Burgess Laughlin

Rationalism

64 posts in this topic

Stephen, personally I think the link between what you were saying and what Alex was saying is rather direct. What he was saying was that for men there's a cultural bias against introspection and in favor of repression, and what you ended up saying was that it is the lack of introspection that produces rationalism. This combined argument from you both is I think is an excellent essentialization of the issue and the problem at hand.

Many men are far less in touch with themselves than women are, which results in tendency to rarely demand a clear link to reality before they begin theorizing about something. Since they rarely consider their emotions and inner-workings when dealing with other aspects of their life, they therefore rarely consider them during the process of concept-formation as well, despite the fact that, as Alex said, emotions can be a very useful tool during the process.

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Something else interesting was said: you said that people are more likely to rationalize about abstract topics like metaphysics, rather than about concrete topics like plumbing. This creates an apparent conflict with what I said above, that men are more likely to rationalize about things where their feelings, and therefore concrete aspects of their life, are concerned. How to reconcile this dilemma? I would say: habits. Men learn to rationalize as they growing up, about the concrete aspects of their life; this rationalization results from repression, and thus usually occurs concerning subjects that upset them, such as love relationships, failures, etc. They would have no need to rationalize about plumbing, a job they like to do, or about toy car collecting, a hobby they may have. So that's how I'd say the habit of, or at least a comfort with, rationalism arises in men.

Then, when time comes to do philosophy, they already have the habit of not demanding to ground everything in reality, and when discussing something incredibly abstract like metaphysics, rationalism becomes a very easy approach to take, since the subjects are SO far away from anything concrete in the first place. Thus, even if they will enjoy talking about these subjects, the habit of rationalism is already acquired and will thus make itself apparent, simply because the subject is so abstract, whereas for plumbing or toy car collecting they will still not practice that approach.

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Stephen, personally I think the link between what you were saying and what Alex was saying is rather direct.

I don't think so, FC. But I do not want to argue the point beyond what I have already said, so I will just let it be.

In regard to the second issue you brought up, I note only that you seem to be conflating "rationalization" -- meaning a psychological problem in which one attempts to justify one's feelings with made-up or false explanations -- with "rationalism" as Burgess explained it in his first post in this thread.

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Thanks, Burgess, for this wonderful post. I found the answer to point 2 particularly enlightening. 

Perhaps as a step towards answering point 3, permit me to ask a subsidiary question. I (and many of my friends) have noted rationalism extraordinarily more often in men than in women. Since thinking processes are presumably gender indifferent, why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?

Perhaps that's a premise that needs to be checked. Are thinking processes gender indifferent? I'm not sure how one could demonstrate that issue philosophically. It sounds like it would require a detailed scientific investigation.

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But that discussion refers to the Rationalist school of philosophy, which is not the same thing as the error in the method of one's thinking that, for instance, Peikoff discusses in Understanding Objectivism.

I disagree. Philosophically the two are the same. The philosophical basis of the psychological problem of rationalism is philosophical rationalism. As Dr. Peikoff pointed out in his lecture on "Philosophy and Psychology in History" (reprinted in The Objectivist Forum for October 1985), philosophy is often the basis for psychological problems. (I am not talking about brain-chemistry problems that might affect the mind, as perhaps in depression.)

Errors in thinking -- which is what rationalism is, but on a grand scale -- can become embedded in the subconscious. That is how they become psychological problems. And the reason that many rationalists struggle for decades to overcome the problem (with gradually growing success) is that the issue is so deeply embedded in their subconscious. We aren't talking about a single fear -- such as fear of spiders -- but of a whole way of approaching the world (at least in certain areas, particularly the abstract ones, not the plumbing-type areas).

I know from personal experience -- in both areas -- that recovering from rationalism is akin to recovering from alcoholism, that is, compulsive drinking. Some former alcoholics describe themselves as forever "recovering,' because the temptation to resort to alcohol was deeply embedded in their subconscious. But, I can tell you, uprooting rationalism was a lot harder and more time consuming. It is harder, because with alcoholism you can see yourself reach for either the coffee pot or the whiskey bottle. With rationalism, only painstaking attention to one's own mental processes will pay off.

Dr. Peikoff was still wrestling with rationalism at least as late as in his late forties when he was writing Ominous Parallels, according to what I recall he said in his lectures, after Ayn Rand's death. I personally can attest to the long, long road in correcting a psychological problem that has a philosophical base.

