Resisting or embracing meta-rationality

Meta-rationalism may provoke skepticism or hostility at first. It contradicts fundamental rationalist principles that you may hold explicitly, or that you may have absorbed implicitly, from technical education and the culture of technical work.

Alternatively, meta-rationality may seem intriguing, if implausible and incomprehensible. Then you may ask:

These questions are natural and rational. They also miss the point, and therefore make it impossible to understand what meta-rationality is:

Meta-rationality is a different kind of thing from rationality, so you can’t learn it the same way. You learn rationality by getting principles and methods from lectures or textbooks, and then working through toy exercise problems. That won’t work for meta-rationality.

Analogy: becoming rational

There’s a useful analogy between taking your first steps into rationality and taking your first steps into meta-rationality.

Children, and some adults, are mainly unable to think in principled, systematic, logical, or procedural ways. They are cognitively pre-rational. Pre-rational cognition is mainly concerned with feelings and personal relationships, mainly expressed in narratives. Their interest in learning is to become better at sharing feelings through stories, and to get better at forming and strengthening relationships.

At this point, you can’t understand what sort of thing rationality is. It’s natural to misinterpret it as a defective version of the same thing you already know how to be: emotional and relational. The way you solve a problem is by getting together with friends and talking about how you feel about it until everyone feels more or less OK and done. (There’s a lot to learn to be good at this!) Rationality appears to be a bunch of meaningless verbiage that emotionally unreachable people use to grab undeserved power to do hurtful things in relationship to the innocent and oppressed.

Institutions try to push people into basic rationality, because it’s essential for participation in modern economic systems. Many people hate that, and resist.1 They find rationality aversive, and express skepticism or hostility. They say “I just can’t relate to mathematics,” or “I don’t feel good about computers at all.” They may try to read an introductory math textbook like a novel, fail to find a narrative thread, and conclude that it is meaningless and irrelevant.

When teaching rationality, it might help to say:2

We don’t “relate” to mathematics. That isn’t the point. We use it to solve problems. And we, too, hate computers most of the time! How we feel about them is irrelevant.3

Stressing the practical usefulness of rationality does motivate some students. They may understand its value in pre-rational, relational terms. “I can get a preposterously high-paying job if I learn Javascript. Then I can afford more fun things, and it’s enough to support a family, unlike most jobs nowadays.” Many such people become capable of technical work, while remaining mostly pre-rational in the rest of their life.4

Curiosity is a stronger motivation for becoming fully rational. As you start to learn rationality, unsuspected vistas open: enormous, enticing, exhilarating. You begin to see what sort of thing rationality is—and so what sort of person you can become if you master it. Not “a highly-paid Javascript programmer,” but someone whose way of being is principled, systematic, and logical. That may transform everything in your life: not just your work, but your emotions and relationships as well. Instead of being pushed around by your feelings and the feelings of people around you, you come to gain rational control over your motivations, reactions, and interactions.5

Becoming meta-rational

Rationality is an unnatural, hard-won achievement. Developing it takes years of hard, often unpleasant work. It requires subordinating your emotions and relationships to systematic discipline. You must leave behind the comfortable, natural human way of being—and, painfully, sometimes you have to leave behind friends who can’t also move beyond it. For several years, before you have consolidated rationality, you often fall back into the pre-rational way of being—and rediscover its failure modes. Once you have stabilized rationality, you absolutely don’t want to allow it to be undermined in any way.

Meta-rationalism calls into question rationalism: the belief that rationality is all there is to effective thinking and acting. Rationalist eternalism promises certainty that its principles are correct, the possibility of complete technical understanding, and control over your life, as well as over material systems. As long as these promises remain plausible, meta-rationality can seem threatening.

Rationality also gets questioned by irrational and anti-rational ideologies (“woo”). If you don’t understand what meta-rationality is, meta-rationalist explanations make no sense, so they are easy to mistake for that sort of obscurantist mystical nonsense. This is especially likely if you are emotionally motivated to dismiss meta-rationalism because you are not fully confident of your ability to maintain rationality in difficult situations, and fear having your commitment to it weakened.

If you aren’t fully confident in your own rationality, when it fails, it’s natural to assume that it’s your fault for doing it wrong. After all, you have spent many years trying to solve technical problems (from grade school geometry to PhD physics) and frequently you did get the answer wrong. That puzzling and frustrating experience is necessary for becoming rational.

Meta-rationalism starts to make sense only after you are fully confident in your ability to use rationality correctly, and you have have substantial experience with seeing “correct” solutions to technical problems fail in the real world. Then you know it’s not your own capacity for rationality that’s at fault, it’s rationality that’s limited and fallible.

