The Fundamentals of Reason

I realize that I talk about reason and rationality a great deal, but I haven’t done a great deal to explain exactly what I mean by those words.  In fact, through a great part of history it was perfectly acceptable to treat divine inspiration or the product of a drug-induced hallucination as a basis for decision-making.  However that is clearly not rational by today’s standards.  I want to try and stay away from the philosophy of science, though, since that sort of discussion will not have meaning for too many people.  What I want to get across is that we are all fundamentally rational beings because rationality is a prerequisite of survival.  If we did fundamentally insane things on a regular basis then our species would be long extinct to make room for those that react to reality instead of a fantasy world.

Everyone, even the craziest of the crazies, is fundamentally rational.  They know how rationality works, even if it hasn’t been formalized for them.  They know how to apply it to make the right decisions and to sort truth from falsehood.  The trouble comes because rationality is so flexible.  As a meta-rational strategy, it may be wise to ignore rationality.  It may be proper to do any conceivable action in the right circumstances.  If you live in a society where those who don’t jump up and down and make monkey sounds when the man in the absurdly tall green feathered hat says “mookly!” are killed, then you damn well better jump and make monkey sounds.  If you live in a society where your interests are served by neglecting strict basic rationality in favor of a unified community perspective, even if that perspective is clearly ridiculous, it may be a reasonable choice.  Rationality, for those who have experienced it in formal form, is a very seductive thing because it lets you know things.  Truly know, not just “think” or “suppose” but actually know, and prove to a specific and known degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.  The first step is to establish that all propositions may be false given certain future evidence.  If we discovered a rock that fell up, that’s a vital piece of information.  It doesn’t actually prove that gravity is false though, as the stereotypical example says.  Because clearly there’s some value in the model of gravity because it’s been right so often in the past.  If it needs to be extended to cover a more general field of circumstances, so much the better.  This is how knowledge is advanced.  Once you acknowledge that you can never be absolutely sure (and I mean in the sense of absolutes) of anything, there is a ceiling on the strength of propositions.  This ceiling is, put succinctly, “To the extent that it is possible to know anything, I know that ______”  Now, a lot of postmodernists take this to mean that nothing means anything.  Ridiculous!  What it means is that if you observe something, you don’t get to say “that didn’t just happen because I know X.”  Conversely, if you fail to observe something, you can’t say that “I know it is so anyway because X.”  This one is trickier because it may actually be valid in certain circumstances because you can put a weaker proposition in the position of being negatively tested against.

OK this is getting a little confusing.  I shall rephrase.  If a devout Christian fundamentalist who believes that the Bible is literally true, word for word, was presented with a real-life situation which clearly contradicted the Bible, and continued to believe in the Bible, that’s a problem.  The fundy is assuming that the Bible is true in absolute terms.  The contents of the Bible are so true that even reality cannot touch it.  This is, of course, living in a fantasy world.  However this is a common example of someone attributing far too much strength to a proposition- more confidence in a specific statement than you can possibly have while still keeping an objective view of the world.  For the fundy faced with a contradiction, they have basically two alternatives.  Firstly, they might conclude that the Bible isn’t literally true and that reality is, well, real.  Or, they can come up with an explanation of some kind that will explain why the contradiction can exist, explain how it isn’t really a contradiction after all, or shatter their thinking faculty by believing that contradictions are admissible in reality.  There is a fourth option: ignore the problem.  While there are countless problems that are given this treatment at any given time, the invasive nature of religion invariably fills the victim’s life and worldview until they are forced to take one of the aforementioned options.  Modern religions dislike dabblers- they prefer converts, and vector mechanics are selected for accordingly.

The second pillar of rationality is deduction.  The ability to conclude things.  Now, some would say that premises are more important than deductive ability, and while they would probably be right.  It is possible to be a hardcore rationalist operating from very bad premises, arriving at awe-inspiringly terrible conclusions with great certitude.  However, your premises are only subject to rational analysis once you have established the ability to measure them.  Which requires deductive, abstractive, and meta-analytical faculties.  So I place deduction higher.  Anyway, most people understand how this works.  Socrates is a man.  All men are mortal.  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  Actually this is rather a more complex statement than necessary to prove deductive faculty.  7 = 7, and therefore 7 = 7 will do nicely.  The basic laws are available on Wikipedia, but the structure you use isn’t as important as the ability to follow one.  True, single-order binary logics using only true and false statements have very strict and well-understood laws for operating and maintaining truth values.  But what if you want a system with three states, or n states, or a paradigm specifically designed to deal with ethical choices?  The ability to understand, follow, manipulate, formulate, and eventually innovate in thought forms is important.

Thirdly, your premises.  This is where a lot of people screw up.  If you start from bad premises, there is nothing you can do to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, even if it is factually true.  In fact, it’s worse if you arrive at a conclusion that is correct through flawed reasoning because you will then apply that reasoning elsewhere with undeserved confidence.  This is how we get Creationists on TV talking about how the banana is perfectly shaped for the human hand, therefore there must be a God who designed both the banana and the human hand.  They are operating from some extremely bad premises, but actually, if you admit their premises for the sake of argument you arrive at a relatively strong hypothetical conclusion.  This type of thing happens a lot for religion.  It’s like a compression algorithm in the religion virus’ DNA that also increases its rate of spreading.  It reduces the amount of information that must be transferred (only the premises, not the whole structure), it makes it easier to bypass the natural pseudo-rational approximant functions naturally embedded in the brain, and also enables the subversion of those very faculties once the premises are accepted.  Religion is itself evolved to be an amazingly effective virus for transmission between minds.  It’s what makes discussion about it so fascinating; I’m always finding new things that the religion virus has capitalized upon and been selected for.  You see the same type of thing in a lot of famous books and movies- it appeals to a wide diversity of people and has been selected for among a large population.  The “classics” then provide the seeds upon which new diversity is created.  Of course, in this case the metric by which we measure the species’ utility is entirely subjective and changes with the times so it’s less of a purist evolutionary system, but still an interesting thought.  Also, it’s important to point out that each “species” has essentially one organism: the contents of the book.  In olden days this wasn’t so- every bard and performer had their own version which they performed for specific results.  This is probably why a lot of the very old tales, including fairy tales, have an almost mystical amount of power in them.  They have been naturally selected for in a much more proper fashion with more than a single set of genes in the pool.  Modern books are all carbon-copies of one another because we’re so precise in our exchange of their information contents.  Anyway, now that I’m thoroughly off topic from the basis of rationality, it’s time to return.  If you start from good premises, and use proper rational tools, then you must arrive at a valid solution.  Now it’s important to note that while at one point in time given a certain set of information, a set of premises may be proper and produce the right results.  However, later in time, you may encounter a result which contradicts your original construction.  This is OK, it just means that your premises weren’t perfect, they only covered certain cases.  In reality, it’s more or less impossible to create a model to cover all cases without creating a model as complex as reality itself, thus defeating the point of using a model in the first place.  This is the difference between a rational model and a pure simulation.  A pure simulation would duplicate exactly the information content of the subject matter being considered, and is not necessarily a tool or vessel of intelligence.  If it were, we could say the universe as a whole is a vast intelligent being because it has so many atoms that all can be represented as information patterns performing constant exchanges that we are contained within and thus may never understand.  The second we “understood” the picture, our minds contain a new piece of information which we haven’t accounted for, and so on forever in infinite recursion.

Anyway, I started this post off in fairly short and focused form, but now my mind is all over the place.  It’s a pleasant way to be, but it isn’t conducive to great writing in a linear mode like a text stream.  I hope I’ve given you some food for thought to chew on, and of course the basis for the tools to do it with.


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