Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cheap Imitations of Rationality

One of the interesting things about the fun and games surrounding commentary on Camping's recent prediction of the Rapture was how cheap most of the self-satisfied response to it was -- it was really just an opportunity for everyone to pat themselves on the back over how clever they were in comparison with those stupid people over there, and little more, and what could possibly be easier? But as with everything else, there is no shame in being wrong, only, at times, in being unreasonable in one's reasoning, and very few people in the jeering crowd showed any indications of having the faintest clue where Camping went wrong in his reasoning. There was nothing rational about the response to Camping from most quarters, although there were some nice exceptions here and there. It was largely cheap imitation of rationality.

Ian Hacking, building on a claim made by Gilbert Ryle, likes to say that we really only use 'irrational,' not 'rational,' as an evaluative word. This, taken as a straight claim, is obviously false, but it does address the genuine truth that our real worry is often to make sure that we are not in the definitely-irrational camp, which is a standard sign that social status is in view. You get similar patterns with fitness and virtue and piety.

The problem is that every such concept, regardless of its inner logic, is under pressure as relevant to social status; and this pressure combines with two key features. (1) Really having these things is very difficult; and (2) it's the appearance of these things that really indicate that you are not in the outcast group -- any indicator of anything has to appear in some way. Thus the pressure is to focus on the appearance rather than the substance. People would rather appear to be fit than to be fit; people would rather appear to be pious than to be pious; and people would rather appear to be just than to be just. If you can manufacture the appearance without the hard work of building up the substance, you get all the social status benefits -- at the very least you avoid being in the outcast group. This privileges cheap imitation over the real thing, and encourages people to look for comparisons that will make them look good to others (or even to themselves).

It's this that we really saw in play in the whole Camping incident: a large group of people found an occasion for putting themselves in the Rational Camp without having to do any rational work, and so it was all an elaborate display of social quality, like apes engaging in dominance displays.

It's important not to go too far with this. The mere fact of the display is obviously not evidence that there is no substance to it. We are social creatures, and reason itself is partly social in nature, and therefore there's no basis for saying that social life should be ignored entirely when it comes to rationality. Likewise, rationality really is genuinely difficult at times, and therefore it's not a question of eliminating these chest-thumping displays entirely -- everyone engages in them sometimes, even if for no other reason than we don't have the time and energy to handle each and every thing that comes up. The kind of rationality involved in these cases is practical rather than theoretical, but it is a genuine kind of rationality. But we should, I suggest, be realistic about people going out of their way to mock people for being irrational without providing any serious argument, especially when they can do so without any detriment to themselves: going out of their way to do it is an expenditure of time and energy, which means that lack of time or energy is not the reason for lack of argument. It's not so much that there's anything fundamentally wrong with it -- the mocking can be morally vicious, and sometimes is, but it need not be, and one form of it is just a sort of mental horseplay among friends -- as that we should not pretend that there's anything more to it than posturing. It shows that you can puff up those feathers and shake that tail, and that you can talk the talk; it doesn't show that you are anything more than a weak bird with puffed-out feathers, or that you can walk the walk.


  1. <span>we should not pretend that there's anything more to it than posturing. It shows that you can puff up those feathers and shake that tail, and that you can talk the talk; it doesn't show that you are anything more than a weak bird with puffed-out feathers, or that you can walk the walk.</span>

    This is exactly what I was worried about during the whole phase, thanks for expressing it so clearly.  There is a kind of error being made, here: on the surface, a person believes they are pursing truth and rationality, but when their actual motives are uncovered, it turns out that they are acting on a desire  (to display in-group loyalty and bravado, "puffing up" one's tail) that is in direct opposition to the ideals of truth and rationality. 

  2. Chris7:52 AM

    <p><span>From what I’ve read, Camping’s reasoning is probably difficult for most people, even most Christians, to penetrate, since both of his methods that I’ve seen described – gleaning numbers from Biblical passages, even when numbers aren’t obvious, and adding numbers based on associations (I’m not sure where he got associations like 5 representing atonement) – are esoteric at best. It’s easy to see why most people, even if they knew what his reasoning was (and most sources on the prediction didn’t describe it, so I imagine most people have no idea how he came up with his prediction), wouldn’t criticize it directly. Rather, the whole project is what they deemed “irrational.” It goes without saying here that “irrational” means something different for most people than it does for philosophers, and while it’s certainly a social label, it also has a substantial epistemological meaning, something like “is inconsistent with my basic (consciously available) beliefs about how things in this domain work.” And since Camping’s reasoning was, to all appearances, radically inconsistent with most people’s basic world view, Christian or not, I don’t really have any problem with them treating him as wildly irrational, even if the mocking went a bit overboard.</span></p>

  3. branemrys12:40 PM

    I'm unconvinced that there is any substantial epistemological meaning to i, at least in most cases. Setting aside the fact that "inconsistent with basic beliefs about how things work," taken on its own, is an irrational criticism of anything, and would be a deadend to intellectual progress across a wide number of field (and impeding new ideas is often what it's used for), I don't see that it played much of a role in most of the mockery that was out there: for one thing, most of the mockery depends crucially on retaining something of the philosopher's meaning of the term (there was necessarily more to it than, "Oh, ha, ha, this person's beliefs are very, very different from mine, isn't that absurd").

