Reason & Objectivism

 

Our discussion on Ayn Rand and Objectivism has — unsurprisingly — turned to questions of reason, rationality, and empiricism. As a number of members have pointed out, Rand’s claim that her philosophy is distinguished by its reliance on rationality is both self-flattery and self-deception: all philosophies rely on unproven and unprovable assumptions, particularly those regarding morality, the good life, etc. In this sense, Objectivism is no exception.

However, Objectivism is distinguished in its affinity for rationality. You can see this not only in its declarations on the matter and in its atheism, but in the way it makes its arguments. It’s premised on the idea that Truth is totally knowable and understandable to anyone who applies their mind, and it argues that its conclusions are objectively and demonstrably correct. Bear in mind further that Objectivism purports to be a whole philosophy of life — something classical liberalism, for instance, never claims for itself — and that one of Rand’s favorite aphorisms is that contradictions do not exist.

Now, I like empiricism. I think the scientific method in the broadest sense — i.e., attempting to understand the world through hypothesis, experiment, and analysis — has been one of the most fruitful discoveries of humanity. As best I can, I try to base my ideas off empirical analysis, or to at least be open to revising them based on it.

I’ll also be the first to say that I admire the can-do, let’s figure-it-out spirit in it: the more people think things are comprehensible and discoverable, the more likely they will be to at least try to comprehend and discover them. But, as our Christian friends would remind us, this attitude is hardly unique to the Objectivists, although they may have run as far with it as one conceivably can.

That said, it’s possible to overvalue reason and I’d count Objectivists as one of the worst offenders of that rule. To begin with, there are at least some subjects that — while not exactly outside the purview of reason — yield little information through empirical analysis. Though questions such as whether or not one loves one’s spouse, or whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Incarnation of God, can be investigated through these means, those investigations aren’t likely to be particularly fruitful. We can debate where the specific boundaries should be, but it’s perfectly okay to say that reason doesn’t have much to say about at least some important subjects.

Second, we should remember that reasoning isn’t actually the hardest part of applying reason. Following a syllogism is — with effort and training — well within the means of small children and (arguably) smart animals. Figuring out what questions to ask, judging which premises to assume, gathering useful information, and analyzing it dispassionately, however, are extremely difficult to do, even for the smartest, best-trained, and most diligent of us. This, as Hayek argues in both The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit, is the central fallacy of progressivism: that a handful of experts can be better informed and more capable of reaching the right conclusions than millions of people interacting and trading freely. As he puts it in one of my favorite passages:

One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people are socialists [or Objectivists — Tom] diminishes when one realizes that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilization offers to deliberate design [or deduction] rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection…

Relatedly, reason is not always the best tool available in all circumstances, and it’s a mistake to assume that, simply because something cannot be rationally discussed or fully understood by reason, that it doesn’t exist or has no value. Nor, moreover, does it necessarily follow that an idea is better simply because it can be rationally defended: a lot of wrong ideas can be defended rationally and with honesty, while a number of good ones cannot, at least not yet.

Capitalism worked before Adam Smith described it, just as boiling water worked to sanitize water before we understood germ theory, just as prohibitions against incest worked before we understood genetics. That we understand them better through reason — and can apply that understanding elsewhere because of it — doesn’t mean we should fool ourselves about its origins. Reason is one of the most powerful and wonderful tools we have, and it has taken us places that tradition alone never could.

But tradition took us quite far on its own, and continues to support us in the things we either cannot know, or do not currently understand. It’d be irrational to throw that knowledge away simply because we can’t fully figure out how to apply our reason to it.

 

There are 28 comments.

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  1. Salamandyr Inactive
    Salamandyr
    @Salamandyr

    I’d need to read your arguments a couple more times to see if I understand you correctly, but it really feels like you’re reaching to come up with instances where reason and rationality don’t work, and you’re not quite getting there.

    You say that reason isn’t the best way to argue certain subjects (including a religious example), but it could just as easily be argued that your problem with reason isn’t with reason, but that reason doesn’t reach your preferred outcome, which you attribute as a failure, rather than a feature.  The divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is a question of fact, and thus amenable to reason.  And how we love, and who we choose to love has been the subject of argument, rational and otherwise, for generations, and we’re coming to some pretty good conclusions on how it works.  So score one for reason.

    Likewise, boiling water did indeed work prior to our formulating germ theory, but to the extent people followed such advice, it was often a result of empirical evidence (people who drink tea don’t get sick as often for instance).  The rational basis may not have been the same as ours (owing to, for example, less or incorrect information), but it was still rational.

