Rationalism, Part 1

Post on the seventh chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "Rationalism".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is about Lecture Seven, "Rationalism", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff says that rationalism destroys intellectuals by corrupting their desire to be rational, and that it also alienates non-intellectuals from the intellectual field. He also says that it's not an issue of moral default (though some rationalist philosophers may be dishonest). Peikoff frames the issue as basically a skill issue: dealing with ideas is a skill that most people aren't taught, and are bad at, and rationalism is a coping method for that lack of skill.

Peikoff notes his usage of "rationalism" is different than the term's use in the history of philosophy.

Peikoff lists what he calls "symptoms" of rationalism:

  1. Ideas above reality. Ideas are not means of knowing physical world for rationalism; rationalism treats ideas more like Plato's Forms. Ideas are floating abstractions disconnected from concretes and reality. Lots of people have some floating abstractions here or there because e.g. they didn't chew enough. That doesn't make a rationalist. But having a whole world of floating abstractions would.

Peikoff gives example of Leibniz, who build up an elaborate rationalistic structure starting from the premise that the world is full of things made up of parts. He then gives the example of an Objectivist who thinks accepting parental help would be immoral:

Let’s take the example that we used before, the type of Objectivist who says it’s wrong ever to take money from your parents to help you in college, and see how that would be reached by this same Leibnizian or rationalistic method. And the way I’ve heard it structured is like this: “If there are to be values, life must be the standard; if life is to be the standard, rationality has to be the supreme virtue; if rationality is to be the supreme virtue, independence must be a virtue; but since mind-body integration is an essential metaphysical principle, independence must apply both intellectually and materially; but parents are responsible only until maturity, and I am past the age of maturity; therefore, taking money from them would be anti-life.”

Peikoff points out that there's no reference here to whether the student "is working hard in college, needs help legitimately, has a long-range plan or is a bum, whether his parents have to sacrifice" etc. I agree. Another thing with this particular argument is that the issue of whether the parents are responsible for economically supporting their offspring through college (and here I'm interpreting the context as being morally responsible) is separate from the issue of whether their doing so is somehow a breach of the virtue of independence. People can not be responsible for things and yet choose to do them anyways as a voluntary and benevolent expression of their values. So the argument does not even flow. (Also it's super abbreviated and is skipping steps, but I assume that's just down to Peikoff trying to present an abbreviated version quickly so I'm not going to find fault with the argument on that basis).

Peikoff says that a mind operating conceptually does have to drop out certain facts (he's talking about measurement-omission I think) but that rationalists go too far and just drop reality entirely.

2. Deduction as the basic method of knowledge:

Rationalists like building a chain of conceptual arguments, deducing things, proving things. They dislike what Peikoff calls induction, or grasping abstractions by looking at concretes. Basically, rationalists don't like dealing with concrete stuff in the world because it feels messy and less solid to them than a deductive argument. They want to connect ideas to other ideas and not to facts. They're uncomfortable with the idea that the senses are valid and that something exists because they can see it and want more conceptual validation for accepting sensory information than that. (I am sympathetic to the rationalists since the eyes can deceive, but I am guessing Peikoff would think that some edge cases regarding optical illusions or whatever don't make the rationalist approach on this point correct). Peikoff says that the rationalists resent the perceptual level and greatly prefer stuff like math which is super abstract. Peikoff argues that math is actually the easiest subject in a sense, because you just have to start off with a few axioms and work it out, and compares math to the difficulty of validating something like the virtue of honesty. I sort of see what he's saying, but on the other hand, lots of the issues that I think would cause people problems in validating the virtue of honesty (ideas that are disorganized; concepts that aren't fully chewed or where the proper context or scope is not clearly specified) would also cause people problems for their efforts in math.

Tangent on People's Methods for Dealing With Intellectual Complexity

Peikoff says that rationalists "cannot deal with intellectual complexity, or they don’t want to, they don’t know how to." So they latch onto some abstraction and make that the base of everything. I think that a similar issue comes up for lots of people in various contexts. Lots of people have a problem in dealing with the complexity of the world. They have a problem in thinking about and understanding the various ideas that motivate people, in understanding economic concepts and how they relate to the things we see going around us in everyday life, in understanding and evaluating scientific knowledge in order to make informed decisions about medical issues, in understanding the causes of the various problems that societies face. So they shrink down the complexity of the world into a narrative that their ability to understand things can actually process. But doing so requires ignoring a bunch of the world (or making continuous ad-hoc extensions/changes/modifications of their theory that quickly become a mess). I think conspiracy theorists do this (everything bad that happens is due to a conspiracy of "the Jews" or "the bankers" or the "elites" or whatever) but I think there are also more mundane examples.

Here's one example: there are a bunch of people that disagree with your politics. You could view them as people who picked up some ideas as they went through life and have some actual framework they're attempting to understand the world through, or you could view them as malevolent, hateful fools motivated by malice & spite and willfully blind to reality. To take the former view would require some understanding of the details of a worldview different than one's own and involve some attempt to figure out what consequences might flow from such a worldview; to take the latter view doesn't require that sort of effort or thinking. (BTW, I'm not saying that malevolent, hateful fools who disagree with you politically don't exist; rather, I think that people are way too quick to put people into a "fool" box on the basis of political disagreements). By taking the approach of dismissing people who disagree with your politics as malevolent, hateful fools, you're ignoring parts of reality. There are ideas out there that managed to persuade a bunch of people of ideas you think are bad, and instead of understanding what's going on there, you're saying "naw, they're just evil and stupid."

I guess one value gained in taking the approach of demonization and dismissiveness is a satisfying feeling of morally condemning others. I think there is often a Wanting of the Unearned going on, along with second-handedness. Specifically, people want to condemn others without having done the intellectual work necessary to appropriately validate such a judgment, and they want to feel morally superior to others in order to prop up their own egos. Lots of people are out there flinging negative judgments like lightning bolts who are unable to utter a single relevant statement that the person they're condemning would agree with (for examples, see any Twitter thread about politics). So the condemner is condemning something they basically don't understand from a position of intellectual ignorance.

So anyways, the issue with disregarding parts of reality in order to make things fit into your rationalist system seems related to this other issue I've been talking about with my example about political disagreement. I think that I agree with Peikoff that in the intellectual contexts he's talking about (especially regarding young people struggling to understand philosophy) the error involved can be innocent and honest. I think the issue of innocence and honesty turns on the nature of the value the person is pursuing. It matters a lot if the issue is that someone is merely overwhelmed by intellectual complexity or instead trying to get some value they don't have the right to. If they are making a genuine effort to understand some ideas and have just internalized a bad method for doing so which involves dropping out reality a bunch, and are honestly struggling, then that's okay. On the other hand, if they are ignoring parts of reality because they're attached to having a particular judgment about some issue or person that is inappropriate for them to have given their level of knowledge, or requires some dishonest evasion of reality in order to maintain, that's bad.

to be continued...