PM2006

Is RationalWiki really rational?

Introduction

In this essay, I seek to address the question of whether RationalWiki is really rational. It claims to be rational, it prides itself on being rational, it even names itself as rational — but is it really what it claims to be?

I think, to answer this question, we first need to work out what rationality is. And that is a very deep philosophical question. I don't propose to answer it wholly — but I will point out some basic aspects of rationality, which are relevant to the issue of whether RationalWiki is rational.

I want to make clear, that not all RationalWiki editors are the same. Although I will be arguing that many RationalWiki editors are not rational, there are nonetheless some who are. But the bigger problem with RationalWiki, is not just that some of the editors are irrational, but that more broadly the culture and the community are irrational — and that sadly, even the more rational editors do not speak up enough about the irrationality of the place as a whole.

What is rationality?

For a site founded on claims to Rationality — the claim that it is Rational, but its opponents are not — RationalWiki is surprisingly lacking in any philosophical introspection into what rationality actually is. The site founds itself on "rationality", but never seeks to address what rationality actually is — like a house built on shaky foundations. There are some editors on RationalWiki who are interested in philosophy — to its credit, it has a decent selection of articles on a number of philosophical topics — but this philosophical issue, most essential to its own nature and self-definition, is mostly ignored. To be fair, a few editors have made some attempts to reflect on this topic[1]. But, if RationalWiki editors showed more focus on this topic, they would not fall into many of the errors I will come to discuss.

What then, is Rationality? I have my view, and others will have their own view, but rather than face that question directly, I propose to simply make a few points about the nature of rationality:

  • Rationality is not the same thing as truth: One can be rational yet believe a falsehood, and be irrational yet believe the truth. Rationality is not directly about whether your beliefs are true or false, but rather about whether or not you have good reasons to hold them. Of course, being rational will tend in the long run to produce more true beliefs than false ones — and this is an important part of rationality's self-justification — but that does not exclude the rational belief and the true belief being different in individual cases.
  • Rationality is more about process than outcomes: This follows from the previous — rationality is not about what you believe, but how you reach those beliefs. The same belief can be rational for one person (who believes it for a good reason) but irrational for another (who believes it for a reason which is not good). One of my philosophy lecturers once gave the example of the boy who saw "Water is H2O" written on the bathroom wall, and hence decided to believe it. His belief is true, yet irrational (irrational because his belief is based on an unreliable source of knowledge). His older brother has learnt "Water is H2O" in science class, so his older brother believes the same thing, yet his older brother's belief is rational, despite his younger brother's propositionally identical belief being irrational.
  • Rationality is relative rather than absolute: What I mean by this, is that beliefs themselves are not inherently rational or irrational— rather, the rationality of a belief is relative to the person who believes it, and their circumstances.[2]
  • Rationality of argumentation: Rationality doesn't just extend to how you form your own beliefs, but also how you argue for and defend them. Your beliefs can be true, you can be rational in the process of forming your own beliefs — but if you don't argue for them rationally, or defend them rationally, you are missing out on a major part of being rational.
  • Rationality as a property of individuals: Individuals can be said to be rational, insofar as they conduct themselves in a rational manner — with respect to forming their own beliefs, and with respect to how they argue for them and defend them. So rationality is not just a property of a belief relative to an individual believer, but also a property of the believer themselves.[3]
  • Rationality as a property of communities: A community can be said to be rational or irrational, depending on whether its members are willing to argue for and depend their viewpoints rationally, rather than resorting to irrational approaches. A community can still act rationally even though some of its members act irrationally, provided that (1) the values, standards, policies and culture of the community encourages rational rather than irrational behaviour; and (2) the community acts on and enforces those values, and consistently holds its members to account.
  • Rationality is contested: Rationality is contested in two ways: (1) it is contested as to what the fundamental principles of rationality are, and (2) it is contested as to what the ultimate nature of rationality is, in ontological terms. Not everyone has the same standards of rationality, or the same ideas about what those standards ultimately are. So this is not just an argument about how to apply principles that everyone agrees on, but also one about what those principles actually are, and what is the ultimate nature of those principles. This is not to say that some version of rationality may not be objectively more right than the others — it is just saying that there exist real disagreements about what rationality actually is.

I believe that, even though people may have very different views about the philosophical foundations of rationality, most people should be able to agree on the above points.

Does everyone have to argue/defend their beliefs?

