Friday, March 22, 2013

outrage culture, the rationalizing animal, and belief systems are B.S.

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this." – Bertrand Russell

"Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason." – Oscar Wilde

History's greatest comic was Carl Linnaeus, who named our species homo sapiens. Aristotle was no slouch either when he defined man as a rational animal. After making my post about Heinlein or my dad or someone else observing "Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal," I asked a few people about the Latin for "rationalizing man". Chaosprime suggested "homo ratiocinens" and evergreen proposed "Homo autoexculpens". Bill Colsher emailed this:
I don’t think the Romans (or the Greeks, the phrase being from Aristotle) had a word for what Heinlein meant by “rationalize”, i.e. “invent a plausible explanation for something that doesn’t really have any connection with reality”. The verb “confingo, -ere, -inxi, -ictum” means “form, fabricate, invent, feign” It has the sense of making something real, like a pot but also to create a falsehood. So you might have “homo confingens” – man the maker-upper. Another possibility might be “enodo, -are, -avi, -atum” meaning “ unravel, explain”. That would be “homo enodans” – man the explainer.

And now for a short discursis:

Much like “man is a political animal”, “man is a rational animal” is one of those unfortunate translations that doesn’t really convey what Aristotle meant. In the first case he mean that man is a creature at its best and best suited to life in the city, with all the duties, rights, and responsibilities that entailed. In the second case he’s talking about what makes man different from other animals. It includes both thinking and planning but also the soul (where reason lives) and some other stuff that I can’t remember just now. Interestingly (perhaps), in the Greek the “capacity for reason” that is “logos” is something that man actively possesses. Man has “logos”, in contrast to animals, which, Aristotle recognizes, do reason in their way. But animals do not have “logos”
Aristotle may be right that humans have the capacity for reason, but I'm with Russell: there's no evidence. Robert Anton Wilson was glimpsing the truth when he noted that when you talk about belief systems, you're talking about b.s.

Now that I've accepted that we're all rationalizing animals, I'm giving up my belief systems. Whether I can live without one, I dunno, but I'll try. Because so far as I can tell, whenever large groups of people get together to do something awful, a belief system is the excuse, even when the actual reason is the hope of taking someone else's lands or goods. To do the worst things, people need to believe they're doing good.

A few observations about outrage culture:

In an outrage culture, the angriest members lead.

In an outrage culture, fighting doesn't stop when the outraged have won. The goal is unconditional surrender. Outraged people think their opponents must be destroyed socially, and often, financially as well, and in extreme cases, literally—every lynching and every massacre is a manifestation of outrage culture.

When outraged people have destroyed an opponent, they look for another. If they can't find one, they turn on each other at the least sign of cultural deviation.

Many commercial journalists pander to outrage culture because outrage addicts always return for their next fix.

When I think of outraged people, I try to remember that they may someday realize how wrong they were. Five years after the Salem witch trials, the jurors signed this apology: "And we also pray that we may be considered candidly and aright by the living sufferers as being then under the power of a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with and not experienced in matters of that nature."

There's a book I've been meaning to read titled Time for Outrage. But now I think I would rather read one titled Time for Reason.


  1. I agree. As I sit at my computer, designed by irrational individuals, and in my house also designed, built, heated, and cooled by people incapable of logic, and consider my forthcoming flight on an airline designed, constructed and operated by people without the ability to reason, I think of just how right you are.

    But at least we're capable of irony.

    1. We're defining "rational" differently. Richard Dadd did great work in the asylum. Ayn Rand produced many books. The craziest people are capable of creativity and construction. Are you suggesting that all belief systems are rational?

    2. And does irony ever convince anyone who isn't already in the choir?

  2. I believe all belief systems have a rational explanation for existing, and I believe we are capable of understanding those explanations. Which I think makes us rational.

    I suppose you could come up with a definition of "rational" that doesn't describe human beings, but can you explain it would be useful?

    skzb (the preview said it was going to post as anonymous, so I include my signature in case it does, while wondering if whoever designed this blogging software was rational)

    1. Blogger's commenting system is a damn fine example of what people can rationalize.

      Sure, insanity has sources. Maybe the source is the nature of the human brain. Maybe experience makes us irrational. Maybe subjectivity does. We know some of the reasons humans are irrational, and we'll probably learn more. But knowing doesn't make us rational. You can find plenty of people who're certified insane who know they're insane.

