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Dec 28 2011

More Rational Than Thou: When Atheists Buy the “Straw Vulcan” Fallacy

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when atheists and skeptics criticize each other, and point out each others’ mistakes in reasoning. That’s supposed to be one of the cool things about us: we don’t have any sacred cows, we’re willing and indeed eager to question and be questioned, and to change our minds if we’re mistaken.

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 other’s rationality… about entirely subjective questions.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Two things have gotten me thinking about this. One is Julia Galef’s excellent talk at Skepticon 4, “The Straw Vulcan: Hollywood’s Illogical View of Logical Decision-Making.” Her main thesis was that the form of rationality that’s commonly depicted by Hollywood as hyper-rational is actually not rational at all: it’s a caricature, a straw-man version of rationality. But she also pointed out that many atheists and skeptics buy into these “straw Vulcan” myths about rationality. She argued that it’s a myth to think that obviously pragmatic goals, such as money, are the only rational goals to have. And one of her central points was that emotion is actually necessary for reason to work: without emotion, we have no way of deciding what we should care about and which goals we should be rationally working towards.

The other is a conversation I had on Facebook the day after Christopher Hitchens died. I’d posted an update saying, “Atheists around the world are getting soused tonight. This makes me oddly happy. Sort of a diffuse global community of drunkenness. I’ll be joining them soon myself.” And a commenter (who will remain anonymous unless they choose to self-disclose, since there’s a somewhat higher expectation of privacy on Facebook than there is on blogs) expressed irritation and bafflement at the atheist community embracing drunkenness, since it was anti-rational. When I asked, “What’s irrational about pleasure?”, they replied that pleasure was fine — unless the way of reaching it made you unable to think clearly.

Now. There are some good, rational arguments against drinking: against excessive drinking, at any rate, and against the degree to which alcohol permeates our culture. It can hurt people other than the one doing the drinking (drunk driving, an increased tendency towards violence, etc.). It can impair judgment: it can lead people to decisions that feel good in the short term but make them unhappy in the long term. It can be addictive: it can cause great unhappiness to one’s self and others, and still be stubbornly difficult to stop. I have alcoholism in my family. I know all this.

There are some good arguments against drinking. But “drinking makes you irrational” isn’t one of them.

There are plenty of experiences in life that make us behave irrationally. Falling in love. Singing. Riding a rollercoaster. Dancing all night. Playing with children. Playing with kittens. Jumping into an ice-cold pool. Eating an enormous, lavishly delicious meal. Having sex. Being gobsmacked by art. I’m sure y’all can think of more.

And they are some of the finest, deepest, most meaningful experiences life has to offer.

Let me give a specific example. Ingrid and I recently adopted three kittens (a fact no doubt known to most of you, since I can’t seem to shut up about it). From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this was an entirely irrational act. Cats are expensive. Cats are time-consuming, kittens especially so — and neither Ingrid nor I are exactly loaded with spare time. (If I’m blogging less than usual these days, it’s at least partly because kittens are a serious time suck. The one sitting on my chest and batting at my666666666666666666663y keyboard right now will attest to that.) Cats, and especially kittens, require significant re-arranging of our lives, in some cases leading to a fair degree of inconvenience. And, not at all trivially, I am allergic to cats. In order to be around them and not be in misery, I have to be on meds around the clock — and even with the meds, the allergies are quite noticeable. I even considered, after our last cat died, whether we should take a break from cats for a while, and give my allergies a break.

I considered it for about three days. And then I decided I was being ridiculous, and that we should definitely adopt new kittens, as soon as possible. I even said to Ingrid, “I think we should examine this question carefully, look seriously at our concerns about time and money and other issues, and think rationally about whether this is really the best time for us to get kittens. And then I think we should get kittens.”

Because we love having cats. Because having cats is one of the great pleasures of our life. Because after Violet died, coming home every night to an empty house seemed sad and off-kilter and deeply wrong. Because having kittens makes us laugh uproariously, every single night. Because having kittens makes our hearts burst with love. Because for me and Ingrid, the cost/benefit analysis of “time/ money/inconvenience/ allergies” versus “cuteness/ entertainment/ snuggling” falls squarely on the side of cuteness and entertainment and snuggling. It’s not even close.

