How Much Good Does Atheism Do?

In one of my Reason Rally posts, I talked about why atheists feel such an urgent need to change other people’s beliefs.  If false beliefs aren’t generally accepted, it’s easier to catch and help people before they take dangerous action based on their incorrect views of the world.  (The example was a woman who cut her son’s throat because she believed he was possessed).  Iota had a good follow-up question in the comments:

[Is it] reasonable to expect that, simply by ousting religion/theism*, you permanently increase people’s “rationality”. Or do you, instead get people who believe in Area 51 experiments, New Age energy, homeopathy, the eugenic imperative and other stuff (possibly not invented yet), just without the God bits…?

After all, atheism being just the proposition that there is no God ( = there are no gods), a person who specifically doesn’t believe in a God/gods, but is a member of an UFO cult would be an atheist (since they don’t believe in gods, just in aliens). Or am I missing something?

If you think you permanently get more rationality simply be decreasing theism (i.e. specifically belief in God/gods), could you explain why?

I still really like Greta Christina’s take on this question: we’re overrating atheism as a proxy for rationality or objective awesomeness or whatnot.  It used to be the case that people tended to wind up in atheism only by doing a lot of intellectual heavy-lifting, but the more out we are, and the less we’re stigmatized, the easier it is to wind up an atheist without engaging very seriously with the question of God or plenty of other issues.

As long as I’m using non-rational methods of persuasion (social coercion, soft paternalism, actual force), I can constrain people’s behaviors, but I haven’t fixed their thinking.  This is a short-term solution, and can lead to playing exactly the kind of ideological whack-a-mole that Iota describes.  Sometimes, though, the short term fixes may be our best chance of preventing short term harm.

If I can’t deal with someone’s errors in an organized, systematic way, I’ll try to do no harm when I use lesser kinds of persuasion.  I might make an appeal to an authority that I know the person already feels bound by, but I won’t try to bring them under a new authority for the sake of convenience if I don’t see that authority as legitimate.  Sometimes I don’t bother trying to persuade someone I think is erring, I just try and keep the undecideds from being swayed by him/her.

Luke Muehlhauser, formerly of Common Sense Atheism, switched over from doing religion blogging to doing full-time rationality work, and I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that choice.  But there’s a reason I think religion is still a pretty good entry for the conversations we’re really trying to have: it talks about metaphysics.  Most of us don’t have philosophy conversations come up organically, and the rhetoric of tolerance makes it awkward to criticize other people’s moral systems or get pushy about our own.

Religions make universal demands on us, and they put forward truth-claims that go beyond descriptions of physical systems to the obligations of rational animals.  It might be easy to come up with glib reasons why these systems are false, but hopefully a sense of curiosity and obligation follows quickly on the heels of the pleasure of a bon mot putdown.  If we’re knocked down that system, what are we going to replace it with?  The drive to answer that big question should be all the spur we need to throw ourselves into rationality studies, into philosophy, into science, into literature so we can become stronger and find the truth.

It’s hard and borderline irresponsible to try to induce this change on a drive-by basis.  In college debates, it tends to produce nihilism.  It’s basic last-minute section strategy when you haven’t done the reading: find one flaw in the paper’s methodology and free yourself from the obligation to discuss or know any of its conclusions.  And, in my debate community, it was considered very good form to bring a freshman up to the verge of the abyss, but very bad manners to leave him there to become a nihilist.

We don’t want to think of ourselves as mere auditors — other people come up with philosophies and we scrutinize them and toss them out.  Skepticism without a desire to know and create is just cynicism.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    And, in my debate community, it was considered very good form to bring a freshman up to the verge of the abyss, but very bad manners to leave him there to become a nihilist

    Apologies for playing the freshman, but I tend to see nihilism as a necessary consequence of the rejection of the supernatural in all forms. If we’re to say that there’s nothing more than the world we observe, then a human boils down to collection of semi-related particles doing whatever it is that semi-related particles do given the proper initial shove at the beginning of time. We can’t attribute a higher purpose or meaning to thoughts and emotions, because they really and truly are just chemical reactions. To accept anything else- that humans fundamental have meaning- seems to me an equally large leap of faith as that which is required to accept the supernatural (and not all that different of a leap either- an acceptance of a non-physical reality on the basis of our desire for there to be one, rather than on empircal evidence)

    My guess is that you’ve covered this quite extensively in the past, and I just haven’t found that portion of your archive, but I’d be interested to here any atheist argument as to where exactly we can claim meaning from if we reject all such forms of faith (or, alternatively, some links to these arguments)

    • Heartfout

      To be honest, I think that objectively, life and human existence has no meaning. We are a bunch of random particles floating on a small rock in a universe that, entirely impartially, is filled with things that could destroy our entire planet if anything goes wrong for us.