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  2. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Objectivism, informed by its materialism and deification of reason, makes a metaphysical leap of faith that cannot be overcome with any amount of reason. To quote Fred (I think quoting Rand):

    Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

    This assumes a material only metaphysic with no basis for such an assumption other than the feelings, wishes, hopes, and fears of those who hold it.

    There is also this gem:

    Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

    Again, it assumes rather than reasons its way to a very specific epistemology. It never questions the exclusivity or reliability of the five material human senses.

    It’s hard to board a plane mid flight, but objectivism does that repeatedly, in my very limited opinion.

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  3. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Double post.

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  4. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Salamandyr: The divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is a question of fact, and thus amenable to reason.

    This… is an interesting question. If you don’t find reason in theology, you’ve never studied theology. However, if anywhere the question of where you get your postulates applies here. Suffice to say that the question of Jesus’ divinity presupposes the existence of G-d and the relevance of Jewish prophecy to begin with.

    Salamandyr: Likewise, boiling water did indeed work prior to our formulating germ theory, but to the extent people followed such advice, it was often a result of empirical evidence (people who drink tea don’t get sick as often for instance). The rational basis may not have been the same as ours (owing to, for example, less or incorrect information), but it was still rational.

    Perhaps; but I can think of a thousand and one ways where the empirical evidence leads to incorrect conclusions; because we interpret it wrong or because we see patterns where there are none.

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  5. Salamandyr Inactive
    Salamandyr
    @Salamandyr

    Hank Rhody:

    This… is an interesting question. If you don’t find reason in theology, you’ve never studied theology. However, if anywhere the question of where you get your postulates applies here. Suffice to say that the question of Jesus’ divinity presupposes the existence of G-d and the relevance of Jewish prophecy to begin with.

    I’m usually the person pointing out that most people’s belief in God is based on reason, usually in response to their assertion that I should believe based on Pascal’s wager, so no argument there.

    Something that struck me in another thread, Christ’s divinity is a factual matter, but belief in it is not a fact, but a conclusion, since we can’t have direct knowledge.  Two people may look at the same set of facts and draw different conclusions.

    Perhaps; but I can think of a thousand and one ways where the empirical evidence leads to incorrect conclusions; because we interpret it wrong or because we see patterns where there are none.

    Got to disagree here.  Information (empirical evidence) never, never, leads to incorrect conclusions.  Neither of those errors you mention, failure of interpretation or seeing patterns where there are none (also known as believing you have more information than you do) are both failures of our own reasoning faculties, not a failure of reason.   Someone else may look at the same data and come to the right conclusions (or recognize that no conclusion can be made) using the exact same reasoning process.

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  6. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    The King Prawn:There is also this gem:

    Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

    Again, it assumes rather than reasons its way to a very specific epistemology. It never questions the exclusivity or reliability of the five material human senses.

    You can believe in an objective reality, and in reason as the tool to discover that reality,  while still accepting that our senses greatly distort what we perceive as real.   For example,  scientists using microscopes and telescopes help us break out of the illusion that reality is what we see with our own eyes.  Our eyes only allow us to see the universe at human scale and within the range of frequencies we are sensitive to.   The world looks very different at different scales and in different frequency ranges.   No one disputes that – not even Rand.

    Rand never said that reason alone was sufficient to discover all that is knowable.  In fact,  she would argue that pure reason can’t tell you anything without empirical evidence.   And she never made the claim that knowing everything there is to know about the universe was even achievable.  She merely said that our tools for understanding the universe are our ability to collect empirical evidence and our rational brains to make sense of it.

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  7. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    Rand suffers from the same flaw many 19th century and 20th century thinkers suffered from – a materialistic, deterministic bias  that arose out of the industrial and early scientific revolutions.   This is the source of the primary flaw in modern economics as well, as Hayek noted.   The philosophers who grew up in the age of machines saw the world as a machine that could be understood if you just gathered enough data.   The process of logical and scientific reductionism could break down an economy or a philosophy or the human mind in the same way that a complicated machine can be understood by disassembling it and studying its component parts.

    What we’ve learned in the information age and in the new mathematics of complexity, chaos, and information theory  is that not everything is mechanistic or amenable to a process of scientific reductionism.   Complex systems don’t get simpler as you dive into them – they get more complex.   And because their nature is determined not by simple rules or simple interactions but by complex networks of agents,   they cannot be studied by breaking them down into component parts.

    I’m going to be writing some posts about this in the future, as I believe complexity theory is critically important to modern conservative thought and economic thought.  But in relation to Rand,  it tells us that there are important, real world structures that do not exist as physical parts of nature and which are not necessarily amenable to scientific or logical analysis.   They are emergent phenomenon that arise out of the interactions of millions,  and which cannot be explained through physics, chemistry,  biology,  or logic.

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  8. Davematheny3000@yahoo.com Member
    Davematheny3000@yahoo.com
    @PainterJean

    Relatedly, reason is not always the best tool available in all circumstances, and it’s a mistake to assume that, simply because something cannot be rationally discussed or fully understood by reason, that it doesn’t exist or has no value.

    Agreed. A rather large problem that I see for Objectivists is that there have been numerous studies over the years that show that actively religious individuals (here I am presuming the Judeo-Christian religious traditions…) are happier, live longer, and even heal faster than their secular counterparts. Since Objectivists believe that irrationality ultimately leads to negative outcomes for individuals, and all religion is irrational mysticism, Objectivists would, reasonably enough, predict the opposite of what these studies show.

    How do Objectivists account for this contradiction?

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  9. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Dan Hanson: She merely said that our tools for understanding the universe are our ability to collect empirical evidence and our rational brains to make sense of it.

    This seems to me to be a pretty severe limitation, or, at the very least, a great cause for caution about certainty.

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  10. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Fr. Barron likes to use the analogy of knowing a person (as a friend or lover). Basing your knowledge exclusively on empiricism — on their biography or even an interview — is exceedingly limiting. Eventually, you come to know someone by not just what their Facebook profile tells you, but what the person tells you about himself — about his mind. You have either to trust what the person is telling you — or not. This trust is the definition of faith.

    It is not absent reason. It is a way of knowing that includes and goes beyond reason.

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  11. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Salamandyr:

    Hank Rhody:

    Perhaps; but I can think of a thousand and one ways where the empirical evidence leads to incorrect conclusions; because we interpret it wrong or because we see patterns where there are none.

    Got to disagree here. Information (empirical evidence) never, never, leads to incorrect conclusions. Neither of those errors you mention, failure of interpretation or seeing patterns where there are none (also known as believing you have more information than you do) are both failures of our own reasoning faculties, not a failure of reason. Someone else may look at the same data and come to the right conclusions (or recognize that no conclusion can be made) using the exact same reasoning process.

    …So we’re talking platonic ideal capital R Reason, not the ordinary, everyday sort of reason people practice on earth. Good to know.

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  12. Salamandyr Inactive
    Salamandyr
    @Salamandyr

    Hank Rhody: we’re talking platonic ideal capital R Reason, not the ordinary, everyday sort of reason people practice on earth. Good to know.

    Excuse me?

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  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Hank Rhody:

    Salamandyr:

    Got to disagree here. Information (empirical evidence) never, never, leads to incorrect conclusions. Neither of those errors you mention, failure of interpretation or seeing patterns where there are none (also known as believing you have more information than you do) are both failures of our own reasoning faculties, not a failure of reason. Someone else may look at the same data and come to the right conclusions (or recognize that no conclusion can be made) using the exact same reasoning process.

    …So we’re talking platonic ideal capital R Reason, not the ordinary, everyday sort of reason people practice on earth. Good to know.

    Salamandyr:

    Excuse me?

    Hank is right, Salamandyr.

    Purely deductive reasoning can take in axioms and spit out theorems, but has zero capacity to process empirical evidence. Therefore any conclusion based on empirical evidence must resort to “plausible reasoning” – that is, probabilistic reasoning. As Maxwell put it:

    The actual science of logic is conversant at present only with things either certain, impossible, or entirely doubtful, none of which (fortunately) we have to reason on. Therefore the true logic for this world is the calculus of Probabilities, which takes account of the magnitude of the probability which is, or ought to be, in a reasonable man’s mind.

    But as soon as we introduce probabilistic reasoning into the picture (which, remember, we must do in order to process empirical evidence) – as soon as we begin talking in terms of plausibilities, not certainties – we’re confronted with the problem that differing priors (and everyone has priors, whether they acknowledge it or not) can lead quite reasonably to divergent conclusions.

    And by “quite reasonably” I mean exactly that: Take two people with differing priors. Hand them the same raw data, and have them proceed without error from there to their posterior conclusions. Then don’t prepare to be shocked if they reach conclusions that disagree with each other.

