Intuition vs. Rationality

To quote myself:

[I]ntuition [is] a manifestation of intelligence, not a cause of it. To put it another way, intuition is not an emotion; it is the opposite of emotion.

Intuition is reasoning at high speed. For example, a skilled athlete knows where and when to make a move (e.g., whether and where to swing at a pitched ball) because he subconsciously makes the necessary calculations, which he could not make consciously in the split-second that is available to him once the pitcher releases the ball.

Intuition is an aspect of reasoning (rationality) that is missing from “reason” — the cornerstone of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment’s proponents and defenders are always going on about the power of logic applied to facts, and how that power brought mankind (or mankind in the West, at least) out of the benighted Middle Ages (via the Renaissance) and into the light of Modernity.

But “reason” of the kind associated with the Enlightenment is of the plodding variety, whereby “truth” is revealed at the conclusion of deliberate, conscious processes (e.g., the scientific method). But those processes, as I point out in the preceding paragraph, are susceptible of error because they rest on errors and assumptions that are hidden from view — often wittingly, as in the case of “climate change“.

Science, for all of its value to mankind, requires abstraction from reality. That is to say, it is reductionist. A good example is the arbitrary division of continuous social and scientific processes into discrete eras (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc.). This ought to be a warning that mere abstractions are often, and mistakenly, taken as “facts”.

Reductionism makes it possible to “prove” almost anything by hiding errors and assumptions (wittingly or not) behind labels. Thus: x + y = z only when x and y are strictly defined and commensurate. Otherwise, x and y cannot be summed, or their summation can result in many correct values other than z. Further, as in the notable case of “climate change”, it is easy to assume (from bias or error) that z is determined only by x and y, when there are good reasons to believe that it is also determined by other factors: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Such things happen because human beings are ineluctably emotional and biased creatures, and usually unaware of their emotions and biases. The Enlightenment’s proponents and defenders are no more immune from emotion and bias than the “lesser” beings whom they presume to lecture about rationality.

The plodding search for “answers” is, furthermore, inherently circumscribed because it dismisses or minimizes the vital role played by unconscious deliberation — to coin a phrase. How many times have you found the answer to a question, a problem, or a puzzle by putting aside your deliberate, conscious search for the answer, only to have it come to you in a “Eureka!” moment sometime later (perhaps after a nap or good night’s sleep). That’s your brain at work in ways that aren’t well understood.

This process (to put too fine a word on it) is known as combinatorial play. Its importance has been acknowledged by many creative persons. Combinatorial play can be thought of as slow-motion intuition, where the brain takes some time to assemble (unconsciously) existing knowledge into an answer to a question, a problem, or a puzzle.

There is also fast-motion intuition, an example of which I invoked in the quotation at the top of this post: the ability of a batter to calculate in a split-second where a pitch will be when it reaches him. Other examples abound, including such vital ones as the ability of drivers to maneuver lethal objects in infinitely varied and often treacherous conditions. Much is made of the number of fatal highway accidents; too little is made of their relative infrequency given the billions of daily opportunities for their occurrence.  Imagine the carnage if drivers relied on plodding “reason” instead of fast-motion intuition.

The plodding version of “reason” that has been celebrated since the Enlightenment is therefore just one leg of a triad: thinking quickly and unconsciously, thinking somewhat less quickly and unconsciously, and thinking slowly and consciously.

Wasn’t it ever thus? Of course it was. Which means that the Enlightenment and its sequel unto the present day have merely fetishized one mode of dealing with the world and its myriad uncertainties. I would have said arriving at the truth, but it is well known (except by ignorant science-idolaters) that scientific “knowledge” is provisional and ever-changing. (Just think of the many things that were supposed to be bad for you but are now supposed to be good for you, and conversely.)

I am not a science-denier by any means. But scientific “knowledge” must be taken with copious quantities of salt because it is usually inadequate in the face of messy reality. A theoretical bridge, for example, may hold up under theoretical conditions, but it is likely to collapse when built in the real world, where there is much uncertainty about present and future conditions (e.g., the integrity of materials, adherence to best construction practices, soil conditions, the cumulative effects of traffic). An over-built bridge — the best kind — is one that allows wide margins of error for such uncertainties. The same is true of planes, trains, automobiles, buildings, and much else that our lives depend on. All such things fail less frequently than in the past not only because of the advance of knowledge but also because greater material affluence enables the use of designs and materials that afford wider margins of error.

In any event, too little credit is given to the other legs of reason’s triad: fast-motion and slow-motion intuition. Any good athlete, musician, or warrior will attest the the value former. I leave it to Albert Einstein to attest to the value of the latter,

combinatory [sic] play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others….

[F]ull consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness.


