On rationality and worldviews

Is the earth round? Well of course! you’d say.

But imagine you are in 500 B.C., before sliced bread, Apollo 13 and Sir Isaac Newton. Now consider someone making the same proposition? A layman would argue: Surely the earth is flat; otherwise it would be quite impossible stand on it now wouldn’t it? Now, if this was 500 BC who would you rather believe? Who would be more ‘rational’? I suspect it would be the latter. In fact when Pythagoras proposed it around the same time, no one believed him. The debate of the flat earth vs. round-earth would rage on for many centuries well into the medieval times and beyond.

The problem with rationality is that it’s derived from a person’s understanding, and understanding as we know – varies. So a man from 500 BC uses the same logic to conclude the earth is flat, which we now use to conclude that it is not.

The point is that even though, many of us like to discredit matters of faith as being ‘irrational’ so many of what we consider ‘rational’ are actually matters of faith. We believe and accept, without question, Newton’s laws of physics, or how Pluto is no more a planet. Most of us don’t really understand the science; we just believe it and consider it a perfectly rational thing. We adopt our own value system of what to believe and what not to believe.

In essence we create or subscribe to a ‘worldview’ and develop a knee-jerk reaction to anything contrary to that view.

Amit Verma, writing for LiveMint.com has an interesting take:

The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive short cuts to understanding the world. Such short cuts often result in neat little packages known as world views.

World views make us feel that we have it all figured out, with little room for doubt. A world view could be a religion—the devout often find an answer to everything in God. Or it could be an ideology that claims to have answers to all the ills that plague our world. World views are deliciously comforting—in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan nails it by referring to them as “a mental security blanket.”

While world views bring comfort, they also lead to intellectual laziness. Lured by the certitudes of received wisdom, we often stop examining difficult questions, satisfied that we know it all. This can be dangerous if our world view is fundamentally flawed, especially if it is widely shared, and can actually impact the lives of millions of people.

[Read in full: Comfort of a worldview]

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Posted on 07/25/2007, in India, Opinions, Youth-Culture-Society. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It is rational for someone living in 500BC to assume that the world is flat based on the experience of the senses, but it is not rational of that same person to reject reasonable evidence that the world may not be flat, presented by someone who has thought more deeply on the question. To say that someone is “rational” means that they can be convinced by reasoned and logical argument. To the extent that they are not so convinced, they are being irrational. Most of us are rational and irrational by turns, depending on the subject under discussion, our familiarity with it and our investment in a particular point of view.

    So a man from 500 BC uses the same logic to conclude the earth is flat, which we now use to conclude that it is not is false. We conclude that the earth is round based on evidence and trust in the sources of that evidence in lack of evidence to the contrary, above and beyond the experience of the senses. There’s nothing irrational about either perspective. You’re suggesting that reason itself is flawed because people in different times drew different conclusions, without considering that people draw these conclusions based on the evidence that they have. It does not invalidate the process of reasoning that erroneous conclusions can be drawn from insufficient data.

    many of us like to discredit matters of faith as being ‘irrational’ so many of what we consider ‘rational’ are actually matters of faith. We believe and accept, without question, Newton’s laws of physics, or how Pluto is no more a planet. Most of us don’t really understand the science; we just believe it and consider it a perfectly rational thing to do. We adopt our own value system of what to believe and what not to believe.

    This is a classic example of the use of the false “we”. You may believe and accept without understanding the reasoning behind Newton’s laws (Pluto being plutoed is neither here nor there; it’s simply a matter of classification), but that’s not true of everyone. What is “considered to be rational” by you is not what is actually meant by the word “rational”; if thought, reason and logic are not involved, then you are not being rational when you accept Newton’s laws, you’re accepting them on faith. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do.

    More pertinently, matters of faith are irrational. That only discredits them for people who place reason above faith; for people who value them equally, or value faith more than reason, there’s no shame in being irrational. By definition. Also by definition, if you’re being rational about something then you’re not taking it on faith. At best, you may mistakenly think you are being rational, as in your example above.

    The deep flaw in your argument is that you’re conflating the denotation of “rational” (that which is based on reason) with some modern connotations of “rational” (a suggestion of sorta general positive goodness), while using the word in contexts which require the strict form. It is not rational (in the first sense) for you to be insulted by my pointing this out, but you might be insulted by the idea that I’m calling you irrational (in the second sense). See?

    As for “worldviews”, the definition in the quoted article is woefully inadequate. “It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive short cuts to understanding the world. Such short cuts often result in neat little packages known as world views.” This quaintly suggests that a worldview is optional, which is laughable. A worldview, as defined by any common-or-garden dictionary, is the framework of beliefs and ideas which forms your overall perspective on the world. You can’t not have a worldview. Everybody has a worldview. Which renders absurd remarks like this “World views make us feel that we have it all figured out, with little room for doubt“. What about the worldview of the doubter and the skeptic? Their worldviews are based on doubt.

    At least I wholeheartedly agree with the last paragraph, if not its holier-than-thou tone. Every author who bewails other people’s worldviews should at least consider first analyzing their own. (Or if not their worldview, at least check if they’re using words properly.)

  2. Tez, a fair critique.

    While i agree the central argument is probably flawed, i think there is a case of people reaching erroneous conclusions as you say, based on (what could be) flawed data (or conclusions) from sources which they have faith on. Even when they don’t fully understand, say the ‘science’ behind it.

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