    Data is noisy. Every time we hunt for a signal (what’s “really happening”) in the data, we’re forced to decide what is noise and ignore it. But how do we decide what’s signal and what’s noise? A reasonable man (even a perfectly reasonable man) is not omniscient: He doesn’t know beforehand what’s noise and what’s signal. He’s forced to guess, based on what seems plausible to him. That’s not an error in reasoning. That’s how we get any reasoning about the real world (as opposed to idealized abstractions) accomplished at all.

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  14. Salamandyr Inactive
    Salamandyr
    @Salamandyr

    You’re not actually saying the same thing as Hank.

    Nowhere did I assert that data isn’t “noisy”.  I pointed out that getting a wrong result isn’t the fault of reasoning, but the fault in either lacking full data or misapprehending it.

    I’m not asserting there is no guessing.  I’m saying that when you guess wrong, that’s your error, not the process’s.

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  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Salamandyr:I’m not asserting there is no guessing. I’m saying that when you guess wrong, that’s your error, not the process’s.

    And the process has forced guessing from a state of ignorance baked right in.

    We can blame ourselves all we like when our guesses turn out to be in error (and personally, I do, probably more than is warranted), but the necessity of making perhaps-erroneous guesses is a property of the process. There is no way to escape it.

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  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    To elaborate, Salamandyr, suppose you find yourself in a situation where you have to decide between two options, A and B, when there really is a 50% probability of either option turning out to be the right one.

    In other words, the 50% chance of A being right and the 50% chance of B being right is not an erroneous assumption on your part, but reflects the real state of the information available to any rational creature in your position.

    Which do you choose?

    Would you blame yourself for choosing the wrong one after the fact? Would it even be rational to blame yourself after the fact for having made a 50-50 guess that turned out to be wrong? (Personally, I do have a tendency to blame myself for such guesses, but plenty of people have pointed out to me that this tendency is irrational and counterproductive.)

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  17. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:To elaborate, Salamandyr, suppose you find yourself in a situation where you have to decide between two options, A and B, when there really is a 50% probability of either option turning out to be the right one.

    In other words, the 50% chance of A being right and the 50% chance of B being right is not an erroneous assumption on your part, but reflects the real state of the information available to any rational creature in your position.

    Which do you choose?

    Would you blame yourself for choosing the wrong one after the fact? Would it even be rational to blame yourself after the fact for having made a 50-50 guess that turned out to be wrong? (Personally, I do have a tendency to blame myself for such guesses, but plenty of people have pointed out to me that this tendency is irrational and counterproductive.)

    What is the reason for the choice?  If the choice is a real-world physical choice that is truly binary,  well,  you takes your chances.  One box contains a puppy, the other a gaboon viper.   Choose,  Mr. Bond.   Well, things are about to either get very cuddly or very bitey.   Sucks to have to make that choice.

    But if we’re talking about choosing in terms of building our understanding of the universe,  then if you pick one option or the other and they are truly 50-50,  you ARE behaving irrationally  if you don’t also couch your choice in terms of the probability of its being correct, because you’ve made a choice when there is truly no information to justify making it.   That’s why we put error bars around these things.

    If you are hypothesis testing,  then you can pick one or the other assuming that the outcome of the experiment will be different if you make the correct choice.  Then you can pick either one,  test your assumptions against it,  and gain more information.

    At no point in a rational process is there room for going on ‘feelings’,  on the authority of an ancient book, a sense of divine presence, coin flips,   or anything else that is not driven by rational analysis of empirical data.

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  18. Salamandyr Inactive
    Salamandyr
    @Salamandyr

    Yes, I would – you’re overstating what I mean by “blame”.  I do not mean by that that one should feel guilt, but I recognize that imperfect results are often the result of acting on limited information, not “reason is suspect because…limited information”.

    Remember that my post is a response to the idea that “reason is of limited use because sometimes people reason wrong.”  Even rhough we will sometimes arrive at the wrong answer, reason is a better tool for getting right answers than any alternative.

    In other words, I don’t think we disagree, we just started from different premises.

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  19. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    Salamandyr:

    I’m usually the person pointing out that most people’s belief in God is based on reason, usually in response to their assertion that I should believe based on Pascal’s wager, so no argument there.As an aside, I’ve always had a problem with Pascal’s Wager in that it seems to contain a religious conundrum:  ‘Choosing’ to believe is not the same as believing.  If you decide “I believe in God”  simply because of Pascal’s Wager,  then  you don’t really believe in God – you’re just playing the odds.  I think God could see through that.

