Rationalism Fetish

Something I've noticed a lot, especially in online communities, atheist communities, and geek communities, is a "rational ideal" that the members often purport themselves to adhere to.

Quite often, however, these so-called "rational" people will do irrational things, though they think of themselves as rational. Or at least, they say they are being rational. We cannot truly know what they think of themselves.

When talking about video games, and that the reasons people playing games do so for emotional reasons (usually those highs and lows, as well as social thingy), one guy piped up that he did not play games for emotional reasons, but rather for the apparently 'rational' reason of getting better at the game. Ignoring the fact that the satisfaction of getting better at a game is an emotional motivation, and also the psychological concept of "flow" as part of learning, this one person also got intensely emotional about games, publicly, and enough such that those near him feared for their own personal safety (see fps_doug for a staged version of that sort of outburst).

In another example, I take from the online atheist communities. A lot of words are said about converting the brainwashed masses, but ultimately many of those communities are about commiseration and smug self-satisfaction, neither of which lend themselves particularly well towards deconverting any religious individuals that wander on by. This bait-and-switch wrt rational lip service is rather frustrating for those that actually want to play the conversion game, so to speak.

And last example, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The story itself does occasionally touch on rational methods of one sort or another. However, the story is mostly about the transhumanist victory over death and the author smugly pointing out flaws (real, perceived, or invented for the purpose of 'beating') in the Harry Potter setting. The humour sometimes works.

What this appears to be is a culture of "Rationality" worship, without really understanding what that may or may not mean or acknowledging the adherents own failures of achieving their ideal.

It's similar to the American Government's lip service paid towards freedom. It makes them "look better", without any kind of sincerity.
Being "rational" is only important if it allows them to "win". Which, I suppose, is kind of rational in its own way. It is only about looking good.

In a way, this is "Rationalism" fetishisation, similar to the American "Freedom" fetishisation. But, at some point, one has to eventually stop jerking off and look at the cold dead disappointment in one's hands.

Addendum: After waking up and mulling over a few more thoughts about this:
I'm not saying rationality is bad. It's a perfectly fine thing to aspire to internally. However, you have to be wary of people who claim to be doing things for rational reasons.
Nathaniel Branden, one of the formative figures in the Self-Esteem movement and Ayn Rand groupie, said this of his affair with Ayn Rand:
"Ayn Rand thought that she was being irra- that she was being rational about anything or everything she did. So, it would have never occurred to me to ask if she was being rational about that. If she were here, I can feel her , she would say 'Why yes, do you think I would do something if I didn't think it was rational?'"
Ultimately, the affair exploded in her face. But her (apocryphal) claim does need addressing. The vast, vast, majority of people are not rationality calculators that are determining if an action is "rational" or not. They mostly follow learned behaviours of one sort or another, or fall to their baser emotions.
There are, of course, people who say they're not like that, and while I cannot actually see into their heads, they are likely to be rather abrasive people of one sort or another and unlikely to be the supreme rationalists they so want to be seen as.
Emotions are shortcuts to conclusions and behaviours. Being rational is hard. It's far easier to do or think things for emotional reasons and rationalise them later. To take a tale from the opposite side of the religious story, I've talked to a lot of religious people who said they rationally looked at their religion and others and just so happened to decide on the one that their community and parents brought them up in.
Ayn Rand smoked. Even if she was doing it because the nicotine fix was useful to her, there are healthier ways of injesting nicotine to reduce the risk of cancer/smelling like cigarettes. But she stood by death sticks to the bitter end on claims of rationality.
I suppose the moral of the story is to look inward and see if you're doing this, and also be wary of those that claim the "rational" high ground. Reasoned discourse is one thing, particularly when publishing papers, but if they're just making that claim in a normal or online conversation, be warned.


  1. It's ironic that at the turn of the last century the term 'rationalism' had connotations of religiousness and a disregard for science. I wonder what happened.

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