Recently I had something of a revelatory experience. I went down the rabbit hole with David Chapman’s Meaningness. Here I found a robust framework that clarified and systematized ideas that I’ve recently been exploring in a more abstract way. I am not exaggerating when I say that David’s work has saved me maybe a decade of thinking and writing. This post reflects on those ideas.
Modes of Meaning
One of the things that resonated with me most strongly when exploring Meaningness was the progression of “modes of meaning” it describes:
Choiceless: Prior to about 1700, meanings were essentially fixed, either by God or nature. This had the advantage of being simple and unambiguous. It had the significant disadvantage of being obviously wrong.
Systems: Broadly speaking, it took a few hundred years of religious conflict to overthrow the Choiceless mode of meaning. We killed God and tried to replace Him with systems. Capitalism. Marxism. Facism. All of these systems failed to provide a comprehensive and internally consistent system of meaning and social organization. Real-world implementations of fascism and marxism essentially culminated in genocidal wars of aggression. A bastardized version of capitalism has survived to the present day, but only by sacrificing comprehensiveness and internal consistency (every developed nation state I can think of has implemented some socialist welfare programs).
Countercultures & Subcultures: We responded to the failures of the Systematic Mode through the countercultures. Broadly speaking, the two countercultures were hippie and evangelical. Because these countercultures lacked sufficient nuance to accommodate the diverse identities of their participants, they were ultimately superseded by smaller scale subcultures. Boomers most closely identify with the countercultures. Subcultures are more of a Gen X phenomenon.
Atomization: The fundamental inability of subcultural niches to provide breadth and depth of meaning, as well as advanced technology, have brought us to the atomized mode. Chapman writes:
As culture and society atomize, it becomes impossible to maintain a coherent ideology. Religions decohere into vague “spirituality,” and political isms give way to bizarre, transient, reality-impaired online movements. Decontextualized, contradictory, intensely-proclaimed religious and political “beliefs” displace legacy systems of meaning. These are not beliefs in an ordinary sense, but advertisements of personal qualities and tribal identification. The atomized mode generates paranoia, because without the systematic mode’s “therefores,” its structure of justification, there are no memetic defenses against bad ideas.
Atomized politics abandons the outdated convention that political arguments should make sense. Occupy, the Tea Party, ISIS, the “tumblr SJW” and “alt-right” social media movements, and the 2016 American Presidential campaign ignored “therefore” in favor of claims that were false and absurd, but not duplicitous, because they were not intended to be believed—just reacted to for their intense emotional impact.
I am recapping these ideas here because they are fundamental to my own updated mental models of society, religion and politics. For example, my mental model for politics post from a couple of years touches on related ideas. What I’ve lacked till now, and what David Chapman has spent years creating, is a robust and comprehensive framework for exploring all of this (I intend to apply these models to certain trends in investing in future posts).
Metarationality in the Atomized Mode
Like me, David does not believe in Answers. He believes in Process. The way forward in the atomized mode is with metarationality.
A self-described rationalist might try to apply Bayesian reasoning as an ordering principle for life. Bayesian reasoning is certainly hyper-rational. But if your only tool is a hammer you will think of every problem as a nail.
A metarationalist recognizes that Bayesian reasoning is only effective for addressing certain kinds of problems. The metarationalist carries a big toolbox. The hammer has its uses. But sometimes a screwdriver or ratchet wrench is the tool for the job. Sometimes unconventional combinations of tools and materials are required to solve certain problems. The experienced craftsman does not arrive at these solutions through systematic reasoning but through experience, intuition, and experimentation.
A rationalist evaluation of the capitalist, marxist and fascist systems might conclude that capitalism is “the best” (or “least bad” system).
A metarationalist critique recognizes that each system contains elements of truth. The capitalist system recognizes that the “free” interaction of market participants is a more robust system for allocating resources in a society than centralized economic planning. The marxist system recognizes that the “efficient” or “robust” allocation of resources can nonetheless threaten social cohesion. The fascist system recognizes the attractiveness of fixed meanings and idealized forms (modernism and postmodernism have always been the twin-headed nemesis of fascist movements).
The challenge rationalism faces in the atomized age is the tendency to think of systems in discrete or static terms. Yet all systems are “obviously” inadequate. Metarationality is fully at ease with the notion that elements of capitalism and marxism can be deleted, combined, edited and remixed in ways that more accurately model reality, regardless of whether the resulting system is ideologically or logically consistent. Metarationality accepts the inevitability of internal inconsistencies in any “real world” (especially social) phenomena. The Meaningness term for this is “patterned nebulosity.”
Some may read this post as an argument that a metarational worldview is somehow superior or transcendant. There is no such thing as transcendance. I would argue a metarational worldview offers a higher resolution view of reality than a strictly rational worldview, and certainly a choiceless worldview. But a metarationalist is still human, with human cognitive, emotional and moral weaknesses.
Metarationalists eat, breathe, shit and bleed like everyone else.
There is an interesting parallel here with elements of Buddhist philosophy. A common misconception is that Enlightenment == Transcendence. A more correct understanding is that Enlightenment == Acceptance, or Enlightenment == Equanimity. Likewise, Non-Dualism =/= Monism (“All Is One”).
One thing I have seen repeatedly is the conflation of metarationality with nihilism or existentialism. Candidly, my own personal views have verged on existentialist at times, before the distinction became clear to me. Meaningness explores these distinctions in depth, but a simple summary is as follows:
Eternalists argue meaning is fixed.
Existentialists argue meaning is subjective.
Nihilists argue meaning is nonexistent.
Metationalists argue meaning is nebulous.
Meaning exists. But meaning is also insubstantial. Like a mist, or a cloud. When you get up close to it, it has a tendency to evaporate.
Some Personal Reflection
In Meaningness, David hypothesizes that that it is easiest for STEM people to make the transition to rationality and then metarationality.
For the most part, you have to have a thorough understanding of how to work within systems before it’s feasible to step up and out of them, to manipulate them from above. There are other routes to mastering systematic rationality—through experience as a manager in a bureaucratic organization, for instance—but this curriculum will assume a STEM background.
The minimum requirement might be an undergraduate STEM degree; but research experience at the graduate level may be needed. You have to have seen how many different systems work, and—more importantly—how they fail. At the undergraduate level, you are mainly shielded from the failures, and systems get presented as though they were Absolute Truth. Or, at least, they are taught as though Absolute Truth lurks somewhere in the vicinity, obscured only by complex details. Recognizing that there is no Absolute Truth anywhere is a small downpayment on the price of entry to meta-systematicity.
That may already have set off warning bells. Woomeisters and postmodernists say things like that—and if you think they are horribly wrong, I agree!
I don’t disagree with David’s view here. Frankly, it is a pain in the ass to come at this from a non-STEM background. I say that with some confidence, because it was what I did, personally. My undergraduate degree was in the wooiest of woo: English (Writing). I had to do quite a bit of remedial STEM (mainly TM work) work to get a reasonable handle on systems thinking. And I will likely only ever be a mediocre systems thinker at this point.
David goes on to write:
By system, I mean, roughly, a collection of related concepts and rules that can be printed in a book of less than 10kg and followed consciously. A rational system is one that is “good” in some way. There are many different conceptions of what makes a system rational. Logical consistency is one; decision-theoretic criteria can form another. The details don’t matter here, because we are going to take rationality for granted.
Meta-systematic cognition is reasoning about, and acting on, systems from outside them, without using a system to do so. (Reasoning about systems using another system is systematic, and meta, but not “meta-systematic” in this sense.) Meta-rationality, then, is “good” meta-systematic cognition. Mostly I use the terms interchangeably.
One field I draw on is the empirical psychology of adult development, as investigated by Robert Kegan particularly. This framework describes systematic rationality as stage 4 in the developmental path. Stage 5 is meta-systematic. However, as far as I know, no one from this discipline has applied the stage theory to STEM competence specifically. Empirical study of cognitive development in graduate-level STEM students would be helpful, but in the absence of that I’m working from a combination of first principles, bits of theory taken from many apparently-unrelated disciplines, anecdata, and personal experience.
According to this framework, there is also a stage 4.5, in which you lose the quasi-religious belief in systems, but haven’t yet developed the meta-systematic understanding that can replace blind faith. Stage 4.5 leaves you vulnerable to nihilism, including ontological despair (nothing seems true), epistemological anxiety (nothing seems knowable), and existential depression (nothing seems meaningful). It’s common to get stuck at 4.5, which is awful.
An odd benefit of coming at this in reverse is that I suspect it makes the transition from Stage 4 to Stage 5 thinking easier. One of the (few) advantages of a modern humanities education is that if you approach it in the correct mindset it gets you comfortable swimming in a sea of ever-shifting meanings. In fact, you even do this fairly systematically. The entire process of obtaining a humanities degree consists of processing data through a particular analytical lens.
The major disadvantage of a modern humanities education is, of course, that most systems of meaning you’re taught operate at extremely high bullshit-to-truth ratios. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the professors teaching you these systems of meaning are not themselves metasystematic thinkers, but rather True Believers with political and social axes to grind. Valuable opportunities to cultivate meta-systematic thinking are thus wasted.
4 thoughts on “Notes On Metarationality”
Way too much big-think stuff for me to take in on the first (second or third) read, but I will note that, IMHO, capitalism is being asked to do more than it purports to do. It is not an all-encompassing metaphysical explanation or “system” for life (or the meaning of), but a humbler system in the economic sphere of things.
To wit, capitalism can be a derivative or part of a complete philosophy starting with personal liberty, individual rights, the scope of the state, etc. – it’s not an answer/solution/leader to all those things, but a system within.
The mistake capitalists make, IMHO, is, one, asking more of the system than it can do and, two, arguing inside out that its economic success justifies its morality; whereas, it’s morality is that it provides for individual liberty – that it happens to “deliver the goods” better than any other economic system is a positive, but not its justification.
To some extent, China and Vietnam are proving this point by leveraging a capitalistic economic system for the benefit of a totalitarian state. Capitalism appears to work even under an authoritarian political system; hence, it’s silly to see capitalism as the start of some metaphysical world view. What we’ve really learned is that it’s an economic system that allows for personal freedom, but, QED, doesn’t even seem to require it.
It’s hard to see freedom without capitalism, but we can have capitalism without freedom. Hence, we shouldn’t ask an economic system to be an all encompassing life-explaining philosophy when all it really is, is a way to organize the means of production of an economy.
This is a daunting task and all we can bring to bear is consciousness, made of single-threaded, few-parameter narratives that hinge on simple causal relationships between a handful of factors at a time.
I do like “nebulous” more than “subjective”. It lines up better with my belief that the root issue is one of dimensionality, higher out there in the world than in here where we think and talk.
“Meaning exists. But meaning is also insubstantial. Like a mist, or a cloud. When you get up close to it, it has a tendency to evaporate.”
Sounds like Heidegger’s “groundless ground” and Ecclesiastes’ “All is vanity” (the Hebrew translation is hebel, which is closer to “mist”, apparently), all v woo