Book Club: The Edge of Reason 9, the claims of reason

We are now at the last few chapters of my ongoing discussion of Julian Baggini’s excellent book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Chapter 9 begins with a nice little summary of the two recurring themes of the book: “The first is that reason requires judgement, that it is not a pure algorithm that can be set up and left to run by itself to produce true conclusions. The second is that reason, by itself or in the service of science, can neither provide us with all we need for ethics nor debunk it.”

Julian then says that reason is less powerful than some may like, and yet not just a veneer for our irrational beliefs and prejudices. Reason has normative force. But in what sense?

The “ought” that is associated by Baggini with reason is not a moral ought, but rather something along the lines of “given the evidence, you ought to agree that smoking likely causes cancer.” Reason, however, only “demands” that we accept the evidence, not that we actually cease smoking, since the latter is a decision that is affected by factors other than the straightforward available scientific evidence.

Julian thinks that his conception of reason helps to explain why it finds itself in an intermediate position, so to speak, with respect to ethics: reason per se cannot ground ethics (per Hume), but it isn’t irrelevant to it either.

One of his examples has to do with racism. The overwhelming available evidence (as disputed as sometimes it is) is that there are no systematic differences in cognitive abilities among “races,” race being itself a very ill-defined concept, to say the least, from a biological perspective. Accordingly, one “ought” to believe that no racial group is inherently superior or inferior to any other, across the board. (Baggini, wisely, does allow for the fact that some local populations may have a limited number of special characteristics that are significantly different from the rest of the human population, as in the case of runners who originate from the mountainous regions of the Rift Valley in East Africa.)

The acceptance of the evidence that no racial group is superior, however, does not automatically lead to the rejection of racism: “One might, for instance, cite the evidence that almost everyone has some kind of implicit prejudice against people they perceive to be different, and that this suggests discrimination is natural. Combine that with an idea that we have the right to follow our natural instincts and you get an attempted justification of racism that does not deny that we ought to accept that all races are equal.” It’s a pretty bad justification, but a justification it is.

For Julian “the fact that we ought to believe all races are equal adds weight to the judgement that we ought to treat them equally, even if it does not strictly demand that conclusion.” Reason does not determine ethical positions, but it is relevant to them.

Interestingly, Baggini thinks that a bridge between ought and is comes out of the fact that certain objective facts about the world, when considered by human beings, come with a degree of contextual normativity embedded into them. He calls these instances examples of “praxic” statements: “‘Superior’ is always praxic, since things are never better or worse in an absolute sense but always and only with regard to certain [human] purposes. To say a person is a better musician than another is a reason to choose her performance over another but not a reason to give her greater rights in a court of law. … This idea that many terms have a praxic element fills out the notion of ‘normative facts’ that I introduced in chapter seven. Facts are normative when they contain within them some idea of what is good or right, of what we ought to do.”

And in order for his position (which happens to be mine as well) not to be confused with that of the Sam Harrises and Michael Shermers of the world, Julian adds: “I am not saying that what we ought to do automatically follows from simple facts. Rather, it is that simple facts often have an important effect on what we judge we ought to do. ‘Is’ does not imply ‘ought’, but within many an ‘is’ an ‘ought’ is already lurking.”

The chapter concludes with an interesting explanation for why philosophers tend to be such a contentious bunch, the profession being characterized by heated disagreements among its practitioners, which one might think ill suited to the life of reason: “Public outbursts [in philosophy] are unusual but the desire at least to thump the table is much more common than academic decorum suggests. There may be many reasons for this, but, I want to suggest, one is that when we think we have a rational argument we inescapably think that others should accept it. … Believing that in principle we might be wrong [as any good philosopher ought] does little to temper our conviction when we cannot see how on earth we could be. … This helps explain why philosophy matters. We are not just disputing what is true or false, we are arguing about what we ought to think.”

72 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 9, the claims of reason

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Coel might also understand that, while the five-factors personality profile is better than Jungian types, it’s still a work in progress. He might ALSO understand that, re twin studies, one “environment” factor is the womb environment, a factor that short of the artificial uteruses of “Brave New World,” simply cannot — today, tomorrow and forever — be “factored out” of what is alleged “nature” not “nurture.”

    Or, he might NOT understand that.

    Or might not care to. Or might not try to.

    In any case, the womb environment means that that “half” claim has less scientific standing than Coel might think.


  2. brodix

    What about the “Tower of Babel” syndrome, as applied to communities and the cultures they generate?

    We exist as multitudes of individual frames of reference, which we find useful to subsume into the greater good, until those views start to diverge.

    Which brings up the various reasons why people have different sociological points of view, from liberalism versus conservatism, to class structures, wealth inequality, generation gaps, political sectarianism, etc. which are going to be inherent in any society.

    Which they often express as oughts, applied to other’s actions. That is where the problems arise.

    Like knowledge itself, the universal frame is a construct.


  3. Robin Herbert

    With Baggini’s principle “We should believe what it is most rational to believe” it seems to depend on whether he is talking about epistemic rationality or practical rationality as he defines these.

    If it is epistemic rationality then it is simply a taulology – “You should believe what you believe” This is because, having determined that it is most rational to believe some X then there is no extra step required to actually believe X.

    On the other hand, if he means practical rationality then he has already said that there may be reasons to hold irrational beliefs.

    We don’t have to use his super villain scenario. If an American wants a career in politics then he probably needs to start believing in God even if he thinks this is irrational (or else perpetrate an elaborate messy hoax on those he seeks to represent).

    Or maybe I want to believe 5 impossible things before breakfast just for the fun of it. Or maybe I am curious to find out if it is possible to make myself believe something I consider irrational.

    Or maybe someone is curious to experience that kind of ecstasy that evangelical Christians feel, or the even deeper ecstacy that Muslims feel on a pilgrimage to the Hajj.

    Or it may be a matter of fitting in socially. I heard an interview with an evolutionary biologist living in the Bible Belt of the USA who was a Bible literalist. She said she kept these things in different compartments.

    If Baggini feels these people should not believe these things and it is not just a personal opinion then I would be interested in hearing the reasons.


  4. Robin Herbert

    Twin studies appear to be problematic.

    It is difficult to find a large sample of identical twins separated at birth and raised in a significantly different environment.

    So they often are twins who have similar upbringing. For example if identical twins are separated they will often be brought up within the same extended family who might be expected to have attitudes in common.


  5. Coel

    Hi Dan,

    You’d also avoid saying regrettable stuff like “whether someone will vote Republican vs Democrat at the next election is heavily influenced by their genes,” which could be the most unfortunate thing I’ve seen you right in the long time I’ve seen you write things.

    Regrettable? Why? And for example:

    “Genetic Influences on Political Ideologies: Twin Analyses of 19 Measures of Political Ideologies from Five Democracies and Genome-Wide Findings from Three Populations”.

    “We provide evidence that genetic factors play a role in the formation of political ideology, regardless of how ideology is measured, the era, or the population sampled. […]”

    “The combined evidence suggests that political ideology constitutes a fundamental aspect of one’s genetically informed psychological disposition […]”

    “Additional twin and extended kinship studies which included parents, non-twin siblings, spouses, and twins reared apart confirmed these earlier results and found that most individual political attitudes were influenced by a combination of genetic effects (which explain between 30 and 60% of variance) and environmental influence (Truett et al. 1994; Eaves et al. 1999; Bouchard and McGue 2003; Hatemi et al. 2010).”

    “Yet, despite the growing body of evidence that genetic factors play an important role in the development and maintenance of political attitudes […] the literature in the social sciences regarding the development and transmission of political values, remains largely focused on social and cultural mechanisms and the belief that human beings long ago transcended any genetic history that guides social behavior.”

