On Reasoning: Science and Experimentation

At the most basic level, what did the Enlightenment thinkers mean by reason and the sciences? In practice, what is rationality, critical thinking, and experimentation? What does it mean to seek truth, knowledge, and understanding?  What changes in thought were happening that led up to the American Revolution?

“Franklin also learned as a youth that minds untrained in science could also experiment. He later recalled for Swedish botanist Peter Kalm an experiment done by his father, Josiah: noticing that herring would spawn in one particular stream that led to Massachusetts Bay but not in another , Josiah had guessed that the activity had to do with the geographic location where the fish had been hatched. To test the theory, one year at spawning time he transported fish to the second stream, where they spawned and died; the following year, as Josiah had predicted, their offspring returned to the second stream.”
~ Tom Shachtman *

That offers an insight into the early scientific mind. That is the scientific method in essence. Josiah Franklin made some observations, analyzed those observations, formulated a falsifiable hypothesis, and then tested it with an experiment. He even used controls with the same species of spawning fish in two separate streams.

What is the ability demonstrated with that simple hands-on experiment? Is it reason? Is it science? What processes of cognition and perception were involved? What conditions and factors of influence make that possible?

This was not anything new. I’m sure people were doing all kinds of basic experiments long before the Enlightenment Age. This is an inherent human capacity, involving curiosity and problem-solving. Many other species especially higher primates similarly experiment, although less systematically. Such behaviors obviously have practical advantages for species survival. The Enlightenment Age just gave new emphasis, incentives, and articulation to this kind of activity. Science then formalized and regimented it.

But what is reason, whether pure or applied? Are humans ever fully rational and genuinely free of cognitive biases? Is the human intellect more than being a clever monkey pushed to the extreme?

——-

* Source:
Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Chapter 2: “Variola” in Boston, 1721-1722
Kindle Locations 598-602

There Are Always Reasons

“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”

Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.

My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.

A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.

 * * * *

I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.

There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.

The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?

* * * *

The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.

Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.

It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.

Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.

* * * *

As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.

No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.

Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.

Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.

Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.

Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.

* * * *

Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.

No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.

Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?

Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

This is part two in my series about Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book, The Righteous Mind. To read the first in the series, click on the link here. To see some of the discussion inspiring this post, check out the comment sections of the Amazon reviews of Haidt’s book.

* * *

I had a thought about one aspect of Haidt’s theory that has been bothering me. The bothersome factor has to do with the broader field of social science research as it relates (and as, I argue, it should be related) to Haidt’s research. Maybe someone who has read his book can respond.

I’m reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain. Mooney isn’t focusing on moral foundations, although he does have a short section where he discusses Haidt’s model and research. Like others have suggested, Mooney sees an obvious correlation between moral foundations and cognitive functioning (Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing
loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

An important difference between Haidt and Mooney is the former is arguing for an overarching theory and the latter isn’t. Mooney, instead, simply acknowledges the complexity (Kindle Locations 2087-2089):

“In comparing the psychological, personality, and moral differences between liberals and conservatives, it is not clear which differences come first—which are more deeply rooted, and whether one causes the other or not. But it is clear that they travel together, and that all are reliable dimensions for distinguishing between the two broad groups.”

It would seem that Haidt is overstepping what can be rationally and fairly concluded from the diverse research. We know many of the factors, but we can’t entirely claim to know their causal relation.

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

The problem here has a number of factors.

First, there is the possibility that liberals use intuition less and/or reasoning more in discerning moral values and making moral decisions. Even if liberals use intuition more than reasoning, it is still important that liberals use reasoning significantly more (i.e., use motivated reasoning less) than conservatives. This even undermines Haidt’s critcisms of the sciences being filled with liberals as if this represents an institutionalized and systematic bias. By not wholly engaging the cognitive research (and thus not integrating it into his theory), Haidt appears to want to sidestep the simple fact that liberals have a predisposition suited for science while conservatives have a predisposition that too often puts them in opposition to the major aspects of the scientific enterprise (Mooney discusses this in his book).

Second, the fact that conservatives use motivated reasoning more in these political/moral scenarios ends up problematizing Haidt’s intuitionist theory. How can intuition be separated from motivated reasoning? The simple term of ‘intuition’ covers over a lot of complexity. On the other hand, it might not be possible to entirely separate intuition from reason either. What appears as intuition may just be a heuristic developed from previous reasoning, as some research suggests. So, is Haidt’s ‘intuition’ about feeling over reason or simply about unconscious processes (whether or not those processes originally formed through conscious reasoning)? Reasoning and motivated reasoning can be hard to differentiate in oneself, but importantly the research has clearly distinguished them in actual behavior (specifically in the actual behavior of liberals and conservatives).

Considering all of this, I still feel confused about Haidt’s ‘intuition’. To be fair, part of that confusion might have more to do with me than with Haidt’s theory as I still haven’t yet fully grasped all of the nuances and details of his theory. However, I think part of my confusion is based on the research data being more complex than Haidt’s theory allows for. There might not be a way to fit all of the data into Haidt’s theory which means it is either incorrect or incomplete.

