Limits of Reason and Critical Thinking

Hear me out. The Age of Enlightenment and after is based on the notion that ordinary people are rational, capable of reason, and critical thinking. I may not get out much, but I don’t notice a lot of evidence of this. In fact, I feel that the original proponents of this didn’t get out much either. And when they did, they congregated together.

I’m not talking about rote learning and being functionally literate. I’m talking about being able to suss out solutions to novel challenges. Call me an elitist, but I noticed this in my classmates at both university and grad school. I could count on one hand the number of people I would consider to be more than rote learners. I can report similar results when I taught undergrad economics. And to be honest, even rote learning seemed to be a challenge beyond reach for many.

Some may accuse me of being an elitist or a misanthrope, and I understand the motivation, but I could also be critiqued for claiming elephants to be large land mammals or ice to be cold. To be fair, notions of intelligence are sketchy enough without trying to measure reason and rationality, so I am speaking generically and metaphorically as I have no good measure either. I’m operating on intuitions.

The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving.

In reading Iain McGilchrist’s books, he might argue that these people are just left-hemisphere dominant. That’s all rote activity. The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving. I may be wrong, but I think it’s more than that.

As a metaphor, pick your favourite high-performing athlete. I’m not into sports, so I’ll toss out some names. Perhaps you’ve heard of some: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé, Leo Messi, Virat Kohli, Micheal Jordan, LeBron James, or whomever. Who’s your favourite athlete? Leave a comment.

I might have practised some 10,000* hours a year for decades and I wouldn’t have been able to elevate my skills to the level of any of these. Moreover, even if I were to target someone in the lowest centile of all professional athletes in any given sport, I wouldn’t likely reach that level. I was holding out for curling, but alas, I still don’t think so. If you happen to be a professional athlete, then switch metaphors to music or art and ask if you could then reach the pinnacles of these disciplines.

The point I am trying to make is that when it comes to reason, most people aren’t even rank amateurs. They are more like pigeons playing chess. And let’s be serious, whether these pigeons are playing chess, checkers, go, or croquet, they aren’t going to fare any better.

Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

When a person is born into this world, some aspects are determined outright, whilst others have propensities. Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

At birth, a person’s height is limited by some upper limit under optimal conditions. If I encounter nutritional deficits or some other stressors, this theoretic height may never be reached. I feel the same is true for intelligence and how well we can reason. I don’t particularly agree that IQ scores are a great measure, but I’ll use the notion conceptually since most people likely know of them and generally how they work. In a nutshell, a score of 100 is considered average, give or take a standard deviation in either direction, so roughly speaking about 68.26 per cent of people in a population fall between 85 and 115. This leaves about 16 per cent above and below average. By extension, about 85 per cent of people are average and below.

I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically.

What I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically. They can memorise that 1 + 1 = 2 and Paris is the capital of France, but novelty and synthesis are pretty much out of scope. And they can reason about small things in small doses.

Practically, this means a couple of things. Firstly, on the positive side, they can be trained to be drones. Wage slaves. Most jobs in the world are rote. Insert tab A into slot B. Follow an algorithm or procedure. This is not limited to so-called unskilled labour. This goes all the way up the food chain to doctors and lawyers, two rote professions if there are any.

Secondly, on the negative side, they cannot be trained to participate in democratic processes. This is a failure of insight of the Fathers of the Enlightenment. Is that a thing? Moving on. To be fair, they did notice. Plato noticed, too. This is why, among other reasons, they sought a republic over a pure democracy. The problem, besides bad incentives and ulterior motives, is that many of these people aren’t any, or materially better, thinkers. Recall my previous reference to lawyers. How many politicians are lawyers? Q.E.D. OK, so I’m being irascible, but still.

The problem is that the masses have been taught that participative democracy is both good and a right to be cherished. And it would be if the population were up to par. In the United States, they’ve had challenges in the past with literacy tests to limit access to the polls, but one, this wasn’t testing the right thing, and two, as I said at the start there isn’t really a test for this particular capacity.

Let’s imagine that there was a test. And let’s further imagine that it was somewhat aligned to IQ score. Let’s say that the threshold kicks in just over 115. This would mean that only 15.9 per cent of the adult population would be able to vote. Even if the threshold was met at 100, that would still eliminate 50 per cent of eligible voters. That would not go over very well. Remember these people are rote learners, and they learned that (1) rights are inalienable and sacred and (2) voting is a right. Justified or otherwise, you could expect a revolt, even in America where people are afraid of their own shadows. They aren’t the French showing their numbers in yellow vests. They are much more docile when it comes to things like this. Gun-related violence is another story, but unless they are shooting each other this is where fending for their rights end.

perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process

And maybe I am wrong, perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process. I’ve heard a lot of good things about dolphins and octopuses. I look around me, and I see a lot of nice people. People who enjoy life and are nice to talk with, maybe even about the weather. But being affable doesn’t make one a critical thinker. It doesn’t make a great foundation for government or even the selection of government.

