The scourge of perverse-mindedness

This website is devoted to the art of rationality, and as such, is a wonderful corrective to wrong facts and, more importantly, wrong procedures for finding out facts.

There is, however, another type of cognitive phenomenon that I’ve come to consider particularly troublesome, because it militates against rationality in the irrationalist, and fights against contentment and curiousity in the rationalist. For lack of a better word, I’ll call it perverse-mindedness.

The perverse-minded do not necessarily disagree with you about any fact questions. Rather, they feel the wrong emotions about fact questions, usually because they haven’t worked out all the corollaries.

Let’s make this less abstract. I think the following quote is preaching to the choir on a site like LW:

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
-Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American (November, 1995).

Am I posting that quote to disagree with it? No. Every jot and tittle of it is correct. But allow me to quote another point of view on this question.

“We are not born into this world, but grow out of it; for in the same way an apple tree apples, the Earth peoples.”

This quote came from an ingenious and misguided man named Alan Watts. You will not find him the paragon of rationality, to put it mildly. And yet, let’s consider this particular statement on its own. What exactly is wrong with it? Sure, you can pick some trivial holes in it – life would not have arisen without the sun, for example, and Homo sapiens was not inevitable in any way. But the basic idea – that life and consciousness is a natural and possibly inevitable consequence of the way the universe works – is indisputably correct.

So why would I be surprised to hear a rationalist say something like this? Note that it is empirically indistinguishable from the more common view of “mankind confronted by a hostile universe.” This is the message of the present post: it is not only our knowledge that matters, but also our attitude to that knowledge. I believe I share a desire with most others here to seek truth naively, swallowing the hard pills when it becomes necessary. However, there is no need to turn every single truth into a hard pill. Moreover, sometimes the hard pills also come in chewable form.

What other fact questions might people regard in a perverse way?

How about materialism, the view that reality consists, at bottom, in the interplay of matter and energy? This, to my mind, is the biggie. To come to facilely gloomy conclusions based on materialism seems to be practically a cottage industry among Christian apologists and New Agers alike. Since the claims are all so similar to each other, I will address them collectively.

“If we are nothing but matter in motion, mere chemicals, then:

  1. Life has no meaning;

  2. Morality has no basis;

  3. Love is an illusion;

  4. Everything is futile (there is no immortality);

  5. Our actions are determined; we have no free will;

  6. et

  7. cetera.”

The usual response from materialists is to say that an argument from consequences isn’t valid – if you don’t like the fact that X is just matter in motion, that doesn’t make it false. While eminently true, as a rhetorical strategy for convincing people who aren’t already on board with our programme, it’s borderline suicidal.

I have already hinted at what I think the response ought to be. It is not necessarily a point-by-point refutation of each of these issues individually. The simple fact is, not only is materialism true, but it shouldn’t bother anyone who isn’t being perverse about it, and it wouldn’t bother us if it had always been the standard view.

There are multiple levels of analysis in the lives of human beings. We can speak of societies, move to individual psychology, thence to biology, then chemistry… this is such a trope that I needn’t even finish the sentence.

However, the concerns of, say, human psychology (as distinct from neuroscience), or morality, or politics, or love, are not directly informed by physics. Some concepts only work meaningfully on one level of analysis. If you were trying to predict the weather, would you start by modeling quarks? Reductionism in principle I will argue for until the second coming (i.e., forever). Reductionism in practice is not always useful. This is the difference between proximate and ultimate causation. The perverse-mindedness I speak of consists in leaping straight from behaviour or phenomenon X to its ultimate cause in physics or chemistry. Then – here’s the “ingenious” part – declaring that, since the ultimate level is devoid of meaning, morality, and general warm-and-fuzziness, so too must be all the higher levels.

What can we make of someone who says that materialism implies meaninglessness? I can only conclude that if I took them to see Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” they would earnestly ask me what on earth the purpose of all the little dots was. Matter is what we’re made of, in the same way as a painting is made of dried pigments on canvas. Big deal! What would you prefer to be made of, if not matter?

It is only by the contrived unfavourable contrast of matter with something that doesn’t actually exist – soul or spirit or élan vital or whatever – that somebody can pull off the astounding trick of spoiling your experience of a perfectly good reality, one that you should feel lucky to inhabit.

I worry that some rationalists, while rejecting wooly dualist ideas about ghosts in the machine, have tacitly accepted the dualists’ baseless assumptions about the gloomy consequences of materialism. There really is no hard pill to swallow.

What are some other examples of perversity? Eliezer has written extensively on another important one, which we might call the disappointment of explicability. “A rainbow is just light refracting.” “The aurora is only a bunch of protons hitting the earth’s magnetic field.” Rationalists are, sadly, not immune to this nasty little meme. It can be easily spotted by tuning your ears to the words “just” and “merely.” By saying, for example, that sexual attraction is “merely” biochemistry, you are telling the truth and deceiving at the same time. You are making a (more or less) correct factual statement, while Trojan-horsing an extraneous value judgment into your listener’s mind as well: “chemicals are unworthy.” On behalf of chemicals everywhere, I say: Screw you! Where would you be without us?

What about the final fate of the universe, to take another example? Many of us probably remember the opening scene of Annie Hall, where little Alfie tells the family doctor he’s become depressed because everything will end in expansion and heat death. “He doesn’t do his homework!” cries his mother. “What’s the point?” asks Alfie.

Although I found that scene hilarious, I have actually heard several smart people po-facedly lament the fact that the universe will end with a whimper. If this seriously bothers you psychologically, then your psychology is severely divorced from the reality that you inhabit. By all means, be depressed about your chronic indigestion or the Liberal Media or teenagers on your lawn, but not about an event that will happen in 1014 years, involving a dramatis personae of burnt-out star remnants. Puh-lease. There is infinitely more tragedy happening every second in a cup of buttermilk.

The art of not being perverse consists in seeing the same reality as others and agreeing about facts, but perceiving more in an aesthetic sense. It is the joy of learning something that’s been known for centuries; it is appreciating the consilience of knowledge without moaning about reductionism; it is accepting nature on her own terms, without fatuous navel-gazing about how unimportant you are on the cosmic scale. If there is a fact question at stake, take no prisoners; but you don’t get extra points for unnecessary angst.