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Related question: why isn't there an explicit discussion of rationalistic thinking in Ayn Rand's writings?

There are explicit discussions of rationalistic thinking in Ayn Rand's philosophical writings -- not long ones, but they are there. See for example "Kant Versus Sullivan," Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 100 and 101-107, where, in part, she discuss the proposal to have science independent of experience (sense-perception).

See also the new book, Ayn Rand Answers, bottom of p. 33, for Ayn Rand's mention of rationalism as a method attributed to her (!) by another person -- but totally rejected by her. This mention in a Q&A section isn't in her writings, of course, but that it appears in an off-the-cuff comment seamlessly integrated with the rest of her comment shows she had done plenty of thinking about it.

See p. 155, second paragraph, for an example showing her attributing rationalism to a particular person -- the one who asked a flawed question, that is, flawed by rationalism.

P. S. -- I do not see how it would be possible for a philosopher who develops a full, rationalist philosophy throughout his life to be anything other than a rationalist psychologically. In other words, I do not see how it would be possible to be objective personally but -- oops! -- develop a rationlistic philosophy. I have always assumed that Rationalist philosophers were psychological rationalists as well. Are there any grounds for doubting that assumption? In general terms, is a disjunction possible between a major philosopher's philosophy and his psychology (or, more narrowly, his psycho-epistemology)?

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Perhaps that's a premise that needs to be checked.  Are thinking processes gender indifferent?  I'm not sure how one could demonstrate that issue philosophically.  It sounds like it would require a detailed scientific investigation.

Thought belongs to consciousness, not to the brain. Physical processes, neural and otherwise, can affect, for instance, one's ability to attend to the material of thought, but the thinking itself is the province of consciousness. There is reason to think there are structural and chemical brain differences that can affect neural processes, but volitional conscious processes are self-controlled, and in a real sense one forms one's own consciousness. There is no reason to think, however, that the nature of consciousness differs among normal people.

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Burgess Laughlin,Nov 14 2005, 07:02 PM]

Rationalism is the philosophical belief that man obtains knowledge by "logically" (syllogistically) deducing inferences from concepts already inside his mind. (Forget about how they got there.)

Rationalism is primarily a conceptual theory -- and secondarily, a logical theory.

The essential premise is of an epistemological primacy to any conceptual content. Concepts, according to Rationalism are self-evident givens; like percepts. Hence, the automatic dismissal of any inductive process for a concept's origin (why look beyond the self-evidently given?)

All the rest of Rationalism's "approach" to ideas stems from the evasion of the validity of an inductive process to concept-formation, and to the epistemological consequences for an inductive approach to the rest of logic.

Positively, Rationalism is (or was, before Objectivism) an attempt at conceptualization -- to which Objectivist induction is the cure.

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Thought belongs to consciousness, not to the brain. Physical processes, neural and otherwise, can affect, for instance, one's ability to attend to the material of thought, but the thinking itself is the province of consciousness. There is reason to think there are structural and chemical brain differences that can affect neural processes, but volitional conscious processes are self-controlled, and in a real sense one forms one's own consciousness. There is no reason to think, however, that the nature of consciousness differs among normal people.

I wasn't referring to neurological/chemical processes within the brain, but to the thinking process itself. It is fairly obvious, even within this forum, that men as well as women disagree about things that are "obvious" or "clear" to one party and not to the other. I was referring, specifically to psycho-epistemology or psychological differences between men and women. For example, two people see a crime. One is more concerned about the victim and the other is more concerned about catching the criminal. Neither is doing anything irrational, but each focuses on different aspects of the situation. All I meant was perhaps men focus on different aspects of reality than women when considering a certain issue.

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For example, two people see a crime.  One is more concerned about the victim and the other is more concerned about catching the criminal.  Neither is doing anything irrational, but each focuses on different aspects of the situation.  All I meant was perhaps men focus on different aspects of reality than women when considering a certain issue.

Okay, but why use that example to question "Are thinking processes gender indifferent?" I see no reason to question the nature of thought processes themselves when so much is explained by choices and values.

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Okay, but why use that example to question "Are thinking processes gender indifferent?" I see no reason to question the nature of thought processes themselves when so much is explained by choices and values.

You originally asked, "why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?" I was trying to speculate about what premises may be behind that question. If a man and a woman are faced with similar choices and values, yet one of them (qua group) fairly consistently makes one particular choice that is different than the other, then perhaps the thinking processes are not gender indifferent.

