Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Sun Mar 18 19:39:47 2012
Rationality is not Everything Called Rational

I'm joining (tenatively) a philosophy-ish group in NYC organised around two blogs, one of which is the moderately famous 「Less Wrong」, the other being 「Overcoming Bias」. I suspect I'm joining in the same sense as I was part of 「Students for Freethought」 at Ohio State; as someone interested in the topics but not of the standard flavour the group's title/emphasis suggests.

When I was younger, the term and flavouring of rationalism was very important to me (this was in my libertarian stage); I had a fairly firm opinion on what rationalism is, basing it on logic and math and an abstraction of human nature fairly different from how people actually are (If I had ever been Objectivist, I might've claimed to have an independent derivation of praxeology, although my libertarianism never had quite that flavouring). I had a strong belief in the power of argument and reason ot unravel the universe, seeing it as a key to a lock, and being eager to pare away human failure (and human failures, sadly) that did not fit that keyhole.

Oddly for a political realignment, my Myers-Briggs type shifted alongside my politics; I moved from being a solid INTJ to an INT(J/P), and became socialist. I gave up that notion of how humans should be, acquired a new, looser model that (I think) is more rooted in human nature and history, and came to see logic as a human creation, not transcendant. I suppose my belief in science as a social and methodological process took center stage, but science properly understood in its modern form is radically empiricist; a philosophy based in that inherits the humility in the face of the universe of science (although not humility in the face of the lesser methods, which are mostly bullshit).

I browsed a few blogs of these rationalists and see a lot to argue with; people who believe that what economists call economic rationality is rational, a yearning for a simpler tractable human nature, things like that. A lot of clever people engaging in wooly thinking ; eager to criticise existing human practice without understanding it well enough. If you parameterise a very logical problem-solver with a deep and full understanding of human nature, generally that problem-solver will behave fairly humanly; we have emotional selves, need for slack, and need for struggle that are easy to overlook by people who are not students of human nature, leading to a number of daft criticisms.

One of the trickier problems in this, and an area where I am wary of overstating the general thrust of my post here, is the question of how mallable human nature is; we neither want to prescribe a new mental order for all of humanity that doesn't suit human nature and will leave us unhappy (the charge I am levelling) nor accept everything of our current mental order in this culture and reject any change because it's not how we do things now (which would be an error). Ideally, we'd use history, a good understanding of inculturation and a good understanding of human nature to try to figure out how mallable human nature is to figure out both an acceptable rate of change and an acceptable end-goal for self-actualisation of humanity; the number of people qualified to come to reasonable conclusions in that sphere is fairly low right now (and I would automatically distrust anyone too young or with too simple a history of philosophical positions who claimed such qualification), but it is an important question for basically any philosophical movement; it applies to feminism, socialism, anti-racism, efforts towards philosophical enlightenment, and so on.

I'll have to see if/how I fit in among these self-described rationalists who are trying to overcome their biases to be less wrong. If they're mostly the sort that emphasise quantification over depth, I'll either be a source of enlightenment, a source of frustration, or get the boot. We'll see. I suspect it'll probably be a fairly non-dramatic mix of the first two though; I'm older than I was when I was a libertarian atheist in a society of secular humanists (SFF, in undergrad), and I probably am easier to get along with than I once was (although it's an open question as to whether secular humanists or libertarians are less tolerant of dissent, or less tolerated).