Imagine that somebody wrote:
Some of my friends support Ron Paul. I think that’s wrong. After all, he’s a libertarian, and Wikipedia says a libertarian is a person who believes in free will. But free will is impossible in a deterministic universe. Ron Paul’s belief in free will is clearly why there are so few Swiss people among Ron Paul supporters, since Swiss people are Calvinists and so understand determinism better.
This is sort of how I feel reading Why I Am Not A Rationalist on Almost Diamonds.
I’m having trouble not quoting it in full:
I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data. Such arguments can only perpetuate ignorance by giving it a shiny veneer of reason that it hasn’t earned.
I boggle that we haven’t sorted this out yet. I particularly boggle that atheists of my acquaintance promote rationalism over empiricism. The tensions between basic rationalism and empiricism parallel the tensions between church theology and the philosophy of science. We have no problem rejecting church theology as not being grounded in evidence. Why do so many atheists praise rationalism?
Let me stop here and make it clear that I’m not rejecting logic or critical thinking. Goodness knows that I’ve spent hours just this summer helping people share useful heuristics that will, in general, help them get to the right answers more often. I’ve led workshops and panels on evaluating science journalism and scientific results. When I’ve spoken to comparative religion classes in the past, I’ve talked about religious skepticism with an emphasis on the basics of epistemology.
The problem isn’t logic or critical thinking. The problem is a tendency to view those skills as central to getting the right answers. The problem is a tendency to view them as the solution. They’re not, and the idea that they are is in distinct contrast with the way humanity has actually grown in knowledge and understanding of the world.
Rationalism is, at heart, an individualist endeavor. It says that the path to getting things right lies in improving the self, improving the thinking of one person at a time. It’s not surprising that the ideology and movement appeal largely to the young, to men, to white people, to libertarians. It focuses primarily on individual action.
That’s not how we’ve come to learn about our world, though. It’s not how science or any other field of scholarship works. Scholarship is a collaborative process. And I don’t just mean peer review and working groups, though those are important as well.
Scholars add to our knowledge of the world by building on the work of others. They apply tools and methods developed by others to new material and questions. They study the work of other scholars to inspire them and give them the background to ask and answer new questions. They evaluate the work of others and consolidate the best of it into larger theoretical frameworks. Without the work of scholars before them, scholars today and evermore would always be recreating basic work and basic errors.
All too often, I find rationalists taking this repetitive approach. They think but they don’t study. As a consequence, they repeat the same naïve errors time and again. This is particularly noticeable when they engage in social or political theorizing by extrapolating from information they learned in secondary school and 101-level college classes, picked up in pop culture, or provided by people pushing a political cause. Their conclusions are necessarily as limited as their source material and reflect all its cultural biases.
As best I can tell, it is conflating a misunderstood version of rationalism (Descartes) with a misunderstood version of rationalism (Yudkowsky) and ending up with something unrelated to either, in the most bizarre possible way. But since there are commenters there who seem to agree with it, better nip this in the bud before it spreads.
Rationalism (Descartes) is not simply the belief that sitting and thinking is more useful than observation. Descartes-style rationalism is complicated, but involves the claim that certain concepts are known prior to experience. For example, it is possible to understand mathematical truths like 1 + 1 = 2 separately from our experience of observing people add one apple to another. It is also possible to know them more completely than our knowledge of the external world, since our external senses can only tell us that all additions of one plus one have equalled two so far, but our reason can tell us something we have never observed – that it is necessarily true that everywhere and for all time 1 + 1 will equal two.
