Reason and rationality by themselves are not sufficient to solve contemporary challenges

This article was originally published in Discourse Magazine

With the formation of new institutions and an increasingly broad conversation about the need to renew American innovation, the topic of progress has been much discussed recently. Of course, everyone is for progress. Everyone wants to move forward, or to advance, or to move toward betterment. The trouble comes in defining what progress actually is. Occasionally this is easy, but more often—especially in the context of public policy with its multifaceted problems, imperfect knowledge and many tradeoffs—it is hard to define what progress means in practice.

An often-overlooked starting point in defining progress is what evidence to consider and what methods should be used to evaluate that evidence. For a long while now, reason and rationality, with their attendant prioritization of propositional knowledge (that is, the kind of knowledge related to the truth value of claims made with articulated statements), have become the ultimate method of analyzing problems and solutions. However, a growing number of thinkers are making the case for different forms of knowledge. To truly make progress on today’s problems, we must supplement propositional knowledge with the wisdom to be gained from long-standing traditions and social norms.

If a Fence Exists

A recent EconTalk episode, in which Russ Roberts talks with Moshe Koppel about norms, tradition and resilient societies, illustrates this different form of knowledge. To grossly oversimplify, Russ and Moshe discuss the latter’s book, “Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures,” and the role that religions and their related traditions play in guiding our norms and behaviors toward productive ends, even as we are often unaware of how they function. Chesterton’s fence—the notion that if you come across a fence, it was probably put there for a reason—is particularly relevant here. Another aphorism that makes the point well comes from author Donald Kingsbury: “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems.”

Moshe’s key argument is that, without our needing to (or indeed being able to) understand them, traditions can help guide our behavior in positive ways—perhaps even leading to better outcomes than do actions guided solely by rationality. For this reason, traditions, social rules and cultural norms have value when determining our actions. Therefore, they deserve more consideration than they are currently afforded in our public discourse. These traditions need not be specifically religious, but those are the deepest, longest-standing and broadest sets of traditions. Additionally, they’re the most likely to come into conflict with modern proponents of rationality as our ultimate guide to action.

Bringing in some of the insights of Friedrich Hayek, Moshe argues that valuable information is encoded in these traditions and they should not be discarded lightly. Some of the traditions or norms may not make sense to us in the moment. But the fact that they have evolved over long periods of time and still retain active adherents reflects their durability and, in turn, their efficacy in maintaining resilient societies. In short, these traditions aggregate and transmit the knowledge gained from the experiences of generations in a way that affords practical knowledge to people who have neither the time nor capacity to obtain it themselves.

It’s certainly true that blind trust in unchanging traditions is also insufficient for meeting an ever-changing set of challenges; traditions need to be updated. Balancing that tension between tradition and change in a manner that enables the best or proper or correct action is the core of wisdom.

Toward a More Fruitful Conversation

Perhaps the most persistent difficulty in balancing this tension is the extremely narrow modern conception of what religion is. Some dismiss religion as simply adherence to a propositional belief in a big, bearded man in the sky, while others would concede a broader definition that encompasses a series of beliefs or faith in a set of metaphysical and ontological ideas expressed in authoritative teachings and texts that typically complement communal practices. Either way, popular conceptions of religion simply are not broad enough to capture the full picture.

The fatal flaw that runs through these modern conceptions of religion is the idea that someone can simply opt out. There is a notion that science, or reason, or the Enlightenment, has enabled human beings to adopt a “monarchical vision” of the universe (as Pastor Paul Vanderklay would put it) that enables us to achieve an objective “view from nowhere.” From this position we can accurately survey and judge reality while safely dismissing other, subjective conceptions of reality. Fortunately, this view seems to be slipping away, creating much more fertile ground for helpful conversation.

Perhaps the most useful definition of religion I’ve heard most recently comes from Dr. Jordan Peterson. When asked directly in an audience Q&A what religion is, Dr. Peterson replied:

Religion is what you act out. . . . Everything you act out is predicated on your implicit axioms. The system of implicit axioms that you hold as primary is your religious belief system, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or not, that’s just surface noise. . . . It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your voluntarily articulated statements about whether or not you believe in something like a transcendent deity. What you act out is much more what you are than what you say about yourself. . . .

[Y]ou are embedded within a hierarchy of values, whether you know it or not. . . . That hierarchy of values is based on axioms and the probability that you understand them is very low because generally people don’t understand their axioms, but that axiomatic system is essentially your religious system. And there’s no way out of that as far as I can tell.

In the EconTalk podcast, I think Russ sums it up well when quoting David Foster Wallace: “Everybody worships.”