Only curiosity can lead you into meta-rationality, because few environments offer support for developing it. You may hear about meta-rationality and become intrigued, but it’s more common to have to figure it out for yourself.

Difficulty in initially understanding what sort of thing is meta-rationality is analogous to the initial difficulty in understanding what sort of thing is rationality. In the same way rationality is not mostly a better way of relating to people (although it may also do that), meta-rationality is not mostly a better way of solving problems (although it may also do that).

Just as you solved problems when you were pre-rational, but often ineptly because you didn’t know how: once rational, you are already doing meta-rationality, but often ineptly, because you don’t know how, and don’t even know you are doing it.

You come to suspect that “solving problems” is not always either sufficient or necessary, even in technical work. Then you start to wonder “how and when and why does rationality work or not work?” Typically this curiosity begins for technical people around age 28.

Learning meta-rationality in service of problem-solving, somewhat reluctantly, is analogous with learning rationality in service of emotional and relational goals, somewhat reluctantly. That was: “My web development job pays enough to attract the sort of person I want to marry, but debugging is awful—I don’t really get it, and it makes my head hurt”.

Now you discover with dismay that the relationship between technical problems and real-world problems is much more complex than you had realized. The first step into meta-rationality is: “Maybe I can solve some problems more effectively if I try to figure out how and where and why my model connects with reality, but I hate dealing with all that messy squishy stuff.”

Increasingly, you understand that real-world situations are unfixably nebulous, and therefore perfect certainty, understanding, and control are impossible. Then you want to know: how can you deal with nebulosity, if not rationally? Presentations of meta-rationality may then be frustrating. “Just explain what the meta-rational reasoning methods are!” you say. “What are meta-rationality’s principles? Be specific! Where’s the textbook? Show me how to do this!”

Principles and procedures are to learning meta-rationality as emotions and relationships are to learning rationality. They transition from being the structure of understanding to objects of understanding.

You can’t fully understand what meta-rationality’s subject matter is until you can be meta-rational—just as you can’t fully understand what rationality means until you are rational. Meta-rationality doesn’t have principles. It is partly about the nature and functions of principles, and how to use them skillfully according to context. Meta-rationality isn’t about solving problems. It is partly about finding and choosing and formulating problems.

As you start to learn meta-rationality, unsuspected vistas open: enormous, enticing, exhilarating. You begin to see what sort of thing meta-rationality is—and so what sort of person you can become if you master it. Not “a problem-solving genius,” but someone whose way of being is wonder-filled, playfully creative, and effortlessly elegant. That may transform everything in your life: not just your work, but your emotions and relationships as well. Instead of being subject to a system of principles and procedures, you come to conjure with systems as a magical dance of transparent illusions.

Resources

So… how do you learn meta-rationality? Mostly, at this point in history, by figuring it out for yourself; or through apprenticeship, if you are lucky.

There’s no textbook, no college course, no training program. All those may be possible. In the Cells of the Eggplant is meant to be something like a textbook—but in early 2022, as I write this essay, the unfinished book is mostly promises, not explanations. And, since there are no principles or methods, you won’t be able to read it like an engineering manual—just as you can’t read an engineering manual like a novel.

I recommend now some audiovisual presentations—all quite new.

On the Do Explain podcast, Jake Orthwein discusses meta-rationality with Christopher Lövgren. This is a great starting point because Jake’s explanations are simple, vivid, and precise. The ideas are new to Christopher, who initially didn’t get it, and was skeptical if not outright hostile. But over the course of several sessions spread over several months, they started to make sense, and even to transform his experience.

Jake and Christopher have made three episodes so far, with more to come:

Matt Arnold’s 45-minute presentation may be the best introduction to adult developmental theory, from which my understanding of meta-rationality draws extensively:

Some of the essays on this web site may be a better, or at least shorter, introduction to meta-rationality than The Eggplant. Among them:


  1. 1.Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life is about this.
  2. 2.I don’t actually know whether this helps. I don’t have children and haven’t taught below the STEM undergraduate level.
  3. 3.Eventually, in what The Eggplant calls “adventure rationality,” relating to mathematics may become the point after all, and your intuitive feels about computers may become critical in software development. But it’s impossible to give any sense of what that is like to someone who hasn’t completed and enjoyed the high school STEM curriculum, at minimum.
  4. 4.They are a pain to manage, because they relate to coworkers pre-rationally. I often get asked “How can I get the technical staff who work for me to behave professionally?” Anyone who finds a good answer to this will dramatically improve the world and make a ton of money. I’m not sure there’s any way to get people to change who don’t want to change, though.
  5. 5.This explanation of the development of rationality draws on Robert Kegan’s psychological model, as does the next section on the development of meta-rationality.