This so obviously gets bogged down in definitions of what is or isn’t “prior to experience” or a “concept” that philosophers today have mostly moved on to bigger and better things like hitting people with trolleys. It has nevertheless gotten a mild boost of interest recently with Chomsky’s claim that some features of human language are innate, and evolutionary psychology’s claim that certain preferences like fear of spiders may be innate. You can learn much more than you wanted to know at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
But in no case does the debate ever resemble Almost Diamonds’ naive conception of some people thinking they have to study the world and other people sitting and speculating in armchairs and playing at self-improvement because they don’t want to get their hands dirty in the real world. In fact, Descartes himself was a devoted experimentalist – probably too devoted. His intense interest in anatomy combined with his belief that animals lack souls made him one of the most prolific vivisectionists of all time. We can thank him for such useful pieces of scientific information as “If you cut off the end of the heart of a living dog and insert your finger through the incision into one of the concavities, you will clearly feel that every time the heart shortens, it presses your finger, and stops pressing every time it lengthens.” One can accuse the author of this statement of a lot of things, but “not willing to get his hands dirty” isn’t one of them.
Likewise, Leibniz, the other most famous partisan of rationalism of all time, also made notable contributions to physics, geology, embryology, paleontology, and medicine. Either he was out exploring the world, or he had some armchair. Particularly ironically for Almost Diamonds’ thesis, he was one of the most prominent advocates of research as a collaborative endeavor, and founded various scientific discussion societies around Europe as well as calling for a giant international database of all scientific findings. All of this was entirely consistent with, and informed by, his rationalism.
But I think Almost Diamonds is mostly talking (also talking?) about rationalism (Yudkowsky), ie internet rationalism. After all, she mentions “the rationalist movement” and says they’re about “understanding cognitive biases” and “appeal largely to…libertarians”.
This is even more wrong.
At least rationalism (Descartes) is sort of about some kind of disconnect with empirical evidence. In the context of rationalism (Yudkowsky) this is about the same level of error as expecting Ron Paul to be a philosopher preaching free will just because “libertarianism” can mean something in metaphysics. Rationalism (Yudkowsky) and rationalism (Descartes) share a name, nothing more.
Almost Diamonds says:
I’m not a rationalist because I’m an empiricist. I find no value in “logical” arguments that are based in intuition and “common sense” rather than data…I boggle that we haven’t sorted this out yet. I particularly boggle that atheists of my acquaintance promote rationalism over empiricism.
Meanwhile, the founding document of rationalism (Yudkowsky), the Twelve Virtues of Rationality, states:
The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction. What tree grows without roots?…Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate.
You cannot make a true map of a city by sitting in your bedroom with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper according to impulse. You must walk through the city and draw lines on paper that correspond to what you see. If, seeing the city unclearly, you think that you can shift a line just a little to the right, just a little to the left, according to your caprice, this is just the same mistake.
This makes the same point as Almost Diamonds.
Now, granted, some movements can have Official Founding Beliefs that they don’t follow. Many rationalists take the Virtues very seriously (one just let me know it is hanging on the wall of his group house) but perhaps like some of Jesus’ more lovey-dovey commandments or the inconvenient parts of the Constitution, they are honored more in the breach than in the observance?
I don’t think so. Rationalists have taken this idea and run with it, which is why we are so obsessed with things like making beliefs pay rent in experience, discussion of “Bayesian updating”, and even making monetary bets on our beliefs to train ourselves to make sure they conform to real world outcomes. It’s why the rationalist proverb, upon being given a cool theory, goes “Name three examples”.
A typical (okay, I lied, highly extreme) example is Gwern, who consumed pretty much every chemical and then carefully recorded its effects on his sleep, emotions, performance on cognitive tests, et cetera and then performed Bayesian analysis on it. There’s obviously something wrong with that, but it’s not lack of empiricism!
All too often, I find rationalists taking this repetitive approach. They think but they don’t study.
Twelve Virtues again:
The eleventh virtue is scholarship. Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. If you are gluttonous you will become vaster than mountains.
And in accordance with this, I will put the rationalist movement up, mano a mano, against any other movement on the entire Internet in terms of the quality of scholarship and empiricism.
Like, holy @#$%, we have Luke Muehlhauser, who can’t write a simple life hacks post on productivity without fifty-seven different journal article citations, and who writes at great length about how to study a field of research effectively, the best textbooks on every subject, software tools for efficient scholarship, etc, etc, etc.
We have a community-wide survey that collects information on one hundred thirty-six demographic categories, for over fifteen hundred community members, and then a tradition of obsessively arguing about the implications of the results for several weeks every year.
We know that 20% of rationalists over the age of 35 have Ph. Ds. 54% have either a Ph. D, an MD, or a Master’s!
And not to toot my own horn, but there’s a reason this blog’s series of impromptu literature reviews is called “Much More Than You Wanted To Know” and has investigated the literature on things like marijuana legalization and SSRI effectiveness, fifty or sixty studies per review, to a degree that’s gotten some coverage on major news sites including Andrew Sullivan’s blog and Vox.
And…wait a second! The author of that blog knows Kate Donovan! How do you know Kate Donovan and still accuse rationalists of “not studying”?!?! DO YOU EVEN HAVE EYES?
Finally, Almost Diamonds says:
Even in the modern rationalist movement, which speaks more to collecting evidence than classical rationalism, I have yet to see any emphasis on epistemic humility.
But the Twelve Virtues says:
The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans. Because this world contains many whose grasp of rationality is abysmal, beginning students of rationality win arguments and acquire an exaggerated view of their own abilities. But it is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple. There is no guarantee that adequacy is possible given your hardest effort; therefore spare no thought for whether others are doing worse. If you compare yourself to others you will not see the biases that all humans share. To be human is to make ten thousand errors. No one in this world achieves perfection.
Really? “Yet to see any emphasis on epistemic humility”? The most important mission statement of the rationalist movement says that one of the movement’s twelve founding principles is humility, then waxes rhapsodic about it. Seriously, we’re the people who keep calling ourselves “aspiring rationalists” to remind ourselves that we’re not nearly as rational as we should be yet! We’re the people who obsessively calibrate with Prediction Book et cetera to remind ourselves just how high our error rate is. We’re the people who keep a community-wide keep a mistakes repository (with Gwern once again going above and beyond). THERE ARE FORTY ONE DIFFERENT POSTS ON LESS WRONG TAGGED ‘OVERCONFIDENCE’!
Almost Diamonds dislikes rationalism because she believes in an emphasis of empiricism over armchair speculation, careful scholarship over ignorance, and epistemic humility. But she’s just described the rationalist movement almost to a ‘T’! She’s attacking the rationalist movement for not living up to her ideal philosophy which is…the precise philosophy of rationalist movement!
This is mean, but I’m going to say it. Almost Diamonds describes the rationalist movement in a way that even the most cursory glance at any rationalist site or document would disprove. Her opinion seems to be based entirely on a distorted idea of the dictionary definition of the word “rationalism”.
It’s almost like she’s, I don’t know, sitting in an armchair speculating about what rationalism must be, rather than going out and looking for evidence.
Also, can I just mention that one of the commenters on that blog says that the problems with the rationalist movement are a lot like the problems with frequentist statistics, and what would really help them is if they investigated Bayesianism? I swear I am not joking. I swear this is a thing that happened.
But aside from all this, I do think there’s an important point that needs to be made here. That is – given that empiricism and scholarship is obviously super-important, why is it not enough?
The very short answer is “A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies is what tells you that psychic powers exist. Critical thinking is what helps you figure out whether to trust that result.”
The longer answer: rationality is about drawing correct inferences from limited, confusing, contradictory, or maliciously doctored facts. Even the world’s most stubborn creationist would have to realize the truth of evolution if you could put her in a time machine and make her watch all 3 billion years of life on Earth. But more rational people can realize the truth of evolution after reading a couple of good biology textbooks and having some questions answered. And Darwin could realize the truth of evolution just by observing the natural world and speculating about finches. There’s something I do better than the creationist and Darwin does better than me, and it’s not “have access to data”.