    “This lack of integration of the social and genetic paradigms of ideology could be attributed to five primary sources. […] [including] philosophical objections due to the firm belief that behavioral differences are entirely socialized.”

    Hi Socratic,

    Culture is an “extended phenotype”? Thanks for the laugh; I’m not sure even Dawkins himself would go that far.

    Social feelings, morality and culture are obviously adaptations, enabling us to exploit a highly cooperative ecological niche.


  6. Coel

    An addendum, here’s a little study saying that whether one votes is also highly influenced by our genes (explaining 40% to 60% of the variance): link. This is in line with findings that much of our every-day behaviour has a strong genetic component.

    Yes I know that people dislike this idea ideologically. People really do seem to prefer that biology stops at the mind, and that they are blank slates governed by a dualistic soul. Many of those disagreeing with me seem to be American. Might I suggest that, much as I love America, you guys are rather over-doing the post-facts, anti-science, ideology-over-truth thing? Trump is just bizarre and ludicrous. Too many Americans dismiss evolution just because they dislike it. Climate change? “I’d prefer that it isn’t happening, therefore it isn’t happening”. Similarly: “I don’t want to think that my behaviour is heavily influenced by genes, therefore it isn’t”. (Yes, I do realise that Europe is also far from perfect.)

    Hi Robin,

    It is difficult to find a large sample of identical twins separated at birth and raised in a significantly different environment. So they often are twins who have similar upbringing.

    This is why one compares identical twins to fraternal twins. The same issues of upbringing will affect both fraternal and identical twins. (The people who do such studies do indeed think about such things.)


  7. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Dan,

    whether someone will vote Republican vs Democrat at the next election is heavily influenced by their genes,” which could be the most unfortunate thing I’ve seen you right in the long time I’ve seen you write things.

    I’m not sure the evidence supports Coel’s statement, but I’m not sure that it doesn’t either. In any case I don’t see what’s so obviously wrong with it. It seems plausible to me that genes have an influence on how people think, and how people think may dispose them to be more liberal (and so in US politics tend to favour the democrats) or more conservative (and so in US politics tend to favour the republicans).

    Hi Socratic,

    You’re correct of course that it’s impossible to control for the influence of the womb environment, and it is entirely possible that some of what is put down to genetic influences has more to do with uterine influences.

    But so what? Anyone arguing for genetic determination of something usually just means that it’s built in from the time you are born. I would guess they don’t typically care very much whether the genes or the womb are responsible. They just default to talking about genes because there is a widespread assumption (which I suspect is probably correct) that genes influence us more than the womb. Children borne by surrogate mothers typically resemble their birth parents more than the surrogate, right?


  8. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    If it is epistemic rationality then it is simply a taulology – “You should believe what you believe” This is because, having determined that it is most rational to believe some X then there is no extra step required to actually believe X.

    I disagree. I believe I have seen some theists accept that it is more rational not to believe in God and yet to believe in God anyway, saying that belief in God requires faith not rationality. If so, they clearly reject Baggini’s maxim that you should believe what it is most rational to believe, and there must be an extra step.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I see nothing tautological in Baggini’s exhortation that we should believe what is most rational to believe. Belief and rational assessment are two different things, as DM’s example clearly shows.


  10. Massimo Post author


    First off, twin studies do not show that there is a genetic basis to political belief, or to likelihood of going to vote, since those are most obviously phenotypes that could not possibly having been selected during human prehistory.

    At best, that shows that there are some indirect genetic effects that reverberate at some level in a manner that influences highly culturally constructed concepts, such as “voting” and “party.”

    Second, twin studies in humans tell us very little because they only look — at best — at one particular place along the norm of reaction of a given genotype, i.e., at what one genotype does in response to a single environment. But we know that phenotypic plasticity is very frequent in all animal species, particularly when it comes to behaviors. And there is no way (logistically and ethically) to properly study norms of reactions in humans. That makes much speculation about twins vs whatever else pretty close to useless.

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