Rationality and Freedom

You think inside a box. There is no pure reason, no pure arriving at conclusions by rational thought without assumptions or biases.

To generate beliefs, our brains use various heuristics and biases in addition to rational methods of inference. One of those biases is framing. We use fixed assumptions to frame thought, so that only a few details are under consideration when we think.

Framing assumptions limit your freedom of thought. Most of what you believe is either nailed down or tied to something that is nailed down. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is necessary. If your beliefs were always open to revision, or if you thought about everything, then you would have no stable beliefs. You would be in a perpetual state of confusion. Framing assumptions make thought possible.

Everyone thinks inside a box, but some people have bigger boxes than others. Some people think more than others. They bring more alternatives into consciousness to consider. They can have more complex, nuanced beliefs. They depend less on heuristics, and they are more able to change their minds.

Our brains use heuristics to limit the complexity of thought. Here are some examples of heuristics that reduce complexity:

  • Intuition: Make judgments and decisions quickly based on intuition, rather than taking time to think about them. Trust your “gut” (quick pattern recognition and habitual responses).
  • Conformity: Take socially accepted beliefs as fixed and beyond thought.
  • Obedience: Rely on the judgment of authorities to make decisions of belief and action for you.
  • Tradition: Rely on what has worked in the past. Don’t trust new ideas.
  • Dogmatism: Refuse to question certain assumptions.
  • Xenophobia: Avoid people and things that are different or strange. Stay within a familiar, stable environment.

These heuristics reduce the complexity of thought and action by eliminating alternatives from consideration. Some reduce the scope of conscious judgment and agency. Others reduce the information that is used to make judgments and decisions. The general effect is to make thought simpler and thus easier. (Many fallacies are heuristics that work in most cases.)

There is a trade-off involved in simplifying thought. On the one hand, it eliminates some potentially good ideas. On the other hand, it makes thought more efficient, and it eliminates some potentially bad ideas. Thinking inside a bigger box not only requires more time and effort, it also allows a person to make bigger mistakes. Greater rationality is not always better than lesser rationality.

We all think inside boxes, but those boxes can be bigger or smaller. A bigger box allows greater freedom of thought. It allows you to consider more possibilities and make more choices. The bigger the box, the greater your mental freedom. The smaller the box, the more your beliefs and actions are determined subconsciously. Mental freedom is the ability to think.

The box contains you, in a sense. The self is awareness and will. The size of the box is the size of the self. The more rational you are, the greater your awareness and will. The more you think, the more you consciously make judgments and choices.

Cognitive dissonance is created by questioning the frame in which someone thinks. People feel confused and afraid if their framing assumptions are brought into consciousness as explicit propositions. They feel even more confused and afraid if those framing assumptions are questioned or negated. This plunges them into chaos.

Rationality is linked to social and cultural freedom. Freedom and complexity are essentially the same thing. More rational people can handle greater complexity, because they can consider more possibilities and make more choices. Thus, more rational people tend to prefer greater social and cultural freedom. Having fewer internal constraints, they prefer fewer external constraints as well. Less rational people are less capable of dealing with complexity. They have less internal freedom, and so they often prefer less external freedom as well.

Of course, everyone believes that they can handle freedom, and most people explicitly want external freedom. Almost no one will demand less freedom for himself. He will, however, demand less freedom for others, and for his society as a whole. Less rational people prefer less freedom for everyone, especially for those with different beliefs and behaviors. They view reducing freedom as reducing danger and harm. More rational people are more tolerant of the complexity created by cultural and social freedom. They want greater cultural and social freedom for themselves and others. They want more freedom because they can deal with it better.

Rationality is linked to freedom of speech. People will generally support freedom of speech only for ideas that are inside their box. They want to exclude from public discourse any idea that is outside their box. People often react with extreme hostility toward heretics, because heretics question generally accepted framing assumptions. Heretics create cognitive dissonance. The more rational someone is, the more freedom of speech they can tolerate.

Rationality is linked to individuality. More rational people are more individualistic, because they rely less on conformity and obedience. They outsource less of their judgment and agency to society and culture. They rely more on conscious thought. Greater mental freedom is equivalent to greater individuality and self-reliance. The more rational someone is, the less they depend on others, not only to guide their beliefs and actions, but to define their identity. More rational people prefer a more individualistic culture and society.

Rationality is linked to civilization. Civilization is based on the use of abstract ideas, such as laws and money, to organize human behavior on large scales. The ancestral form of society was based on emotions, not abstract ideas. Reasoning about abstract ideas requires conscious thought. Civilization also creates a social environment that doesn’t fit human social instincts very well, and so it requires more explicit thought to act effectively within civilization.

Rationality is essentially freedom of thought. It is the capacity for an individual to consider alternatives and make choices. Those with more internal freedom want more external freedom.