    As an aside, I’ve always had a problem with Pascal’s Wager in that it seems to contain a religious conundrum:  ‘Choosing’ to believe is not the same as believing.  If you decide “I believe in God”  simply because of Pascal’s Wager,  then  you don’t really believe in God – you’re just playing the odds.  I think God could see through that.

    I grew up in a religious family,  and I believed in God until I was a teenager.   It wasn’t a choice – I simply knew He existed.  I could feel his presence.   It didn’t even occur to me to debate the issue.    Then one day  I realized I just didn’t believe it any more.   Again,  it wasn’t a conscious choice – it was the result of years of learning and thinking,  and one day I just realized that God wasn’t part of it.   At first,  I really wanted to believe again,   but I just couldn’t do it.  It was never a choice, one way or the other.  Certainly I could pretend and go through the motions,  but it was never the same.

    So Pascal’s wager has always seemed to me to be somewhat of a cop-out.

    I also understand the frustration that the devout members of Ricochet must feel towards the atheists.   You know God exists,  and you are convinced by the theological,  logical, and scientific justifications that have been put forward – probably because you didn’t need them in the first place,  The belief was there first,  for most people.     Yet the atheists among you can’t be convinced,  even by arguments that seem very logical and persuasive to you.

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  20. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    Salamandyr:Yes, I would – you’re overstating what I mean by “blame”. I do not mean by that that one should feel guilt, but I recognize that imperfect results are often the result of acting on limited information, not “reason is suspect because…limited information”.

    Remember that my post is a response to the idea that “reason is of limited use because sometimes people reason wrong.” Even rhough we will sometimes arrive at the wrong answer, reason is a better tool for getting right answers than any alternative.

    In other words, I don’t think we disagree, we just started from different premises.

    Got it.  Yes,  I think you’re correct.

    Making decisions under uncertainty can certainly be rational – so long as you don’t mistake the decision for certainty.   If someone offers me 20-1 odds that a six won’t come up when I roll a die,   I’ll take that bet,  and it would be very rational to do so.  But I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it,  because I could be wrong.   So I’ll weigh the potential financial gain against the loss,  consider the utility of both, and make a rational wager.

    That’s what we do in science.  We build models of the universe,  and then we test them against observational data.  If the model passes the various tests,  it may be accepted into the ‘canon’  and used to build further models.    But that doesn’t mean we accept the model as a representation of absolute truth.   We always keep in mind that it could be wrong.

    Newton’s laws seemed like bedrock rules – until Einstein came along.   Then we realized they were just a special case of a much more complicated reality.   And maybe one day we’ll find that special relativity was wrong too.   Probably not totally wrong since so much of what we see conforms to it, but perhaps we’ll discover that it too is only a special case  of a much larger and more complicated set of rules.

    So good scientists never make claims about what is absolute truth and what isn’t.   A good scientist will admit that we have a lot of models, and some of them seem extremely robust,  but ultimately the process of understanding the universe is never-ending.

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  21. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Dan Hanson: At no point in a rational process is there room for going on ‘feelings’,  on the authority of an ancient book, a sense of divine presence, coin flips,   or anything else that is not driven by rational analysis of empirical data.

    Well put.

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  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Dan Hanson: …But if we’re talking about choosing in terms of building our understanding of the universe, then if you pick one option or the other and they are truly 50-50, you ARE behaving irrationally if you don’t also couch your choice in terms of the probability of its being correct…

    I agree with this part, but disagree with this part:

    Dan Hanson: …because you’ve made a choice when there is truly no information to justify making it.

    No, sometimes we do have positive information that we’re about to face a 50-50 choice. For example, if we’re asked to choose an outcome for a coin toss that’s known in advance to be fair, or during certain moves of a card or board game. Then the laws of probability tell us us with great certainty that we can’t improve on our 50-50 guess.

    Admittedly, much of life is messier than a game. Games are the limiting case, but that limiting case highlights a real-world phenomenon.

    Dan Hanson: At no point in a rational process is there room for going on ‘feelings’, on the authority of an ancient book, a sense of divine presence, coin flips, or anything else that is not driven by rational analysis of empirical data.

    Oh, whoah. You are so much wronger than you think you are here.

    Let’s leave “a sense of divine presence” out of it for a moment and address the other ones. You sound like an especially mathematically literate person.

    In the course of solving a mathematical problem, have you ever relied on…

    A feeling – a gut intuition – of which way to attack the problem next?

    The authority of an old book as a reference?