  4. branemrys6:29 PM

    I don't think it need be considered in direct opposition, but certainly there is an opposition; the ends of one are only indirectly related to the ends of the other.

  5. While I agree that it's not a good criticism, and one that all too often closes doors to intellectual inquiry (the New Atheists 'are a perfect example of this), I don't think "irrational" is the best description of it. Instead, "ignorant" works better. It's a way of saying, "That's not consistent with my basic world view, so I'm not going to even consider it except as an object of mockery." I used to see it a lot from Nazarenes in reference to evolution: they made fun of biologists in a way that is strikingly similar to the way some scientists and "pro-science" folk make fun of creationists. And irrational was used just as frequently in their mocking.

    I'm not really sure that the use of irrational in this context has much, if anything, in common with the philosophical meaning of the term. In this case, it's almost a synonym of "silly" or "outrageous" (whereas in philosophy, something can be silly and outrageous and still be rational). Sure, when some more educated people use it, they have some vague sense of what "irrational" means in the (a) philosophical sense, and they may even think they're using it that way, but if you look at the use closely, you'll see that's merely pretense. It's a stand-in for something much less thought through, but much more basic, from a cognitive perspective. It's something related to, but not identical with, confirmation bias.

    This isn't meant as a defense of their practice, even if I can't deny making a joke or two at the pastor and his followers' expense in the lead up to the predicted date. I just think this is part of a more basic cognitive phenomena, and while it is certainly irrational, as heuristics and biases often are, it's much less insidious than the signalling explanation that you describe. In fact, since pretty much everyone saw this the same way, there wasn't much to be gained, socially or psychologically, from putting yourself in the Rational camp.

  6. and phenomena=phenomenon

  7. branemrys12:25 AM

    But <span>"That's not consistent with my basic world view, so I'm not going to even consider it except as an object of mockery" goes well beyond anything that can reasonably be considered mere ignorance; (active) ignorance just ignores, but mockery by its nature has to be understood with reference to what is rationally defensible and indefensible. The terms here are satisficing rather than optimizing, i.e., there's some arbitrarily and perhaps vaguely defined threshold built in, but that's quite literally all the difference that there seems to be from (usual) philosophical sense of the terms.</span>

    I think you are both taking the philosophical senses of rationality to be more technical than they usually are and taking mockery to be a much less cognitively complex phenomenon than it has to be. Mockery is a very sophisticated cognitive operation, drawing on a wide range of other cognitive operations: it goes considerably beyond simpler cognitive responses like surprise, puzzlement, and incomprehension because it requires definite assessment on the basis of something, even if that something is itself as a simple as imaginative associations, and this assessment has to be an assessment of wrongness (or something like it) and incongruity (with respect to what is expected) and defensibility (in terms that would be recognizable), because everyone takes rigorous proof of any of these things -- that the claim is actually right, or that it makes complete sense if you look at it the right way, or that there is a really excellent argument for it -- as a completely sufficient answer to mockery. Mockery, in fact, is arguably the most sophisticated rational response found in regular use in everyday life. At least, it's certainly one of the most sophisticated in our natural repertoire, which is one reason why it admits of real philosophical genius in its use -- Voltaire in Candide, or, even better (because better informed) Berkeley in Alciphron, and so forth. Even ordinary jokes can be quite sophisticated but (1) jokes (2) exhibiting ideas (3) as having a status beyond some pale are necessarily orders of magnitude more complicated than ordinary jokes.

    Likewise, the philosophical senses of rationality don't exist in a void; they are simply refined forms of more everyday handlings of rationality and irrationality, including mockery. And this has been true at least since the days of Greek comedy. This is why the mockery is not itself the problem for rationality, assuming it is under circumstances that don't make it morally vicious; you can have entirely rational mockery, indeed, mockery at a very sophisticated rational level. It just requires the mocking assessment to be well-founded and substantive, which requires the same sort of rational work as any other well-founded and substantive assessment.


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