Society is unraveling in the postmodern, post-truth era. Systematic institutions have lost their credibility and effectiveness. Material progress has slowed. The science replication crisis and the scarcity of exciting new technologies are symptoms.
These may have the same root causes—and meta-rationality may be part of the solution.
Meta-rational reforms for credibility and creativity
Science and engineering don’t work like they used to.
Breakthroughs in scientific understanding are rarer, most scientific output is trivial, and much of it isn’t even true. Many sciences now face a “replication crisis”: most supposed knowledge in these fields turns out to have been false.
Breakthrough inventions are no longer common, as they were in the last century. There’s increasing concern that practical progress has slowed over the past few decades.1 Exponentially greater research and development spending yields fewer significant new products. Perhaps most importantly, medicine has advanced far more slowly than seemed likely a quarter century ago.
By definition, these are meta-rational problems. Science and engineering are rational systems that aren’t working as well as they should. Meta-rationality means evaluating, selecting, combining, creating, improving, and maintaining rational systems.
The meta-rational reformation: we can and must level up technical rationality at the institutional level, as well as at the individual one. The rational systems according to which research and development are funded, communicated, organized, evaluated, and rewarded date back to the mid-twentieth century and need extensive overhaul.2 This book mainly addresses meta-rationality as an individual or small group activity. However, it also points toward ways meta-rationality can improve nation-scale rational institutions.
The “credibility revolution” in social and personality psychology is proof that this is possible.3 These fields faced a replication crisis, touched off by a 2011 paper showing strong evidence for impossible precognition—evidence that was strong according to all the rational norms of the field at the time, anyway.4 That suggested that the criteria were inadequate, calling into question potentially everything the field thought it knew. Over the next few years, researchers repeated many key experiments, and found not only errors in specific claimed results, but that whole subfields were devoted to phenomena that do not exist.
To their great credit, social and personality psychology have reflected intensively on their failings; gained new understanding of how they went wrong; and made large changes in their own methods, standards, and institutional structures. All of this counts as meta-rational work. It has made results increasingly credible, and should be an inspirational model for many other fields. Unfortunately, some—most critically, medical research—actively resist reform.5
In engineering and science, there is also a crisis of creativity. Massive increases in funding have led to massive increases in output, as measured by products introduced, startups founded, patents filed, and academic papers published. Yet meaningful innovation seems increasingly scarce. Nearly all the output is useless, or trivial, or “me too” duplication with irrelevant variations.6 Most technical work is mechanical, by-the-book crank-turning, without reflection on whether it makes any sense or has any value in context. Only meta-rationality can help with that.7
Qualitative creativity—rather than quantitative productivity—requires better selection of research problems. What actually matters? It also requires reflection on the limits of methods. What actually works to create knowledge or innovations, not just publications or me-too products? This requires meta-rational investigation—and that requires actually caring about the subject matter, not just your career or the administrative imperatives of your institution.
Creativity flows from wonder, curiosity, play, and enjoyment.8 These feature prominently in biographies of great scientists and inventors. Current institutional arrangements discourage them, in favor of constant competitive pressure for mindless rote productivity.
Meta-rationality provides a possibility to profoundly rethink the nature, meaning, and practice of rational disciplines and institutions. The extraordinary improvements they have historically made in everyone’s lives, and their recent deceleration and corruption, makes reform urgent and important.9
The post-post-truth era
Things are falling apart. It’s not just science and engineering. Our societies, cultures, and selves also seem not to work as well as they used to.
The Eggplant is a part of a wider project, Meaningness. Its How Meaning Fell Apart explains that the modern world was built on a foundation of rationalism: ideological belief that some system is guaranteed correct. When rationalism failed, modernity ended.
We live now in “postmodernity,” resulting from abandoning rationality, universality, and coherence. Postmodernity features cultural triviality, political dysfunction, and nihilistic malaise. Rationality is under attack from irrationalists, newly empowered by the internet. They have proclaimed a “post-truth era” and have undermined or destroyed vital systematic institutions with “the truth depends on who is asking, and why.” This could produce a civilization-ending catastrophe.
Meta-rationality matters because rationality matters. Rule of law, public infrastructure, and our post-subsistence economy are all products of rationality. They can’t survive without it. Our future is at stake; questions about the nature of rationality are not abstract academic philosophy. Truth matters—which is why it is attacked. Recovering rationality is an urgent antidote.
On the other hand… the irrationalists are inadvertently correct that “the truth depends on who is asking, and why.” Contexts and purposes count for truth.
Postmodernity is the recognition that the claims of absolute truth which advertised the correctness and necessity of social and cultural systems were false. It’s not that the systems are altogether wrong; it’s that they were not The One True Way. Defenders initially doubled down on overly strong claims, and then gave up, rather than saying “those claims weren’t True, but they are true enough, because look, this works pretty well in practice.”
So modernity, and rationalism, cannot be restored. However, a more accurate, more credible, meta-rational understanding of rationality, including of the nature of truth, will make recovery possible. I believe we can, should, and will remodel society, culture, and ourselves on a meta-rational basis. That will deliver the benefits of rational modernity without its harms and errors.10 We might call it the “post-post-truth era.”
Most of The Eggplant is about meta-rationality as an individual activity, aiming only at improved professional practice. I’ve raised the broader issues here to show other reasons meta-rationality is important. Sailing the Seas of Meaningness addresses the wider implications for society, culture, and our selves.
We’ll return to these concerns occasionally throughout this book, “popping out” of concern with individual technical work, to relate that to bigger themes.
- 1.This is difficult to quantitate (and therefore questionable, although I am convinced). See for example Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen, “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck,” The Atlantic, November 16, 2018, and Nicholas Bloom, et al., “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?,” American Economic Review 2020, 110(4), pp. 1104–1144. The latter has a useful review of relevant academic literature, pp. 1107–8. Michael Hanlon’s “The golden quarter,” Aeon, 3 December, 2014 is a popular summary of implications. Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen’s “We Need a New Science of Progress,” The Atlantic, July 30, 2019 suggests possible remedies.
- 2.Pierre Azoulay, “Turn the scientific method on ourselves,” Nature 484 (2012), pp. 31–32.
- 3.Simine Vazire, “Implications of the Credibility Revolution for Productivity, Creativity, and Progress, Perspectives on Psychological Science 13:4 (2018), pp. 411-417.
- 4.The Wikipedia article on Daryl Bem, the author, has a good discussion. The paper was “Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100:3 (2011), pp. 407–25.
- 5.John P. A. Ioannidis, “Evidence-Based Medicine Has Been Hijacked,” J Clin Epidemiol. 73 (2016), pp. 82‐86.
- 6.Iain Chalmers et al., “How to increase value and reduce waste when research priorities are set,” The Lancet, January 8, 2014.
- 7.Malcolm R. McLeod et al., “Biomedical research: increasing value, reducing waste,” The Lancet January 8, 2014. Introduces a series of articles on the topic.
- 8.In Meaningness, I have discussed these as “textures of the complete stance.”
- 9.See my “Upgrade your cargo cult for the win.”
- 10.See my “Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness.”