I don't think rationality requires that everyone be able to give a full and complete argument for or defence of their own beliefs. Not everyone can be an expert on everything, not everyone has the same intellectual capacity or education, not everyone has the same amount of free time, or the same interests. But so long as someone is honest, and says "I believe this, I think it's rational for me to believe, but I'm too busy to discuss it further" or "I'm sorry, I don't understand the topic well enough to evaluate your arguments, and I don't have the time and/or ability and/or interest to learn the topic sufficiently well to do so", they are still being rational. It can be rational to defer to experts, and in a rational community there will be experts whom one can defer to. Someone may rationally believe in a position, on the basis of expert opinion, yet not have sufficient expertise to evaluate the underlying issues — but, so long as they can identify an expert who is willing and able to defend that position, they are absolved from the need to defend it themselves. But, saying all this, does not justify someone responding in an irrational way (such as through ad hominems, ridicule, etc.) to cover their own limitations or disinterest. The rational approach is to be honest about one's own limitations or disinterest, rather than to seek them behind irrational argument.

Analogies from morality

I think many analogies can be drawn between rationality and morality. Both are systems of ought - ethics says you ought to do this, rationality says you ought to believe this. Both are systems which value things positively (good, rational) or negatively (evil, irrational). In this section, I want to explore this analogy further.[4]

In ethics, people disagree about many issues — a good example, but only one of many, is abortion. Yet, often there is so much focus on the deep disagreements, that people forget the broad areas of near universal agreement. For example, almost everyone agrees that, most of the time, killing other people is wrong. Almost everyone also agrees that this prohibition will on occasion have exceptions. There are deep disagreements about exactly what those exceptions are — but we should not let the existence or depth of those disagreements distract us from the broad agreement on this basic principle. In the same way, people can have deep disagreements about rationality — about the ultimate nature of the principles of rationality, about what those principles actually are, and about how to apply them in a particular case - but we should not let that disagreement blind ourselves to the fact that there is a broad area of agreement about what is rational in practice between people who have very different theoretical outlooks on rationality.

Considering the abortion case, we find in many cases people agree about the facts of the situation, yet still disagree about its ethics, because they have very different ideas about what the fundamental principles of ethics are. In the same way, two people can agree about all the evidence, yet have very different opinions about what it is rational to conclude from that evidence, because they have fundamentally different ideas about what the fundamental nature of rationality is.

Is discussion or argument pointless between those with fundamental different ethical principles? I would say it has its limitations, but it is not ultimately pointless. It has several positives:

  • Just because two people have radically different ethical principles, doesn't mean they can't still come to an agreement. Consider the fact that despite the diversity of basic principles there is a significant degree of agreement already. Two people, coming from very different starting positions, end up agreeing on the conclusion, will have followed very different lines of reasoning to reach that conclusion from their starting position — but, what matters in practice is the shared conclusion, not the different routes by which they got there.
  • Even if you and me have radically different ethical first principles, our moral disagreement might be due to a factual dispute, or a failure of one of us to reason correctly from their first principles. So, if discussion leads us to the resolution of a factual dispute, or leads one of us to the realisation that we had been reasoning from our first principles wrongly, then the ethical dispute may be resolved, even though each side retains their radically contrary first principles
  • Even if no agreement is ultimately forthcoming, the process of debate can help us see more clearly the consequences of our respective set of principles. If we assume that one set of principles must be right, and that if so there must be some way of knowing that, then the additional information gained in this process can only help in that task, even if the debate itself will not produce any conclusion.

I believe the same positives apply to rationality, mutatis mutandis. People can come to significant agreements about the application of rationality in particular cases, despite radical disagreements about what the fundamental principles of rationality are, or the ontological status of those principles, even if our explanation of why a particular argument is rational or irrational may be very different, given our very different starting positions.

Even as we acknowledge that there are radical difference of opinion about what is rational, it is necessary for human society and human thought to be possible that there exist a substantial degree of agreement, even among those with widely differing positions. The same observation applies to morality — even though people have very different moral views on many issues, a certain common core of conclusions is necessary for society to function.

Application to RationalWiki

In this section, I plan to address, what is the actual nature of RationalWiki, in terms of those aspects of rationality I have identified above.