    If you have, you’re not alone, because that’s how working mathematicians actually do math. Sure, mathematicians clean up the results real pretty after the fact – the standard of proof in mathematics actually requires that we sweep our messy initial reasoning under the rug, leaving only the highly edited result, pristine and unassailable – but that doesn’t mean the initial reasoning doesn’t happen or is devoid of all rationality. (George Polya has written extensively – and awesomely! – on this topic.)

    Continuing with your list of “stuff taboo to rational analysis of empirical evidence”, did you ever play coin-flipping games as a child in order to learn about probability? Would you consider learning about probability through experiencing it part of the rational process of educating yourself?

    Feelings, old books, personal experience with probabilistic processes… all those things contain information. Incomplete, imperfect information, to be sure, but is it rational to throw away all that information when we’ve evidently evolved means for incorporating it into our reasoning?

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  23. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Dan Hanson: So good scientists never make claims about what is absolute truth and what isn’t.

    Aren’t the falsehoods we get when we manage to falsify an hypothesis certain or absolute?  Truth is only approached, but we can be certain of what is false in science, right?

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  24. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: In the course of solving a mathematical problem, have you ever relied on… A feeling – a gut intuition – of which way to attack the problem next? The authority of an old book as a reference? If you have, you’re not alone, because that’s how working mathematicians actually do math. Sure, mathematicians clean up the results real pretty after the fact – the standard of proof in mathematics actually requires that we sweep our messy initial reasoning under the rug, leaving only the highly edited result, pristine and unassailable – but that doesn’t mean the initial reasoning doesn’t happen or is devoid of reasoning. (George Polya has written extensively – and awesomely! – on this topic.)

    Oh.  Right.  I forgot.  So maybe we have to refine the referent of “reason” and “rational” we’re using….

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  25. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Owen Findy:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: In the course of solving a mathematical problem, have you ever relied on… A feeling – a gut intuition – of which way to attack the problem next? The authority of an old book as a reference?…

    Oh. Right. I forgot. So maybe we have to refine the referent of “reason” and “rational” we’re using….

    Usually, refining referents has to happen at one point or another. Especially when we’re dealing with some of the most semantically overloaded words ever in human discourse :-)

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  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Dan Hanson: I grew up in a religious family, and I believed in God until I was a teenager. It wasn’t a choice – I simply knew He existed. I could feel his presence. It didn’t even occur to me to debate the issue. Then one day I realized I just didn’t believe it any more. Again, it wasn’t a conscious choice – it was the result of years of learning and thinking, and one day I just realized that God wasn’t part of it. At first, I really wanted to believe again, but I just couldn’t do it. It was never a choice, one way or the other.

    Are the only choices conscious choices? I think economics says otherwise – so often we effectively choose whether we realize we’re choosing or not. Being “rational” in the economic sense doesn’t seem to require conscious awareness.

    I sympathize with your no longer feeling the “presence”, since I go through long periods of the same thing. I won’t try to talk you back into feeling the presence – it doesn’t work that way.

    Since I find myself in the rather painful position of sometimes “feeling the presence” and sometimes not, I’m acutely aware that there is an element of choice in my own religious beliefs, though the choices I consciously make have a maddeningly indirect influence on whether I “feel presence” or not. For example, listening to another person singing “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” doesn’t, as far as I can tell, increase the odds of my feeling like I know that my Redeemer does, in fact, exist. But singing it myself does.

    Knowing that about myself, I can consciously make the choice to increase the odds of “feeling presence” by singing sacred music more often – though at risk of coming face-to-face with a horrid leaden, empty feeling when the odds go against me, which they have done for over a year at a time in the past.

    Maybe, as one who doesn’t remember ever “simply knowing” that God existed – I only remember belief being fraught with doubt (even if at one time, now forgotten to me, I did briefly and innocently feel simple belief) – I’m at less risk of permanently losing them just because the feeling of “presence” vanishes. At least so far, when the “presence” goes, it’s more like not being on speaking terms with an old lover than it is the sense that a God has suddenly popped out of existence. But perhaps saying, “Even if you exist, God, I just can’t bring myself to talk to you right now,” quite rationally recognizes both what we cannot know, and the role that feelings actually do play in human reasoning.

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  27. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Are the only choices conscious choices?

    Aren’t there brain studies that show that our brain actually chooses — at least in some cases — about 1/3 of a sec. (or some small time) before we know it?  (This bothers me greatly, but there it is.)

    • #27
  28. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: For example, listening to another person singing “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” doesn’t, as far as I can tell, increase the odds of my feeling like I know that my Redeemer does, in fact, exist. But singing it myself does.

    Very interesting.

    • #28

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