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.