Why I evaluate claims of rationality

George Dvorsky wrote a recent article: “Why you’re probably not as rational as you think you are—and what you can do about it“. This caught my attention, in which he interviews a proponent of rational thinking:

[Q:] “How can we meaningfully talk about being rational knowing that we’re always making decisions with insufficient information? Aren’t we just fooling ourselves that we’re being rational, when in reality we’re no more or less rational than someone working off different knowledge?

[A:] Rationality is only defined with respect to the information you have. So if you and I have different information, we could both reason rationally and still end up at different conclusions. But given the information you have, there are more and less rational ways to use it.”

Later Dvorsky asks why transhumanists and others have been early adopters of improving rational thinking, and he gets this answer:

“Futurists are especially interested in what’s possible, and they’re excited by the powerful new capacities technology affords us – capacities to relieve suffering, make people happier, and make new discoveries. That’s what rationality is. It’s a mental technology, a way of affording ourselves more control over the outcomes of our decisions, so that we can better pursue our happiness.”

The information from which Dvorsky works, and from which he derives his rationality, is a purely materialistic worldview, in which he does not value human beings as such, or at least only insofar as he can propel humanity’s evolution into a machine-like intelligence. Thus rationality becomes a “mental technology”.

I find this understanding of rationality, and Dvorsky’s goals and purposes, to be disturbing, frightening, and highly unethical. Indeed, one can be “rational” from within one’s own limited perspective. Time and again throughout history, for example, individuals and societies have eliminated populations of human beings with a cold, harsh rationality that can leave us staggering at the implications of their rationality. I agree with Margaret Somerville, a Canadian bioethicist, in her article “Transhumanism: the dangers of creating Humanity 2.0“, that views such as Dvorsky holds “will change not only individuals, but also our societies and their institutions” in ways that demean, diminish and dehumanize us.

Rationality is a skill and a good to be pursued, but one must be aware of the worldview which informs that rationality, and one needs to be careful of those who pursue rationality from within an impoverished base of knowledge and understanding.

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2 Responses to Why I evaluate claims of rationality

  1. Would you say it is inherent to a “purely materialist worldview” that it necessarily leads to “cold, harsh rationality” that ends up producing the elimination of human beings that you refer to? I imagine somebody with a purely materialist worldview would point to the elimination of human beings done in the name of a supernaturalist rationality. Both sides have blood on their hands, done in the name of a rationality informed by their respective worldviews. Similarly, they could probably point to many good effects of materialist rationality, I am sure. I leave it to them to provide examples, but assuming they are able to, how would you respond?

  2. hertzsprung2012 says:

    I wouldn’t say it is necessary that materialist worldviews lead to a cold, harsh rationality, but I would say it is consistent with such views. I might argue as well that materialists often import parts of a supernaturalist rationality without proper justification to keep from heading down the path of cold, harsh rationality. Objective morality could be one such example. You’re right that both sides have blood on their hands, but the amount of blood shed in the twentieth century at the hands of those subscribing to a relatively new materialist worldview (in terms of history) far surpassed anything supernaturalist rationalities had done up to that time. I would also argue that Christians in particular who act in such a way are not being consistent with their own faith claims. I don’t know Buddhist or Islamic worldviews enough to comment confidently. I’m also not arguing that those who hold to supernaturalist rationalities are better people than those who don’t. A person can act morally without knowing or believing that morality must be grounded in God. I’d be interested in hearing from you what the many good effects of materialist rationality are or could be.

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