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.

More Illusion

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Democracy and thinking that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but in dialogue, I am having difficulty getting people to understand that I am talking about democracy as a concept—the very essence of democracy—, not how some place or another has implemented it. My point is that democracy is a silly system built on false hope, smoke, and mirrors.

Some get it, and they fall back to the Churchill quote:

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’

—Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

But this misses the point.

First, Churchill’s logic is limited to ‘forms that have been tried‘, a minuscule set to be sure.

Next, perhaps he is talking a position of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good. Except there is no one seeking perfection. The question is: what is good enough? Is Democracy in and of itself good enough? And it doesn’t end there, are there systems—even theoretically—better than democracy? And then, how might these systems fair when humans populate the model?

The problem is a systems thinking optimisation problem—and then there’s the question of what democracy is attempting to optimise. Clearly, this is a multifactor model, so what outputs are being optimised? It’s not likely that this would be a steady state model, and much of this relies on an unstable preference theory, so what is optimal today might no longer be optimal tomorrow—or in ten minutes.

how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

As anyone who follows me know, I have a problem with the notion of progress as well, so participants can vote on various definitions of progress and various initiates toward that end, and, of course, other participants would prefer the comfort zone of the nostalgic and familiar instead. So, how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

In the business world or entertainment, we are all familiar with the concept of death by committee, the slow deliberative process that mostly yields diluted results—results that might make the participants feel that they had a voice (perhaps), but—that would be ineffectual.

I am not eschewing coöperation.

I am not eschewing coöperation. I’m of the age where the Beatles were a big influence on me—and the Rolling Stones—, so I cherish the partnerships of Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. Their solo material paled miserably. The collaboration was synergetic. But there is a reason Ringo and Charlie were not asked to participate in the song-writing process. Their inputs would not have improved the output. Even imagine listening to an album of Ringo tunes: Act Naturally, Yellow Submarine, Octopuses Garden, What Goes On, Don’t Pass Me By, and Boys? Really? Right? And he only contributed to two of these anyway, save for lending his vocal instrument.

consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns

As I continue down this stream of consciousness, I consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns. So, even if there were a democratic system that could theoretically be optimised, it would have to face the human factor—and that would be subject to the diminishing marginal return of knowledge and information—, as we’d go down the participation pool from highly knowledgeable to low-information voters. And this doesn’t even address vested interests and conflicts of interest. It doesn’t even touch on the point that people are predictably irrational.

Plato’s Republic, in all of its elitist glory, offered a solution for this—aside from the philosopher-leader: a republic of the meritorious and virtuous (as if these were meaningful or measurable concepts). At least we wouldn’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel—or would we be?

merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency

The problem with Plato’s meritocratic approach is that the merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency—how to play the game of politics. And notion of virtue was nothing more than a façade, so rhetoric and the decorum of appearance is all that matters in this model.

Clearly, this stream is coming to an end, so I’ll disembark here and reembark later.