Greta Christina, subjective irrationality, and NOMA

It’s frustrating being so busy, because it means when I read something I want to comment on, sometimes it takes days to get to it.  Like this, for example.  It is a post from Greta Christina from three days ago, and when I first read it I wanted to respond.  But then this time of year brings about social activity for me, and I could not get to it until today.

Greta is concerned about the criticism of rationality when it comes to subjective matters.  Well, I’ll let her own words tell the story:

But I’ve been noticing a type of disagreement cropping up in atheist conversations, and it’s bugging me. It’s when atheists and skeptics criticize each others’ rationality… about entirely subjective questions.

“Purely subjective questions.”  This phrase tickled my skeptic bone as soon as I read it.  The reason is that I have a philosophical sensitivity to the distinction between objective and subjective (which is related to Hilary Putnam’s Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, which I have a copy of and has been of considerable effect upon my thinking).  See, the thing is that I’m not sure that the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” questions (especially as Great is using them here), is clean enough to make the points she is making in her post.  And so with some quoting of her post, I would like to deconstruct some of these questions and possibly throw a few ideas out there.

But first, a disclaimer.  I actually usually agree with Greta Christina, and this post is not an attempt to show that she is irrational or anything.  She says she likes the fact that this community is critical of each other, and so I am criticizing what I see as a small oversight.  It’s a consciousness-raising exercise.  I want to illuminate a philosophical problem with her post as an illustration, and also clarify a few disagreements I have with this particular post.


What is irrational? Well, what is rational?  I use the term such that something is rational if it is consistent with known demonstrably true facts about the world as well as with reason or logical analysis.  Of course, the question then is how do we apply this?  Well, that’s part of what Greta is tackling here in talking about the Straw Vulcan question, where media and pop culture has created a trope that described rationality as being absurdly logical (essentially).  Part of Greta’s post was inspired by Julia Galef’s recent talk at Skepticon, which I have previously seen, and which was a continuation of a series of posts that appeared on Julia Galef’s blog as well as Rationally Speaking (Massimo Pigliucci’s blog).  Here’s the video of Julia at Skepticon from earlier this year, in case you have not seen it.

A good talk that I recommend (even if for another time).  But rather than address Julia’s points, I want to get back to Greta’s post.  See, she has concerns about the fact that, perhaps, we are not being rational.  Well, what she says is this:

I’ve seen atheists argue that it’s irrational to enjoy drinking. Follow sports. Care about fashion and style. Love our pets. And it’s bugging me. I think it’s pointlessly divisive.  I’m fine with being divisive if there’s a point to it — I want us to debate our differences, I don’t want us to march in lockstep — but pointless divisiveness, not so much. And I think it’s a mis-application of the principle of rationality. The “more rational than thou” attitude towards subjective matters is, ironically, not very rational.

The “fashion and style” link makes reference to a discussion that started a little while back about whether fashion and/or style was a rational endeavor.  I don’t want to dwell on it except to point out that the question, as I remember the comments on her fashion posts, were not about whether Greta was rational for liking fashion, but whether her thoughts about fashion were rational.  It’s an old argument and frankly I don’t care enough to say more than that right now.  But generally I agree with her point.  I think there is a point where we focus on unimportant things about each other and get caught up in them to the detriment of our community.

So drinking, sports, and pets?  These are all mere personal preferences and choices, right? To argue about what you like, subjectively, is pointless and possibly absurd, right? Also divisive.  One might be temped to point out that talking about the personal question of religious belief being subjective too, but Greta saw that coming:

Let me start with a premise: Yes, rationality is the best way of determining what is and is not most likely to be true in the external, non-subjective world. What causes rain? Why do people get sick? How did life come into being? Do we continue to live after we die? These are questions with answers. The answers are true, or not, regardless of what we think about them.

Here, she is dividing up the world, perhaps not cleanly and unambiguously, but a division is being identified.  She is saying that there is a difference between the “external, non-subjective world” and the subjective world inside us.  This is important, so I wanted to highlight it before continuing:

And the best way to find those answers is to suspend/ counteract our irrationality and our cognitive biases, to the best degree that we can, and gather/ examine the evidence as rationally and carefully as we can. Flashes of irrational insight can sometimes point us in the right direction… but to determine whether that really is the right direction or a ridiculous wild goose chase, rationality is the best tool we have.

