Shayne Wissler
“How far into the foundations, when it comes, must the revolution penetrate?” – Thomas E. Phipps, Jr.

Diagnosis

July 05 2020

Many if not most people would agree that society is suffering from a gross lack of rationality. And then they would not agree that that diagnosis squarely applies to themselves.

Should we as a people be more rational? Should we have more concern for facts and logic? Stated that way, I think most people would admit that we should. But I don’t think most people fathom the wide chasm between the intention to be rational and what it really means when put into practice. They would claim to agree with the marketing brochure for rationality, but wouldn’t want to actually own the product.

An analogy I often make is of launching a spaceship. If you examine what’s required to launch a man into orbit or land him on the moon, you’ll find that it relies upon an extremely disciplined and meticulous use of logic and evidence over a long span of time, both in human history and the history of the scientists and engineers who have trained themselves to perform this work. Building a healthy and proper civilization and its political system requires this same disciplined rationality.

And yet, most act as if a little education gives them enough information to form political opinions and then vote for whomever they like. But that’s as silly as thinking that the same education would be sufficient for forming a team to launch rockets. The truth is, if they were to try the latter, they’d just get astronauts and ground crew killed. Just as they’re arguably getting so many killed (or otherwise destroying human lives) by their current negligent approaches to politics.

As a species then, here is where we are stumped. While a select few of us have figured out how to apply rational discipline to our approach toward the natural world and then build institutions on this premise, we have no clue how to do it in the realm of political institutions. And what’s worse, we have institution-scale Dunning-Kruger – we aren’t even aware that we have this major blind spot.

The way forward is obvious: one at a time, individuals must come to understand this chasm between rationality as intention vs. as fact, and then attempt to cross it. Only when there are a sufficient number of people actually being rational will our institutions then begin to accept our reforms. But there are a number of stumbling blocks:

  • Charlatan philosophers and “thought-leaders” have propagandized heavily over centuries that rationality in the ethical/political realm isn’t possible, and many have bought this snake-oil. (But how would they know that such knowledge is impossible, given the alleged weakness of rationality?)
  • People are naturally very tribal and emotional. Since embracing rationality necessarily means going against their tribes and their feelings in at least some respects, they’re fearful of following reason wherever it may lead. “Cancel culture” and a litany of “thought-crimes” make people fearful to boldly explore new ideas. People cherry-pick, fixating on their preferred side of the issue while ignoring the other side, or as Buddha recognized long ago: “O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim For preacher and monk the honored name! For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. Such folk see only one side of a thing.”
  • Qua animals, people are naturally ruled by self-interest not rational discipline, and so pick and choose their beliefs as if anything true would also guarantee them personal benefits. Since rationality can guarantee nothing other than an ever-closer approximation to the whole truth, then they aren’t interested. (It is of course true that a rational civilization would bring all who survived to see it many benefits over the long-term.)
  • Declining psychological and physical health make people less willing or able to explore new moral and intellectual landscapes.
  • Rationality is difficult, and people are oppressed by a thousand crises, both personal and civilizational. Why spend precious time learning while everything around seems to be collapsing?
  • Trust in proponents of rationality is difficult, particularly in an early-adopter phase. Every message has its messenger, and people naturally think “Who does he think he is to know better than the anointed experts? Why invest in learning his arguments given that nobody else seems to care what he has to say?”