My evolving views of rationalism

[Content note: very involved musing on several ways in which one may identify as “rationalist”, without actually defending why any particular set of object-level beliefs is more rational.  Discussion of religion from an atheistic point of view, without defending my lack of belief.  Brief mentions of vegetarianism/veganism and polyamory, and vague discussion of social justice.  Allusions to ableist attitudes.]


Most of the pool of potential readers of this post are either part of or in some way connected with an online network which refers to itself as “the rationalist community”. Even though I don’t properly know any of the members and my interaction with them is pretty minimal, I would consider myself a member of this group purely in the sense that… The best way I can come up with to articulate it is to say that I prioritize rational inquiry in the same way that the members do. But that criteria is already hard to describe and even harder to defend. This post is my attempt to explain it, which will involve looking back at a lot of the ideological subcultures I’ve been exposed to in the past, along with how they relate to my earlier conceptions of “rationalism”.

I. High school and early college

My most formative years in terms of personal philosophy were my high school years, as I expect is the case for many of us.  I don’t think I ever explicitly heard of rationalism until then, and my introduction to the term was essentially as a name for the practice of not taking things on faith, or vaguer yet, being rational.  Now, although I’m not sure whether I considered this at the time, “rationalism” with merely the no-faith definition, or worse, the almost tautological being-rational definition, seems almost useless for practical identification purposes.  Probably most people, of all different philosophical or political stripes, would consider themselves to be essentially rational.  Most would even consider themselves as more rational than a lot of the people around them, especially when finding themselves in disagreement with others (why do people bother to engage in arguments if they don’t feel they have the upper hand rationality-wise?)  Even many of those who engage in what is commonly referred to by words like “faith” consider their beliefs to come from a place of rationality — witness the Christian apologetic who declares that “it takes more faith to be an atheist”.

Now the word isn’t totally useless when used this way, since there are certainly some who are very aware of their own desire and ability to believe things purely on faith.  Some thinkers, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky, have argued that this isn’t technically belief at all, but belief in belief, but for practical purposes, the use of “rationalist” to mean “one who bases their beliefs on rationality” does effectively exclude those people.  However, this isn’t nearly enough specificity to make the word seem very worthwhile to me.  The “being rational” definition reminds me an awful lot of commonly-given definitions for words like “freethought” (it reminds me less directly of much worse terms like Daniel Dennett’s “Brights”, not that I want to get into that here).  A freethinker is more or less supposed to be someone who doesn’t blindly derive their beliefs from dogma.  But I suspect that even many religious fundamentalists would insist that they don’t blindly believe anything and that they made the objectively most reasonable choice of religious text to follow.  To assume that freethinking can only be ascribed to the atheist/agnostic crowd is to assume a priori that the only conclusion that can be reached by someone who thinks for themself is that they shouldn’t believe in a god, which doesn’t strike me as a very constructive way to label people.

But anyway… Around high school age, I wasn’t particularly considering any of this.  I was just becoming very interested in religion and why people would choose it.  I hadn’t been raised with religion (although most of the people I knew outside my family were religious to some degree), and prior to my mid-teens, I hadn’t been particularly interested in it.  As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t any particular reason to believe in a God or the word of any religious text; I hadn’t understood why so many people did, but I hadn’t particularly cared.  Now, on the other hand, I became fascinated with the philosophical motivations behind religious belief, and of course at the time it felt natural to equate it with a particular type of irrationality.  I first came across the word “rationalist” alongside terms like “freethinker”, “naturalist”, “humanist”, etc., so that I thought of it as something roughly equivalent to non-theism with an emphasis on reliance on rationality as an alternative to faith.  And so I happily identified as “rationalist”, but would have sooner described myself as an atheistic agnostic or secular humanist, each of which seemed to point to a much more specific belief set.

Bertrand Russell (whose essays I began to read around this time) seemed to say it best:

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

This is not in and of itself an appeal to non-theism.  But to the philosophical layman, one of the main features of Russell’s worldview was his atheistic agnosticism, and at every turn he appealed to it through rationalism.

