Gnostic Rationality

An­cient Greek fa­mously made a dis­tinc­tion be­tween 3 kinds of knowl­edge: doxa, episteme, and gno­sis.

Doxa is ba­si­cally what in English we might call hearsay. It’s the stuff you know be­cause some­one told you about it. If you know the Earth is round be­cause you read it in a book, that’s doxa.

Episteme is what we most of­ten mean by “knowl­edge” in English. It’s the stuff you know be­cause you thought about it and rea­soned it out. If you know the Earth is round be­cause you mea­sured shad­ows at differ­ent lo­ca­tions and did the math that proves the only log­i­cal con­clu­sion of the re­sults is that the Earth is round, that’s episteme.

Gno­sis has no good equiv­a­lent in English, but the clos­est we come is when peo­ple talk about per­sonal ex­pe­rience be­cause gno­sis is the stuff you know be­cause you ex­pe­rienced it. If you know the Earth is round be­cause you trav­eled all the way around it or ob­served it from space, that’s gno­sis.

Often we elide these dis­tinc­tions. Doxa of episteme is of­ten thought of as episteme be­cause if you read enough about how oth­ers gained episteme you may feel as though you have episteme your­self. We dis­cover this is not true, though, when we ac­tu­ally de­velop episteme of some­thing we pre­vi­ously only had doxa of episteme of, like when we try to teach an­other per­son some­thing and dis­cover we didn’t un­der­stand it as well as we thought we did. Similarly, episteme is some­times mis­taken for gno­sis be­cause episteme may al­low you to always get the ex­pected an­swer the way gno­sis usu­ally lets you, but only so long as you put in the effort to reckon episte­molog­i­cally.

Many ra­tio­nal­ist thinkers fo­cus heav­ily on episteme and the dox­as­tic logic used to com­bine facts. This is fine as far as it goes: you need to be able to de­velop well-formed episteme from facts if you want to have much chance of win­ning. Hu­mans are no­to­ri­ously bad at episteme and it takes con­sid­er­able train­ing to be­come good at it, and episteme re­quires con­stant main­te­nance to re­main ac­cu­rate. We can­not hope to be ra­tio­nal­ists if we can­not mas­ter episteme.

But there is some­thing more if you want to walk the Way. It’s not enough to know about the Way and how to walk it; you need gno­sis of walk­ing. And I know this (dox­as­ti­cally, epistem­i­cally, and gnos­ti­cally) from listen­ing to oth­ers de­scribe their ex­pe­riences, rea­son­ing about episte­mol­ogy, and re­mem­ber­ing my own ex­pe­rience learn­ing to walk the Way.

This would be a purely aca­demic dis­tinc­tion if it weren’t for the fact that I see many of my ra­tio­nal­ist friends suffer­ing and find­ing con­sis­tently that those who suffer the most tend to be those with the least gno­sis of ra­tio­nal­ity. And this is fur­ther com­pli­cated be­cause those with gno­sis do not always have the most episteme, so those more skil­led at epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity may rea­son­ably ig­nore the doxa of gnos­tic ra­tio­nal­ists as con­fused at best and self-de­cep­tive at worst. And so I find my­self be­tween a rock and a hard place be­cause I see my friends suffer­ing and I know (epistem­i­cally) how they can be helped but I don’t know (gnos­ti­cally) how to help them.

All I know how to do is leave bread­crumbs for those with­out so much dust in their eyes that they can see the bread­crumbs well enough to keep fol­low­ing the Way when they find they are no longer walk­ing it. This, how­ever oth­ers may per­ceive it, has been the mo­ti­vat­ing goal, at least for me, with what we’ve lately been call­ing “meta­ra­tional­ity”. That is, to figure out how to help our epistem­i­cally ra­tio­nal­ist friends learn to be gnos­ti­cally ra­tio­nal­ist. My writ­ing and the writ­ing of David Chap­man, Kevin Sim­ler, Sarah Perry, and oth­ers is a way to gain doxa and maybe even episteme of our gno­sis, but other than maybe Chap­man’s pro­posed cur­ricu­lum, we have not re­ally found a re­li­able way to guide peo­ple to­wards gnos­tic ra­tio­nal­ity.

But maybe “gnos­tic ra­tio­nal­ity” is a bet­ter name than “meta­ra­tional­ity”, and one more peo­ple can get be­hind. After all, I already see pri­mar­ily epistemic ra­tio­nal­ists en­gag­ing in prac­tices to de­velop gno­sis through things like com­fort zone ex­pan­sion (CoZE) and us­ing the dou­ble crux in their own lives when the stakes feel high, and gnos­tic ra­tio­nal­ity, by the very na­ture of be­ing ra­tio­nal­ity, does not work with­out episteme enough to judge what may help you win and what may not. Thus it is not that any­one is seek­ing to go be­yond ra­tio­nal­ity so much as fully en­gage with it, not just with our words (doxa) and minds (episteme), but also with our hearts (gno­sis). This is the Way of gnos­tic ra­tio­nal­ity.