Irrational beings

The following is a mixture of notes prepared for an epistemology exam I have tomorrow, and the rudiments of a paper I hope to get published some day…

The rationality of the sort of beliefs that normal people argue about (politics, religion, ethics) is an obvious topic for philosophy if you want to discuss the philosophy of something people care about. This isn’t a radical idea–look closely at the famous writers on theory of knowledge, like Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and you’ll find traces of that concern. Oddly, though, it can be a bit hard to find in contemporary philosophy. I’ve previously complained of how the sort of epistemological discussion centered around the Gettier paper seems irrelevant to real-life concerns. To find this sort of stuff nowadays, it seems you have to go outside “epistemology proper” to areas whose names provide a reminder that we’re supposed to be talking about real life.

One place I’ve looked for such discussions is the work of famed political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, I had heard, had promoted ideas of “liberal neutrality” resting on the existence of “reasonable disagreement,” and that specifically this material could be found in his book /Political Liberalism/. When I got the book, though, Rawls explained that his idea was a “political” rather than “epistemic” one, that he did not want to rule out views of reason that would render common political, ethical, and religious views irrational, and that his concern was strictly a “practical” one. Reading between the lines, it seems that he was actually talking about the problem of how to deal, in practical terms, with persistent disagreement, whether or not such disagreement was really irrational.

Thus far, all the best stuff I’ve found on real-world problems of rationality has been in philosophy of religion–perhaps because there worries about irrationality are so acute. One example of this is Peter van Inwagen’s paper on “Clifford’s principle,” the claim that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence. Van Inwagen’s main concern is to save religion from the charge that it is irrational because of Clifford’s principle, but interestingly it also provides the only real philosophical discussion of the rationality of political beliefs that I’ve seen. Van Inwagen argues that there are clear instances of reasonable disagreement in politics, and this undermines Clifford’s principle. At the end of his essay, he outlines a tidy flowchart of the dilemmas he believes confront advocates of Clifford’s principle:

Do you accept Clifford’s principle?
–>No: “the game ends”
–>Yes: are religious belief irrational?
—–>No: “the game ends”
—–>Yes: Are philosophical or political beliefs irrational?
——–>Yes: are you a philosophical and political skeptic?
———–>No: why not?
——–>No: Do you accept v.I.’s formulation of the “difference thesis”: EITHER religion faces a stricter standard OR fares worse?
———–>No: how to formulate?
———–>Yes: which disjunct?

If you accept a single standard of evidence, but think religion fares worse, is evidence public evidence, or can it include incommunicable insight.
–>Public evidence: how are your political and philosophical beliefs supported? ALSO: If supported, why don’t most people agree with you?
–>Incommunicable insight: how do you know religion doesn’t enjoy incommunicable insight?

Here are my answers to these questions: I think there are strict standards for a belief to be rational (though perhaps not exactly what Clifford set). I think religious beliefs are irrational, that indeed all positive religious assertions are irrational for a well-informed modern person. Philosophy and politics, I think, do not fare this badly, but they must face the same standard of evidence and fare pretty badly. I am not a complete skeptic philosophical and political skeptic, but I do try to be cautious on where I take a stand. As for explaining disagreement, I think a large part of the story is just that humans are, in general, irrational.

But how can I think that people in general have lots and lots of irrational political beliefs?, van Inwagen would ask. Isn’t it just obvious people are typically rational? I reply: look a little more closely about how people form their political beliefs. Again and again, you can see people embracing evidence that fits their preconceptions and ignoring evidence that doesn’t. Again and again, we see what Orwell described in his essay Looking Back On The Spanish War: what predicts whether someone will believe an attrocity story is not the evidence, but who has been accused. “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”

That’s just a rough sketch of my views on the matter, but anyway, it’s something I intend to pursue. Philosophy needs more of it.

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  1. What about Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation, which requires that, in order to figure out what people do and say, we have to assume broad rationality?

  2. I’m not familiar with that area of Davidson’s work, but I’d think that the plausible version of his claim would be that we must assume a general background of rationality, not rationality on any specific question. Indeed, the thought processes we think of as “irrational” are generally about acomodating irrational into a generally rational framework. Creationists, for example, generally have some idea of what scientists say about various things, but this doesn’t make their specific creationist beliefs rational, and the challenge for them is to explain why creationism is rational given certain obvious facts of science.

  3. That certainly is his point, i.e., we have to assume rationality broadly or people become incomprehensible. But that seems to tell against your claim that people can have lots of irrational political beliefs. If most of someone’s political beliefs are irrational, then their political views will be incomprehensible. (According to Davidson, anyway.)

    That would apply nicely to creationists. Most accept areas of science which depend on evolution in order to be true, actually explain and predict, etc., most notably medicine. For example: it doesn’t make sense to take an antibiotic to cure an infection if creationism is true; antibiotics work by (and this is of course a caricature) manipulating the environmental conditions to exceed the bacteria’s adapted tolerances (and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, of course, have evolved in order to deal with these sorts of environmental changes). So, I’d suggest that creationists — sincere creationists, not the snake oil merchants who prey on them — have scientific beliefs that are completely incomprehensible.

    Davidson’s essays on this, incidentally, are (I believe all) in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation.

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