II. My early 20’s

During my years at university, my focus and interest with regard to religion began changing, so gradually that I mostly didn’t notice the change until around the time I was graduating and entering my PhD program.  In retrospect, it’s clear that this internal transition process took place in correlation with an increase in like-mindedness among my friends in terms of religious and political views.  What happened was that the basic idea of what it means to be rational in my view began to become disassociated with non-belief.  Yes, lack-of-faith and anti-dogmatism were still important applications of rationality, but I was beginning to realize that their everyday-life consequences were not as direct as I had previously believed, and there were many other aspects of life in which one could think rationally or irrationally.  I encountered many people of faith who were able to argue their religious beliefs on very rational principles, and who appeared to be more rational-minded on an everyday basis than some atheists.  Most of my friends, not by coincidence, were socially liberal and not very religious, and yet there were at least as many things to dispute with them on a rational basis.  Meanwhile, I still disagreed with religion on rational grounds, but bit by bit I began to view this disagreement less as an issue which highlighted severe flaws in one’s overall intellectual principles and more as an abstract philosophical difference which all by itself didn’t necessarily have much bearing on behavior and actions.

As a result of my change in perspective, I began to be less interested in theological issues.  When I finished college and left my philosophy club, I lost a lot of the energy I’d had for debating these kinds of things anyway.  Since I had understood “rationalist” to be a sort of synonym for nonbeliever, I continued to identify as a rationalist, but stopped feeling really passionate about such an identity.  I felt that there were belief systems regarding problems that were much more directly relevant to real life — how to deal with interpersonal drama or validly update one’s empirical beliefs, or strategies to combat social injustices, for instance.  My main frustration was now with those who seemed to rely too much on irrational emotions in their approaches to these things.

Interestingly, more than once, I’ve heard people who were very outspoken atheists/agnostics when they were younger saying something along the lines of, “As I’ve gotten more mature, I’ve come to realize that concrete social issues matter much more than belief or lack of belief in a god.”  I feel the same way, but I get the impression that a good number of the nonbelievers who say things like that have fallen in line with what we might call the “orthodox” advocates of social justice.  Ironically, I meanwhile have become increasingly frustrated with this type of orthodoxy whose beliefs in my opinion have their origins in admirable emotions (and sometimes a few less-than-admirable ones) but not very good logic.

III. Graduate school

I held the viewpoint described above more and more firmly as I left college and went into my first years of graduate school.  The label “rationalist” barely interested me anymore, and the practice of trying to form one’s beliefs on the most rational basis possible held a sort of amorphous status — in the back of my mind, I strongly wished that everyone (including myself) would make a greater priority of it, but I didn’t consciously consider this to comprise a worldview that one could name and deliberately try to follow.  Then there was a dramatic transition in my social life, and as a result, once again my perspective on rationality began to change.

The transition in my social life happened when I began to hang out primarily with other math graduate students.  While my groups of friends in college were somewhat more intellectual, less religious, and more liberal (socially and politically) than my friends growing up had been, now my social group of fellow math students was almost a monolith of atheistic liberal intellectualism.  (I suspect this is true in math departments in general.)  Social conservatives, as well as people who believed in God, rarely dared to voice their views, which were often openly derided among the rest of us (I was probably mildly complicit in this earlier on, I’m ashamed to say).  So the small conservative minority usually socialized among themselves and remained separate from the secular liberal majority which I was part of; we were quite a large social group, at least before drama began to break us up into smaller units.

I began to sense that there were essentially two kinds of people in my group of grad student friends.  Well, that’s a major oversimplification.  I identified two competing mindsets, each of which was mostly concentrated in certain individuals, but there were some individuals that followed each mindset in different situations and shouldn’t be categorized as all one way or the other.  But I’m going to describe each of these attitudes in an overly-simplistic way, as though they did neatly divide the group into two clear subsets.  To me the difference was definitely striking and was the ultimate force behind the interpersonal conflicts that rattled us as months and years passed.

First there were the “orthodox liberals”, which were more or less what we might call Blue Tribers.  Their worldview was of course very atheistic as well as staunchly politically liberal (both socially and fiscally), and many of the members were proud vegetarians or vegans.  They were also what we might describe as very social-justice-y.  This group of people seemed to arise from the secular-liberal-but-beliefs-formed-from-irrational-emotion type that I alluded to above.  My perception is that during college such people hadn’t quite cemented themselves into the proper Internet Social Justice mold that we’re all so familiar with, but by graduate school, they certainly had.  Of course, I didn’t even know this sense of the term “social justice” until near the end of graduate school, when I stumbled upon Slate Star Codex and the whole surrounding community, but I had certainly identified the “most problems are caused by some people having privilege over others!” mindset.  To be clear, I generally didn’t disagree with it, and I usually outwardly displayed an attitude of unreserved agreement, but inwardly I had long been accumulating frustration and reservations with the way social justice ideas are argued.  It was part of the frustration I’ve mentioned above with people who, in my opinion, believed themselves rational but didn’t seem to actually exercise enough rationality in forming their beliefs.

