The Craft of Rationality

In an uncharacteristically short post, Scott discusses the state of the so-called rationality community.

What is rationalism, anyway, or at least in the context of this internet movement and community? What makes someone or something rational?

Rationalism, in my opinion, encompasses more than object-level topics such as AI risk, human psychology, or effective altruism. Although it can include those things, it is also a set of values that unite groups of people that may otherwise have little to do with each other (the shared value system), but also an epistemological system. Rationalism culture (which is related to intellectualism culture) could explain the IDW (intellectual dark web), and how Ben Shapiro (who is of the ‘right’) is ‘close’ to, say,Bret Weinstein (who is of the ‘left’), but Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh (who are also of the right) have no such affinity, due to differing value systems. Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro are both of the ‘right’, yet their value systems differ; the former is not ‘rationalist’.


Facts precede values, not the other way around. Ben Shapiro arrives at his views/opinions based on the preponderance of empirical evidence, but also Platonism (knowledge derived by reason alone, such as a mathematical property); also, more provisional. For someone like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, it tends to be the other way around: the value system precedes the evidence, and the value system is always fixed.

A combination of empirical evidence and rationalism (in the philosophical sense). It’s not like the two must be opposed, but rather they can complement each other. This means the scientific method, but also more abstract things such as mathematics and physics formulas, which can be derived from empirical evidence. String theory is compatible with rationalism despite the absence of empirical evidence.


Generally oppose creationism; tend to subscribe to a materialistic worldview, but are respectful of those who don’t subscribe to a purely Darwinian worldview, unlike the mainstream left and the internet-atheism movement, which are more hostile. (see: The Decline of ‘New Atheism’)

Rather than dismiss opposing views, there is a concerted attempt to understand why people hold the beliefs they do and even to empathize with them, rather than just attributing such views to ignorance or blind conformity. For example, why so many people support trump despite his lack of experience and his unhinged temperament; as it turned out, those very reasons, but also the general economic and social climate in America and the perception that ‘establishment’ is ignoring large swaths of America, whereas Trump listens, explains to some degree Trump’s popularity and unexpected win. For the left to simply dismiss it as due to ignorance , would mean misdiagnosing the problem, to the left’s own detriment. Same for ‘flat earthers’, anti-vaxers, and creationists. It’s not that they are too stupid to understand evolution. Many creationist are well-versed in science, but for some reason rationalize it away. That is not the same as being too stupid and ignorant to understand something.

Rationalists tend to be optimistic and confident about the ability of science to broaden human understanding of the universe, and and to solve social problems.

Consciousness is not separable from the body (mind-body problem).

Nature vs nurture:

Rationalists tend to oppose the ‘blank slate’ theory of human development, whereas mainstream conservatives and liberals tribute much of society’s ills and individual differences in overcomes to social factors, not biological ones. Conservatives say that the poor need to work harder and stop being lazy/entitled; liberals may blame ‘greedy corporations’; rationalists may blame genes. Same for parenting; the mainstream left and right argue that environment plays a dominant role in child development; rationalists don’t completely discount environment, but also acknowledge that genes also play an important role, if not dominant role. Rationalists question whether costly government intervention programs (such as Head Start and Universal PreK) are worth the money and can rectify differences in achievement that may ultimately be due to biological factors, not environmental ones. Even if spending billions of dollars could eliminate the achievement gaps, the question becomes if it’s worth spending so much money to bring the slow up to speed (throwing good at the bad), or rather that money should be allocated on those who demonstrate above-average ability, so as not to waste cognitive resources.

Internal value system:

Shared narratives (examples. Also Intellectual Solvent, Part 3)

Rationalists tend to be individualistic; lean libertarian; oppose identity politics and collectivism.

Skeptical of majoritarianism (democracy, for example)

External value system:

Tends to be weak, although neoreactionaries have a strong external and internal one


Tend to be consequentialist and utilitarian. Although these ethical systems are of often understood as being diametrically opposed, utilitarianism can be considered a form of consequentialism. The 2008 bank bailouts, from a conseqtionalest perspective, were justified to prevent economic contagion (the ends justifying the means), hence providing the most units of good of all the alternatives (utilitarianims). Non-rationalists tend to subscribe to virtue ethics (the bailouts are wrong, not due to utility or duty, but due to being immoral and unethical, which is harder to quantity in a scientific sense). The hierarchy in order of most rationalist: consequentialism & utilitarianism (tied), deontology, and virtue. Deontology could include personal idiosyncrasies that are characteristic of the internal value system an shared narratives, such as opposing low-information discourse and a revulsion to click bait and sensationalism, but also personal habits.