      For me, it's more useful to accept that people aren't rational. If your goal is to convince them of anything, reason simply isn't the way to go. Did you see the article about how comments with nothing more than vitriol on articles make people doubt an article's content? Combine that tendency with confirmation bias, and trying to reason with anyone just seems silly.

    2. "Did you see the article about how comments with nothing more than vitriol on articles make people doubt an article's content?"

      What the report on the article said, was that when it was just polite comments that made some points -- "Nanosilver has important uses." "It's a dangerous pollutant and could hurt the fish." -- people didn't respond to that.

      But when the comments on both sides used profanity, people tended to take a side.

      The article itself said that nanosilver had important uses but was a dangerous pollutant that could hurt the fish. So maybe comments that politely repeated the article's points wouldn't have much effect. Why would they? They weren't "rational" discussion, they were only repetition. The study did not show what happened when somebody brought something to the table more than just repetition.

      But when it was angry comments that also selectively repeated some of the article's points, it did make a difference.

      Maybe it was that when it looked like just a mass of commenters repeating the same points, it had no effect. But when it was clearly two groups that had different positions, people sometimes joined one of the groups.

      Maybe the emotion showed readers that it was not just a group of people saying "It's useful and dangerous" but it was two groups, and one of them said "It's useful!" while the other group said "It's dangerous!". And that was more likely to change opinions.

      They did not test whether one group that was angry would get more joiners than a second group which was not angry. In their experiment, both looked angry.

  3. Okay, I see your point. That was very rationally argued.

  4. Sorry, couldn't resist.

    The problem, in my opinion, comes from seeing "rational" as something set apart from the world of material things--as if there were perfect, inarguable rationality, and there's something wrong with anyone who doesn't accept it. That is true of some things, but they're mostly trivialities.

    For the ideas we are fighting for and against every day, they are certainly "rational" in the Hegelian sense of they exist for a reason. And I believe they are also rational in a more conventional sense, as long as you don't demand more of poor rationality than it is able to provide.

    My ideas are a product of material conditions, by which I mean, in particular, that Marxism grew out of the historical struggles of the working class. It is not the end of rational thought--it is a form of thought that (again, in my opinion) represents the future, and the emancipation of the working class.

    To pick our joint favorite target, those who support identity politics are also being rational, because they are supporting very definite class interests.

    The whole notion of demanding pure rationality of an idea--that it exist utterly on its own and prove itself in the court of pure rationalism--grew out of the Enlightenment; and I respect it for that, because I have a high regard for the degree to which the Enlightenment was an advance over what came before. But it failed to recognize the *limits* on rationality--those limits being the objective, social interests of human beings from which their ideas flow.

    So, no, I do not accept that human beings are irrational; I believe you are simply asking rationality to carry a burden it isn't equipped for. If you hitch it in tandem (yes, I'm mixing metaphors) with alignment with social forces that represent the future--ie, the modern working class--I believe that together they are strong enough to pull society forward.

    1. I am entirely invested in the material world now. In the material, observable, verifiable world, tigers will eat you if they can, and humans are invested in belief systems that make them do--or what can be worse, passively support--crazy shit.

      Now, there are good reasons why people are crazy. It's better to be crazy with your tribe than without it. You will get laid more, and you'll get protected, and company is nice. It's why some atheists go to church--you can still like a community that you think is a little crazy. It certainly explains identity politics fans--they want to delineate as clearly as possible who to trust and who to hate. But coming "rationally" to an irrational conclusion isn't rational; it's just rationalizing.

      Oh, and another reason humans are crazy: we conform. We are shaped by our friends. I should look up the phenomenon to see if it has a name. Basically, we don't necessarily join the groups who think like us. We join groups, and our thinking veers in their direction.

      I'm being vague now, but I'll track down the evidence in a future post, most likely.

  5. "you are simply asking rationality to carry a burden it isn't equipped for"


    And as engineers, let us not forget that the results of "rationality" depend entirely on its inputs.

    1. Well, the output is pretty good in the very short term, but the notion that we'll be doing well in the next century calls for a big scoop of faith. If humans were rational, we would've started doing more about the ecology in the '50 and '60s, when the problems were being raised.

  6. And it just occurred to me that we've been concentrating so much on the "are people irrational" part that no one has commented on the rage culture part, which was likely the actual point of your post. Sorry.

    But I don't know enough about it say anything intelligent; and, yes, every once in a while that stops me.

    1. No worries. I kinda lumped them together, and my thoughts are fuzzier on rage culture, I suspect.