Can Everyone Philosophize?

In a recent comment Kevin Baker writes:

All of us here, you me, everyone who spends time in here reading this stuff, has the intellect, inclination, free time and motivation to think about philosophy.

And what percentage of the population do we represent? How many people don’t have any or all of the prerequisites? What portion of the population – worldwide – is interested only in accumulating enough food for themselves and their children? Is secondarily interested in the safety, security, and health of same? And will follow anybody who promises to provide that? Or at least promises to stay taking that, so long as they cooperate? How many will sacrifice themselves if it means the promise of the future safety of their children?

We all have the faculty but few will employ it properly under current circumstances.

By nature all men have a rational faculty but it gets employed two different ways. We are instrumentally rational when we employ reason in pursuit of a goal, whatever it may be. It’s the faculty we use to get from point A to point B. This is the default rationality that we see in nearly all men nearly all the time. It’s what makes us economic agents – we’re goal directed and we have an ability to achieve goals.

There is a rationality beyond the instrumental. We are epistemically rational when we require that our reasoning be grounded in reality.

Your average voter demonstrates instrumental rationality: He proceeds reasonably according to a (very popular) theory he holds that voting will advance him toward certain goals. He is not demonstrating epistemic rationality because the theory under which he operates is ill supported by reality.

Epistemic rationality can be understood as the faculty of philosophy, the faculty for knowing reality.

Why don’t all men insist on grounding their theories in reality? Partly because they judge, not without reason, that they can achieve their goals by instrumental reason alone and so it is largely a waste of time to trouble themselves further. In our current circumstances this is substantially true.

We all have the faculty of epistemic rationality but most only employ it when their immediate survival depends on it. A man living on the frontier has to care about reality because it will soon kill him if he doesn’t. A man living in a welfare state can ignore a great deal of reality and still survive, even thrive. For a while.

There are a very small number of people who tend strongly to manifest epistemic rationality even when their immediate survival does not require it. I call us “zero percenters” because when you round to the nearest one percent there are roughly none of us.

I think we zero percenters are either born this way or else our nature is determined at an early age. Most people become more or less epistemically rational as their survival requires, but zero percenters are stuck. There’s no way back for us. Have you noticed that most people can evade or dismiss an argument they can’t refute? I can’t. Zero percenters can’t.

What I’ve asked Baker is whether his assessment of the situation entitles him to steal and whether it entitles him to compel others by force to accept a system he is comfortable with. These are questions he must answer or evade to proceed with his political project. He has not answered them, but he evidently intends to proceed anyway.

Baker is not altogether wrong in his observations of people in general, he’s just altogether wrong in his understanding of what I advocate. He thinks that I must be attempting to persuade people to adopt a system because, after all, that’s what instrumental politics is all about. The truth has not occurred to him because it’s not to be found on the way from point A to point B.

18 thoughts on “Can Everyone Philosophize?”

  1. Excellent piece, John, but if you’re not “attempting to persuade people to adopt a system,” why are you: A) blogging, and B) commenting?

    Like it or not, you’re proseltyzing. “Look! Look! Here’s the TRUTH!”

    As Billy Beck put it, “It makes me bone-tired just to look at you people.” But you keep looking. And proseltyzing.

    I don’t mind it, but the constant protestations that you aren’t are a bit irritating.

  2. “Excellent piece, John, but if you’re not “attempting to persuade people to adopt a system,” why are you: A) blogging, and B) commenting?”

    Because I’m attempting to persuade a handful of people of something else entirely.

  3. The other day I tried to explain inflation to someone my age (mid thirties). Usually I know better, but this person works in real estate. The words I used were along the lines of, “You don’t have to *care* about this stuff. Hell, it bores me to tears. But you should at least be *aware* of it.”

    His response: “Well, if things get that bad I’ll just pick up my gun and start shooting.”

    Upon inquiry, the clarification emerged that this would not be a defensive use of force, but a chaotic “every man for himself” sort of scenario. That’s your average Joe, right there; and if the streets ever flow with the blood of the nonbelievers, and I see him at my doorstep, I won’t hesitate to shoot first.

    Because he’ll just be another thug with a gun, coming to put me in the cannibal pot.

  4. Just for reference, the “something else entirely” Kennedy refers to is elaborated on here.

    I tend to agree with Kennedy and Baker that persuading people is hopeless, viz a viz the prisoner’s dilemma. Sure, it would be profitable if every prisoner defected at once, but hardly so for individuals. I also used to be somewhat skeptical about Kennedy’s alternative–in other words, I would be the cynic he alluded to in the above article. I still am, but less so.

    My reason before for being skeptical was that you could always enforce your edicts through fear, and compel obedience that way, no matter what fancy technology anybody invented. The scenario Kennedy imagines would have to closely approximate the current file-sharing situation with the MPAA–a cartel like the MPAA issues orders, but nobody respects them because there are multiple avenues around them.

