The Birth of Individualism
Recall how the medieval Catholic worldview transitioned to the worldview of the Renaissance.
In the middle ages, Catholicism dominated Europe, and one of its most central teachings was the doctrine of Original Sin. The church maintained that human nature was fallen, or fundamentally corrupt and inclined towards sin. Only God and Jesus could provide salvation from burning eternally in the fires of hell, and only the Catholic church could provide access to God. Thus, the only way to find salvation was to submit oneself to the teachings and the guidance of the church. Since human nature had been tainted, it followed that one could not trust one’s own bodily urges, one’s emotions and intuitions; these were corrupt, and would only lead one into sin.
This mentality, this absolute trust in the authority of the church and distrust in the urges of the body, persisted until the Catholic church grew so corrupt that people could no longer believe it was the source of the word of God. But when the church’s authority crumbled, where could people look to for a sense of direction? With no external guidance from the church, there was nowhere to turn but inwards, following one’s own reasoning, and trusting one’s own intuition. Thus, we see individualism bud and begin to flourish in Europe.
First we get the Protestant reformation, which turned away from the complications of the Catholic church, returning directly to scripture. Since external authorities could no longer be trusted to interpret the word of God, it was up to each man to understand the scriptures for himself.
The Renaissance and the Protestant reformation led into the age of Enlightenment, where faith in reason prevailed. It was during this period that science as we know it now was born. For in medieval times, men could only trust truths handed down by the authority of the Catholic church. After the Protestant reformation, men could interpret the Bible themselves, but were still forced to seek truth within its pages. But now, in the age of Enlightenment, men learned to trust their own reason as a source of truth.
Movements like Romanticism, though they rejected the Enlightenment’s rationality, were an even further departure from the medieval mentality. Romanticism encouraged people to trust their emotions and intuitions over reason; these were the very parts of man once thought to be most deeply corrupted by original sin. Thus Romanticism marked an even further progress into individualism, encouraging not a trust in the universal principles of logic and mathematics, but instead a trust in one’s one deepest, most personal experience, that which is most subjective.
Empiricism and Individualism
Out of the Enlightenment grew science as we know it today, and the key to this science was its emphasis on empiricism. The philosophy of empiricism cried, “Do not trust the teachings of authority. Do not even trust your own intuitions and reasoning. Go out into the world and observe!” Logic, reason, and mathematics may be essential tools for constructing new hypotheses, but no hypothesis can be accepted until it is verified through experiment. As Feynman said, “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”
Those who believe in the grand cause of Science-with-a-capital-‘S’ are often intensely individualistic. According to their worldview, Science and Reason have triumphed over old authorities. The individual is no longer subject to the whims of cruel monarchs; neither is he force-fed knowledge by the Church. Instead, individuals rule themselves by democracy, and seek truth for themselves using science. Both of these endeavors (democracy and science) rely on a certain faith in human reason. Without reason, how could people ever hope to make good decisions in elections? Without reason, how could scientists trust their hypotheses or their ability to interpret their empirical findings?
But now, despite the intimate connection between science and individualism, a new sort of orthodoxy has begun to crystallize within the scientific establishment.
The Doctrine of Original Irrationality
I will repeat: in the scientific worldview I have described, it is up to the individual to find truth for himself, guided by his faculties of reason (which gives him the ability to formulate hypotheses) and his senses (which allow him to make empirical observations). This is an empowering worldview, one which teaches the individual to trust his mind’s thoughts and his body’s perceptions.
But Mitchell Porter observes that this trust has eroded:
The fact that these materialist or computationalist philosophies of consciousness, which are supposedly empirically motivated, end up requiring us to interpret utterly elementary and ubiquitous aspects of subjective experiences (like time, like colors) as illusions, tells you how anti-empirical they actually are. Empiricism originally means based in experience. It is mildly ironic that the scientific philosophy, which started out with an emphasis on seeing everything for yourself, has given rise to this new theoretical outlook which requires the believing practitioner to denigrate the reality of their own perceptions in favor of a theoretical apriori, an apriori that is loosely justified by elaborate reasonings and highly indirect evidence.
I blame this erosion of trust on what I will call the doctrine of Original Irrationality. This set of beliefs, which saturates the rationalist community, emphasizes human fallibility. Our senses are woefully imprecise and our minds are afflicted by a plague of cognitive biases. The research of Kahneman and Tversky has shown us that man is fundamentally irrational; cognitive biases are inherent to our nature. We must always strive to overcome these biases, but we will never be completely free of their influence. And thus we can no longer trust our own minds.
But if we can’t trust ourselves, then who can we trust? We are now forced to look to an external authority for help in our quest for truth, just as we were in the middle ages. But this time, the authority is Science.
At this point, it becomes necessary to distinguish between two kinds of science. Up until now, I have only discussed science as practiced by the individual, science as a personal endeavor. But there is also Science as practiced by the scientific system as a whole. This system is concerned with maintaining an established body of scientific knowledge. According to the doctrine of Original Irrationality, it is this knowledge, and not our own reason and experiences, which we must trust. Even an individual scientist cannot find the truth on his own, but must rely on the scientific institution as a truth-discovering engine.
Consider this quote from Jonathan Haidt:
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. … [M]ost of the bizarre and depressing research findings [about cognitive biases] make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.
I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual‘s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to ‘decide’ whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.
In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.
This quote is representative of the position which I will call scientific orthodoxy. The individual cannot find truth on his own. Instead, he must trust the system to find it for him.
The Fallibility of the Scientific System
You may be wondering, what exactly am I arguing for in this post? Am I advocating a return to the naivety of the past, to a blind faith in reason? Certainly not. That faith was shattered by the research of Kahneman and Tversky, and rightly so; we cannot return to that worldview now. So let me be clear that I think it’s essential for us to recognize the limits of our own minds and senses. To do otherwise is pure folly.
But we should not replace our blind faith in reason with a blind faith in the scientific establishment. Human beings are fallible, surely, but the system is as well. The system may do better on average, but that does not mean that when an individual disagrees with the system, the individual must be wrong and the system must be right. After all, the system is made up of individuals. The system’s knowledge grows out of the contributions of individuals; its biggest growth spurts come from individuals who doubt the received scientific wisdom and dare to shift the paradigm.
I am not saying anything new here; we all know that the scientific system is fallible; we all know that our current models are most likely incomplete and incorrect. And yet many of us act as if anything written in a paper is Absolute Scientific Fact. There is a divide between our conscious recognition of the system’s fallibility and our intuitive trust in its authority. For instance, we realize that much of psychology research just surveys a few hundred undergraduates, assumes them to be representative of the human race, and proceeds to draw general conclusions about the workings of the human mind. Yet who among us takes this into account when updating his beliefs? I confess that I am guilty here. I know that when I am reading a blog post online, and the writer states some fact accompanied by a scientific paper supporting it, I almost never look at the paper. Instead, the presence of a citation is enough to fill me with trust in the truth of the fact. The fact has only to hold up its citation, and the guards of my knowledge base will welcome it in. How much false certainty have I gained in this manner?
So I exhort you: be skeptical of every scientific finding you see, especially when you only read a fact and do not consult the original paper. Do not trust blindly in the wisdom of the scientific establishment. When your intuition disagrees with the received wisdom, weigh both carefully instead of automatically discarding your intuition in favor of the teachings of the authority.
It will not be easy to resist the pull of scientific orthodoxy. As humans, we have a propensity to seek out authorities and then drink in their wisdom unquestioningly. This propensity grows even stronger when we can’t trust our own reason or intuition, as many of us will become desperate for a source of truth, for anything to close up the sucking void of uncertainty.
Let us not give in to our fears and temptations. Let us resist our tendencies towards blind trust in authorities. Let us remind ourselves of the fallibility of the scientific system. Let us not fall victim to the doctrine of Original Irrationality.