After Mooney’s discussion of moral foundations, he extended his thoughts by discussing the alternative theory of George Lakoff (Kindle Locations 2107-2144):

“However, there is another famous account of the different moral systems of liberals and conservatives, which implies a more uneven distribution of biases. It is closely related to Haidt’s account in some ways, but not others. I’m referring to the account advanced by Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in his book Moral Politics and subsequent works.

“Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.

“For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, “nurturing” parent version. The strict father family is like a free market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care, and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.

“Lakoff’s system intriguingly ties our political differences to child-rearing styles (much evidence suggests that Republicans are more likely to physically punish their children). It also overlaps with Haidt’s—particularly when it comes to wanting to care for those who are harmed (nurturing parent) and respecting authority (strict father). What’s more, both accounts overlap with the research on personality and psychological needs—the strict father model, respect for authority, and the exercise of group loyalty all help to provide certainty and order through the affirmation of hierarchy and stability and the resistance of changes to existing social structures.

“But there’s also a key difference. Lakoff’s account implies that liberals and conservatives will have a different relationship with science and with the facts. He told me as much in an interview for this book (and an article in The American Prospect magazine that preceded it).

“The core reason for this differential bias turns on the issue of authority and from whence it springs. In our interview, Lakoff explained that conservatives should have no problem with science or other factual information when it supports their moral values, including free market goals (e.g., the science of drilling for oil, the science of nuclear power). The strict father wants the kids to go out and thrive, and producing energy through technology is an honorable way of doing it. However, science can also be an unruly guest at the party—highly destabilizing and threatening to conservative values, and with the potential to undermine traditional sources of authority that conservatives respect. Scientific evidence “has a possible effect over the market, foreign policy, religion, all kinds of things,” says Lakoff. “So they can’t have that.”

“Liberals, to Lakoff, are just different. Science, social science, and research in general support an approach that he calls “Old Enlightenment reason”: finding the best facts so as to improve the world and society, and thus advance liberals’ own moral system, which is based on a caring and nurturing parent-run family. “So there is a reason in the moral system to like science in general,” says Lakoff.

“Here also arises a chief liberal weakness, in Lakoff’s view, and one that is probably amplified by academic training. Call it the Condorcet handicap, or the Enlightenment syndrome. Either way, it will sound very familiar: Constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better, and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well-researched, and supported, are disregarded, or even actively attacked, by conservatives.”

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of presenting my hypothesis. Here is my own speculation based on the data I’ve seen so far:

In an introductory philosophy class, the teacher explained the distinction between morality and ethics, a distinction that seems relevant to my own understanding and relevant to the topic at hand. Morality could be more or less about intuition, whatever intuition may prove to be. However, morality as it is generally used too often becomes conflated with ethics. If morality as distinct from ethics is about intuition, then ethics as distinct from morality is about reason.

Going by the evidence, I would argue that ethics might be more applicable to the liberal value system since for political issues liberals are less predisposed to motivated reasoning. It might not be that liberals don’t use intuition. Rather, maybe liberals just use reason and intuition more equally and maybe even use them more in relation to one another. The difference could be that: Conservatives tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more opposed or at least less perfectly aligned which fits their own nature; And liberals tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more inseparable or at least more perfectly aligned which fits their own nature.

What distinguishes the two might not just be which moral foundations they favor. There might be a more fundamental and prior cognitive difference that would motivate such favoring. Liberals and conservatives might not just have different values but actually be different psychological types. If this is true, Haidt is only looking at one part of the picture, the part that emphasizes the conservative view of non-rational moral intuition as primary motivation.

This might also explain why Haidt’s research found that liberals favored certain moral foundations less than conservatives, the explanation being that those more conservative moral foundations may not be as open to ethical reasoning (for they aren’t based on or conducive to the functioning of the liberal trait ‘openness’). For example, respect for authority may not be compatible with an intellectual opposition to motivated reasoning for such an intellectual mindset would place evidence and logic above authority, thus challenging authority. So, liberals would tend to respect authority more when authority respected reason (academics, scientists, etc) while conservatives generally respect authority when reason doesn’t challenge authority (religious apologists, partisan think tank experts, etc). One could argue that this might undermine Haidt’s claim  that conservatives value authority more than liberals. A similar pattern (and discrepancy with Haidt’s theory) might be found with the other supposedly conservative moral foundations as well.

A different theory could be formed by interpreting the moral foundations through the lense of ethical reasoning. Bringing the trait ‘openness’ to bear upon the data might necessitate entirely reworking the scheme of moral foundations.

* * *

For those interested in researching the issue for themselves, here is Haidt’s presentation of his intuitionist theory and following it are some responses by others:

https://motherjones.com/files/emotional_dog_and_rational_tail.pdf

http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/review-of-the-emotional-dog-and-its-rational-tail/

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13869790500492680#preview

http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2010/08/i-did-not-make-a-mistake-in-disagreeing-with-haidt/

http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2009/11/jonathan-haidts-darwinian-moral.html

http://beta.in-mind.org/issue-4/fairness-judgments-genuine-morality-or-disguised-egocentrism

God & Freewill, Theists & Atheists

God and freewill, two things that will forever perplex me.