Anyway, I always got along with these orthodox liberals quite well, and generally considered them both admirable and really nice (except, on occasion, towards those who dared to openly disagree with their political convictions).

The second group is far more interesting to describe.  I’m almost tempted to call them “Gray Tribe rationalists”, except that many of the self-styled online rationalist types who might be reading this would probably consider themselves to belong most closely to the Gray Tribe, and the people I want to describe were very, very different from the online rationalists I’ve encountered.  Yet, until I discovered you all, this second group of friends exemplified the closest thing to true rationalism that I’d ever seen, and I can’t exactly say that they gave me a positive view of it.  I’ll call them the “anti-emotion rationalists”.

The anti-emotion rationalists put a high value on rational thought-processes but, as my name for them implies, seemed to treat rationality as opposed to emotion.  That’s not to say, of course, that the individuals in the group didn’t have emotions or that they never acknowledged emotions in themselves and others.  But they often seemed to treat strong emotions (along with any types of non-neurotypical thought processes) as a form of weakness.  Of course they, like the other group, were secular liberals at least in the most basic sense — to them, belief in God or socially conservative values was obviously silly — and they were willing to oppose extreme instances of social injustice (from a “[bigoted attitude X] is wrong because it’s illogical!” standpoint).  But other aspects of their worldview tended to be libertarian or conservative.  Perhaps they could be described as Randian — I’ve never read much Ayn Rand, so I don’t know.  At least, their behavior indicated that to some degree they held up selfishness as a virtue.  They were extremely competitive both at their academic work and at games (which almost everyone in both subsets of my group of friends considered an ideal social activity).  At the same time, there was a subtle tendency among them to believe that minor cheating wasn’t wrong as long as one could get away with it — if so, the blame would lie in the system for not enforcing rules well enough.  They often assumed a superior air in discussing things with those who they perceived to be less rationalist-y, both for defending their views with less rationality, or worse, with emotions, and for having minds which tended to operate via more unusual and less obviously rational algorithms.  Of course, these anti-emotion rationalists would be very reluctant to acknowledge the notion of having a brain which naturally operates differently, as they tended to believe that appeals to innate issues / disabilities were just a form of excuse-making, and that the most virtuous people are those who fight their way to the top without letting such supposed obstacles drag them down.  And by the way, the idea of them giving a moment’s thought to the idea of donating any portion of their income to charity is laughable.

As is probably obvious from my tone in the above description, I had a much harder time getting along with the anti-emotion rationalists, and I preferred to hang out with the other, more Blue-Tribe-y subset.  The only things that I felt more comfortable with among members of the second group were eating meat (though I felt bad about that anyway) and expressing skepticism about Blue Tribe orthodoxy (although I more often found myself defending it against their complete lack of sympathy for it).  And yet I sensed that they were the only people I knew who shared my deep wish to cultivate more rational thought processes.  And so I began to internalize a vague notion that this desire was somehow slightly evil and would lead to becoming a sort of callous, unsympathetic person.  I guess at that point, I began to subconsciously treat my lurking desire for greater rationality as a moral weakness within myself, even while another part of me continued to hold onto it.

IV. My current experience with rationalists

What I clearly sought was the sort of rationalism practiced by what I’ve sometimes been referring to as “internet rationalists” or the “(online) rationalist community” — that is, the readers of Less Wrong and Slate Star Codex, and the Tumblr rationalists, who form most of my (perhaps entirely nonexistent) readership.  It was a pretty dramatic moment for me when I discovered them around the summer of 2014, and that moment marked my return to consciously identifying as a rationalist.  But let me try again to explain exactly in what sense I “identify as a rationalist”.

