would behave even worse than they do with the threat of punishment. This is a totally utilitarian approach to the issue of responsibility: there is no need for moral indignation when people break the rules of proper behavior. Is it, then, moral to punish people who are unable to do other than break a rule? Yes, people have the right to come together and improve their condition by creating rules and enforcing them. We would be worse off if we did not do so. Again, an argument for utility.

As I said, this is a topic I need to do a lot more reading up on. But if the free will we have is Dennett’s “free will worth wanting” as opposed to theological notions of free will, this might have implications for absolutist approaches to morality. But those are not the only approaches to moral reasoning (insofar as moral absolutism can be described as “reasoning”).

14 05 2008
AV

I also wonder about the likelihood that we’d ever hear the “none of us have free will so my client can’t be guilty” defence in any court of law, regardless of our philosophical views regarding free will.

14 05 2008
Bruce

My view on free will as far as philosophical discussions essentially goes along the line that if we don’t have free will, then the outcome of the discussion is pre-determined and therefore it doesn’t matter if the discussion ends immediately. Hence I can’t be faulted for refusing to discuss philosophy where an absence of free will is entertained.

Conversely, if I chose only to discuss matters where free will is presupposed (for the sake of discussion, not necessarily a priori, then I can’t be faulted for assuming free will exists.

I don’t actually take a staunch position on the matter. Deep down I’m agnostic on the question of free will and I assume a position only for the sake of argument. Ultimately though, if free will doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter that i am wrong*, and if it does exist, it does matter and I am right.

* A rationally supported delusion of sorts?

31 05 2008
Is there really much difference between religion and insanity? « Five Public Opinions

[...] A couple of weeks ago I blogged on Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. He was calling for the BBC to be biased in favour of Christianity and to give unopposed air time to Christian voices, accusing secularist of being “Christophobic” and wishing to “close off every voice and contribution other than their own.” He later claimed that reason “leads to terror and oppression.” [...]

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