    But even if you count every official down to the lowest post office clerk, that’s probably not enough to rule by fear alone. You have to have consent of the governed to exist, even if it’s just passive consent. So Kennedy’s prediction might come true–maybe.

  5. Hahaha…Kevin is mad because the government no longer has to feel obligated to make up good sounding reasons why they can take his land and give it to another. Of course, sending paid killers half way around the world to do the same thing without so much as an eviction notice is still A-ok with him, just as long as the evictees are brown and not a U.S. citizen. In fact, he likes sacrificing Americans on the throne of Jacobian revolution so much, he wants us to keep going.

    You asked me not to comment on your blog, Kevin, I won’t. But you’re here, so now I’m going to let you have it. You’re a despicable, mean coward. You’re not even sending boys to die for your own land, you’re sending them to die for someone you’ve never met and never asked their opinion about what they actually want. You rant and rave about Supreme Court decisions, but you don’t have the goods to do anything about it, other than whine and wheedle on your little soapbox. I ride the NTers as hard as anybody for the crap they think is worth publishing, but at least they’re generally consistent. You, on the other hand, are a bastion of contradiction. We lose more and more freedom every day here, but we’ve still got plenty to spare for those heathen Moslems. Gotta keep giving money to the men with bombs, ‘cuz we all know they’d never use them on us. The military is a socialist institution, but god bless em, they’re so pretty in their uniforms, let’s make sure we make all that socialism and death worth their while.

    “Rights for me, but not for thee.” That’s your slogan Kevin. And you’ll keep braying it like the stupid donkey you are right as the jackboots put you away. And I’ll be there laughing. Idiot.

  6. “I ride the NTers as hard as anybody for the crap they think is worth publishing…”

    I hadn’t even noticed.

    It’s mostly Sabotta, to be honest.

  7. I call us “zero percenters” because when you round to the nearest one percent there are roughly none of us.

    You may call yourself whatever you want, but the idea of “The Zero Percenters” is not new. Albert Jay Nock has written about “The Remnant” a long time ago, referring to the few who can reason and will carry the torch of humanity through the cold and dark ages of unreason. He, unlike Kennedy, had the humility never to refer to himself explicitly as a member of “The Remnant”.

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Can Everyone Philosophize?

In a recent comment Kevin Baker writes:

All of us here, you me, everyone who spends time in here reading this stuff, has the intellect, inclination, free time and motivation to think about philosophy.

And what percentage of the population do we represent? How many people don’t have any or all of the prerequisites? What portion of the population – worldwide – is interested only in accumulating enough food for themselves and their children? Is secondarily interested in the safety, security, and health of same? And will follow anybody who promises to provide that? Or at least promises to stay taking that, so long as they cooperate? How many will sacrifice themselves if it means the promise of the future safety of their children?

We all have the faculty but few will employ it properly under current circumstances.

By nature all men have a rational faculty but it gets employed two different ways. We are instrumentally rational when we employ reason in pursuit of a goal, whatever it may be. It’s the faculty we use to get from point A to point B. This is the default rationality that we see in nearly all men nearly all the time. It’s what makes us economic agents – we’re goal directed and we have an ability to achieve goals.

There is a rationality beyond the instrumental. We are epistemically rational when we require that our reasoning be grounded in reality.

Your average voter demonstrates instrumental rationality: He proceeds reasonably according to a (very popular) theory he holds that voting will advance him toward certain goals. He is not demonstrating epistemic rationality because the theory under which he operates is ill supported by reality.

Epistemic rationality can be understood as the faculty the philosophy, the faculty for knowing reality.

Why don’t all men insist on grounding their theories in reality? Partly because they judge, not without reason, that they can achieve their goals by instrumental reason alone and so it is largely a waste of time to trouble themselves further. In our current circumstances this is substantially true.

We all have the faculty of epistemic rationality but most only employ it when their immediate survival depends on it. A man living on the frontier has to care about reality because it will soon kill him if he doesn’t. A man living in a welfare state can ignore a great deal of reality and still survive, even thrive. For a while.

There are a very small number of people who tend strongly to manifest epistemic rationality even when their immediate survival does not require it. I call us “zero percenters” because when you round to the nearest one percent there are roughly none of us.

I think we zero percenters are either born this way or else our nature is determined at an early age. Most people become more or less epistemically rational as their survival requires, but zero percenters are stuck. There’s no way back for us. Have you noticed that most people can evade or dismiss an argument they can’t refute? I can’t. Zero percenters can’t.

What I’ve asked Baker is whether his assessment of the situation entitles him to steal and whether it entitles him to compel others by force to accept a system he is comfortable with. These are questions he must answer or evade to proceed with his political project. He has not answered them, but he evidently intends to proceed anyway.

Baker is not altogether wrong in his observations of people in general, he’s just altogether wrong in his understanding of what I advocate. He thinks that I must be attempting to persuade people to adopt a system because, after all, that’s what instrumental politics is all about. The truth has not occurred to him because it’s not to be found on the way from point A to point B.

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