Life is made up of limited, confusing, contradictory, and maliciously doctored facts. Anyone who says otherwise is either sticking to such incredibly easy solved problems that they never encounter anything outside their comfort level, or so closed-minded that they shut out any evidence that challenges their beliefs.
Given this state of affairs, obviously it’s useful to have as much evidence as possible, in the same way it’s useful to have as much money as possible. But equally obviously it’s useful to be able to use a limited amount of evidence wisely, in the same way it’s useful to be able to use a limited amount of money wisely.
I recently reviewed thirty-five studies on racism in the criminal justice system, a very controversial topic. But I would suggest that almost nobody would change their opinion about this based on simple number of studies reviewed. That is, if a person who has read five studies and believes the system is racist encountered another person who has read ten studies and believes the system is fair, she would not simply say “Well, you’ve read more studies than I have, so I guess you’re right and I’m wrong.” She would probably say “That’s interesting, but I need to double-check the methodologies of those studies, make sure they mean what you think they mean, make sure you haven’t specifically selected only studies that prove your view, and make sure you haven’t fallen into one of a million other possible failure modes.”
The part where you have read 5 studies but I have read 10 is the empiricism that Almost Diamonds would say is the only meaningful skill that exists. The part where we want to make sure they’re good studies and I understood them right is rationality. I would trust the opinion of a rational person who knows one study far more than that of an irrational person who knows fifty. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to check out the hundreds of studies published in creation science and homeopathy journals every year.
Or what if you’re working in an area where you don’t even have hypotheses yet? It’s your job to explain or predict something that’s never been explained or predicted before. Sure, you’ve got to have a background level of expertise and scholarship, but no matter how many x-ray crystallographers you have somebody has to be the one to say “You know, our data would make sense if this molecule were in the shape of a helix.” What if you’re trying to predict the future – like in what year fusion power will become a reality, or whether a stock is going to go up and down – and you’ve already reviewed all of the relevant evidence? What then?
If somebody says that rationality is all nice and well, but not really important because you can just use the facts, then this is the surest sign of somebody who doesn’t possess the skill and doesn’t even realize there is a skill there to be possessed. They have inoculated themselves with the cowpox of doubt, trained themselves on easy problems so long that they’ve dulled their senses and forgotten that problems that require more thought than just looking up the universally-agreed-upon scientific consensus in Wikipedia even exist.
There is one paragraph for which I will give Almost Diamonds credit: she is partly right when she says rationality is fundamentally an individual endeavor. I mean, only in the sense martial arts is an individual endeavor – you can train with lots of people, you have to train with lots of people, you’ve got to learn the craft from others and stand on the shoulders of giants – but in the end you’ve got to punch the other guy yourself.
Thousands of scientists have worked their entire lives to get you the evidence in favor of evolution. But thousands of creationists have worked their entire lives to obfuscate and confuse that evidence. Thousands of scientists have studied the criminal justice system, but many of them aren’t very good at it, many of them disagree with one another, and very likely none of them have worked on the exact subsubproblem that you’re interested in. Other people can present the facts to you, but in the end you’re the one deciding what and who to believe. Just like everybody dies alone, everybody decides on their beliefs alone. And rationality is what allows them to do that accurately.
If you’re investigating a problem even slightly more interesting than evolution versus creationism, you will always encounter limited, confusing, contradictory, and maliciously doctored facts. The more rationality you have, the greater your ability to draw accurate conclusions from this mess. And the differences aren’t subtle
A superintelligence can take a grain of sand and envision the entire universe.
Einstein can take a few basic facts about light and gravity and figure out the theory of relativity.
I can take a bunch of conflicting studies and feel sort of confident I’ve at least figured out the gist of the topic.
Some people can’t take a movement that emphasizes on its founding document “OUR VIRTUES ARE EMPIRICISM, SCHOLARSHIP, AND HUMILITY” and figure out that it considers empiricism, scholarship, and humility to be virtues.