I'm trying to think of an example that might apply from The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Consider this one. When Dagny crashed in Galt's Gulch and stayed in Galt's house, she offered to be his servant and make him breakfast, etc. Would a man in a similar situation (many others had gone through Galt's house) make that offer? I know there are many factors involved in that scene going on in the background, but can we simplify the issue and just imagine a male industrialist making that kind of offer for employment?

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I think the following could be relevant to the discussion of sex tendencies towards rationalism:

Psychologists have found that females and males use different strategies when they are navigating. Ask a woman how to get to a friend's house, and she may tell you something like, "Go down Elm Street till you see the McDonald's. Then make a left, go past the hardware store and the Exxon station, then you'll see the elementary school. Make a right just past the elementary school and go about another block till you see a split level house painted lime green, with these unbelievable fuchsia shutters and trim, can you believe it? It looks like a gingerbread house after the mold has gotten to it. That's their house." A man, giving directions to the same house, might say, "Go south on Elm Street about two miles, then turn left so you're heading east on Duke Street. After one mile on Duke Street, turn south again onto Scottsdale Boulevard. Their house is the fourth from the intersection, on the left." See the difference? Women typically navigate using landmarks that can be seen or heard. Men are more likely to use abstract concepts such as north and south, or absolute distance.

Source: N. Sandstrom, J. Kaufman, S. A. Huettel. Males and females use different distal cues in a virtual environment navigation task. Brain Research: Cognitive Brain Research, 1998, 6:351-360.

This finding has recently been confirmed and extended by Deborah Saucier and her colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and York University. See Saucier et al., "Are sex differences in navigation caused by sexually dimorphic strategies or by differences in the ability to use the strategies?" Behavioral Neuroscience, 116:403-410, 2002.

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You originally asked, "why would rationalism be disproportionately represented in men?"  I was trying to speculate about what premises may be behind that question.  If a man and a woman are faced with similar choices and values, yet one of them (qua group) fairly consistently makes one particular choice that is different than the other, then perhaps the thinking processes are not gender indifferent.

"[Q]ua group?" I don't think so. Rationalism being more present in men than women does not mean that as a group men are rationalistic. Also, I think we may be referring to two different things. By "thinking processes" I am not referring to content, but to the nature of the conceptualization and reasoning processes themselves.

I'm trying to think of an example that might apply from The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.  Consider this one.  When Dagny crashed in Galt's Gulch and stayed in Galt's house, she offered to be his servant and make him breakfast, etc.  Would a man in a similar situation (many others had gone through Galt's house) make that offer?  I know there are many factors involved in that scene going on in the background, but can we simplify the issue and just imagine a male industrialist making that kind of offer for employment?

Well, if we can mentally remove the Dagny-Galt relationship from consideration, then I have no idea why a man could not have made the same offer. Granted the circumstances, there may be no other value he could immediately pursue to trade with others.

But, regardless, I do not think it matters however we answer that. It is not the content of consciousness that you questioned as a premise, but the sameness of thinking processes of men and women.

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"[Q]ua group?" I don't think so. Rationalism being more present in men than women does not mean that as a group men are rationalistic. Also, I think we may be referring to two different things. By "thinking processes" I am not referring to content, but to the nature of the conceptualization and reasoning processes themselves.

Well, if we can mentally remove the Dagny-Galt relationship from consideration, then I have no idea why a man could not have made the same offer. Granted the circumstances, there may be no other value he could immediately pursue to trade with others.

But, regardless, I do not think it matters however we answer that. It is not the content of consciousness that you questioned as a premise, but the sameness of thinking processes of men and women.

I see what you mean. In which case I don't see how an answer to your question can be given unless it's evaluated simply on an individual basis, and then add up the numbers to see whether more men than women are rationalistic.

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I think the following could be relevant to the discussion of sex tendencies towards rationalism: ...

Thanks, Andrew. These are both interesting studies.

Usually, I am the one who is reminding Objectivists -- or, at least making them aware -- of the fascinating work being done in neurophysiology and neurochemistry. So, strangely, here I need to reverse roles a bit and remind that one basic fault of many studies is that little if any significance and concern is currently given to consciousness in the field of cognition. The better papers are the ones that just focus on the physical facts revealed by analysis and experimentation. The worse tend to be the ones that make conclusions, or point the way, towards fundamental neurophysical causes while ignoring conscious ones. I have the greatest of respect for the true scientific researchers in this field, but little towards those who judge absent of any consideration for consciousness.