OK, I’m with her so far.  I still have that annoying tingling about the clean split between the subjective/objective which has been hinted at, but that is not a mortal sin here so I am overlooking it, at this point.  However, that shakiness because a low rumbling with the next paragraph.

But not all questions are questions about the external, non-subjective world. Some questions are subjective. The answers aren’t the same for everybody. If you enjoy drinking/ sports/ fashion/ pets, then you do. If it’s true for you, then it’s true. [my emphasis]

On the surface, I agree with what I think she is trying to say, but as I read this I get a double layer of meaning which I don’t think are coherent.  Let me try and parse these meanings.

1) Some things are external to our direct conscious awareness, and others are part of our internal experience and not accessible to other people generally.  The former are subject to empirical verification, analysis, etc, the latter are not.  The things that you have as internal conscious experiences, which are not accessible to others, are just brute facts that you have to accept.

2) Some facts about the world we can test easily, other we cannot because they are not part of the inter-subjective world which we can all share.  And even if we could test them, we would find that they are not the same for everyone, so we should just accept those things as they appear, no matter what other people seem to think about them.

My problem is that Greta seems to be saying that our internal conscious facts are things which cannot be subject to analysis.  She seems to be creating a space for things that, if we simply find we like them, we should just accept them because they are not subject to comparison or possibly even analysis.  Now, to be fair I don’t think she actually thinks this; as a person who has written a lot about how she thinks about her own choices, beliefs, etc I don’t think she actually believes what it looks like she is saying here.  I think she just missed the philosophical implications involved and I would like to talk a little about that.

She follows the above with this:

Yet atheists and skeptics often treat these subjective questions as if they were objective ones… and scold one another for being irrational when some else enjoys different things than we do.

Again, I agree and disagree.  But I think the nature of my disagreement is that I would prefer to say that rather than claim that some things about us are inaccessible from rational analysis, we should simply be saying that while we might be able to apply rationality to every aspect of ourselves, we shouldn’t.  The way she puts it, it seems as if she is saying that we cannot apply reason to our likes, dislikes, and possibly even values.  So that if I like to drink, I cannot apply rationality to this liking because it is merely true, and thus I should accept it and, I suppose, drink.  I don’t think Greta wants to say that, so allow me to make one more point because you toss away my criticism as mere philosophic semantic-trolling.

You might be asking why I’m being so careful and choosy with language.  You might be saying “Shaun, you know what she means, and you are just nit-picking,” but one more elucidation might get you to see what I’m identifying.  It is this phrase; “Yet atheists and skeptics often treat these subjective questions as if they were objective ones…”.  It is here where I get tripped up.  It is here where I think Greta misses the boat and mis-emphasizes the wrong aspect of this issue.

NOMA of the subjective/objective

I think that those “subjective” questions really are objective.  Well, to be more precise, I believe that there is no such thing as “objective” when it comes to perspectives, but only a continuum of subjectivity, starting with the private world inside our heads and bleeding out to the external world which must be apprehended with perception via our senses (inter-subjectivity) and the tools we use to enhance them; empiricism.  Thus, I believe that the “objective” world is really subjective, but the distinction between them is one of accessibility; how much can we analyze the facts involved?

Our likes and dislikes, our values even, are facts about the world.  We don’t yet have a full enough understanding of how to empirically test, verify, or even identify all of them, but they are real things in the real world, just like rain, sickness, and propositions of gods.  Thus, my like of hockey, Greta’s like of fashion, and your like of this blog (maybe) are all subject to rational analysis.  They are indeed “brute facts” that we cannot ignore as realities, but there is a difference between admitting a fact and placing it off-limits to analysis; it is this distinction which I think Greta is missing.  This means that while I agree with Greta’s main point in her post (generally), I think she got there a little carelessly and sloppily.

As I said during the discussion about fashion before, on Greta’s blog as well as here, there is no reason to apply rationality or logic to everything.  There is nothing wrong with not being rational about some things.  As I said before, things like fashion, sports, etc are shallow but so what? So the response should not be to say that things like like of sports or fashion are not accessible to rational analysis (because they are, in fact, accessible to analysis of this sort), but that we are allowed to have likes, values, etc which are not completely accessed (even if they are accessible) by rational analysis.

