Saturday, April 11, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 4

"Reason" in Politics. Ayn Rand once described “rationality” as “a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception.”  Using Rand’s description as a standard of rationality, how should the following assertions be judged? Which statements are “rational” and which are not?
  1. Fear of flying is irrational because many more people die in automobile accidents.
  2. A house with guns represents a greater danger to your child than a house with a pool.
  3. Rudolph Giuliani drastically cut crime in New York with his innovate “broken window” policing strategy.
  4. “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge.”
Which statements would an individual with a “commitment to the fullest perception of reality” likely accept? Answer: probably none of them. While all the statements seem plausible and even “reasonable,” they all rest on certain factual inaccuracies. Let us examine each statement.

1. Fear of flying as irrational. While it is true that many more people die in car crashes (40,000 per year) than in plane crashes (less than 1,000), it does not therefore follow that flying is safer than driving. The per hour death rate of driving versus flying is about equal. So neither form of travel is any riskier, in terms of mortality, than the other.

2. Guns more dangerous than swimming pools. Not according to the evidence. In the United States, about 550 children every year die in swimming pools, while 175 children a year die from playing with guns.

3. Giuliani’s broken window crime strategy. According to statistical analysis, it is not likely that Giuliani’s policing strategy had all that much to do with the drop of crime in New York. Economist Steven Levitt has found that New York’s drop in crime was largely due to four factors: more police officers, more criminals in prison, the waning of the crack of epidemic, and the passage of Roe vs. Wade.

4. Reason the only means of knowledge. Before this claim can be validated, we have to tease out the meaning of the word “reason.” Defining reason as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” simply will not do, because there may be other alleged “means of knowledge” that do the same thing, like intuition or (allegedly) “mystical” experiences. So how are we supposed to distinguish the kinds of identification/integration that takes place under reason from the kinds of identification/integration that take place under other mental processes? We will assume, from various hints dropped throughout the Objectivist literature, that Rand means, by reason, basically deductive logic, “induction”, probability reason (although Rand never mentions it), scientific method, and conscious-directed concept-formation. We’ll assume that reason does not include, as Rand herself put it, any “non-rational, non-definable, non-identifable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'" With this description of reason in hand, does it follow that “reason” is the only means of knowledge? No, not if we abide by the evidence. Cognitive science has found plenty of evidence for intuitive forms of knowledge that don’t rely on conscious inferences. As the experimental psychologist Guy Claxton notes:
The greater part of the useful understanding we acquire throughout life is not explicit knowledge, but implicit know-how [i.e., Rand’s “just knowing”]. Our fundamental priority is not to be able to talk about what we are doing, but to do it—competently, effortlessly, and largely unconsciously and unreflectingly. And the corresponding need for the kind of learning that delivers know-how ... is not one that we outgrow. The brain-mind's ability to detect subtle regularities in experience, and to use them as a guide to the development and deployment of effective action, is our biological birthright.... Yet we ignore or disparage ... [unconscious intelligence] at our peril, for it turns out that there are things we can learn through this gradual, tacit process which d-mode [i.e., conscious reasoning] cannot master; and also that d-mode, if used over-enthusiastically, can actively interfere with this way of knowing.

Claxton's views are fairly well supported by experiments in cognitive science. Unconscious cognition (more commonly known as intuition) is well documented in the literature. It turns out, then, that Rand was wrong on this issue and that reason is not the only means of knowledge.

Looking back on our list, what do all four errors have in common? Well, in the first place, they are all plausible assertions—that much we can admit on their behalf. Any intelligent individual would likely consider each one a reasonable position to hold and might even be surprised that anyone would challenge all of them. The source of the error in all four cases involves an over-reliance on general information, which is used as the basis of premises from which common sense inferences that seem both reasonable and “true” are drawn. If many more people are killed in automobile accidents than on airplanes, doesn’t it make sense to conclude that traveling by airplane is safer than traveling by car? If we equate “reason” with science, logic, and clear thinking and we equate “unreason” with arbitrary assertions relating to altogether fantastic things, blistering contradictions, mystical revelations and other palpable absurdities, doesn’t it make sense to assume, with Rand, that “reason” is the only means to knowledge? But in relying merely on reasonable inferences based on general knowledge, we are failing to demonstrate a “complete commitment to the fullest perception of reality,” that is, we are not being rational in the Randian sense!

Much reasoning done about politics by laymen is precisely of the reasonable-inferences-from-general-knowledge variety. It may seem true to a reasonable person. Yet this very quality of “reasonableness”—based, as it is, on incomplete and partial information—merely serves to conceal ignorance of important details and facts. Rand, even at her most reasonable, never got beyond this general knowledge stage. Her political reasonings, as we shall see, are therefore empirically unreliable.


Mike Huben said...

See my essay:

Skepticism of Rationality

for some more thoughts on this subject.

Heuristics such as informal fallacies and intuitions have been shown to work better that other forms of analysis in certain situations, and people really use them.

Red Grant said...

I've read your essay, which I mostly agree with.

Let me just refine it and see if you agree with my refinement of some of your ideas from that essay.


How would we decide which are more rational? - Mike Huben

I know I am nit picking a bit.

But don't you think it would be more accurate to use,

"Perceived Rationality" as perceived by a particular individual at the moment he/she makes the decision based on his/her perception of the input he/she regards as germane to the problem as perceived by him/her up to and just prior to the moment he/she makes the decision?

I know it's a handful, but let's just say it's a habit I've gained while learning how to prove theorems while a math major.


Perhaps the answer lies in WHEN they are used, under what conditions. - Mike Huben

Forgive another nit-pick from me.

What about adding 'By whom'?


What we would call rational then would be the methodology which gives the best results. - Mike Huben

I have a slight problem with your definition above.

Of course, here's the dillemma, barring time travel (at a cost economically acceptable to the one making the decision if technically feasible),(or some kind supernatural oracle or what have you)

how would one objectively know (not guess, not hope) which methodology would have given the best results?

I like to modify your definition above to mine below:

What one would call rational then would be the methodology which one thinks(not hope, not want to believe) would give the best results at the moment when one makes the decision germane to the problem as perceived by one up to the moment when one makes that decision,

but may not neccessarily give the best results if implemented at the time mentioned above.

HerbSewell said...

It's funny because this doesn't have a damn thing do with Objectivism other than as a completely unconscious straw man argument.