Monday, September 05, 2016

Scott Adams, Philosophical Nitwit

Boberooni has implied that I got a man crush on Scott Adams. I will admit that I have learned a lot from Adams about persuasion.

But I'm not in love, no no! Adams, is, for instance, a terrible philosopher. Consider this gem: "As a companion to what I said on the Rubin Report, here is more scientific evidence that we are not rational beings. We are beings who rationalize after the fact."

The problem with this position ought to be obvious... but it isn't, I guess, if you are a terrible philosopher. If "we," taken as a blanket statement, are not rational beings, then who cares what the "scientific evidence" says: it is just more rationalization after the fact done by a bunch of irrational beings who happen to (irrationally) have gained the title of scientist.

Or are scientists magical aliens who are somehow immune to the laws that rule the rest of our "dumb human brains" for which "data and logic just don't exist"? (Adams phrases from the interview linked to in the post linked to above.) And is Adams himself the one other human being somehow blessed with the gift of rationally evaluating our irrationality?

Could it be that it is perhaps better to introduce a little nuance: maybe we all have our rational and our irrational aspects. Maybe we are like a struggling charioteer, constantly fighting to keep our irrational impulses at bay, and to pay heed to the dictates of reason? And perhaps many charioteers lose this battle, and might be called "slaves [to their passions] by nature"?

Plato and Aristotle are not the last word in philosophy. But at least we should strive to go further than they did, and not regress to a childish level of analysis of the human psyche which they surpassed 2400 years ago.

UPDATE: I watched a little further in the video, and it gets even worse; Adams says, "Let me prove [rational thinking and logic] don't exist: if they did, there would be only one religion."

It is hard to imagine how anyone could adopt a more more absurd position: Adams is going to "prove," "beyond any doubt," that rational thinking and logic don't exist! But for any such "proof" to exist, it must rely on... rational thinking and logic.


  1. I think he is making a different point. Not that we are not rational but that some scientific tests appear to show our action preceding our conscious awareness/decision making etc of that act. So he is not saying we are unable to be rational just that we do the rational bit after the action we thought we decided, rationally, to do.

    This test has been widely debunked now at any rate but...

    1. But would it really be "rational" to spend time deciding why one should do something one already has decided to do?

    2. And wouldn't this idea imply that *scientists* decide what theory is correct, and only later cook up some bogus justification for that theory?

    3. "And wouldn't this idea imply that *scientists* decide what theory is correct, and only later cook up some bogus justification for that theory?"

      That's just your subconsciously-generated conclusion.

  2. I think you are pointing to the problem of their conclusions and I agree with you.

    In the tests there seems to be some kind of response that happens before the mind 'rationalises' or at least consciously thinks it made the decision that in fact, preceded it.

    I imagine for non consequential decisions the mind does subordinate most things to the subconscious leaving the conscious and rational part of the mind to do the harder stuff.

    What is hard to fathom is their general conclusion that our thinking/reasoning is in general after the fact as that would imply we have an unconscious faster than thought process that seems to be as reliable as the slower thought process (to avoid the problem of the thought reaching different conclusions than the instant process). Seems highly improbable logically and from an evolutionary point of view we'd have two such systems.

    Of course they might then switch tactic and tell us that our sense of self is an illusion (to which an undergrad might respond with the obvious counter, who is being deceived in that illusion?) but that's another subject.

    1. "What is hard to fathom is their general conclusion that our thinking/reasoning is in general after the fact..."

      Well, in terms of evolution, what the heck purpose would this serve? If, in fact, decisions are made subconsciouly before the conscious mind even knows they have been made, then what in the world is the purpose of this conscious mind?!

  3. Is he backing off his incoherent position? In today's post, "but rational thought is almost entirely an illusion."

  4. Note that his position would be logically coherent if he asserted that we are endowed with a rational faculty and it serves a useful purpose under some conditions, but that some of our putatively rational motivations, perhaps most of them, are in fact after the fact rationalisations. It only turns weird if you insist that 100% of everything is irrational.

    Dan Sperber, who developed the argumentative theory of how rationality evolved, does seem to imply that the only purpose of rationality is to convince or mislead others (see, but this seems to fall into the same trap Scott Adams is in.

    1. Right Greg. Unless our rationality works at least sometimes, there is no reason to believe the findings of science!


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