Rational-Nazi

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes I have the impression that it is easy to misunderstand the nature of what I call “principles”. Some friends have expressed the worry that the moral, rational and scientific principles I talk about might be too dogmatic. Months ago, after earning the infamous title of “rational-Nazi”, I realized that clarification was needed. Foremost, I was in the need of a little rehab from my “psychological rationalism”, which I have hopefully reduced to livable standards by now.

But the worry remains: how can we understand those principles, which I take to be so important to navigate the insecure waters of our relativistic era, where it seems that climate change can be legitimately held as a “Chinese hoax”, where liberal societies are confronted with the paradox of non-ironic Nazi talks at universities, and where science is held either religiously as a Bible or an opinion among that of the local priest, of tabloid journalists or of your neighbor Joe, who never misses a chance to warn you about the next alien invasion?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to explore extensively the implications of my intuitions, so let me just sketch the broad meaning of my “principles”. In few words, principles are parameters framing debates concerning morality, science and topics whose discussion generally requires rationality. Those parameters are constructed through continuous dialogue but, once established, they constrain further discussions in a normative way. In other words, they are always negotiable at a certain level of discussion, that of discussing the best method or the best framework to talk about a certain phenomenon. However, once they have been established, they stop being negotiable in further discussions, and deviance from them is fallacious. The conditions of agreement are given by mutual understanding, mutual recognition of rationality, mutual recognition of sincere intents and probably something else I have not yet figured out.

To put it simple: principles are an outcome of constant dialogue and, in turn, they constrain further dialogues. This does not mean that everyone can question principles at any time. For instance, principles of science are outcomes of dialogues within the scientific community, and can’t take into account, say, inconsistent monologues of bizarre White House’s tenants.

My idea of principles remains very sketchy, but I hope that, at least in this context, it will save me from the direct accusation of dogmatism, given the importance I concede to its dialogical component.

And here we come to today’s topic: Are there cases in which the possibility of dialogue is undermined by the very nature of the topic of the dialogue? Or are there topics which can’t be talked about for their very content? It might sound dogmatic (actually authoritarian), but I think the answer is yes.

Take for instance the following questions: “Are women less intelligent than men?”; “Is homosexuality based on a moral perversion?”; “Are Muslims worthy of respect?”; “Do white people constitute a superior race?”. Consider the first question concerning women. In a dialogue involving a woman, it seems that her ability to discuss at the same level as men is put at stake. Therefore, the validity of the dialogue itself is put at stake. Even if the answer were “no, there is no a priori difference in intelligence”, the dialogue would be based on the suspension of the recognition of the woman’s capacity to argue for a position or another (at least, not at a man’s level).

The same can be said with respect to the questions that follow. If a lesbian were to argue about the possibility of homosexuality being a perverted moral choice, her ability to judge might be deemed as unreliable for a “conflict of interests”. That is, it seems that she would have an interest in defending a position rather than another and her appeal to the evidence of her subjective experience would be unreliable. Even if she were taken as reliable-no-matter-what, given the possibility of a positive answer to the not-yet-settled question, there would still be a chance that she is morally perverted, hence that she is not as reliable as her non-homosexual interlocutors. I think it is clear why the questions about Muslims and white people present the same flaws, for similar reasons.

Should we establish taboos to go side by side with principles then? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we should focus on what level of discussion to adopt. There are certain questions, which require dialogues about the validity of the questions themselves. I think I have shown that some of those questions don’t stand scrutiny. We see how absurd they are and how absurd it would be to engage in debates concerning them.

I don’t know if this way of thinking can be still considered a sort of “rational-Nazism” (term that I abhor). But, if so, I would still by far prefer rational-Nazis to talk at universities, rather than actual Nazis.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Abstraction

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Try to pick the intruder among the following group of things: glass, bottle, stock cube, vase. I don’t really want you to solve this elementary puzzle of abstraction. Instead, I would like to tell you about the original solution my sister gave to it, when she still was at the beginning of secondary school.

The faculty to abstract the general from the particular is an amazing capacity of the human mind. Its discovery goes back at least to Aristotle, and had enormous impact on the way we think about the functioning of our mind.

Abstraction enables us to categorize things in the world and give them an order. It is the fundamental ability underlying the very possibility of scientific research, which aims at giving general laws of nature (if not universal). You couldn’t say anything informative about movement, molecules or cells if all you could talk about were single movements, single molecules and single cells. Abstraction makes it possible to say how every single movement works according to the laws of physics, and how all molecules and cells behave according respectively to chemistry and biology.

The merits of abstraction are countless. One could even claim that there would be no human intellectual progress without the capacity of finding the common property among many individual things. The world would look like a chaotic ensemble of particular entities, precluding any possibility of orientation.

Luckily, all humans share abstraction. Or so I thought, until my sister ruthlessly smashed my convictions.

A questionnaire was given to all schoolchildren of her year. Its purpose was to test their logical abilities with respect to public education, I guess. When confronted with the “intruder’s puzzle”, they were expected to abstract the common property of most of the items presented and pick the exception. Of course, there is one evident property shared by glass, bottle and vase, which stock cube doesn’t present, namely the property of being a container. Apparently, that was not evident enough, since my sister answered “vase”.

Should we worry about my sister’s intelligence back then? Where on earth did she find the property common to glass, bottle and stock cube, vase doesn’t present? The best way to counter my apprehension was to ask her directly. Her response was along these lines: “you don’t necessarily find a vase in the kitchen, do you?”

What she did when confronted with the puzzle, wasn’t to abstract the shared property. She rather asked herself if there were contextual similarities among those objects of common usage. And the first thing that came to her mind was that you never find a kitchen devoid of glasses, bottles and, when available, stock cubes. Vases, on the contrary, are not necessarily part of the kitchen’s furniture.

My sister’s thought was contextual rather than abstractive. And, to a certain extent, that was more appropriate, insofar as the term “intruder” comes with a feeling  of disappointment rather than logical rigour. In a certain sense, you would have good reasons to be disappointed if you weren’t to find glasses, bottles and stock cubes in someone’s kitchen (when available). On the contrary, you just don’t go to someone’s place asking “why aren’t your vases in the kitchen?”

Of course, my sister’s way of thinking was not as rigorous and general as abstraction would have been. But instead of wondering how contextual thought is less reliable than abstractive thought, we should ask ourselves if the intruder’s puzzle was rigorous enough in the first place! Indeed, it seems that the puzzle was already expecting a certain kind of answer there was no precise criterion to expect. And my sister involuntarily showed the flaw in the formulation: one needn’t necessarily use abstraction to give a pondered answer to certain questions.

It was very stupid of me to have fun of her when I first heard that answer. I share part of the blame with those who formulated the intruder’s puzzle first, presuming that people who think, need thinking in a certain way. But my sister proved us wrong.

Indeed, she taught me a very important lesson: don’t expect people to act and think always upon the best theoretical principles because, in practice, abstraction might be of no use in everyday activities, like having dinner or the like. A stock cube might help instead.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha