FACTS & LOGIC and Lived Experience: The Middle Way
Pragmatic rationality humanises facts and sheds light on feelings
Post (2) of a four-post essay. Post (1) is here.
The full essay makes up Part 4 of a broader series about language. It stands alone if that’s what you want out of your reading life, but for best results read the previous installments in the series — this, this and this — first.
In 2020 there are a huge range of opinions on how useful 2+2=4 logic is outside of mathematics, from the rationalist community’s “reason will save us all” approach at one end to the uncompromising emotionalism of the hard left and hard right on the other. Some people acknowledge the importance of emotion but argue it needs to be trained (‘you need to teach “critical feeling” to defeat groupfeel no less than critical thinking to fight groupthink’). Others acknowledge the importance of data but point out it’s never innocent of human bias and always leaves crucial parts out: ‘decisions in the real world require negotiating between what we think the data means, what human value we’d like to assign to it and what stories about it we can get others to accept. Data alone is not knowledge, and it is certainly not wisdom. It rarely says as much as we think it does’.
One of the more interesting attempts to find a compromise between hard facts and hard feelings is the pragmatic approach to reason. This broadly says that when you’re talking about everyday (non-mathematical) reasoning it’s much more useful to look at how it functions than what it claims to prove.
Pragmatism actually dates back to the 1870s, and represents one of philosophy’s first attempts to grapple with evolutionary theory. One variety of it argued that the best ideas about the world are the ones that best increase your species’ fitness. In other words, the things that are the most useful for humanity are also the most true for humanity, and this is the only truth worth talking about.
The pragmatist William James famously said that all genuine truths have “cash value” — in other words, they help you navigate your life better. (There’s an interesting connection here to the emphasis on right living over “objective” truth in many Eastern philosophies.) As Alex Scott puts it, for James truth ‘is not something abstract. Truth is what we say about ideas that work when we apply them to our experience. False ideas do not help us to meet the demands of experience’.
PRAGMATISM IN 2020
The pragmatic view has entered the mainstream lately thanks to thinkers like Nassim Taleb and Jordan Peterson. Taleb argues that your beliefs don’t count unless you have “skin in the game” and can put your money where your mouth is. He explains his “instrumental” view of reason in “How to be Rational About Rationality”: ‘In science, belief is literal belief; it is right or wrong, never metaphorical. In real life, belief is an instrument to do things, not the end product. This is similar to vision: the purpose of your eyes is to orient you in the best possible way, and get you out of trouble when needed, or help you find [prey at a distance]. Your eyes are not sensors aimed at getting the electromagnetic spectrum of reality. Their job description is not to produce the most accurate scientific representation of reality; rather the most useful one for survival.’
He goes on to say that just as your eyes deceive you slightly about objects’ true nature in order to help you to act, our belief systems often deceive us about the literal nature of reality in order to keep us alive: ‘Survival comes first, truth, understanding, and science later’. The key lies in understanding that the apparent content of beliefs often has nothing to do with their actual function, so that many superstitions that look silly or “illogical” to outsiders are anything but: ‘Judging people on their beliefs is not scientific / There is no such thing as “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action / The rationality of an action can only be judged by evolutionary considerations’.
He uses the example of ‘the “constructive paranoia” of residents of Papua New Guinea, whose superstitions prevent them from sleeping under dead trees. Whether it is superstition or something else, some deep scientific understanding of probability that is stopping you, it doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t sleep under dead trees’. He also mentions the Jewish practice of using one sink for meat and the other for dairy: the practice may be difficult to understand for an outsider, but it’s ‘forced [the community] to eat and bind together’ over the years. Whatever the thinking behind food separation is, the result has been positive.
Jordan Peterson agrees that truth is largely a matter of what works. Because reality is huge and our knowledge of it is extremely limited, a lot of the time the best we can do is construct a practical theory like “if I do x then y will happen” and consider our theory proven if y in fact does happen: if I walk that way I’ll probably get to the door, hey look, I got to the door.
Crucially, these theories aren’t dry “predictions” but expressions of our desires — what we want to put into and get out of the world. “Motivated reasoning” is a dirty term, but I suspect Peterson would agree with Hume that practically all reasoning is emotionally motivated. We only form a hypothesis about something if we care about that thing: why figure out how to get to the door unless you want to leave the room?
For Peterson, this pragmatic approach is a way out of the ghetto of postmodernism, which he defines like this: ‘since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived…no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived…[meaning] all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power’.
His take: ‘The fact that there are an unspecifiable number of interpretations does not mean (or even imply) that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations…Valid at least means: “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.”’
Crucially, Peterson isn’t just talking about individual outcomes here, but the most desirable outcomes for the species as a whole. Drawing on Jean Piaget, he says: ‘Your interpretations have to keep you, at minimum, alive and not suffering too badly today, tomorrow, next week, next month and next year in a context defined by you, your family, your community and the broader systems you are part of. That makes for very tight constraints on your perception/interpretations/actions. Games have to be iterable, playable and, perhaps, desirable to the players’.
(By “iterable” he means that your interpretations and behaviours need to work consistently over a long period of time. You can’t just randomly change your behaviour from day to day: today I’ll feed my family, tomorrow I won’t.)
This pragmatism underlies Peterson’s well-known fascination with the biblical stories. For him, the stories convey profound moral intuitions drawn from millions of years of humanity and its ancestors acting in the world and thousands of years of reflecting on what strategies have served us best. Action first, then a story about the action, then the “moral of the story”.
The “moral of the story” part is where pragmatism wins out over both cold logic and postmodernism. If we reason about the world to help us act in it in a way that benefits both ourselves and everyone else, that gives reason a profound ethical dimension: ‘Postmodernism leaves its practitioners without an ethic. Action in the world (even perception) is impossible without an ethic’.
Of course, saying that the most important truths have cash value, deceive us about the facts to inform us about the truth and give us a compass to live by isn’t the same as saying there’s no such thing as objective reality. 2 and 2 are always 4. Scientific experiments are replicable. And uncomfortable truths don’t stop being true just because you want them to be.
The pragmatists’ point is that reason shouldn’t rule your life, it should enable it. It’s your servant, not your master.
The more you try to wrap your head around complex political debates and realise that neither FACTS & LOGIC nor lived experience can point the way out of the fog, the more important this insight gets.
WE’RE LIVING IN A SOCIETY!
Instrumental rationality combines the best of abstract reason with the best of lived experience. It says that over the millennia we’ve all lived through certain experiences again and again and again. And bit by bit we’ve come up with sensemaking descriptions for those things that have kept us alive, sane and functional. Some of the descriptions have been literally true (these plants are edible, these are poisonous) and others haven’t (the various creation myths). But all of them have served valuable functions over the years.
The “thick” language that we’ve inherited from our ancestors includes religious stories. Fables and fairy tales. Zen koans. Sayings like ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ and ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Clichés get a bad rap these days, but the reason they’re repeated so much is that they’re both profound and useful.
Take all of a culture’s sayings, clichés, folk wisdom and ethical lessons (“the moral of the story is…”) and put them together and you’ve got a pretty impressive store of life advice. Not all the sayings are true for everyone all the time the way 2+2=4 is, but they’re true often enough and at a deep enough level to be good rules of thumb (or “heuristics” in philosopher-speak). They may not be rational in the narrowest sense. But they’re reasonable.
The reasonable consensus of your culture does a lot of your thinking for you. Wittgenstein was right: everything takes place in a context. People usually interpret “You don’t always know best” to mean “Obey your parents!” or “Listen to your teachers!”, but it’s much broader than that: society’s collective store of wisdom can also be found in your shrink, that book that changes your life, that movie quote that speaks to you, that college course that opens your eyes, that friend you look up to, that cause you dedicate your time and energy to. All of the people you respect are telling you things that you may already know deep down — but they’re articulating them for you. They expand your world with their language.
Maybe you think that you’re floating free from convention, following your own star, disregarding everything that society tries to ram down your throat. But if you’re even reading this it means you’ve inherited a rich legacy of comfort, security and technological innovation that generations of people have fought, died and worked hard for. Do you believe that people should be treated as if they have rights, that democracy’s good, that people of different races are your equals, that people from disadvantaged groups should be given a chance to succeed? Did you come to all those beliefs by yourself? If not, then you’re a believer in the power of tradition.
Tradition is generally code for “stuff right-wingers like”, but at this late-capitalism stage of the game we’ve got to apply the same label to feminism and the other liberation movements that have helped shape society for decades. More on the left-right division later.
GUT FEELINGS AND PHRONESIS
Rules of thumb are also what guide individuals through 99% of their lives. Your gut feelings are drawn from your own personal cache of unconscious wisdom, which itself draws on memories going back through your life. These memories combine to create personalised rules of thumb, all of them articulated at the level of feeling instead of language.
So you go to answer the phone and look at the name that comes up. Your head tells you ‘Better answer, it’s the polite thing to do’, but before it’s even started speaking your gut’s already chimed in with ‘Not this guy again. He’s been big trouble for us before. If you answer the phone he’ll probably keep you on too long and bully you into making concessions to him’.
That’s not a rational calculation the way “2+2=4” is, but it’s a reasonable one based on years of experience and your intimate knowledge of yourself. Your gut feelings may be selfish at times, but at least you know they have your best interest at heart, whereas a lot of your mind’s thinking is made up of statements that seem FACTUAL and LOGICAL but are actually rationalisations for actions you know you shouldn’t take.
A lot of our thoughts are based on internalised expectations, guilt, erroneous core beliefs and obsessive calculations that have become unmoored from the world of reality (hence “overthinking”). But the gut’s feeling is based on what it knows is true based on your personality and life history. We need to listen to both our mind’s facts and our gut’s feelings and keep them in dialogue — but 9 times out of 10 the gut is right.
The ancient Greeks had a term for the kind of reasonableness that steers you through the world in a way that benefits both you and the world: phronesis. This can be translated as “wisdom”, “practical intelligence”, “good judgement”, “good character” or even “mindfulness”. It’s every individual’s interface between objective facts and lived experience, a Middle Way where both perspectives dynamically update each other as you live and grow: experience tells you facts, the facts guide your actions, your actions create new experiences.