      However…I don’t care. I fully admit that my claim that human life has meaning is subjective and based on assumptions, and that the universe just doesn’t care, but who gives a damn about what the universe thinks? I fully admit that I make unprovable assumptions, in both morality and science. I don’t mind. It is like 1+1=2, a starting point for me. I guess some would say that’s irrational, but I don’t think anyone can live their lives without making these assumptions, even if it just the assumption that the universe exists.

    • Ray

      I’ve got to say, I have no idea what would constitute my life “fundamentally” having meaning, and I don’t see how a God would solve the problem anyway. The sort of fundamental meaning religion seems to be offering roughly translates as “The only reason you’re alive is because some apparently absent father figure is sustaining your existence, so that he can judge your every action behind your back.” So yeah, if fundamental meaning translates as , “God’s opinion of your life”, well I guess it requires God, but why would I want any part of it?

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        I think by “meaning”, I simply mean that we are more than a series of chemical reactions- and maybe more importantly, other people are also more than chemical reactions. The idea of humans having a soul seems dependent on this proposition, and I’m not sure I can ever get to any worldview other than strict Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest unless I regard humans as being more valuable as the sum of their parts. Obviously we could still have societal laws in place, since it’s (on average) in all of our best interest to have these laws, but I find that following this model on a day-to-day basis leads me to become a sociopath, by the strict definition- a person whose behavior is antisocial and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.

        Clearly, most Athiests are NOT sociopaths, so either I’m missing something or there’s a lot of rationalization going on… or maybe both :)

      • Ray

        Who says a soul can’t be made up of chemical reactions? The concept of the soul was invented before the concept of chemical reactions, so that can’t be a direct requirement.

        Now fairly early on, Plato said the soul couldn’t have parts (e.g. in Phaedo), which might create a problem, but then he also said it was divided into 3 parts in the Republic, so I don’t think ontological simplicity is a foundational requirement either.

        Now, There’s also the statement that the soul can’t JUST be chemical reactions. But that could also be taken to mean the soul can’t be just any chemical reactions, it has to be a specific sort of chemical reaction.

        Anyway, I think saying that physicalism precludes a soul, is assuming a very specific conception of the soul, which was never the only way of conceiving such things in the first place (although versions of the soul that don’t require supernaturalism are generally referred to as “mind” these days.)

      • Ray

        The other thing I think you’re missing: empathy. It’s a scientific fact that we have it and that it motivates us. How it’s selected for, well, that’s more complicated. We definitely got it from our ancestors as a result of the fact that it helped our ancestors propagate their genes. So why didn’t our ancestors just have an inbuilt desire to do what was best for their genes? Not easy to calculate. I don’t think we’d do a very good job now, and our ancestors were dumber than us. In any event, I don’t think psychopathy is correlated with reproductive success even in modern society.

        Of course then there’s the larger issue: how I came to have certain desires is irrelevant to the fact that I have them. I’m not going to stop wanting to be good, or liking sugary foods, or whatever, just because the factors which led to me having these desires (they contributed to reproductive success in the paleolithic period, say) are no longer operative.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        Anyway, I think saying that physicalism precludes a soul, is assuming a very specific conception of the soul, which was never the only way of conceiving such things in the first place

        Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear we’re using different definitions of “soul”. To me, I don’t attach any importance to the oxidation of metal, or to combustion, or any other chemical reaction, so if the totality of a human is just a more complex version of that, I can’t bring myself to care about it (even if we give it the label of “soul”). My idea of a soul I guess almost definitionally precludes the purely physical. If it were something physical, then I can just point to something else (less complex) physical that I don’t inherently value, and make this same argument

        I do think you’re right about empathy being a very real motivator for us. But it seems to me that if we have no moral basis for this (i.e. saying its “good” just means that it conforms to evolutionary norms, not that it is actually categorically what we ought to do), then we should be conditioning ourselves AGAINST empathy. It seems rather more like a handicap than anything else, preventing us (at times) from doing what is most advantageous to ourselves. I guess I’m saying, if we don’t have a good reason why we SHOULD maintain empathy, it seems like the rational response is to actively train ourselves to NOT have empathy. We can still make all of the advantageous choices we would have with empathy, but we’re free from the annoying self-sacrificial choices that empathy demands.