  • Rationality is not the same thing as truth: Many RationalWiki editors seem to think that if their position is true, that means they must be rational. But, even if their position is true as they claim, that still doesn't mean they are rational.
  • Rationality is more about process than outcomes: Many RationalWiki editors seem to think that they are rational because (in their view) the position they are defending is the correct one. But even if they are right about this, they still are not rational if their means to defend it are irrational
  • Rationality is relative rather than absolute: Just because something is rational for one person to believe, doesn't mean it is rational for another. Many RationalWiki editors believe seem to believe that anyone who agrees with their position is rational, and anyone who disagrees with them is irrational — when, what is rational for one person to believe may not be rational for another to believe, and vice versa
  • Rationality of argumentation: I will address this further below — many RationalWiki editors argue in a very non-rational manner, yet think that just because they believe the position they argue for is right, that by itself enough to make them rational
  • Rationality as a property of individuals: Multiple examples of individual acts of irrationality on the part of RationalWiki editors can be given. However, it must be said, everyone is going to be irrational sometimes; and even the most rational community may still have some members that are decidedly irrational. What we must look for, instead, is the patterns, which extend across multiple editors, and across time.
  • Rationality as a property of communities: Here comes the important questions we must ask (1) Do RationalWiki's policies, etc., encourage rationality or irrationality? (2) Are these policies applied consistently? Are editors who act in an irrational way encouraged or discouraged in doing so?
  • Rationality is contested: As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the major problems with RationalWiki is its lack of willingness to engage in introspection regarding its philosophical foundations. As a result, many RationalWiki editors seem to think there is a single, uncontested concept of rationality (coincidentially the same as there own, or their community's). They ignore, and are unwilling to consider, the possibility that other conceptions of rationality might exist.

A RationalWiki dictionary

Find below some common terms of abuse used on RationalWiki. These terms were selected to demonstrate the general irrationality of the place:

bull----
A general, non-specific response to any argument, used by those who believe that they are right but are unwilling to seriously engage with those who have different opinions. This refuse to seriously engage is a form of irrationality.
concern troll
Anyone who tries to get the site to follow its own policies and procedures, or to live up to its self-proclaimed objectives.
gish gallop
A term of abuse for anyone who makes more than one argument for their position, or who makes arguments that draw on multiple areas of knowledge (multiple areas of science, philosophy, history, etc.). This especially applies when any of those arguments go beyond one's interlocutor's background knowledge — rather than honestly admitting "I don't understand that, it'll take some time for me to study it", which would be rational approach. Also used to refer to responding to every one of an opponent's points — although, the contrary approach, of only picking a subset of their points to respond to, is the equal sin of not responding to all of their points. You can't win, they can't loose.
JAQing off
A crude term of dismissal for anyone who dares to ask questions others do not want to answer.
snark
Ridicule of those with opposing views. Not the rational approach.
quantum woo
Anyone who attempts to refer to quantum mechanics at all in an argument. This term is especially favoured by editors who understand very little about quantum mechanics themselves, but can't be honest enough to admit that
troll
Anyone who persists in their disagreement with the worldview of most RationalWiki editors

When someone comes along with views they disagree with, the "rational" response of many RationalWiki editors is to argue by assertion, engage in name-calling and strawmen arguments, engage in profanity, levy false accusations of trolling, etc. They have their own private language, of vaguely defined terms like "Gish gallop" or "quantum woo" — so vaguely defined that they can apply them to whoever they want, and they think that just invoking one of these their favourite terms is a sufficient substitute for actually engaging with what their opponent is trying to say. Even if you try to discuss with them whether the very vague definitions of these terms apply to your arguments, many of them aren't actually interested in having such a discussion, since doing so would imply they aren't rationally free to use them whenever they want.

References/Footnotes

  1. see their article on Rationality (and its Talk page), their article on Rationalism (Talk page)
  2. This doesn't exclude the possibility of some beliefs which might not be irrational in any conceivable circumstance, or which are always rational in every conceivable circumstance - but, if there are such beliefs, arguably they are the exception rather than the rule. It also doesn't mean that the standards of rationality themselves are not absolute — merely, that the nature of these standards means that their application must inevitably be relative to the circumstances.
  3. See also Virtue epistemology for one philosophical view which supports this idea of rationality being a property not just of beliefs, but also of individuals - although one can agree with this point even if one rejects that particular philosophical position.
  4. Personally, I believe this analogy points to a deep connection between rationality and morality, and that somehow they are ultimately both aspects of the same thing. But even if one does not accept this position of mine, one should still be able to agree that the analogy is worth exploring.
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