The hubris of modern rationalism


Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the western world have become increasingly divided — not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy. What's more, the crazies seem to be gaining the upper hand.

Aristotle said that there can be "no motion without a mover," and for thousands of years everyone had deferred to him.  Yet after all those centuries, in the 17th century, Isaac Newton showed that it is only change in motion that requires explanation; objects in motion will continue that way until stopped.

For Europeans, who had spent centuries believing that their own civilization was inferior to that of the ancient Romans and Greeks, this sudden discovery of massive error in the ancient worldview created an enormous crisis of confidence, not just in ancient belief systems, but also in ancient institutions.  Worship of ancient wisdom — Aristotle in particular — came to be seen as a major impediment to the progress of knowledge.  It was not so great a leap to imagine that deference to ancient institutions — the church, the monarchy, Roman law — might be an impediment to progress as well.  And of course, there were all sorts of problems with these institutions.  Abandonment of the principle that the king and his subjects must share a religion, for instance, represented a major advance.

Yet there was considerable overreach in the Enlightenment project.  Reason wound up being assigned all sorts of tasks that, in the end, it simply was not powerful enough to perform.  At the same time, because partisans of the first Enlightenment conceived of reason in purely individualistic terms, as something that works away inside the brains of discrete persons, they wound up inadvertently dismantling much of the scaffolding that reason requires in order to function correctly.  As a result, they kneecapped reason just as they were sending it onto the field to face a much larger and more brutish opponent.  It is no surprise, then, that rather than improving various social institutions, in many cases they wound up making things a lot worse.

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has an amusing story that illustrates precisely the trap that early Enlightenment thinkers fell into.  It concerns a baseball coach who, frustrated that his outfielders were missing too many catches, became convinced that it was because they were running too slowly, taking too much time to get to the ball.  And it's true — if you look at baseball outfielders, they often run at something much less than top speed when they are moving toward the spot where a pop fly is about to land.  The coach decided that if the players simply ran to the spot more quickly, then they would have an easier time making small adjustments to improve their chances of catching the ball.  So he gave them a set of new instructions on how to catch fly balls: look and see where it's going to land, run as fast as you can to get there, then look up and make whatever adjustments are required in order to catch it.  Unfortunately, when the players tried to follow these instructions, they found that their ability to catch the ball had been completely undermined.  They wound up standing nowhere near where the ball was going to land.

Why is that?  Intuitively, anyone can sense what the problem would be.  Imagine that you're standing around the outfield, slightly bored, enjoying the nice summer day.  Suddenly there's a pop fly.  You look up into the sky, and you see the white baseball moving against the clouds and the sun.  You know it's your job to catch it.  But how do you know where it is going to land?  The answer is, you just know.  Even people who are terrible at actually making the catch know — they usually manage to get to the general vicinity of where it is going to land.  If you close your eyes and imagine the baseball, you can even feel what needs to be done in order to catch it.  And what you know, in your body, is that adjusting your running speed is part of how you do it.  That's why you see baseball players slowing down and speeding up as they move toward the ball.

Enlightenment 2.0
by Joseph Heath

What they're doing, in fact, is following a very simple heuristic.  The mathematical calculations involved in figuring out where a flying baseball is going to land are much too difficult for us to carry out in real time.  What we use, instead, is a simple little shortcut, which Gigerenzer calls the gaze heuristic.  The rule is something like this: "Adjust your running speed so that your angle of gaze to the baseball remains constant."If you follow this rule with a descending ball, you will initially start out running slowly, then gradually speed up until, as if by magic, you arrive at the ball just as it comes level with your head.  (The rule for positioning yourself with respect to an ascending ball is slightly different, but just as simple.)  If you override this heuristic by fixing your running speed — the way the coach wanted his players to do — the trick no longer works, and so you're likely to wind up nowhere near the ball at all.

The coach here exemplified — on a very small scale — the hubris of modern rationalism.  He took a form of behaviour that he didn't really understand, examined it superficially, noticed a few details that didn't make sense to him, and said, "Okay, stop what you're doing, it makes no sense, I have a new system that will be much better."  He ignored the fact that baseball players have been doing things this way forever; he simply assumed that he knew better, and that there was nothing to be learned from intuition or from the accumulated wisdom of ages.  He then presented his own, "more rational" solution.  Yet the mere fact that something can be done does not mean that it can be done rationally.  The coach put into place a system that completely failed, that was far worse that what it replaced.  In his quest to improve things, he wound up breaking them.

This is a script that has been replayed countless times, often with far more serious consequences.  The literature on development aid, for instance, contains literally thousands of stories of Westerners showing up and messing things up: replacing inefficient local irrigation schemes with large — scale projects that don't work at all; pressuring farmers to switch their seed, only to find that the new crops won't grow; bringing in complex equipment that breaks down and can't be repaired; clearing vast areas of forest, only to provoke large — scale soil erosion.  Here is an example, taken almost at random from the literature:

In Malawi's Shire Valley from 1940 to 1960, British officials tried to teach the peasants how to farm.  They offered the standard solution of ridging to combat soil erosion, and were at a loss to understand how Malawian farmers resisted the tried — and — true technique of British farmers.  Unfortunately, ridging in the sandy soils of the Shire Valley led to more erosion during the rainy season, while exposing the roots of the plants to attacks by white ants during the dry season.
There is an interesting parallel between these two examples.  The first — catching the baseball — involves overestimating the power of reason by underestimating the effectiveness of nonrational cognitive systems.  The second — choice of farming techniques — involves overestimating of the power of reason by underestimating the power of evolutionary processes in society.  If farmers in Malawi are not able to offer a sophisticated explanation for the soil management practices that they use, there is a temptation to regard these practices as irrational, unjustified, "merely traditional."  And yet people have been farming in the Shire Valley for thousands of years.  Chances are their soil management practices are reasonably well adapted to the local environment.  Furthermore, the chance that a total stranger is going to be able to walk into this complex ecology and figure out from first principles how things should best be organized is quite remote.  And yet time and again, this is precisely what rationalists have done.

Modern conservatism was born as a reaction against this sort of Enlightenment hubris.  It is well summarized in G. W. F. Hegel's powerful yet opaque pronouncement that "the real is rational."  What Hegel meant was that if you look hard enough, you will find that there is usually a reason for the way that things are, even when the way that things are seems to make no sense.  People may not be able to say what this reason is, and in the end it may not be the best reason, but you need to understand what it is before you start fiddling with things, much less breaking them down and trying to rebuild them.  Thus the conservative temperament was born, as a defence of tradition against the tendency of Enlightenment rationalism to take things apart without knowing how to put them back together again, much less improve them.

In this respect, the core of the conservative critique was absolutely correct.  The question is, once we acknowledge this, is the only alternative to fall back into an uncritical acceptance of tradition?  Or is it possible to use this insight as the basis for a more successful form of progressive politics?




Joseph Heath. "The hubris of modern rationalism." excerpt from in Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives (Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2014): 79-83.

Published with permission from the publisher, HarperCollins. All right reserved.


Joseph Heath (born 1967) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. He also teaches at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He received his bachelor of arts from McGill University, where his teachers included Charles Taylor, and his master of arts and doctor of philosophy degrees are from Northwestern University, where he studied under Thomas A. McCarthy and Jürgen Habermas. He has published both academic and popular writings, including the bestselling The Rebel Sell and Filthy Lucre. His philosophical work includes papers and books in political philosophy, business ethics, rational choice theory, action theory, and critical theory.

Copyright © 2014 Joseph Heath

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