Anyway, I am not sure just how relevant these papers are for the issue of rationalism, which I think can be readily explained by reference to conscious choices and values.

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In which case I don't see how an answer to your question can be given unless it's evaluated simply on an individual basis, and then add up the numbers to see whether more men than women are rationalistic.

The answer I gave in this post , while simple and somewhat tentative in nature, satisfied me for now. When and if someone offers anything more detailed and causal, I'd be happy to reopen the issue in my mind.

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In general terms, is a disjunction possible between a major philosopher's philosophy and his psychology (or, more narrowly, his psycho-epistemology)?

Good question! I don't see why not. Off the top of my head, I can't think of an example from the history of philosophy, but I really haven't read non-Objectivst philosophers in nearly a decade.

A counterexample would consist of a rationalistic deduction from arbitrary premises leading a philosopher to ideas not within the realm of Rationalism -- such as an empiricist, or a pragmatist, etc.

Maybe someone more up to speed on the history of philosophy could chime in on this.

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I disagree. Philosophically the two are the same. The philosophical basis of the psychological problem of rationalism is philosophical rationalism. As Dr. Peikoff pointed out in his lecture on "Philosophy and Psychology in History" (reprinted in The Objectivist Forum for October 1985), philosophy is often the basis for psychological problems.

Errors in thinking -- which is what rationalism is, but on a grand scale -- can become embedded in the subconscious. That is how they become psychological problems.

I still maintain there's a big difference. An Objectivist can approach his adopted philosophy rationalistically, meaning the ideas he explicitly accepts are inconsistent with the method he uses to deal with his ideas. People often have conflicting implicit and explicit philosophical ideas.

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I still maintain there's a big difference.  An Objectivist can approach his adopted philosophy rationalistically, meaning the ideas he explicitly accepts are inconsistent with the method he uses to deal with his ideas.  People often have conflicting implicit and explicit philosophical ideas.

Ed, not only do I agree with you -- as an observation about particular individuals in particular situations -- but I will go further and observe that some individuals can be rationalistic in some parts of their lives and not in other parts. A man may be rationalistic in supporting altruism but objective in determining how to build a cabin in the woods.

The dividing line for most people seems to be what I call inverse interest: The more fundamental the idea, the more (in this instance) rationalistic the approach. The same general observation applies to faith too. Most people I have met who are fideists are more likely to accept on faith the most fundamental ideas: God (as metaphysics), faith (as epistemology, for narrow purposes), and especially morality (ethics). They are less likely to accept on faith the claims of a real-estate salesman.

However, I still hold that anyone who is generally or essentially rationalistic in his psycho-epistemology will be rationalistic in his philosophy, at least its epistemology. The philosophy I am referring to here is his actual, implicit philosophy, not necessarily his explicit one. They need not be the same, on the short-term.

Any particular individual can be a kaleidoscope of conflicting philosophical and psychological elements, further confused by compartmentalization of the many areas of his life. Nevertheless, most individuals have characteristic ways of operating. According to Leonard Peikoff, he did have such a rationalistic approach, at least as far as wide abstractions were concerned. So, I remain unconvinced that an essentially objective person could develop an explicitly rationalistic philosophy, or vice versa.

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I'm a little late getting into this discussion and many of my points have already been made by others, but I have a few general comments.

To begin with, I am surprised that this discussion is in the "Ethics" forum and I strongly object to phrases like "guilty of rationalism" because, while I consider rationalism to be a serious psycho-epistemological problem, it is not usually a moral issue at all. Rationalism is most commonly established in early childhood, long before a person has been exposed to or can evaluate different epistemological approaches, as an honestly mistaken way to understand reality. It persists, because it is extremely difficult to change. I know quite a few good, honest people who are rationalists and don't want to be. They actively struggle with it but it is very hard to overcome, once established. As a practice, I would put rationalism under "Epistemology" and as a problem, it belongs in "Psychology."

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To begin with, I am surprised that this discussion is in the "Ethics" forum ... As a practice, I would put rationalism under "Epistemology" and as a problem, it belongs in "Psychology."

Given the focus of the discussion on this thread, I'm inclined to move it to the "Psychology" forum. Any objections before I do so?