      • Ray

        I think we have a different definition of “should” as well. I regard what you should be motivated by as what I and other people want you to be motivated by, or perhaps what you would like to believe you were motivated by, and either way, propagating your own genes ain’t it.

        As far as generalizing the lack of caring you feel for simple chemical reactions to more complex ones, I think this commits the fallacy of composition. After all, I don’t think much of anyone actually thinks the Mona Lisa consists of anything but specific pigments in specific locations on a rectangular piece of canvas, but we tend to attribute a far greater value to the composition as a whole than we do to its parts. (Yes, I’m aware that some people will try to explain this in terms of formal and final causes in the crudest, most literalistic sense, but there are certainly plenty of people attributing value to the Mona Lisa without any commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics, so I don’t think it’s required.)

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      (Oops. Meant to post mine as a reply to yours but it ended up not. See below…)

  • Andrew

    Mmmm. Good question. I see this as a clear distinction between the atheist and the believer.

    Inasmuch as I like engaging in the arguments, belief is lived without debate. I see the focus of atheists to be argument. And winning such, not a lifestyle or code for a greater good.

    As an academic discussion on Tuesday nights, sharing a joint, at the quad, atheism’s cool. But I’ve come to believe that without those self-imposed, difficult demands (that you mention), the truth won’t be found.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/alan-reynolds Alan Reynolds

    In every other case we would separate truth from speculation by requiring a clear description of the hypothesis (what is meant by “God”), and some evidence for that hypothesis that is potentially falsifiable by anyone’s observation (see Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”). Only in the case if religion are strong beliefs in weakly-defined conjectures widely considered morally superior to logic and evidence. No wonder so many wars are fought over religious dogma, since rational disagreement is ruled out by definition.

    • leahlibresco

      But there are some hypothesis we assent to that we can’t falsify from within the world. First one off the top of my head: not being a boltzmann brain. Are we accepting that idea without reason? What other problems fall into this class?

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    I tend to see nihilism as a necessary consequence of the rejection of the supernatural in all forms. If we’re to say that there’s nothing more than the world we observe, then a human boils down to collection of semi-related particles doing whatever it is that semi-related particles do given the proper initial shove at the beginning of time. We can’t attribute a higher purpose or meaning to thoughts and emotions, because they really and truly are just chemical reactions.

    I disagree that God or nihilism are your only choices. If there’s not a God to give my life/actions meaning, it doesn’t follow that nothing can give them meaning. I happen to think that the best course is to provide one’s own meaning. Life’s most basic “meaning” is to preserve itself, in the most pleasant/satisfying manner possible. The meaning of a human life is to be the best human life it possibly can. Meaning is inherent in the thing itself, not imposed from outside.

    • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

      Life’s most basic “meaning” is to preserve itself, in the most pleasant/satisfying manner possible. The meaning of a human life is to be the best human life it possibly can. Meaning is inherent in the thing itself, not imposed from outside.

      Fair enough. But this seems to relegate humans to the same level as chimpanzees, or dogs, or insects- we could make the same meaning claims about them. I guess I’m saying I don’t see how we justify the fact that we value human life so highly. Somehow its a much worse thing to interfere and prematurely end a more complex chemical reaction than it is to do so to a less complex chemical reaction? I understand the basis legally- we need those laws because they provide protection for everyone, including myself, so I’m definitely voting yes for them- but I don’t understand it morally. I don’t see how complexity maps to value.

      I’m also not sure what the “best human life it possibly can” actually means. The word “best” implies that there’s something we ought to be doing? Something we can compare a life to to say whether it was lived correctly or not? This is essentially the “Moral Law” argument given by C.S. Lewis (and many others) in defense of Christianity- if there is such a standard, where did it come from? His answer is obviously God.