First of all, there’s a basic definition, which I discussed near the beginning of this essay, which is that a rationalist is someone whose beliefs are based on rationality rather than faith.  In this sense, I obviously am a rationalist, but this definition is so general and applies to so many people that I can’t bring myself to feel very passionate about its application to myself.  What really interests me now is identifying myself as a member of a specific group, a group that happens to call itself “the rationalists”.  So when I say, “I’m a rationalist!”, chances are that I’m not using the vague prescriptive definition of no-faith, but that I mean, “I’m a member of a group of people that calls itself ‘the rationalist community’; you know the particular group that I mean.”

Do I mean that I am part of the social circle comprised of internet rationalists, that this is my new group of friends?  Of course not: I’ve already said at the start of this essay that my actual interactions with members have been minimal.  While I generally felt quite comfortable hanging out with the more Blue Tribey subset of my grad student friends, I have no idea whether the same would be true of hanging out with internet rationalists, in person or even online (although if geography cooperated, I would want to meet them and find out, and I hope at least to increase our online interactions).  When I say I’m part of the group, I don’t mean socially at all; I mean that I strongly feel that I share the ideals that define the group itself.

What are the characteristics of members of this group that have drawn me into it?  Well, we are all rationalists in the vague no-faith sense, of course.  But we don’t just believe in reason in the abstract, or gravitate towards the more “reasonable-looking” philosophical views, and call it a day.  Rather, we strive to prioritize rationality in both decision-making and also in coming up with our beliefs.  When we are successful at this, we avoid orthodoxy of all kinds, even the secular Blue Tribe variety, and allow each other to baldly question their tenets without being demonized.

At the same time, we don’t treat emotion as the enemy of rationality.  We recognize that emotion can be guided by rationality, and that rationality can be guided by emotion.  And our less rational emotions, as well as our stranger mental tendencies, are phenomena to be explored rather than denied or shunned.  Contrary to what an anti-emotion rationalist might say, this attitude is not contrary to our priority on basing our thought processes in rationality; indeed, how are we to best cultivate the art of thinking rationally without examining the innate tendencies to irrationality within our own brains?

(Of course there’s every chance that another person who identifies as a member would disagree with some of my first-person assertions in the above two paragraphs.  If I see enough evidence that the defining ideals of the online rationalist community are less compatible with mine than I’ve believed, then I’ll reconsider whether it really makes sense to identify as one of them.)

I’m not claiming to hold all of the personal characteristics which are commonly associated with members of this group.  I’m mostly agnostic on issues involving AI, for example, as it’s never been a strong interest of mine, and I feel sort of ambivalent about polyamory.  But I still identify as a member of the group, because I don’t consider those issues to define the group.  Nor do I consider “follower of Eliezer Yudkowsky” to be a defining attribute of the group.  Certainly, a large part of the community formed around reading (and generally agreeing with) Yudkowsky’s essays on Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong, but again, I don’t consider that to be a defining characteristic and don’t hold myself responsible for agreeing with or even being familiar with all of his work.  (And of course, even the most ardent Yudkowsky-supporter would hopefully see the inherent contradiction in associating pure rationalism with unwavering devotion to the teachings of one person.)

Anyway, I’m really glad to have found this group.

But my personal development as a rationalist of course is far from over.  Conventional wisdom states that if you want to switch out of going in a certain direction, “the first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem”.  Similarly, if you want to go as far as you can in a certain direction, the first step is to acknowledge being among the set of people with the same goal.  But it’s only a first step.  Now that I’ve established on a personal level what it means for me to be a rationalist, it’s time to focus on going out and doing it.

One thought on “My evolving views of rationalism

  1. The two virtues that I consider key to being a member of that community is the ability and desire to entertain ideas that you do not personally believe (devils advocate) and an attitude that allows you to admit to false beliefs (epistemic humility). This allows for both debate of ideas and openness to actual persuasion. At one point I remember a lot of debate encouraging people ‘not’ to change their minds so quickly since the default was to ‘update’ on the spot, if you heard a convincing enough argument. While almost certainly generalizing from my own perspective, I think a lot of people had a similar enough journey toward these traits. Starting from a point of curiosity and commitment to a kind of intellectual thoroughness (or epistemic hygiene) and later running into the biases and heuristics crowd. That tends to undercut a lot of implicit arrogance of the anti-emotion logician crowd (cutting out emotions won’t save you!) and, while they are not absent, I don’t recall that many of them in the rationality club.

    Does this more-or-less mesh with your understanding?

    Your path tracks with mine eerily well, though I started from a position of religious faith and transitioned from that later in life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s