Now, if you think that maximizing time, money, convenience, and/or physical health are inherently the most important goals we can reach for, then yes, adopting kittens — three of them, no less — was clearly an irrational act. But if you think that time, money, convenience, and/or physical health are means to an end, and that the ultimate reason for pursuing them is the pursuit of happiness… then it makes perfect sense. Having kittens makes me happier than not having kittens. The benefits outweigh the costs.

And yes, that’s an entirely subjective evaluation. I could make pragmatic arguments in favor of pet ownership: there’s some evidence that it reduces stress, and so on. But that’s not really relevant. Even if none of that stuff were true, I would still own cats. They make me happy. And when I’m talking about my own personal happiness, the subjective evaluation is the only one that matters.

What’s more, when it comes to subjective matters, irrationality and impulsiveness can be their own reward. In my experience, anyway. The rush of adventure, the excitement of jumping in feet-first, the exhilaration of being carried away, the transcendence of feeling overcome by the universe… these are pleasures in and of themselves. I don’t want my life to be totally overtaken by them… but I don’t want my life to shut them out, either.

Now. I can hear the objections already, from the progressive believers and the faitheists and the “if religion makes people happy, it makes sense to believe in it” crowd generally. “If that’s true about owning kittens,” they’ll say, “then why isn’t it true for believing in God? How can you defend making subjective decisions about what makes you happy based on irrational emotions and impulses… and still argue that people shouldn’t believe in God because there’s no good evidence for it?”

That’s where the “subjective/ objective” distinction comes in.

The question of whether God or the supernatural exists is not a subjective question of what’s true for us personally. It’s an objective question of what’s literally true in the real, non-subjective world. Any given god either exists, or doesn’t. And when it comes to questions of objective reality, rationality is the best tool we have for understanding it. We’ll probably never understand it perfectly — but we’re getting better and better approximations all the time. Including the increasingly undeniable conclusion that there is no God and no supernatural, and the physical world is all there is.

And I would argue — I have argued, and don’t have space to make the whole argument again here — that our lives are improved, and our happiness is increased, by applying rationality and skepticism to questions of what’s literally true in the real, non-subjective world. I would argue that self-deception about what is and is not really true is a harmful habit: that we need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it and can make better decisions about which causes will lead to which effects. And I would argue that, when people claim that they don’t care whether the things they believe are true, they’re usually full of shit.

So yes. I care about reality, and I care about rationality. And if I have flaws in my reasoning about God or the soul or the afterlife, about vaccines or the historical Jesus or the failure of deregulation in the financial industry… then by all means, tell me about it. I’ll do the same for you.

But if I get pleasure from drinking or sports, fashion or kittens… please don’t try to argue that I’m being irrational. If you do, then you’re being irrational. And I’m sure as heck going to tell you about it.

Apropos of nothing: I’m on Twitter! Follow me, @gretachristina .

39 comments

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  1. 1
    antialiasis

    Amen to all of that. Especially the kittens.

    It bugs me when people can’t tell the difference between questions of fact, such as “Does X exist?”, and personal decision questions.

  2. 2
    mrianabrinson

    I hear you about loving one’s pets. I have 2 cats. At one time I had 3 which was a bit much, but I loved all 3, and still love the 2 I still have, dearly. They are like family to my sons and me. I get it from both theists and atheists concerning my love for animals in general and I get quite sick of it personally, esp, like you, they make me happy. I hate cherry pie, but that doesn’t mean I go and tell those who love it and are happy while eating they are irrational. After a while, it really gets ridiculous what people critique.

  3. 3
    John K.

    Can we argue about the article? Or is it subjective also? I am kidding of course.

    In seriousness though, I don’t really think we need a special “subjective” category for things that can never be challenged. We can think about the consequences of actions and see if the results match up with our goals. This article does a fine job discussing the consequences of things like owning kittens or drinking in a rational way. They seem like they can be worthwhile things to discuss.

    As for criticisms like “don’t drink because it makes you irrational”, it does not seem like you need to immediately halt all discussion because the decision is irrational or subjective. You can, and I think this article does, argue that stringent rationality at all times is not always desirable. There is a rational and persuasive case that owning kittens can provide happiness and fulfillment that is worth the costs to someone.

    Throwing up our hands and declaring something a subjective decision that cannot be discussed seems like a poor tactic. If someone wants to own cats because they think it will give them good luck to win the lottery, that is not just a subjective decision above discussion. If you want cats and understand the responsibilities and costs and think it will make you happier overall, that is a rational decision that can indeed be defended.