      I think the Atheist is perfectly justified in answering “Evolutionary Psychology”, but then the Moral Law becomes much less powerful than it once was. It is simply the evolutionary bias that helped us survive back in tribal times, and I don’t see why breaking from that evolutionary bias would be such a big deal. I don’t see how to construct a coherent morality that won’t lead you to being a human that would be reviled as selfish and morally bankrupt- e.g. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

      Again- this is clearly not the case among Atheists. There seem to be a great many “good” Atheists. I find it interesting that my conclusions are apparently so far from their own- I wonder if most Atheist reach nihilism, but reject it on some grounds that I’m not willing to reject it on? Or perhaps I’m just playing the fool freshman

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    But this seems to relegate humans to the same level as chimpanzees, or dogs, or insects – we could make the same meaning claims about them. I guess I’m saying I don’t see how we justify the fact that we value human life so highly.

    Of course it does, and what’s wrong with that? A chimp wants to be the best — i.e. the most successful and chimp-iest — chimp it can be. This may not be a conscious want, but everything a chimp does is in furtherance of its goal of being a successful chimp. All animals are that way: their entire lives are spent trying to be the best lion or wildebeest or fruitfly or wombat that they can; otherwise they fail and die. (So far as I know, humans are the only animal capable of deliberating choosing not to do this. They’re also the only species that protects its failures rather than letting them die off.)

    As to the primacy given human life — well, quite a lot of people don’t think it is justified — cf PETA, or ELF. But that’s a different question. The short answer is, I think, that we value human life so highly because we’re human. Any creature is bound to value its own kind over others; if it doesn’t it won’t survive and thrive. (In actual fact, most creatures value their subset of their own kind over others of their own kind, which raises the question of whether we really do value human life all that much. But I digress…)

    I think the Atheist is perfectly justified in answering “Evolutionary Psychology”, but then the Moral Law becomes much less powerful than it once was. It is simply the evolutionary bias that helped us survive back in tribal times

    Why does that make the law less powerful simply because it has a non-supernatural origin? Some might argue that the fact this “evolutionary bias” catapulted us to the top of the food chain is proof enough of its value. You’d have to make a pretty potent argument to get people to shed something that’s worked pretty well for hundreds of thousands of years.

    I don’t see how to construct a coherent morality that won’t lead you to being a human that would be reviled as selfish and morally bankrupt- e.g. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

    First, if your morality is coherent and you believe that it’s right, what difference does it make what other people think of you? Smart students are often made fun of in school; that doesn’t automatically mean intelligence is a bad thing. Second, to call Objectivism selfish and morally bankrupt suggests that perhaps you haven’t thoroughly investigated it? Avoiding guilt as a motivation for your actions and dealing fairly and honestly with other human beings seem like pretty sensible guidelines for life.

    • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

      Of course it does, and what’s wrong with that? … The short answer is, I think, that we value human life so highly because we’re human

      I suppose nothing is wrong with that. But I kill flies with impunity, even though all they’re doing is being the fly-iest they can be. If I’m to extend any additional value onto human life, the fact that I’m human doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason. Or rather, it explains why I do, not why I should. If someone could, by force of will or genetic defect, overcome this artificial attachment to human life, I would have no basis to describe this person as evil, wrong, or really anything other than more evolved than myself. I could still try to stop them, out of self interest, but I would have no legitimate basis for outrage.

      Why does that make the law less powerful simply because it has a non-supernatural origin? Some might argue that the fact this “evolutionary bias” catapulted us to the top of the food chain is proof enough of its value.

      I think there’s no doubt that it has survival value for the species as a whole. But as an individual, I’m not motivated by what’s best for my species, I’m motivated by whats best for myself- this is the tragedy of the commons (better described here). Moreover, even if it has survival value, most of us would like to believe it has value beyond that. In a choice between morality and survival, we tend to venerate those who choose morality (martyrs) and demonize those who choose survival (cowards)

      First, if your morality is coherent and you believe that it’s right, what difference does it make what other people think of you?

      None whatsoever. I’m just pointing out that the vast majority of people are not OK with this formulation of morality. If they were, I would expect to see a great deal more practicing Nihilists.

      Second, to call Objectivism selfish and morally bankrupt suggests that perhaps you haven’t thoroughly investigated it?

