Shards: October 2021 – outings in the here and now
The paradox of rationality
by Christos Tombras
Steven Pinker’s new book is in the news these days. In our age of fake news, deliberate disinformation, superstition, post-truths and alternative facts, the message of the book, as conveyed by its title, Rationality: why it seems rare and why it matters, appears clear and relevant. Rationality, described as “a set of cognitive tools capable of achieving particular goals in particular worlds”, should indeed be the “vein” of everything we think and do. And yet this is not the case. Something’s not working. Or at least it didn’t work. Resources for reasoning and information are available in abundance today and yet people choose to ignore them or use them in questionable ways. Why?
I haven’t read Pinker’s book so can’t say much about the answers he gives this question. I only found a small snippet here. In it, Pinker uses the example of the San people of the Kalahari Desert to highlight what he describes as their “scientific” mindset, which they used organically and successfully to support themselves for decades. millennia in this rather inhospitable place. “They reason from fragmentary data to distant conclusions,” he writes, “with an intuitive understanding of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory.”
If they can do it, why can’t we? What is stopping us? This is the paradox identified by Pinker.
Let’s call it Paradox of rationality.
I have tried to address such questions before. I don’t have a clear answer yet, but, to be honest, every time I read about “scientific” this or that, my mind goes back to an example that my teachers at school used in their efforts somewhat. unsuccessful to convince us of the merits of calculation. It involved foxes, rabbits, chasing curves, and a number of increasingly confusing differential equations. Apparently, this is what you need to do to follow in the footsteps of the fox chasing the rabbit. I had always found it rather funny. Just think of the headlines: The rabbit escapes thanks to the error of the fox differential equation.
In other news the other day, I came across Amy Coney Barrett’s recent speech at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. Barrett, you will recall, is the newest addition to the United States Supreme Court, chosen by D. Trump in late 2020 to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties,” Barrett pointed out. “It’s not my job to decide cases based on the outcome I want.”
A few days later, another member of the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, expressed a very similar point of view. “Sometimes I don’t like the results of my decisions. But it’s not my job to decide cases based on what outcome I want. Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties, ”he said, echoing Barrett’s turn of speech. It’s a relief, you might think. It should be reassuring that the members of SCOTUS are human but can still rise above human failings. Or at least that’s what they say.
They might fear that we do not believe them.
A few months ago I wrote about Plato Protagoras and the innovative literary device he used, the personified argument that would poke fun at the disagreement of Socrates and Protagoras and the progressive confusion of conclusions. From Plato’s point of view, the premises are tied to conclusions with unique and traceable paths, which the human intellect must follow – or else risk becoming the mockery of the argument. “This,” I wrote, “has been the hope and promise of modernity, namely the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect as an observer. in this world “.
Pinker, A. Coney Barrett and Cl. Thomas argue from this exact basic premise. They all firmly believe that the world is inherently rational and claim that “scientific” reasoning is our best compass for navigating its murky waters. In other words, we are like the fox (or the rabbit), with the added benefit of knowing about differential equations, their usefulness, and their usefulness (admittedly less when it comes to solving them).
So how do you explain the paradox of rationality? What makes people blind, prevents them from accepting strong evidence and clear inferences? What is preventing them from using their mind?
Of course, this is not an easy question. On the one hand, it is not correct that they do not use their mind. They do it, very well, but not in the way we would like. Maybe the difficulty is ours, then. It may be that we are not able to present the problem or the paradox correctly.
Let’s try another way then.
What makes people suspicious when they hear Amy Coney Barrett explain that her Catholic faith should not be seen as interfering with her legal reasoning? Is this a justified suspicion? Maybe so, given the backstory of Barrett’s appointment. But then, how can we convincingly differentiate this “justified” suspicion and, say, the suspicion that is evident in the minds of all those vaccine deniers and “truths” of the Covid pandemic? Or any other similar conspiracy theory for that matter? Can we differentiate ourselves?
I come to the same impasse: It is tempting to attribute conspiracy theories, gullibility and post-truths to mere sloppy thinking or ignorance, but it does not help to advance our understanding of such phenomena.
The paradox of rationality requires thought, not a shoddy explanation.