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Yes, an inordinate lack of ability to introspect. Which is, I think, the real fundamental underlying rationalism. Extrospection, though varying in degree and acuteness among men, is a somewhat more natural process than introspection. Identifying one's mental processes, maintaining a high level of self-consciousness, requires a learning process of directed effort. I think that, in general, young women are taught to look inward to a larger degree than young boys are taught.
I heard that women on average have a lower pain threshold than men. There are experiments in which scientists have subjected a particular muscle in the shoulder of men and women to an increasing pressure. They measured the pressure in force per square centimeter of skin. The participants were asked to signal when the increasing pressure was first experienced as pain. The result is that there is a statistically significant difference between men and women. Men first experience pain at higher pressures than women.

Another difference between men and women is physical strength.

Now imagine that you grow up surrounded by people who are physically stronger than you and at the same time you can more easily experience pain than others.

It sounds plausible to me that one would have a higher incentive to identify other people's and one's own emotions (in order to understand other people's emotions) in order to avoid pain dealing with those around you who are stronger. I'm thinking about situations during childhood when boys and girls play all sorts of games in which they can get injured by others.

Human anatomy (physical strength and pain threshold) might be an additional factor that explains why some people tend to have a higher incentive to engage in introspection.

PS: I'd like to add that this is merely a hypothesis, I don't claim that this is true and I'm neither able nor willing to defend this position. But maybe someone else with more knowledge - and personal experience (hello women?!) - can comment.

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Given the focus of the discussion on this thread, I'm inclined to move it to the "Psychology" forum. Any objections before I do so?

Given the content of this thread, I'd agree with you.

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Stephen Speicher,Nov 15 2005, 12:38 PM]

To go back now and give my direct answer to Burgess' question in point 3 ("How can a chronic rationalist uproot the problem?"), I think the most important antidote to rationalism is a heightened sense of introspection of one's mental processes, and developing in general a psycho-epistemology enhanced by a greater degree of self-consciousness.

That's exactly the antidote; and I can testify to it. I'd only include that a rational concept theory (i.e., Ayn Rand's) provides the standard of measurement in the process of correction.

Add Objectivism's emphasis on introspection as a motivational constant and you have the recipe for extricating yourself from rationalism. The last, and perhaps most important ingredient, is the recognition of how to induce, which is the psycho-empistemological application of the primacy of existence principle.

Rationalists are not necessarily evaders, but rather their rationalistic ideas are disconnected from reality because they lack self-awareness of the source of their ideas, ideas that are not necessarily emotionally based. It is just as if the idea suddenly "popped into my head," which is a refrain often heard from rationalists in explaining their insight.

Yes, exactly. They become evaders only if presented with the objective alternative to which they respond with either indifference or hostility.

The "popping into existence" is the only way rationalists can view concepts. As I said earlier,it's a conceptual theory prior to being a methodological one -- concepts are self-evident givens to them, virtually equivalent to perceptions. The idea that there is a cognitive process to form them is alien to their epistemolgy. Kant posited in the Critique of a mystically "spontaneous" generation of concepts from the "manifold", the cognitive filters which produced concepts following sensory perception. That's an historical and formal philosphic statement of a "popping into one's head" of a concept. And the essence of rationalist concept theory: " The concepts are here..."

I think that, in a real sense, the rationalistic idea really "popped" into existence, an automatic integration perhaps of loose thinking, accepted uncritically due to lack of proper introspection.

Not historically, Stephen. The long Rationalistic road from the Thales to Ayn Rand involves more than just the issue of "loose thinking" and "proper introspection".

"Introspection" presumes a valid concept of consciousness, which Ayn Rand finally identified. Then you can proceed to define a method based upon the facts about that consciousness, including any criteria for introspection.

A rationalist, without any proper grasp of what his consciousness is , without any inductive theory of concepts, or of epistemological volition , will resort to what he has cognitively available to him: his percepts, and their "given" quality -- which he will then (erroneously) apply to all his cognitive contents.

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-------------

"Introspection" presumes a valid concept of consciousness, which Ayn Rand finally identified. Then you can proceed to define a method based upon the facts about that consciousness, including any criteria for introspection.

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This is one point, ELS, that I think need some clarification. In a fundamental sense, introspection does not presume a valid concept of consciousness any more than extrospection presumes a valid concept of existence. Both processes involve observation, one directed inward and the other directed outward. In order to properly validate introspection and be able to fully conceptualize one's observations, a valid concept of consciousness and existence is needed.

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