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Epistemological Modesty

Rational or emotional?

Rational or emotional?

I used to be a rationalist. I enjoy math and statistics and I always thought that any problem could be rationally (and quantitatively) parsed, if only we could frame it correctly. The issue, as I saw it, was not our quantitative, logical tools but rather the slippery ambiguity of our language. If we could only make our language as precise, logical, and, yes, quantitative as our tools, we could make huge strides in understanding our world and solving the problems of living together.

Although I enjoy languages, I thought numbers were better. Numbers are precise, rational, and universal. Language, other the other hand, is beautiful but also sloppy. It’s so difficult to convey certain concepts and emotions. You have to approach them elliptically, as novelists do rather than head-on as mathematicians do.

I also assumed that rational thought was superior to all other forms of thought. If only we could be rational and banish emotions from our decision making, we would be far better off.

Now I’m not so sure. The more I read about our brain and the way we make decisions, the more I’ve adopted epistemological modesty (EM). EM is one of those ideas that is fairly easy to understand but more difficult to adopt as a way of thinking and living.

Epistemology asks a simple question: how do we know what we know? I used to think that the best (perhaps the only) way to truly know something was through rational thought and logical deduction. I also thought that rationalism would ultimately – sometime in the distant future – allow us to know everything.

I was very sure of my position. Now I’m much more modest. EM (also known as epistemological humility or relativism) suggests that: 1) there are multiple paths to knowledge, and; 2) there are limits to our knowledge – even teenagers can’t know it all.

I used to think that rational thought was the best way to make decisions. It turns out that most of our decisions are made without any conscious thought whatsoever. Our subconscious does the work. Our best decisions are often based on emotions rather than logic. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that we don’t use logic to make decisions at all. We use logic to justify decisions. We use emotions to make them.

As I become more modest in my approach to knowledge, I also wonder whether rationalism doesn’t sometimes cause our problems rather than solve them. Our business schools teach a very rational approach to business. Just put it into a spreadsheet and you can manage it successfully. Yet, as business thinkers ranging from Peter Drucker to Paul Nutt point out, most of our business decisions are just plain wrong. Perhaps it’s because we’re too much in love with the rational, quantitative, and logical approach.

In my critical thinking classes, I teach that the first thing to do in making a decision is to step back and look around. Consider multiple alternatives rather than just one. Perhaps it’s time to do the same thing with the way we think. Let’s step back and think about our thinking. Let’s not assume that there’s one right way to think. By being epistemologically modest, we may just think our way to a better place.

One Response to Epistemological Modesty

  • Your advice to “step back and look around” applies to photography too. Some of the good photo opportunities are not directly up-front, but at the horizon.

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