Voting Chimps

The 64,000 question is what to do. The problem, as with any challenge involving people, is that it involves people. We could construct a test, and the affluent would find a way to bribe to get a favourable result or pay for the rote information and strategy to pass the test. They already use both of these approaches for college admissions, so I wouldn’t expect anything different here.

On a final note, some including Kant and Chomsky have argued that there are limits to human reason on a global level. I am just applying this to the local level, and there are many more local limits that never come close to encountering this higher global limit. That’s a challenge in and of itself.

In the end, you can rest assured. No one is going to voluntarily give up their voting rights any time soon. No meaningful test is on the horizon. The system will likely implode on itself first. In some places sooner than others.

* Yes, I know there are only 8,760 hours in an earth year. I was hoping you didn’t notice.

Where to Start?

At the beginning, of course. As I’ve embarked on this anti-agency (working title) endeavour, I am uncovering people and ideas previously unknown. In a way, this is good because people have been here before. In another way, I am left wondering what’s left unsaid.

For one thing, some of these people are highly credentialled scholars, more well-read with substantial head starts. And intelligent, qualified experts stake out their own respective turf. The more I read, the more I see the path has already been cut. Untamed areas still exist—at least for now. My goal from the start is to ignore the larger pseudo-problem anyway, so let them have their territory.

As I see it, my obstacle is one of rhetoric. My foundation is hardly a crowd-pleaser.

As I shared in my Agency Be Damned post,

  1. Humans have no material agency
  2. Power structures require the presumption of agency

Not too bad, but as I’ve shared even earlier,

  1. people are intellectually pretty unremarkable and
  2. predictably irrational

This isn’t going to be attractive to the warm and fuzzy crowd, and it comes across as a pretentious elitist and condescending irrespective of the validity of the observation. And people don’t like to be told that their baby is ugly—let alone themselves.

Ostensibly, my claim is that humans are veritable automatons too dim to be bounded to any moral code. We’re all just pawns, and any semblance of autonomy is either an illusion or not materially significant.

You are 0.00001% responsible for your actions,
so you deserve 100% of the blame or credit

You are 0.00001% responsible for your actions, so you deserve 100% of the blame or credit. Maybe this has no legs and will go nowhere. Time will tell. Meantime, I need to focus on the rhetoric and packaging and position it like a Trojan horse.

Note to Self #1

Humans are much less rational than commonly assumed and the presumed ability to reason is either hubris or wishful thinking. Dan Ariely has brought attention to being predictably irrational, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Basing societies and legal systems on the premise of rational actors is a massive structural error.

— Bry Willis

I’ve got too much distraction to make progress on this, but I’ll save thoughts now and again so I don’t lose them…unless it’s deliberate.

Emotion Trumps Reason

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” said David Hume said in his Treatise of Human Nature.

Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Hume claims that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will,” and that reason alone “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.”

In the United States, forces on the Left have still not learnt this lesson. They are still trying to fight emotion and irrationality with reason. It’s like trying to coöpt the insane with rationality. It’s not going to happen.

And despite protestations, even the most supposedly logical of us are still motivated by some emotion or passion, as much as we can try to deny it. One can claim to have become an accountant or an engineer or a physicist because it was a calculated, logical thing to do, but in the end, even the brightest of these are driven by passion, by emotion.

As long as we are fighting emotion with reason, the battle is already over before it starts. We need to fight emotion with empathy. This is where the story of the oak and the willow comes in handy. Reason is the oak. Reason is the hare, but emotion is the supple willow of the tenacious tortoise.

Wage this fight and escalating commitment will prevail, as the emotional response will trigger a sort of fight or flight, but your opponent’s reason will form a hard shell to fend off any attacks.

But don’t feel too smug. It’s only your emotions that give you the passion to fight the good fight. Reason has convinced you that this is the logical route.

Emotion-Reason Scaling

I’ve been engaging in an online dialogue on the topic of a scale or continuum of emotion and reason with Landzek through comments on his blog. Since, I am unable of posting images in his comments (AFAIK), I am posting them with commentary here.