      Guilty as charged. The entirety of my knowledge of Objectivism comes from the wikipedia page. However, a strict reading of rational sef-interest does seem to precisely fit the definition of “selfish”. A purely self-interested human would never consider self-sacrifice, would have no objection to lying, cheating, stealing, or murder if it benefited them as an individual. I would be comfortable calling this person morally bankrupt. But perhaps in my ignorance I have wildly misinterpreted Objectivism. If that’s the case, then I apologize- and in that case, I wasn’t really referring to Objectivism in the first place. Allow me to rephrase in a less inflammatory manner:

      I don’t see how to construct a coherent morality that won’t lead you to being a human that would be reviled as selfish and morally bankrupt

      • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

        Since you mentioned Objectivism only in passing, as it were, I’ll just give a short response: When you say “A purely self-interested human would never consider self-sacrifice, would have no objection to lying, cheating, stealing, or murder if it benefited them as an individual” this is true. However Objectivism posits not simple self-interest but rational self-interest. The core of it is that every transaction between rational human beings should be a fair exchange of some sort so that both parties win. If I steal your shoes, that’s not a fair transaction; I’ve gotten something for nothing. If I cheat you in a deal, likewise. It doesn’t have to be material gain — I might pay you to teach me philosophy, with the result that you make money and I hone my brain, but again we both win. It’s all about reason and equal exchange.

    • leahlibresco

      Why does that make the law less powerful simply because it has a non-supernatural origin? Some might argue that the fact this “evolutionary bias” catapulted us to the top of the food chain is proof enough of its value. You’d have to make a pretty potent argument to get people to shed something that’s worked pretty well for hundreds of thousands of years.

      Except we don’t just observe that something is a dominant strategy and then decide this is proof that it is good. We look at evolution-honed instincts and recoil in horror because there’s something else that we call morality that we’re measuring evolutionary behavior against. (Mass rape worked out really well for Genghis Khan from an evolutionary point of view)

      And once we concede that, I think we’re stuck trying to figure out exactly what morality is and where it comes from.

  • Iota

    1) I asked the first question, with a follow up in store. So here goes:

    I have a suspicion that “rationality” of the kind you (and a number of other atheists) seem to champion could be attractive or interesting only for people with certain “intellectual temperaments” so to say (theist or atheist).

    Provisionally, I’d say this is stuff for people with an academic kind of mind (if necessary, I can elaborate). And, whether you like it or not, not all people are academics, by preference. Granted you could possibly slant some towards “rationality” by education, but I suspect a significant number would still say that it goes over their heads. And not necessarily because they’re stupid – they may just have completely different natural talents.

    Given that possibility, unless you foresee a serious chance of making the mass of humanity much more academic, by transhumanism, eugenics and other methods, the atheist movement may face the following alternative (if it’s not facing it already): to emphasize that kind of “rationality”, at the cost of not being attractive to everyone (since not everyone will care), or to emphasize pure atheism ( = non-belief in God/gods), at the expense of not promoting “rationality”, in that specific sense. I.e. you will either be able to reach the goal of everyone being atheist (but some of them being “irrational” atheists) or increasing “rationality”.

    Which would you choose?

    If we make an additional assumption that that choice would be adapted by the atheist “movement” (i.e. all atheists seeking to convince others), which would you choose?

    If the alternative I present is false, why?

    2) “short term fixes may be our best chance of preventing short term harm”

    I wonder what “short-term” means in this context. Changing social attitudes en masse (even by coercion) tends to require massive amounts of time. I wonder if that time wouldn’t be sufficient for those who were convinced/coerced first to not just adopt atheism but possibly go on and adopt some other (“irrational”) ideas. If yes, do you think the resulting situation would be better than the one you have now?

    Obviously, you don’t need to answer any of those questions. I’m just being a nosey poker.

    PS. If anyone wants, I can explain why I try to use scare quotes around “(ir)rationality” – it’s not meant to be simply derogatory.

    • Touchstone

      I’ll bite. Would you choose to be less “intelligent” than you are (and I know that intelligence is not really a unitary or measurable trait, but you know what I–however fuzzily–mean)? Do you know anyone who would? If you think that, say, car mechanics or short order cooks don’t derive pleasure[1] from their intelligence (in the narrow sense of the term you call “academic,” not some gooey “no one’s stupid, they just have different kinds of intelligence” sense), then I humbly submit that you haven’t talked to enough short order cooks or car mechanics.

      [1] Or, for you Aristotelians out there, human flourishing.

      • Touchstone

        Put another way, I worry that there’s a sort of condescending paternalism in your idea, as it seems to suggest that “some people” aren’t just cut out for human flourishing by way of “academic” intelligence. I think this dramatically overestimates the intelligence of most members of the intellectual classes relative to random people on the street. As a teacher, I’ve worked with second graders all of whose parents are working class. Guess what? Every single kid gets pleasure from using his or her mind. Some are great students, some struggle tremendously, but none are incapable of intellectual pleasures.

        • deiseach

          Your point about academic versus other forms of intelligence is valid, but for instance take Leah’s pleasure in Bayes’ Theorem – that’s a pleasure I cannot share because I am mathematically incapable. I get so far in the art and then that’s it for me (and ‘so far’ is a very, very short distance indeed).

          So a standard of morality based on everyone making rational decisions from a Bayesian standpoint (where one sits down and calculates the risks and benefits for performing or refraining from performing this or that action) is going to go right over my head, and in such a society I would not alone be irrational, I would be immoral (by its standards) since I could neither evaluate nor defend my acts or non-acts by those means.

          • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

            I don’t think that “rationality” is the same as “higher mathematics” (luckily for me LOL!) or even intelligence. I submit that we all do rational balancing acts, all the time, though we may not know it. If you give up your life for your child because you value your child’s life more than your own, that’s a rational decision: you’ve chosen what you value most.

            More prosaically, say your partner gets a promotion to another city and you leave a job you really like to go with them. If you do it because you love your partner and your desire to see them take advantage of this great opportunity outweighs your love for your current job, that’s a rational decision: you’ve chosen what you value most and you’ll probably be happy with it. If you do it because your partner guilts you into it, that’s not a rational decision and you’ll probably be very unhappy.

            The point is that it’s the rational decisions, whether we recognize them as such or not, that are most likely to end up being good ones (good in this case meaning “resulting in our satisfaction”) and the irrational that are likely to end up being bad ones (bad = unsatisfying). Yes?

      • Iota

        Touchstone,
        First, thanks for biting. :-)

        Second [warning: very long]

        a) I REALLY wanted to avoid the word “intelligence”. I’m not sure it describes anything meaningful. If I had to make it mean something. I’d say it might mean: the capacity of obtaining and analyzing data. Depending on what data you analyze, you will get different outputs.

        b) By that definition, I think that a good car mechanic can (and maybe has to) be just as intelligent as a professor. Consequently it doesn’t really surprise me that working-class kids enjoy intellectual work. Where I come from, a large number of professors probably had working class parents. And obviously, because there isn’t quite that much demand for university professors, not all the people who COULD become university staff, do.

        c) But the mechanic and the professor, even if they are equally intelligent in the sense given in a), are probably used to working with different kinds of data. And if you demand high quality outputs (either in car repair or in converting ideas into mathematical equations), they will fare differently. Unless the car mechanic writes mathematical equation and the profesor fixes cars as a hobby.

        d) Analogy: I work with languages (English is actually not my native tongue, incidentally). Healthy human babies are born with the capacity to learn languages. But I don’t really think all people everywhere should be expected to master even one foreign language. For three different reasons:

        a) People’s aptitude for learning languages is different. Some pick up very quickly, some struggle (just like your students). Some will always struggle with verbalizing their thoughts even in their native tongue, while they may be great at externalizing them in some other way (e.g. in painting or action).

        b) Those who, theoretically, could develop a real mastery, mostly won’t. Because it takes tremendous amounts of time. There are people who have the good luck of being born in the right circumstances (e.g. in bilingual environments) or have enough free time on their hands to devote it to language acquisition in a less inviting environment. And then there are all those who don’t. Because instead of immersing themselves in Spanish, they train to become heart surgeons or devote most of their time to raising their kids.

        c) Either due to preferences or other circumstances, some people just won’t want to devote their spare time to that. So they won’t excel even if they have a dormant capacity to – because they like painting, music or gardening more than they like advanced German. Or because they’ve somehow come to the conclusion that they “can’t learn a language” and have a negative attitude which makes them unwilling to spend time doing something they think they’re bad at.