Some readers may recognize shades of Jonathan Haidt’s helpful analogy about the elephant and the rider. The elephant actually controls much of our action and motivates our reasoning, but then we have the rider that tends to act as our own personal lawyer, justifying the actions we were already inclined to take. He says, “The Mind is divided like a rider on an elephant. The rider represents your conscious moral reasoning, the stuff you’re aware of, the stuff that uses logic. And everything else is the elephant, it’s the automatic processes, it’s the 99 percent of what’s going on in your mind that you’re not aware of.”

Acknowledging Your Dogma

Understanding this point illuminates why claims like “We should just follow the data” or arguments in support of “evidence-based policymaking” often ring frustratingly hollow. These statements gloss over the deeper, determinative and much more important levels that comprise the speaker’s implicit hierarchy of values, with which they near-instantaneously resolve any tradeoffs or risk assessments. Then the speakers go on assuming that their framework is accurate and self-evident—or at least that it would be so, given the proper application of reason. They give little thought to the traditions, community and models that shape that implicit framework.

Many intellectual conservatives have also been vocal on this point. Jonah Goldberg likes to point out that conservatives are aware of their “dogma” in a way that liberals (at least 20th-century American ones) quite often aren’t. Whenever I have interns, one of the introductory articles I require them to read is N. Gregory Mankiw’s 2014 article in The New York Times, “When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher.” In that article, Mankiw writes:

Do you want to know a dirty little secret of economists who give policy advice? When we do so, we are often speaking not just as economic scientists, but also as political philosophers. Our recommendations are based not only on our understanding of how the world works, but also on our judgments about what makes a good society. The necessity of political philosophy arises because most policies are good for some people and bad for others. . . .

To be sure, you can find economists favoring a higher minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act. They acknowledge that there are winners and losers but argue that, on the whole, these policies increase social welfare.

Perhaps they are right. But keep in mind that in making that judgment, they are relying on forecasts from a far-from-perfect science, as well as a healthy dose of their own political philosophy.

Now, none of this is necessarily bad, and indeed it is unavoidable. But recognizing one’s own implicit dogma is a crucial first step in meaningful self-reflection and engagement with others with different perspectives. This recognition complements Moshe’s argument about the value of traditions because, at least at some bedrock level, we are already taking cues from those traditions. In important ways, they are defining our categories and ordering our values. Believing that people can abstract themselves out of these petty judgements—clouded by cognitive biases, outdated religious traditions or superstitious impulses—and navigate from above it all creates at least as many problems as such a view purports to solve. Moreover, those who hold this belief likely have a healthy dose of unearned confidence in their resulting conclusions.

Rationality in Practice

Another, more empirical way to highlight the difficulty in relying on a rational, secular, “view from nowhere” approach to confronting and solving problems is that, even at the propositional level of analysis, few people even come close to achieving this mindset in practice. Psychologist Clay Routledge observes that when people abandon traditional religions, they are very unlikely to adopt a purely rational framework as a replacement. Writing in National Affairs, he notes:

Fewer people today may be identifying as religious and attending religious services, but there is scant evidence that they are abandoning spiritual pursuits and supernatural beliefs altogether. It would be more accurate to describe many current trends as evidence not of secularization, but of religious substitution. . . .

Many who claim to reject all things religious and spiritual are frequently interested in what I describe as supernatural-lite beliefs. These beliefs are often not explicitly supernatural, but they certainly require a leap of faith and have qualities that mimic traditional religious beliefs. They also tend to invoke the language of science and technology, at least superficially, making them more palatable to those who imagine themselves as data-driven secularists.

Even if humans are able to sidestep the common occurrence of religious substitution at one level, they must still confront the age-old problems that have plagued rationalist thinkers for centuries. What basis can we use for crossing the divide between how the world is and how it ought to be? How should we navigate the tradeoffs among competing virtues and goods? Such questions have been simmering in the background for a long time, but with the movement from a print-age culture to a digital one, they have come rushing back. People are more connected than ever, and the traditional gatekeeping institutions that used to provide at least some basis for common authority and understanding continue their decline into irrelevance.

As we learn more about the universe and about ourselves, the purely rationalist, scientistic conception of the world seems to be coming up short. Traditions and long-standing social norms deserve to be taken much more seriously as containing relevant information for guiding us forward, and indeed it would be healthy to better recognize the extent to which they already do. The knowledge contained within traditions may not be the kind of propositional and articulated knowledge we’ve grown accustomed to privileging above all else. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that relying only on that kind of knowledge is inadequate to meet our current challenges.

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