  4. 4
    Brad

    Every time I read one of these long, well-thought out pieces, I hope there is a book deal down the way to collect all of these into one place, so I can pass it around to friends, and a few foes.
    Totally agree with balance of intellect/logic to emotion/happiness. Heck, have music on in the background, and song “Double Face” by Deodato and Jarreau started up– and I stopped typing because I was nodding so strong to the beat, couldn’t keep my fingers co-ordinated on the keyboard. A waste of time? An interruption in getting something done? An illogical physical response to an external audio stimulus? Or a giving over for a moment to pure joy?
    And to continue to waste your time on non-logic, here’s a link to it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrlZo8zgSUw
    Now, everyone dance in your chairs for a few unlogical minutes! Then as slightly happier people, we can get back to fighting the good fights.

  5. 5
    Alyson Miers

    I think a useful distinction between the joy of being owned by a cat and the joy of religion is in the responsibilities expected of cat-lovers vs. religious believers. Those who are owned by cats are expected to do all their cat-tending and pay their vet bills, get them spayed or neutered, not let them terrorize other people’s pets or defecate on other people’s property, etc.

    Whereas, religion can’t seem to keep its nose out of public policy, healthcare, science and history education, environmental sustainability, and so forth. Religious practice affects people outside of the religion in question. If it were strictly a matter of people privately and quietly believing things that aren’t true, then we’d live in quite a different world.

    (To go off on a tangent: I didn’t know you were allergic to cats. I’m allergic, too, and I also took in a kitten, albeit years ago, and currently can’t shut up about him. I don’t have any now, because the value of “not getting kicked out of my apartment” is somewhat more important than the value of “cuteness/purring/snuggling” for the foreseeable future.)

  6. 6
    screechymonkey

    Interestingly, I never seem to see the Straw Vulcans take aim at fiction, even though there’s no shortage of love for fictional (esp. science fictional) books, TV shows, and movies in the atheist community.

    After all, to the extent there actually are any Straw Vulcan-accepted pragmatic benefits to watching Star Trek, reading George R. R. Martin, etc., they are surely outweighed by the benefits of using that time to read about the “real world,” or exercise, or earn more money, etc.

    But I probably answered my own question. Although they’re a minority within a minority, it’s not hard to find non-drinking atheists. It is pretty hard to find atheists who don’t enjoy at least some forms of fiction. Maybe it really is as simple as “no, only your pleasures are irrational.”

  7. 7
    stonyground

    The part about drinking is particularly relevant in the UK where we have fake charities* lecturing us daily using made up statistics about our evil, life destroying ways. I love to have wine with a meal. My favourite drinks are beer and whisky, I only drink whisky at Christmas and at the Autumn equinox** as I think that spirits should only be taken in moderation. The obviously subjective aspect of the drink question is the balance between how good it makes you feel against the risks to your health. Even if such things could be accurately quantified there would still be an argument about the benefits of abstention versus drinking in moderation versus being permanently pissed***.

    Shortening your life would seem to be a bad thing at first glance. Having visited a care home, when my dad was on his last legs, and seen the sad fate of those who have outlived their ability to actually live, I now have serious doubts about that.

    *Fake charities are organisations that pose as charities but are actually funded by unwitting taxpayers. They solicit donations and lobby the government about issues that the government order them to lobby the government about. They willingly do this because they have an axe to grind anyway but also because if they step out of line the government will cut off their funding. It goes without saying that this is all illegal.

    **I was conceived at Christmas and born on September 21st.

    ***Our government issues guidelines about safe limits of alchohol intake. Every bit of government propaganda on the subject quotes these. What they fail to mention is that these guidlines have no scientific basis and that a puritanical methodist zealot made them up.

  8. 8
    Alonzo Fyfe

    I think you are using an ultimately useless concept of “subjectivity”. It is a concept that is very common – but ultimately useless.

    It’s like the vulcan straw man of unemotional rationality. I agree – this is nonsense. Desires determine our ends – not reason. Reason simply tells us the best way to fulfill our desires.

    On the related issue of subjectivity, you compare “subjective” with “aren’t the same for everybody.”

    However, please note that things like age, height, parentage, and location are also not the same for everybody. We do not say that these things are “subjective.” There is an objective fact about what a person’s age is – even though different people can have different ages.

    The same is true with statements about individual likes and dislikes. “I liked Lord of the Rings” is ‘subjective’ in the same sense that ‘I have a scar on my left knee’ is subjective.

    It is a mistake to argue from the fact that I have a scar on my knee to conclusions that suggest that others also either do or should have a scar on their left knee. This is a mistake of reason. It is not something distinct from or outside of reason.

    Similarly, the mistake of arguing from “I liked the Lord of the Rings” to conclusions that depend on the premise that “all people either do or should like Lord of the Rings” is also flawed.

    Likes and dislikes are subjective in exactly the same way that height, age, parentage, and blood pressure parentage are subjective. Different people have different likes and dislikes, but we can still incorporate them into our discussion as objective facts.

  9. 9
    Bruce Gorton

    For me, my temper rules out drinking, so I never acquired a taste for alcohol. So not drinking because I want to keep a clear head really is a rational decision on my part.

    That said, good article.

  10. 10
    WScott

    “I liked Lord of the Rings” is ‘subjective’ in the same sense that ‘I have a scar on my left knee’ is subjective.

    Uh, no it’s not. The latter is making a factual statement about whether or not something exists. If I look at your knee and see there’s no scar, then your factual statement is disproven.
    OTOH, saying you like/dislike something is a statement of preference. There’s no right or wrong answer, there’s no way to clearly prove/disprove it* because the preference exists solely inside my own head. That’s what “subjective” means.

    * OK, if you observe that my house is plastered with LoTR posters, memoribilia, etc, and my browser cache indicates I spend hours a day on LoTR fan sites, that would certainly be supporting evidence. But it’s still not proof in the sense of “There’s no scar there.”

  11. 11
    WScott

    I enjoyed Julia’s talk too (video, not in person). But I have definitely known a few Straw Vulcans in my life. I suppose it’s natural for people who are good at X to feel that X is good/moral/desirable, and to regard anything that detracts from X as bad/immoral/undesirable. But it’s unfortunate that so many “rational” people see rationality and emotion as binary positions, rather than complementary ways of looking at things.

    That said, I do think there are times when it is appropriate to look rationally at the things that give us pleasure. For example, if your allergies were so severe that they were severely impacting your life, ruining your work, etc, then it could be intervention time. “Look, I know you like cats, but I don’t think you appreciate the full cost of having them.” Ditto for drinking, bad relationships, Twilight fandom, etc. That’s what friends are for. Yes, the ultimate value judgment is inherently subjective, but subjective doesn’t have to be entirely free of rational thought.

  12. 12
    dragonfly

    As a longtime bartender (and longtime heavy drinker!) I’ve always had an issue with statements claiming that drinking makes people violent. (Or have “an increased tendency towards violence.”)
    In my experience, the people who get drunk and then get violent get drunk in order to get violent. They’re violent people to start with, looking for trouble, and they use alcohol to lower their inhibitions in order to do so. From what I’ve seen, if you’re not a violent, mean person, getting drunk will not make you so.

    I was SO HAPPY to see this study that just came out, which confirms that it is personality traits which determine whether a person will be violent when drunk – as they say, whether a person is the sort of person who usually considers the consequences of their actions.
    http://www.livescience.com/17610-alcohol-aggression-personality.html

    (No longer a bartender, now drinking quite a bit less, but still feel the ability to rationally make a decision to get drunk if I’m going to enjoy it!)

    Good article, anyway!

  13. 13
    Cory Brunson

    WScott, the factual claim is, i think, a quality of the person’s brain. One can more easily pretend to like LotR than to be seven feet tall, but it may be pretending all the same. That is, that which is solely inside one’s own head is still a property of the universe, whether or not we have the means or the inclination to investigate it carefully.

    I agree (i think) with Alonzo Fyfe that we needn’t draw a distinction between “subjective” and “objective” to criticize strife over personal preferences. It is unworthy of our time to argue over whether someone genuinely likes LotR, but if it is indeed true (as it almost certainly is in most cases) then there is plenty to be gained from obsessing over it (to a point). Christina’s point may be made in these terms, which is how i interpret Fyfe’s comment.

  14. 14
    Allen C. Dexter

    What I hate to see is the injection of personal opinions and prejudices into a budding atheistic dogmatism. That smacks too much of a religious attitude, i.e. I’m right and you’re wrong–stop it.

    I, too, had an uncle who had a problem with alcohol, but that is no reason for me to deny myself or others the pleasure of an occasional drink or more. I studiously avoid drinking anything if I’m planning to drive just out of good citizen, concerned with mine and others welfare sense of responsibility. I don’t particularly like cats, and neither does my wife, but we love the stuffing out of our three little dogs, and yes, we have monetary and practical problems we are saddled with as a result of that love and commitment. It’s worth it.

    Let’s keep freedom and individuality as a pilar in our movement. Religious-type prejudice and judgmentalism has no place here.

  15. 15
    'Tis Himself

    I enjoy sailing. If I had my druthers I’d go sailing every day. I agree with Ratty in Wind In the Willows:

    There is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

    So why don’t I go sailing every day? Because I have an expensive habit called “eating.” If I went sailing every day I wouldn’t be able to support this habit. Therefore, I have made a rational decision to limit my sailing to good weather weekends so I can spend the weekdays working to support my eating habit.

    But I’d rather be sailing.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    “If that’s true about owning kittens,” they’ll say, “then why isn’t it true for believing in God? How can you defend making subjective decisions about what makes you happy based on irrational emotions and impulses… and still argue that people shouldn’t believe in God because there’s no good evidence for it?”

    I know why, I know why!

    It’s because you don’t think your kittens are God.

    Srsly.

  17. 17
    John Morales

    Allen:

    What I hate to see is the injection of personal opinions and prejudices into a budding atheistic dogmatism. That smacks too much of a religious attitude, i.e. I’m right and you’re wrong–stop it.
    [...]
    Let’s keep freedom and individuality as a pilar in our movement. Religious-type prejudice and judgmentalism has no place here.

    You forgot the irony tag.

  18. 18
    Idran

    I guess I’m confused about what exactly is irrational about your decision to own cats. You weighed the pros and cons, one of which among the pros was “they make me really happy and things feel wrong without them”. You say you just dismissed the cons, but it sounds more like they were just insignificant against how the cats make you feel. That sounds like a totally rational way to decide something to me.

    I don’t mean that in a jokey “cats are awesome so obviously it is rational to want them” way, I mean that I literally don’t see any reason why your thought process with the cats can be fairly characterized as irrational, and anyone that tells you that thought process is irrational is just wrong. If they make you that happy even compared with the reasons you came up with to not have cats, then the rational decision is to get the cats.

  19. 19
    Idran

    Just to clarify my last post, I’m not meaning that this does fall into the stupid Straw Vulcan cliche, I just mean that as you said, emotional responses have to be considered as an important aspect when making a rational decision. And just because a decision or action is made on the basis of an emotional reaction, that doesn’t make it an irrational decision or action in the slightest.

  20. 20
    Greta Christina

    That said, I do think there are times when it is appropriate to look rationally at the things that give us pleasure. For example, if your allergies were so severe that they were severely impacting your life, ruining your work, etc, then it could be intervention time. “Look, I know you like cats, but I don’t think you appreciate the full cost of having them.” Ditto for drinking, bad relationships, Twilight fandom, etc. That’s what friends are for. Yes, the ultimate value judgment is inherently subjective, but subjective doesn’t have to be entirely free of rational thought.

    WScott @ #11: That’s a good point, and one I totally agree with. I do think many people would be better off, for instance, if they applied at least some rational thinking to their love lives. And I think it’s totally reasonable to tell the people you care about, “I think (X) may be interfering with your judgment — including your judgment about what makes you happy.” I just think there’s a difference between telling a friend that you think they have a drinking problem — and telling a total stranger on the Internet that drinking is inherently irrational.

    I guess I’m confused about what exactly is irrational about your decision to own cats. You weighed the pros and cons, one of which among the pros was “they make me really happy and things feel wrong without them”. You say you just dismissed the cons, but it sounds more like they were just insignificant against how the cats make you feel. That sounds like a totally rational way to decide something to me.

    Idran @ #18: I agree. That’s kind of my point. Other atheists/ skeptics may tell me that my decision to get kittens is inherently irrational… but that’s because they’re assuming that time/ money/convenience/ lack of allergies are inherently more important than cuteness/ entertainment/ snuggling. And this is an irrational position. Time/ money/ convenience/ lack of allergies are means to an end. That end is happiness. And I get to decide which means are more likely to result in my subjective experience of happiness. It’s entirely rational for me to do so bases on my own criteria, rather than someone else’s.