        Because I’m passionate about languages, I’d obviously love all people to learn and master them. But I also think that given other demands life makes, only some people will have the combination of aptitude, circumstances and preference (both inherent and acquired) required to do so. I also think that if, for example, I were to make “multilingual proficiency” a criterion for having friends, I’d have a lot less than I do. And if I got elected World Dictator I probably shouldn’t make it an important criterion of social status, unless I want my Dictatorship to be VERY elitist.

        I also submit that if I wanted to create a society in which every healthy adult actually was proficient in a number of languages, I could do that either by turning the world into a huge continual language learning environment (which is not workable at the moment, since we still need dedicated surgeons, fathers, mothers, farmers and airline pilots) or enhance people’s skills so much that they would all not only be potentially capable of mastering languages but actually could do so without much effort, so that their other obligations wouldn’t get in the way.

        Similarly, I suspect (it’s just a suspicion, I MAY be wrong…) that not all people would have the combination of aptitude, circumstances and preference to apply Bayes’s theorem to their life, enjoy debates that involve one side eventually declaring themselves agnostic about their own existence, or to read Eliezer Yudkowsky. Because all these things demand, besides adequate intelligence, a high level of skills I, for brevity, called “academic” – I think that to engage with “rationality” of this sort a person has to actually like and have a sufficient level of skill (obtained and maintained through training) in expressing themselves in finely nuanced language (and appreciating nuances as relevant to the argument) or mathematical symbols, as well as have highly developed linear thinking. I’m fully williong to agre that some car mechanics have all of those. I doubt if all do.

        So whereas I think all people can “get pleasure from using their mind” just as all people can get pleasure from using language, they will stop at various levels, eventually choose different kinds of things to work with and, in effect, not all people will end up being good at formally defending their reasoning, for example. Just like not all of them have debates in Russian or write books in French. Consequently, I suspect that a society that positively demanded they should all be able to, say, defend their opinions in Russian, would be a hard sell.

        • Touchstone

          I agree with essentially all of the above. But unless Leah means “rationality” in an even narrower sense than LessWrongers do, I don’t think that contradicts her goal. I think she believes (and I think she’s right) that most people aren’t as trained in avoiding certain predictable cognitive biases and logical errors that exist across humankind (and in our close relatives!) as they could easily be, considering their capacities and resources. She doesn’t want or expect to make Robin Hansons of us all (I’d protest if she did!). What’s she’s arguing is more like the argument that we’d have fewer deaths by drowning if everyone had to take a swim class in grade school. Now, the tradeoff still might not be worth it, but it’s not because a large number of kids just wouldn’t be able to learn how to swim well enough to avoid drowning from the class. Similarly, Leah thinks (I think!) that some easy training could make us all more capable of flourishing in our disparate mathy, language learny, car repairy ways.

          • leahlibresco

            Touchstone’s got me pegged. :)

          • Iota

            Unless I fundamentally misunderstand something…

            … I think “rationality” is actually hard to do in practice. I think most people could (and perhaps even intuitively do) grasp such things as “no true Scotsman fallacy” or “confirmation bias” when doing theoretical exercises. But applying them to the messy stuff of life can be a lot more complicated. Sort of like the difference between a Socratic dialogue (where you write both Socrates and The-Other-Guy) and real life dialogues (where you might think you’re Socrates, but…).

            I never learned to swim (sadly). But I suspect swimming 101 is easier to deal with because you an external measure of success – it doesn’t matter how I feel about swimming or if I think I swim well. You put me in an adequate body of water and see what happens – do I drown, float or move in the right direction. Rationality, on the other hand, is in my head.

            All I have, in terms of external data, on some really imporatnt issues are the opinions of people who agree or disagree with me. I don’t get to do controlled, reproducible experiments with my life. And on the really important questions, there seems to be little agreement between people (so I can’t gauge my rationality by checking if others agree with me, not to mention that could be “argumentum ad populum”)

            When you know your head can do tricks like this, your thinking IS influenced by various substances in your body, and you have no external way to measure success most of the time (except waiting to see what happens, at which point you’re stuck with the result, whether good or bad), how do you reasonably come to the conclusion you have actually become more “rational” in practice (instead of just becoming “irrational” in some other way than before)? Or that your regimen of thinking could be recommended to others (and not, for example, that their regimen is actually “better”, but not suited to you temperamentally)? Or that even if your regimen is better it’s not – at advanced levels – tied to temperamental, physiological and emotional differences that would make other people unwilling to use it?


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