I see them as basically on the same level, theological concepts. God is the faith of the theists. And freewill is the faith of the atheists.

I don’t mean this in a necessarily dismissive way. I actually am affirming the notion of faith. We humans aren’t as rational as we think. Whether theist or atheist, most people are always looking to rationalize. It might not be as obvious with theism, but apologetics is just an attempt (typically a very bad attempt) at rationalizing theism and apologetics is big business these days. Atheists aren’t off the hook, though. It is atheists, more than theists, who usually find it difficult to admit the irrational/nonrational components of life.

I say this as an agnostic who is hard put to take sides in most theist vs atheist debates, although I tend to go with the atheists when it comes to respecting intellect and science. Despite my sharing certain values with many atheists, I can’t follow atheists all the way down the path of rationality. The world is too strange and humans too complex.

Consider freewill. I’ve come to see the atheist’s focus on freewill as a substitute for the theistic soul.

Anyone who has studied psychological research enough knows that most things humans do aren’t rational or often even conscious. We really don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do, but through science we can observe correlations and make predictions. If you know enough about a person, they can be fairly predictable. If humans weren’t predictable, insurance companies wouldn’t be able to make profits. Still, prediction isn’t the same thing as insight and understanding.

There is no rational reason to believe in freewill and yet most people believe in it. It is our shared cultural bias. Even most theists accept freewill, albeit a human will subordinated to the Will of God and/or a human will limited to a morally weak human nature (depending on the theology in question). We believe in freewill because our entire culture is based on this belief and so confirms it and supports it. Still, it is just a belief, one that doesn’t perfectly conform to reality.

Here is where I’m coming from. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual… a statement that most atheists don’t understand, although one could be a spiritual atheist (such as a Buddhist)… a statement maybe that even most theists don’t understand. On the other hand, my not being religious doesn’t imply that I’m anti-religious. I’m simply non-religious, but informally I’m attracted to certain religious practices such as meditation and even prayer (not that I ever feel clear about what I may or may not be praying to). My faith is more Jungian than anything. So, theological ideas such as God and freewill are only meaningful to me in terms of possible underlying archetypes that hold sway deep within the human psyche, if not also in the world at large.

My experiences and observations, my understandings and intuitions have made it hard for me to find a place in any particular Western tradition. Beyond the Jungian, I suppose I could put myself in the very general category of radical skeptic (i.e., zetetic) which I’ve at times identified as agnostic gnosticism or else as Fortean. I’m defined by endless curiosity, greater than any belief or reason.

The religous and philosophical traditions that I have been most drawn to are those of the East, whether the Gnosticism born out of the Middle East or the Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism of the Far East. In this instance, I was thinking about Hinduism. I often contemplate Saraswati, the goddess of creativitiy and intellect, the ultimate artist’s muse. Do I believe in Saraswati? I don’t know. It seems like a silly question. I’m tempted to respond as Jung in saying I don’t believe, I know… but that still leaves such ‘knowing’ unexplained. There is an archetypal truth to Saraswati and I feel no need nor ability to further explain what that might be.

I was thinking about all of this in terms of vision and inspiration. In my own way, I have a visionary sense of Saraswati and this inspires me. But the name ‘Saraswati’ doesn’t matter nor does the religious accoutrements. I’m not a Hindu nor do I want to be. Saraswati is just a reference point for a deeper truth that is otherwise hard to articulate. I don’t believe in God and yet I have this intuitive sense of the divine, for lack of better words. I don’t believe in freewill and yet I have this intuitive sense of a creative ‘will’ that drives me and inspires me.

There was another aspect of Hinduism that was on my mind. The idea of willpower is symbolized and embodied by the god Ganesha. I feel no particular attraction to Ganesha, but I like the idea of willpower as a god rather than as a mere psychological attribute or mere personal expression. This seems to get closer to what willpower means on the archetypal level.

We each are diven and inspired by some vision of reality. This is our faith, typically unquestioned and often unconscious. We simply know it as our ‘reality’ and as such it forms our reality tunnel. There is a Hindu belief that a god resides in or is expressed through each person’s secret heart, the Hridaya chakra. I interpret this in Jungian terms. We each are ruled by some core truth or essence or pattern, whatever you want to call it, however you want to explain it.

We can have a vision of God or a god and we can be ruled by it. But if we explore it more deeply, we might discover a greater truth to why we are drawn to such a vision. We can have a vision of freewill and we can be ruled by it. But we can seek to make this faith conscious, thus seeing will as something greater than a personal possession, control for the sake of control (in the words of William S. Burroughs, “is control controlled by our need to control?”).

Whatever your god or vision, is what is ruling you worthy of your faith? If your faith is blind and your being ruled is unconscious, where does that leave you?