Related page and category:

Modeling and Science
Science and Understanding

Ruthless Reason

Thanks to someone (I don’t remember who it was), I found The Orthosphere, which I am now following. The first post that I read there is “Beware the Jaws of Ruthless Reason“, by Jonathan M. Smith. It is replete with statements that I fully endorse; for example:

I think we must grant that the Left is more slavishly addicted to Reason than the Right—or at least than the genuine Right.  There are, needless to say, many spurious men of the Right who betray their spuriosity by boasting about their ruthless reasoning; but genuine men of the Right have always been chary of Reason because they see that Reason is ruthless.

And because Reason is ruthless, they see that it must be kept on a very stout chain.

When I say that Reason is ruthless, I mean that it respects nothing but itself, and that when it is let off its chain, it will therefore chew to pieces anything with which it disagrees.  To see what this means, you have only to look at any specimen of modern architecture.  Reason chewed away any ornament that did not answer the demands of Reason, and the naked box that remained was utterly inhuman….

A man of the Right does not deny that Reason is often a very good thing.  But because it is not the only good thing, he knows it would be very bad to let it off of its chain to mutilate and maul everything else that is good.  He finds that Reason turns up its nose at other things he approves, both in the world and in himself.

And that Reason will chew these things to pieces if he lets it….

Political theory is produced almost exclusively by the Left, for they have an idea that human felicity requires the discovery and universal application of a despotic principle. Equality is the despotic principle of the overt Left; Freedom is the despotic principle of the covert Left or spurious Right.

Now a genuine man of the Right does not deny that Equality and Freedom can often be very good things, but because they are not the only good things, he knows it would be very bad for them to become despotic principles that will mutilate and maul everything else that is good….

A genuine man of the Right will wish to conserve many principles.  He sees that reason is good, but that despotic Reason will destroy loveliness and loyalty.  He sees that equality is good, but that despotic Equality will destroy justice and love.  He sees that freedom is good, but that despotic Freedom will destroy decency and solidarity.

This reminds me of one of my critiques of libertarianism, an offshoot of the enlightenment and an ideology based on “reason”:

As for the Enlightenment … , it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). As Wikipedia puts it,

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….

Where reason is

the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

Sir Roger Scruton underscores the shallowness of reason in On Human Nature. Scruton’s point applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings have developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)

This Is Objectivism? Another Sequel

I see that The Objective Standard has posted a review of The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics. The reviewer is ambivalent about the volume, which collects most of Jaffa‘s writings in the final two decades of his life (1918-2015):

Harry Jaffa was perhaps the most philosophically astute of all American conservatives. His books, though often flawed, were studded with thought-provoking insights….

At last, a new book, The Rediscovery of America, gathers his often dazzling, sometimes outrageous, valedictory writings.

What does the reviewer like about Jaffa’s valedictory writings? This:

Jaffa called himself a “gadfly” because he criticized his fellow conservatives, especially traditionalists such as Russell Kirk and Robert Bork, who, as Jaffa proved, actually surrendered the principles they purported to defend. His attacks on those he called “false prophets of American conservatism” often were harsh, because he wisely approached philosophical disputes with grave seriousness and because he believed they had embraced the same fatal thesis that modern liberals had: “there is no objective knowledge of, or rational ground for distinguishing good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust” (101). This obliterated the only ground—reason—from which justice or liberty could be defended.

But:

Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational) and his homophobia—a word sometimes abused but appropriate for Jaffa, whose ferocity toward those he insisted on calling “sodomites” was grounded in an irrational fear that homosexuality represented the “repudiation” of “all morality”.

Nevertheless:

Despite these flaws, Rediscovery often is enlightening and instructive. Jaffa’s essays display an intellectual depth lamentably absent from today’s conservatism. And for all of his errors, his insistence that the truths of the Declaration are not historical artifacts but timeless principles worthy of defending will make his best work last forever.

I am struck by the reviewer’s totemic invocation of reason. It must be an Objectivist’s “thing”, because there is a similar invocation in the inaugural issue of The Objective Standard that was the subject of my earlier post, “This Is Objectivism?”:

We hold that reason—the faculty that operates by way of observation and logic—is man’s means of knowledge…. Reason is the means by which everyone learns about the world, himself, and his needs. Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom….

In short, man has a means of knowledge; it is reason—and reason alone. If people want to know what is true or good or right, they must observe reality and use logic.

Thus, to an Objectivist, reason — the application of logic to observations about the world — is the only source of knowledge, and Jaffa (usually) defended reason. Therefore, Jaffa was (mostly) correct in the views with which the reviewer agrees. An interesting mix of post hoc ergo propter hoc and circular reasoning.

Reason, of course, is subject to error — great error. Observations can be in error, or selected with the aim of reaching a particular (and erroneous) conclusion. The application of logic to observations usually means, in practice, the application of mathematical and statistical tools to understand the relationships between those observations, and to make falsifiable predictions based on those relationships. Even, then, the “knowledge” that arises from scientific reason is always provisional, unlike the certitudes of Objectivists.

As I wrote in “Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality” (a sequel to “This Is Objectivism?):

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else….

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule“, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”, and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice.

That is, human beings often rely on ingrained knowledge — instinct, if you will — which isn’t a product of “reason”.

That there is such knowledge seems to escape Objectivists. How can anyone possibly write with a straight face that “Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom”? It takes a rather strained view of logical inference to account for such things as the mating and suckling instincts (without which human life would end), or the squeamishness and disgust that helps people to avoid infectious diseases. But such things are human knowledge — essential human knowledge.

Objectivism is a cult. To be a member of the cult, one must not only invoke reason ritualistically, one must also profess atheism. The reviewer is an atheist, and it shows here:

Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational)….

An Objectivist will perform intellectual somersaults in the defense of atheism. This is from a post at the website of The Atlas Society, an Objectivist organization:

Objectivism holds that in order to obtain knowledge, man must use an objective process of thought. The essence of objective thought is, first, integration of perceptual data in accordance with logic and, second, a commitment to acknowledging all of the facts of reality, and only the facts. In other words, the only thoughts to consider when forming knowledge of reality are those logically derived from reality….

Agnosticism—as a general approach to knowledge—refuses to reject arbitrary propositions….

The primary problem for the agnostic is that he allows arbitrary claims to enter his cognitive context. The fully rational man, on the other hand, does not seek evidence to prove or disprove arbitrary claims, for he has no reason to believe that such claims are true in the first place….

[E]]ven if the notion of God were formulated in a testable, coherent manner, the claim that God exists would be no less arbitrary and would be equally unworthy of evaluation. The proposition was formed not on the basis of evidence (i.e., perceptual data integrated by logic)—it could have been formed only on the basis of imagination.

Wow!

In fact, the existence of the physical universe is “perceptual data”. And there is a logically valid argument to explain existence as the creation of a being who stands apart from it.

Whether or not one accepts the argument isn’t a matter of reason but a matter of faith. The mandatory atheism of Objectivism is therefore a matter of faith, not a product of reason.

As I say, it’s a cult.

(See also Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, which I have discussed at some length here; “Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posts listed therein; “Words Fail Us“, “Through a Glass Darkly“, and “Libertarianism, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand“.)

True Confession, New Resolution

RETRACTED AS HOPELESSLY NAIVE. SEE, FOR EXAMPLE, MANY SUBSEQUENT POSTS, INCLUDING BUT FAR FROM LIMITED TO Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm AND What’s Going On? A Stealth Revolution

I spent 30 years at a defense think-tank. There were many things that I liked about it, and a few things that I didn’t like about it. The thing that I disliked most was the way in which some senior managers and many analysts offered criticism. They practiced a perverted version of the Socratic method. Instead of working with the author of an analysis to improve it, they would keep probing the weak points of he work — or more correctly, the analyst’s ability to explain and defend it — and leave the analyst melting in a puddle of mortification.

I resented that kind of criticism when it was aimed at me, and when I saw it being aimed at others. (I was involved in the creation of a mock “seal” for the  hazing sessions that were led by a former president of the think-tank. The seal displayed the motto “Nibbled to death by ducks.”) But I often resorted to the method when I was the critic. Human nature is like that.

I am here to confess (as I just did), to repent (as I hope I am doing), and to enter onto the path of righteousness (as I hope I will).

The most constructive way to offer criticism, in my experience, is to put yourself in the place of the person you are criticizing. Try to understand the issue at hand, as he sees it, and try to understand the way he comes at the issue. If you get “inside” that person’s mind, you can then talk to him about the problem in a way that he understands. From there, you can work with him to improve whatever it is he is seeking to improve — be it the Navy’s choice of a new weapon system or the opportunities available to low-income persons.

I know that a person’s political views are largely a matter of temperament, and for that reason not always susceptible to change by appealing to facts or logic. But political views are nevertheless changeable, in the way that a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol will overcome his addiction — if he understands that he can do it, and will live a miserable life and die miserably if he doesn’t.

I am also aware that leftists — who are the usual targets of my criticism — do not often (or perhaps ever) respond constructively to conciliatory statements. As I say here,

leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Nevertheless, this blog is but a pinprick on the vast hide of leftism. Perhaps it will be more effective if I make a greater effort to understand what leftists want, and try to appeal to them on that basis, instead of preaching to the choir of libertarian-conservatives as I often do.

*     *     *

Related reading and viewing:

Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Centre Cannot Hold in America, Europe, and Psychology” (Heterodox Academy, August 9, 2016). This is an introduction to Haidt’s recent speech at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Denver, where he addressed the causes and consequences of political polarization.

A video of the speech: https://youtu.be/vAE-gxKs6gM

PowerPoint slides: http://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/haidt.APA-2016-lecture-on-polarization.for-posting.compressed.pptx

PDF version of the slides: http://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/haidt.APA-2016-lecture-on-polarization.slides-for-printing.pdf