  21. 21
    Nike Eve

    Hooray, I’m not the only cat-allergic person in the world who still loves having kitties around! Here I thought I was some kinda weirdo :D

  22. 22
    absent sway

    I really appreciate this post. I don’t prefer, in casual interactions, to explain the social logic of respecting other people’s opinions and decisions about subjective things. There are times when I censor myself in the hope of avoiding what I consider to be a pissing contest in snobbery. I didn’t escape years of indoctrination and patriarchal authority to justify my every preference to someone else eager to set himself up as my superior on any technicality. Sometimes on atheist websites I feel like I’m interacting with that “Bones” character, where logic is applied to the point of absurdity. That said, the level of discourse is typically high and rewarding, with what I just complained about being the exception.

  23. 23
    nicholasgwynne

    “That ‘Bones’ character” is the titular one, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (in case anyone wants to look up the reference).

    That end is happiness. And I get to decide which means are more likely to result in my subjective experience of happiness. It’s entirely rational for me to do so bases on my own criteria, rather than someone else’s.

    This strikes me as actually being an optimization problem, and thus completely logically/rationally solvable, in principle. It is, however, currently unsolvable due to lack of information about the human mind, and a lack of good heuristics about how the interaction with the world affects both greater and smaller phenomena (basically, science isn’t ‘done’ yet). You are optimizing happiness. That is your stated, supposedly mutually accepted goal. Let’s take this as a given. I still don’t think you get to decide what is more likely to result in your subjective experience of happiness.

    You have more direct access to the experience that are causing you the immediate subjective experience of happiness, but you could, for example, make an error about the likelihoods involved, or the total costs involved, or any other manner of error people make when reasoning through cost-benefit analyses. It’s definitely not rational to base this purely on your subjective experiences, no matter how right or good this feels. The reason this generally SEEMS like it is an okay way to think is that everyone has incomplete information, and it is often impossible to verify who is correct in any one limited circumstance.

    Predicting the distant future is hard, and many of the consequences of these actions are not well understood by medical or other sciences. Until these consequences are better understood, it probably doesn’t matter whether you listen to yourself or others, but I really don’t think these separate categories exist in the way that you think they do.

    If, however, I’ve made some sort of logical error, please let me know.

  24. 24
    Roel

    Rationality is not about goals but about means. There is no objective reason to prefer happiness over sadness, but if you do, and kittens make you happy, then it is very rational to have kittens, even if they cost a lot of money.

  25. 25
    El Suscriptor Justiciero

    Ophelia Benson:

    It’s because you don’t think your kittens are God.

    They do, though. In your kitten’s POW, he’s the center of the universe and you’re his pets.
    I know, having lived with cats pretty much all my life. I love these cute little, egocentric deities =^·^=

    Dragonfly:

    if you’re not a violent, mean person, getting drunk will not make you so. [...] it is personality traits which determine whether a person will be violent when drunk

    So true, alcohol doesn’t really induce anything other than stupor and mind-numbness, being a neurodepressant and all. In other words, the only thing drunkness does is shutting your brain down. Problem is, the first part of your brain to get turned off is your inhibition.
    Thus, hibition ensues. (Gets shot)

  26. 26
    valhar2000

    I feel like I’m interacting with that “Bones” character, where logic is applied to the point of absurdity

    Actually, if you think about it, Bones is quite irrational a lot of the time. What she is pretty good at (at least when the writers aren’t phoning it in) is rationalizing her actions.

  27. 27
    JJR

    “….certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”;

    The first draft read “property”; I believe it was Jefferson who prevailed on them to change it to pursuit of happiness. Thank goodness for that.

  28. 28
    Sara K.

    I understand the point you try to make, and I agree that it is irrational to say that liking Twilight is inherently irrational.

    That said, there are some gray areas. For example, setting up a government. There are many ways to run/set up a government, and though most people think that constitutional republics have a better track record than absolute monarchies, there is no form of government which one could conclusively point out as being the best form. And even if most people decide to have a constitutional republic … there are a zillion ways to write a constitution. So a large part of the decision of which type of government to form is subjective. On the other hand, everybody within a certain territory has to live with the government, so individuals can’t simply choose to have whatever government form they prefer. And, if citizens’ rights are being respected, there needs to be a lot of discussion and arguments. Some arguments are a lot more rational than others, even though there is no ‘true’ answer as to which form of government is best.

  29. 29
    FormerComposer

    A brief thought about terminology:

    Words like “rational” and “irrational”, for better or worse, contain varying degrees of approval / disapproval within them in normal use. Might not there be aspects of our lives which could (should?) be described as “non-rational”? Areas or approaches where rationality is not the important technique (or judgment) to use? “Arational” might also work but I don’t know if I’ve got the Greek or Latin roots combined correctly. Since so many folks don’t really get the whole “a-” thing anyway (witness the battles about “atheist” and “agnostic”), maybe we should steer clear of that path.

  30. 30
    Russell P.

    Greta, I think it’s all the practice we get arguing with Christian subjectivity that causes the ‘frenzy’ with which some atheists attack about everything around. It’s hard to turn that off.

  31. 31
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    I’ve observed that the Straw Vulcan meme gets hauled out most frequently by men who wish to condemn some activity that’s associated with female gender roles – staying home with (or even having) kids, knitting, cooking, fashion, reading the deliciously trashy Earth’s Children series, liking vanilla yogurt… (Seriously, I once had an actual argument with a male atheist who insisted that he could not try vanilla yogurt until he’d figured out whether it was something he would like, and that the “trying and then evaluating” attitude towards new foods was “irrational.” I married him anyway.)

    Also, I’d really like for the skeptical movement (and our culture in general!) to accept that emotions are part of the cognitive system. They result from a huge amount of non-conscious information processing, and simply dismissing them is tantamount to turning off a large amount of one’s brain. Sure, let’s examine the conclusions reached via emotional reasoning, and let’s pay very close attention to the biases in the algorithms, but to dismiss emotions entirely is just, um, irrational.

    The drinking question is complicated. As a non-drinker, I find being around inebriated people unpleasant because the quality of their conversation changes so dramatically. I wish there were more late-night non-drinking social settings at conferences. But I don’t rush about lecturing people about how drinking is irrational.

  32. 32
    wscott

    @ Cory:

    WScott, the factual claim is, i think, a quality of the person’s brain. One can more easily pretend to like LotR than to be seven feet tall, but it may be pretending all the same. That is, that which is solely inside one’s own head is still a property of the universe, whether or not we have the means or the inclination to investigate it carefully.

    The point isn’t how hard it is to investigate the claim. (My apologies if I led you down that tangent.) The point is that claiming to be 7 feet tall is objectively true or objectively false; regardless of who is making the claim, it has a tangibly right or wrong answer. But if I think LOTR is “great” and you think it’s “awful” then neither of us is right or wrong. That’s what subjective means. The fact that my preference is “real inside my head” may be semantically true, but doesn’t address the fundamental difference between statements of fact vs. statements of preference.

    @ Greta:

    I just think there’s a difference between telling a friend that you think they have a drinking problem — and telling a total stranger on the Internet that drinking is inherently irrational.

    Agreed. But…hmmm. Is it different because it’s a friend saying it vs. a stranger? Or is it different because one is a specific statement based on observations of how much you drink vs. making an abstract statement about drinking in general? Seems to me the first is a social distinction, not a rational/irrational distinction. But it’s Thursday, so I could be over-thinking it.

  33. 33
    DSimon

    You are optimizing happiness. That is your stated, supposedly mutually accepted goal.

    Careful, that’s not a very good goal, at least not without qualifiers. (Apologies if the following really bog-standard humanist stuff is already familiar for you, as I suspect it is, but for the purposes of discussion I feel it’s worth mentioning.)

    If a genie appeared, and you trusted it, and you told it “I wish to be maximally happy forever” (as would be required by a process optimizing happiness), you would end up with the pleasure centers of your brain constantly at full stimulation, any parts of your brain that might cause you to get bored or acclimated adjusted or removed, and no reason to ever do anything again.

    I don’t ever want to be turned into orgasmium; that would be the end of me as a thinking person.

    So, in addition to all the practical optimization process implementation details you mentioned, we also need to be careful about our utility function, because it doesn’t seem to be anything especially obvious when we try to define it precisely.

  34. 34
    ShaunPhilly

    I’m a little lat to the game, but I’ve been busy the last few days. I finally got a chance to write up a response:

    Greta Christina, subjective irrationality, and NOMA

    (http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/greta-christina-subjective-irrationality-and-noma/)

    I will say that I agree with you, Greta, generally. I just noticed a philosophical oversight, or perhaps point of disagreement, with one part of your analysis.

    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.

  35. 35
    Harold

    “If that’s true about owning kittens,” they’ll say, “then why isn’t it true for believing in God? Whether you want to admit it or not the progressive believers are correct in their assumption.

    This post hints at a secular justification for being religions. That is if what you say about subjectivity is true. Of course correctly understanding the distinction between subjective and objective is imperative here.

    Not all questions are objective ones as you say correctly. Some questions are subjective. When discussing the justifications of god or religion we have two options. We can discuss it objectively or subjectively.

    What this post shows is that there are different levels of proof and justification for objectivity and subjectivity. Subjectivity is based on the person’s passions, feelings, preferences and experiences. As you say “if it’s true for you, then it’s true”.

    When discussing the justification for believing in god or a religion on a subjective level, god’s existence is not important. What is important, is the person’s enjoyment and/or benefit from that religion or belief in god. Subjectivity unlike objectivity is about the individual and what makes them happy and is beneficial for them.

    I will say it again, a person is right to believe in a religion for subjective reasons. As you say “Even if non of that stuff were true, I would still own cats.” Objective facts are not important here. Just as you objective facts have no barring on your feelings about your cats.

    You enjoy them for subjective reasons. The same is true with religion. Objective facts are not important. What this really all boils down to is “Meaning”. Meaning is a subjective process.

    It is something that we all do. Meaning is not an objective fact. Meaning does not exist. Yet we create it. One person likes cats another hates them. Both are correct in their personal beliefs. Religion is the same way; some people are atheists some people are religious. Both are correct because both are in the act of creating meaning.

    I know as an atheist it is hard to say that religious beliefs are justified for any reason. Yet if what you say about subjectivity is true then religious belief is justified on subjective grounds.

    -Harold

  36. 36
    George Greaves

    Amazing blog. Just spot on, i’ve never thought of the distinction between subjective and objective rational matters before

  37. 37
    Ben01

    Loved your post, as always. Just wanted to add something that I read a little while back that clarifies these distinctions more exhaustively. It comes from ‘Critical Thinking: A concise guide’ by Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp, 3rd Edition, chapter 8. They basically state there are three different kinds of claims.
    1. The simple proposition (the sky is blue)
    2. A proposition that is context-relative (I am wearing yellow pants)
    3. A proposition that is speaker-relative (English is difficult for me)

    Saying that having kittens is good for you (since the pros outweigh the cons considering your preferences) falls under the third category. However, the claim that god exists falls under the first category.

    @8 Alonzo Fyfe said that subjectivity was too vague because ‘the same for everyone’ also meant that age and other objective information could be deemed subjective. The proposition ‘he is 65 years old’ is context sensitive, because it depends on who is meant with ‘he’. Nevertheless, there is an actual factual proposition being proposed. For instance “Anthony Daniels is 65 years old” which is either true or not true.

    This differs from speak-relative statements in that the statement ‘It is preferred to have a kitten’ is different from ‘It is preferred to have a kitten for Greta Christina’. The first tries to propose a universal truth, naïvely leaving out personal preferences, while the second simply states that one person weighing the costs comes to a subjective conclusion. Of course, the weighing of costs can be based on faulty information. For instance, like WScott @11 pointed out, one’s allergies could be so severe that having a kitten was doing more harm than the owner realises.

    One important caveat is that the ‘true for me’ defence cannot be used for simple propositions. They are sometimes used like that, but in those cases it is a logical fallacy. You simply cannot claim that “That there is a god is true for me” like you could claim “Chocolate ice cream tastes the best for me”.

    Now… I’m off to watch the talk by Julia Galef.

  38. 38
    Dunc

    Of course, the really funny thing is that there’s almost nothing in the world so irrational as arguing with strangers on the internet about the rationality of their personal subjective judgements. I mean, what could you possibly hope to accomplish? :D

  39. 39
    NIck

    Good on you for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but this needs saying: sometimes, “that’s irrational” is code for “that squicks me out” or “I despise your taste”.

  1. 40
    Greta Christina, subjective irrationality, and NOMA « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic

    [...] 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 [...]

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