Phronesis is more flexible and alive than mere FACTS and LOGIC. And it gives you more freedom and agency than the fundamentally passive notion of your life being an “experience”. Your life is a series of actions.
But the personal is political, and following your own path has ramifications that go beyond you: sometimes your rules of thumb will bump up against your society’s rules of thumb. If you’re lucky, the two will be aligned more often than not. But some smart, disagreeable types are condemned to the isolation of following their own star, and they’re often some of history’s most important movers and shakers. They envision new ways of living years, sometimes centuries, before anyone else.
For a while now liberals have guarded the intuitions and self-descriptions of individuals (you can’t tell me what to do!) and communities (you don’t speak for us!). And conservatives have stood up for society’s collective rules of thumb, which they argue are there for a reason — whether you’re an individual (listen to your betters!) or a group (this is how we do things here!).
Conservatives say that if everyone did what they wanted all the time the social order would break down and everything we’ve worked so hard to build would collapse. So before you do something that makes sense for you, ask yourself why your intuitions are more likely to pan out than the things that have been proven to work for humanity again and again. Ask yourself what the world would look like if everyone acted like you, and whether even you are best served by pursuing temporary pleasure over the habits and disciplines that history has taught us create meaning and fulfilment in life.
Liberals reply that in a world that changes as fast as ours traditions become obsolete really fast, and the way to keep ourselves happy and healthy is to keep updating our ideas to reflect new circumstances.
They’re both right.
INSIDE VIEW, OUTSIDE VIEW
The traditions of psychology and sociology balance the individual/community’s gut feelings about themselves with society’s collective store of “Try this, it’s good for you” wisdom. This makes them great examples of instrumental rationality’s ‘Act in the world, see what happens, learn some lessons, become more reasonable, act some more’ approach at the personal and the cultural levels. The more patients psychologists treat over the years and the generations the more they learn about humanity as a whole, and the more they learn about humanity the better they get at helping individuals.
If you’ve participated in as much counselling as I have, you know that a lot of the things about you that you regard as unique and special — including your deep, dark problems — really aren’t. Most of your behaviours fit into recognisable patterns, and trained experts know the patterns better than you do. So during a good session there’s always part of you saying ‘You don’t really know me’, and another part of you saying ‘Damn, you understand some of me better than I do myself — and have finally told me what to do about it’ (pragmatism again).
Both these intuitions — the “inside view” that says you can only understand yourself from within and the “outside view” that says you need a fresh perspective on yourself sometimes — are correct. You’re unique. And you’re not. You need both points of view to function.
The inside-outside dynamic also applies to society’s take on itself. The world’s changing all the time — technology advances, environments alter, demographics shift, some groups accrue power, others lose it, new sociological problems arise, old ones dissolve — which means that our traditions constantly need updating. It’s vital that we listen to what marginalised voices have to say and pay attention to the specific emotional shape of their experiences and concerns — their inside view of themselves. People aren’t statistics, and you can’t find all the answers to their problems in “Economics 101, page 10, paragraph 4”.
But if we paid attention to nothing but groups’ inside views we’d be paralysed. The very density of a particular group’s lived experience is exactly what stops people outside the group from being able to engage with every facet of it without becoming overwhelmed and immobilised. Besides, a group doesn’t stand alone any more than an individual does, and there has to be a system for balancing the competing claims of different groups and making sure there’s enough to go round.
The outside view is how society attempts to keep all the various moving parts of its complex systems in some kind of interdependent balance. You have to abstract out from specific situations. Look at the data and compare it to other data about other groups at other times. Examine what’s worked before. Consult statistics. Propose solutions. Engage with the generalities of FACTS and LOGIC.
The same cold truth applies to law. And medicine. Empathy in a surgeon is good. Empathy without knowledge, experience and detachment is a killer.
The crucial thing to bear in mind here is that the outside view isn’t the same as objective reality. A psychologist doesn’t actually know you better than you know yourself. They’re listening to your account of yourself — your inside view — and noticing a few key phrases, abstracting out from them and comparing them to patterns they’re familiar with, which enables them to help you. That’s not the same as fully immersing themselves in your lived experience, and it’s not the same as fixing you with the power of FACTS and LOGIC. It’s a matter of using just the right combination of empathy, intuition, knowledge, logic, flexibility, phronesis and responsiveness to get the job done. Pragmatically.
Ideally, society should treat all its members and communities the same way. It’s not that citizens are patients who need healing so much — more that they have certain claims on the state, and it’s the state’s duty to listen to these claims sympathetically and weigh them up in light of history, evidence, tradition, flexibility, responsiveness and the demands of justice.
Then get the job done. Pragmatically.
So individuals need to listen to their guts except when they need to listen to society, and society needs to listen to its citizens except when it needs to listen to the data — but what happens when citizens engage each other politically? What are the rules there? In the next part of this essay I suggest that society’s made up of different domains that are governed by different language games.