In a sense, this is sort of like the question of NOMA (the idea that science and religion occupy different ‘magesteria’ and answer different questions).  See, Greta’s analysis here seems to create two separate (if not vaguely defined) realms of our personal world.  One is external and “objective,” subject to analysis.  The other is somehow not part of the real world, made of real things.  This division can only be philosophically salvageable by appealing to some ontological dualism.  That is, if our likes, dislikes, and values (our inner subjective brute facts which we cannot apply rationality to) are not subject to analysis intrinsically then they must occupy a different ontological reality.  They must be non-empirical and this not analyzable by reason, logic, or rational thought.

Greta seems to be advocating for a distinction between the things which our skepticism can be applied to and things they cannot be applied to.  I think this is a false dichotomy, as I believe, as a metaphysical naturalist, that all of reality is subject to skeptical analysis, including our base desires, preferences, and values.  So yes, we should recognize their truth in that they really are our preferences, we don’t have to accept them are simply true and leave them out-of-bounds for our skepticism.

Applying rationality to our desires, preferences, and values

The last thought I want to leave with you today, dear reader, is this.  It is only by the application of rational analysis to our subjective, personal, private selves that we can truly change ourselves in any meaningful way.  More importantly this is not only possible but essential as skeptics.  It is what allowed me to not only gain my perspective of religion, but also sexuality and relationships.  It was the process by which I became polyamorous and openly skeptical despite my intense insecurity, fear, and jealousy out of which I had to grow.  Had I accepted my fear and my jealousy as facts about myself that were true, I would not be the person I am today. The maturing, growing, and learning we do in our lives, despite what Greta Christina seems to be saying in her post the other day, is due to the fact that we can ask ourselves whether we should like and spend time thinking about baseball, style, or blog-reading/writing.  Are the brute facts about ourselves things we have to just accept or can we change them if we find them lacking in some way?

Because if Greta Christina is right, then we cannot hope to overcome those things.  “If it’s true for you, then it’s true” she says.  But I think this is defeatist.  It tells people that the inner experiences they have with the world are not subject to our changing them or thinking about them in a different way.  It puts them out of reach for our analysis (which is a rational exercise), and so it implies they cannot be changed.  Now, we may look at some of those things, whether they are drinking, sports, or fashion, and decide that we will pursue them despite their irrationality, decide they are rational, or that the joy they bring is sufficient to overlook the irrationality of them to some degree.  That is a lot of what being a rational person is about; not being straw-Vulcan rational, but applying rational analysis to ourselves and being responsible for the conclusions and behavior that derives from that analysis.

But by saying that the brute fact that we enjoy something makes them lay outside our ability to meaningfully question someone’s decisions is, well, irrational.  It is not sufficient to say that if someone enjoys something you see as irrational then you should stop being a dick by calling them out on it.  What Greta should be saying is that “hey, you don’t know what rational calculus I have used to decide to pursue this thing you see as irrational.” and then the other person can say “OK, so you have thought about this and decided to pursue it anyway? Well, if so, you are responsible for it, and even if I disagree with you I grant you that responsibility.”  And then if they want to, they can talk more about it.  I think that is what Greta Christina is trying to say in her post, with the minor oversight of, perhaps unintentionally, invoking a kind of ontological dualism into her worldview.

So, you can still think someone is irrational about something specific, even if you only have partial understanding of their reasoning, and simply walk away from it because it’s not your responsibility.  But when you spend time in a community of people who think about rationality, there are going to be people who think you have irrational beliefs, likes, or values.  That is simply something we will have to live with while not pushing those things out of bounds–a sort of skeptical move akin to moving the goalposts.

All is subject to rational inquiry in exactly the same way and exactly for the same reason that all aspects of reality are subject to scientific (skeptical) analysis.  In the same way that religion is subject to science, our like of sports, fashion, etc is subject to rational analysis.  The degree to which we pay attention to those things is a different question.


2 thoughts on “Greta Christina, subjective irrationality, and NOMA

  1. I generally agree with you, but I also think the definition of rationality gets a little hazy when we’re talking about subjective states. If an action is judged rational or irrational, it must be so judged in relation to a particular goal, agreed? And ultimately the goals we prioritize most highly are determined by subjective values. If you and I have opposing core values, then an action which is rational for me might be irrational for you, because it does not further your goal. If you are going to persuade me that that goal is irrational, you’ll have to do so by appealing to some deeper goal that I hold.

    Now most of us, because we have similar brains, have quite similar core goals. But I am always frustrated with discussions of whether certain actions are rational or irrational that don’t at least give a mention to the underlying goals relative to which rationality is assessed.

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