He’s got 4 parts of this topic (so far), but, for reference sake, it starts here. Without retreading context you can get on his site, the essence is the notion of a scale, a spectrum between emotion and reason. In part 4, he conveys something I interpret as a time series graphically as image A.

Emotion and reason are a dimension represented on the Y axis, and time is on the X axis.

Prior to this, time was not a factor, so I had been constructing this as a simple continuum as shown in image B.

Here, there is only a X axis, running from emotional to rational, representing reason. Ignoring for the time of the index of the scale and not being concerned if the relationship is even-tempered linear or something else.

Secondarily, is there a quality perspective to the placement? My initial questions are embedded on the graph.

As I don’t feel that the Emotional-Rational scale are opposites, I’ve been thinking through how this scale might work. My first take was along these lines, creating a Cartesian plane.

In this, Irrational and Rational create an X-axis scale and Reserved and Emotional create the Y axis. I’m not sure what the nomenclature opposite of Emotional is, but stoical or reserved are placeholders for now.

Upon further thought, I am not sure irrational is the extreme opposite to rational. I am also not sure what the interplay of rational versus irrational versus non-rational should be, but I created a fourth chart as a basis for discussion.

I am not making a claim that any of these are correct. I am just trying to think this through visually. As I’ve got a day job, I need to get back to, I at least wanted to provide this foundation for conversation.


I’ve not read nearly at a pace as I’ve done in prior years, and I’ve got a million excuses. I did recently start and stop Quine’s Pursuit of Truth, but I’ve just picked up Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason.

EDIT: I’ve since finished this book and posted a review on Goodreads.

As a former behavioural economist, it’s good to see the expansion of the position that the Enlightenment brought the Western world an Age of Reason, but it failed to see how little capacity most humans have for reason even regarding mundane affairs.

Have you ever stopped to consider that literally half of the population has less than average intelligence?

Some guy

Fundamental attribution bias is clearly at play, as the authors of these Enlightenment works were high-intellect individuals. I respect greatly the likes of Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and their near contemporaries, but the world they envisaged was based on an invalid premise.

In the realm of governance, one might try to argue that Plato was trying to address this in his admonishment of democracy in favour of The Republic, but he, too, was incorrect, essentially not seeing principle-agent problems as well as predicating a system on the notion of virtue—naive, to say the least.

I’ve been tremendously busy in my day job, so I haven’t been able to contribute here as much as I’d like, but I’ve taken time to jot down this.

Stephen Hicks’ Strawman

I’ve been reading and listening to Conservative Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism. He’s made it free on YouTube and as PDF. It’s important to note that the book is a decent read, but Hicks makes little attempt to remain in a neutral voice. It’s clear that he is critical of it, so his explaining is not to articulate to the generally interested; rather, it’s to impose his worldview on the topic matter. Read or listen, but keep this in mind. If you lean Conservative, you’ll eye-roll in unison with him; if you lean to the Left, the eye-rolls will have a different significance, as he mows down one strawman after another.

In this clip (bookmarked from the full audiobook), he attempts to make the case that postmodernists—which is as motley a crew as a group of atheists—eschew the notion of rationality for the comfort of feelings. Sure, I suppose some postmodernists do make this argument, but it is hardly a universal position. Taking myself as an example, I have no illusion that most people can register let alone understand their feelings.

I recall being in a corporate-sponsored (human resource-sponsored) interpersonal communications class where the instructor made the claim that one should defend your position by invoking feelings:

  • Your loud voice frightened me.
  • I feel sad when you shout at me.
  • I feel anxious when…

My reaction then is about the same as it is as I write: Whilst I may not understand what the other person may be feeling, there is little reason for me to believe that this person has identified and named this feeling. There is also little reason to presume this person is conveying to me a correctly-interpreted feeling in lieu of a more hyperbolic version for maximum effect. Moreover, some people seem to be offended by pretty much anything. And there’s one thing I’ve learnt along the way:

A person looking to be offended is pretty much guaranteed to be offended.

So, absent context, I have no reason to take this person at their word. Call me a curmudgeon, if you please.

Like Jordan Peterson, a personality who promotes Hicks, standing up and knocking down strawmen seems to be their raisons d’être, but this is sloppy philosophy and lacks the integrity these people claim to admire. In any case, forewarned is forearmed. Caveat emptor.

EDIT: The more I read of Hicks, the less I like it. He misunderstands or at least misrepresents postmodernism in a big way. I am not sure whether it is intentional or through ignorance, but a certain expected academic neutrality is absent to the brink of malpractice.

Here is a fuller critique of Hicks’ misrepresentation of Postmodernism.

Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought