Some Incoherent Thoughts on Rationality

Alex posted this on pslack: The Myth of “Emotion vs. Logic” and The Reality of Oppression. I found it interesting, but I’m not going to respond to it directly for now. What I did want to talk about is why I devalue logic, so I guess I’ll talk about how I arrived at similar conclusions from a different angle. This, of course, is an incomplete account, but I gotta start somewhere.

My epistemology is mostly formed as a response to thinkers like Plato and Descartes. I disagree with their ideas about the structure of knowledge. I think Forms are nonsensical. Things are good, but there is no “The Good.” I also don’t think you can say, “Alright, I know this one thing is true” and then have that one thing be enough to build all of human knowledge on top of it. I don’t think it works.

When it comes to moral epistemology, I’m heavily influenced by the is-ought problem, or Hume’s Guillotine. One of the reasons I don’t think knowledge can be structured the way Descartes thinks is because you can never build morality off of it. (Some would say God is a way around these limitations, but I think God is basically just a Form.) You can’t get from logic to ought. Logic mostly just gets you consistency.

People who value logic also tend to value that which can be neatly expressed. Logic requires a chain of reasoning. If you don’t have good reasons for something, then you’re stupid and illogical. I don’t think that the ability to verbally express yourself clearly (and optionally, extemporaneously) is equivalent to knowledge. (However, at the same time, I do think that writing can help you learn and gain knowledge.) There are plenty of charlatans and sophists who are very logical and very persuasive. You can play Werewolf as a werewolf and win without ever telling a lie. Plenty of people talk good on TV but are full of shit. Conversely, you can express plenty of knowledge without ever saying a word.

I really like Taleb’s Green Lumber Fallacy, where the most successful trader in green lumber thought it was literally lumber painted green. People who talk smart on TV and go bankrupt can have less knowledge than those who sound stupid. Logic is about what’s true and what’s false. However, not all information is equally important. That’s why true-false isn’t always as helpful in a world where you’re acting with incomplete information.

I also really like this aphorism from Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes: “Since Plato, Western thought and the theory of knowledge have focused on the notions of True-False; as commendable as it was, it is high time to shift the concern to Robust-Fragile, and social epistemology to the more serious problem of Sucker-Nonsucker.” These epistemologies are more useful for when you’re trying to navigate the world.

If you really push me on true-false epistemology, I become a skeptic. I’m not sure that’s there’s any way to know anything. First, you can’t get morality. Second, there are issues with induction (which I’m not going to explain now). Finally, even deductive reasoning requires postulates. In the end, I don’t think logic can dictate whether you should even jump out a window or not, but robust-fragile and sucker-nonsucker can.

As an aside, another issue with talk is that it often involves narrative, and as a sometimes-artist, I’m keenly aware that to some extent, narratives are always lies.

P.S. I’m going to add a note here that the part where I really agree with the article is the primacy of lived experiences over logic.

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