Comments on “Aspects of reasonableness”

Alignment with Kegan stages?

Nick Hay 2020-01-30

How well does reasonable, rational, meta-rational align with the Kegan stages? For example, could stages 0-2 align with the development of reasonableness, 3-4 (i.e. formal operations) of rationality, and 5 of meta-rationality? Stage 3 would perhaps be the less systematic precursors to stage 4’s systematic rationality.

Stages of development of rationality

David Chapman 2020-01-30

Yes, you’ve got that pretty much right! I’m taking 3=reasonable, 4=rational, 5=meta-rational. Kegan stage 3 isn’t capable of dealing with complex formal systems.

In Piagetian terms, pretty much all rich-country teens have achieved his “formal operations,” but the Neo-Piagetian adult cognitive development researchers have consistently found that this is inadequate to actually think rationally in the sense of “systematic, formal, technical rationality.” Only about a third of American adults are capable of that. (As is pretty obvious if you look at unfiltered twitter, which is mostly stage 3.) William Perry’s work founded this lineage of research, which has been done mostly at the Harvard Ed School, including by Kegan.

Part III will tell a story about the gradual development of this formal rationality during ages roughly 15-30, because I find that understanding how you get to be more rational helps understand what rationality is and how it works.

To the extent possible, I want to base this on empirical studies of how people learn college-level STEM. Unfortunately, in my literature search so far, startlingly little research seems to have been done on that. You’d think universities (and the people who fund them) would want to know… Or, maybe, to be more cynical, maybe it’s unsurprising, because they don’t want to know!

Some thoughtful reccomendations

Will 2020-02-07

Hi David,

Still enjoying your writing. Nice!

I think there are a couple of things worth reccomending, that would interest you, considering the work you are currently doing. If you have a couple of minutes - probably worth your time.

Catafalque, by Peter Kingsley

Catafalque would be a great book for you to read that would probably deeply interest you in particular.

Take care,


That reasonable/rational/meta

Kaj Sotala 2020-07-06

That reasonable/rational/meta-rational table reminds me of Terence Tao’s pre-rigorous/rigorous/post-rigorous progression in learning mathematics, which shows up in many other domains as well. (And which could be a way of characterizing the K3/K4/K5 progression as well.)

It is of course vitally important that you know how to think rigorously, as this gives you the discipline to avoid many common errors and purge many misconceptions. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence that “fuzzier” or “intuitive” thinking (such as heuristic reasoning, judicious extrapolation from examples, or analogies with other contexts such as physics) gets deprecated as “non-rigorous”. All too often, one ends up discarding one’s initial intuition and is only able to process mathematics at a formal level, thus getting stalled at the second stage of one’s mathematical education. (Among other things, this can impact one’s ability to read mathematical papers; an overly literal mindset can lead to “compilation errors” when one encounters even a single typo or ambiguity in such a paper.)

The point of rigour is not to destroy all intuition; instead, it should be used to destroy bad intuition while clarifying and elevating good intuition. It is only with a combination of both rigorous formalism and good intuition that one can tackle complex mathematical problems; one needs the former to correctly deal with the fine details, and the latter to correctly deal with the big picture. Without one or the other, you will spend a lot of time blundering around in the dark (which can be instructive, but is highly inefficient). So once you are fully comfortable with rigorous mathematical thinking, you should revisit your intuitions on the subject and use your new thinking skills to test and refine these intuitions rather than discard them.


David Chapman 2020-07-06

Yes, very relevant, and I had already intended to discuss this in Part Three!

My recollection is that Tao explicitly cites cognitive-developmental stage theory as the inspiration for this.

What kind of systems thinking is needed for metarationality?

K. Shen 2024-03-25

Great fan of your work!

I was curious, what maturity of systems/formal thinking do you think is needed for one to practice metarationality?

If one needs PhD level training, then it seems that metarationality will only be accessible to the few.

However, it seems to me that people casually deal with systems and ontologies in the form of categories every day, and I wonder if there is a gentler path to metarationality that is less hard core? Does the casual categorization that people use every day even count as rational-thought-work in your book? Or would it fall under reflexive reasonableness?

The TL;DR: I wonder how much metarational work can be done without a lot of rational training first, or simply by engaging with baby-rational or baby-formal work. Or is rational work really a prerequisite and catalyst for getting better at metarationality?


prerequisites for meta-rationality

David Chapman 2024-03-28

Thanks, these are excellent questions!

what maturity of systems/formal thinking do you think is needed

This question ideally should get answered through empirical research. Unfortunately, the data are scant. So what follows is mostly based on my personal observations—although some studies have been done.

If one needs PhD level training

A PhD is definitely not required. It’s common to develop meta-rational competence when employed in rational work (which could be technical, or legal, or administrative, for example). What’s distinctive about PhD education is that it’s the first point within the educational system where meta-rationality may be required, and may be transmitted. It’s rare for it to come up in undergraduate or master’s level education, although if you are lucky you may get a bit of it.

Just a priori, the prerequisite is understanding rationality itself well enough that you can start asking questions about how and when and why it works, and can start intervening to make it work better. That requires having seen rationality both succeed and fail multiple times, and noticing patterns in that. It probably also requires solid experience with more than one sort of rational system, so you can see how they can be varied.

It’s possible there’s also a biological maturational component. For some reason, 28 seems to be a magic age. That’s when meta-rationality suddenly starts making sense for a lot of people. Maybe it just takes that long to get the relevant experience, but (speculating wildly) it’s imaginable that there are programmed innate brain changes at around that age.

Does the casual categorization that people use every day even count as rational-thought-work in your book? Or would it fall under reflexive reasonableness?

No, and yes, respectively. People use “rationality” to mean somewhat different things in different contexts; in this book, I use it specifically to mean more-or-less formal reasoning about the real world.

Metacognition” is a mainstream concept in cognitive science. It doesn’t require rationality in that sense. Meta-rationality is a form of metacognition, but most metacognition is not meta-rational.

metacognition and pre-rationality

K. Shen 2024-04-05

Very interesting! Thank you for your insights. A few thoughts that occurred to me:

  1. In the education system, seems like PhD is the first time where there are no more guardrails or training wheels, hence having to confront reality, where systems fail. Perhaps we need to start having people confront reality earlier?
  2. Related to the above, even without mastering rationality/systems, many people confront the reality that their tools fail. How one orients to that seems to fall under the domain of metacognition. I wonder how much of your work will be about doing metacognition in general, to better support the sub-specialty of metarationality.
  3. I imagine that for many people, rational systems kind of just fall out of the sky/are thrust upon them, without much explanation. If the system works, great. If not, people are lost. What if those rational systems were better motivated in education via metacognitive reasoning?
  4. Where I’m landing is that it seems like the missing piece for many people is taking metacognition seriously, and metacognition seems like it may be a pre-rational activity in the sense that it is a muscle that can be built without rationality as a prerequisite. It’s also very much an ongoing process. That first metacognitive insight might be that one has to leverage the power of systems and formal methods. But then one might fall into the complacency trap of pursuing the One real system. However, if one was primed to metacognitive thinking previously, then hopefully one would be more predisposed to the next move to metarationality.