Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On rationality and buffoonery

The structure of un-reason

Listening to the extreme claims made during the Kavanaugh hearings has made me consider the limits of rationality. There appears to be a structure of un-reason that we humans are stuck in, and it looks something like this:

unreason diagram

The two paths depicted are different ways of expressing why we do things or why we adopt positions, when the topic is contested. I am not attempting to explain why we do everything we do, and indeed a lot of what we do in a day is habitual or autonomic or arising just because we feel like it. This paper is only concerning those things that we make conscious verbal claims about, when we are thinking and expressing positions.

The top pathway seems to be the more common pattern and the subject of this paper. The lower pathway is the scientific version that I believe is only used in limited settings when we are able to be unusually objective.

Terms I’m using are:

  • The impetus is the actual basis for doing something, which can often be unconscious, and is self-interested. So it’s either related to a basic need (like hunger or loneliness) or resolves a state of unrest (like fear).
  • The justification is the expressed basis of the action, which we essentially make up after doing the thing, or as preparation for explaining ourselves after we have decided to do the thing. It’s retrospective of the action.
  • Buffoonery is the action-justification sequence, when viewed in the light of that retrospective order.
  • Rationality is the opposite of buffoonery, in which the reason is prospective of the action. In other words, the action is legitimately done for a known, expressed reason.
  • Buffoonery dissonance is what happens when justifications contradict each other.
  • The “cement” is all the layers of beliefs that we use to ease the buffoonery dissonance.


I will walk this through three examples – one from children in a classroom, one from a teen/adult perspective that I hope is relatable to the reader, and finally one from politicians showing an extreme case.

In the childhood example, imagine a student pleading to a teacher to relax the rules in some way – maybe to allow eating during class. “Teacher, we should be able to eat in class because we’ll be able to pay attention more!” The “reason” given is really a justification (or rationalization) – an invented basis that that the student hopes will appeal to the teacher’s supposedly disinterested sense of reason. But whatever basis is given, it is not the real impetus, which is actually more simple and direct: she’s hungry. So we have the real and self-serving impetus that happens first (hunger), and the false expressed justification that comes later (in order to pay attention more), and so far there is no rationality. The teacher might think “what principle can I apply here to make an impartial decision here” and that part could be actual rationality up to a point, but the teacher also has her own justifications for things, so the final ruling on the matter might not end up being rational.

The buffoonery of young children making up justifications for what they want is often transparent and teachers might even laugh at it. In particular they laugh when they notice the same child suddenly switches positions when their self-interest changes. Children’s lower level of sophistication allows us to see the structure. They are presumed to be less capable of reason so we do not hold them accountable. More on that below.

The second example is fictional but similar to things I have done. I love cookies and my impetus is to have them all for myself. Maybe I’m greedy or I fear a future cookie shortage, but I’m not consciously thinking of these causes. When I’m not actually hungry, I might tell others not to eat the cookies because “we should save them for a special occasion”. But when I get the munchies, I might eat them all and then say they were getting stale. The buffoonery here is switching justifications in a way that would make the other people in the house raise an eyebrow at my inconsistency and doubt my “reasoning”. If they pointed it out, I would feel the “buffoonery dissonance”, or the shame that goes with being caught.

The third example is what prompted this whole line of thought – the Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Kavanaugh. A senator supports something “on principle” one year and opposes the same thing the year later, appealing to the opposite principle. In this case, senators who made arguments for prudent and lengthy consideration of facts when Obama nominated a justice (and effectively delayed hearings until Obama was out of office) are now making arguments for quick action and not looking too hard at the nominee’s history. A staple of the workings of late night comedy shows is to search databases of footage for cases of inconsistency like this, and air the two clips juxtaposed. We all laugh at the very obvious lies, but beyond laughing is there any result of exposing them?

Responses to buffoonery dissonance

When confronted with buffoonery, people respond different ways:

  • In the case of children, they might just take stabs at whatever gets them off the hook or whatever seems to appeal to adults, and not feel the dissonance at all.
  • In the case of some senators, they appear to have developed an immunity to the shame, so they also take stabs at whatever gets them off the hook and rely on the press having a short memory. The increase of sophistication over children is only slight.
  • A conflict-avoiding person might retreat from their positions and stay safe within cultural norms, while not really facing or resolving the dilemma. (“Okay you’re probably right”)
  • A person valuing relationships over positions might soften or release principles and claims, and see multiple sides. (“It’s not so simple.”)
  • An introspective and ego-balanced person might feel the shame and admit “you got me there”. That could lead to bringing the impetus into consciousness and adjusting the position towards being rational, or having a growth moment. (However, people don’t mature in leaps like this every day, so the response would be less laudable most of the time.)
  • A person with a fighting spirit could double down and invent a more abstract justification that logically bridges the opposing ones. This is the “cement” that locks the positions in place.


Cement is all the other beliefs that we adopt to cement in our justification after we invented it.

In the cookie hoarding example, if I was called to account for a discrepancy in expressed principles, and I was not ready to admit that the actual impetus was to have all the cookies for myself, then I would need to come up with a new all-encompassing “reason” why my two prior “reasons” were compatible. The layers of justification can get ever more intellectual until I win. A lot of politics is essentially the art of getting all the cookies for oneself, where “cookies” can be substituted by anything, such as agri-business subsidies or stockpiling for war.

A global example is slavery. The impetus for holding slaves includes greed and aggression, but that is not admitted to directly. Instead slave-holders make up a justification that makes themselves sound innocent. Those same people might also say that “all men are created equal”, and then they might be confronted with the inconsistency. They would then need to appeal to some more abstract justification that unites the inconsistency, which could be, among other things, that “slaves are not people.” In all of this, I am making the argument that the actual sequence in time is the action, then the initial justification, then the cement. When people want to sound rational, they reverse the sequence and claim that the abstract principles were first in mind, then it led to reasons which led to the action to hold slaves.

The brain is a re-sequencing machine

While I cannot prove that buffoonery (reverse rationality) is the norm, there are cousin processes in the brain that point to backwards sequencing being something that occurs constantly as a central part of consciousness.

The first observation supporting this is that hearing is faster than seeing. If you create an experimental setting where a subject has a brain monitor and a startling noise happens at the same time as a picture on a screen appears, then there are two sequences that occur in the experiment. One is what science observes: First both stimuli are detected (the light arrives before sound but that difference is insignificant at short range). Second, the sound is processed and it signals a twitch reaction in the muscles. Third, the slower visual processing part of the brain sees the image, after the muscle reaction happened. The alternate sequence is what we as subjects believe we experienced: we are really sure that we saw and heard the stimuli at the same time, and then twitched afterwards. So consciousness is subjectively sure of something that is not true. The brain is constantly re-sequencing stimuli in short term memory to align the timeline of hearing and sight and providing a false sense of being present in this exact moment, when we really are never aware of a moment until later.

The other observation is about dream recall. Freud and possibly others asserted that dreams occur as disconnected images without the usual adherence to the laws of time and space, but that we force those images into a story during the process of recall. So the sequence is imposed later upon the original dream. Even though we feel sure we “saw” the things in a linear story format, that certainty only came after the dream was already done and we were waking up.


What’s been bugging me about the un-reasons of the Kavanaugh supporters is the thickness of that cement, the beliefs built up to support the justifications for supporting him. There may have been some rationality exercised by the people who originally put him on a short list and then selected his name – those are the sorts of activities where, at least some of the time, we can be rational. But the millions of supporting Americans can’t be doing that most of the time – their real impetus for support could be fear of losing control by white men, or some related fear-stoked groupthink, or simply being drawn to the norms of the people around them for safety.

The easiest justifications for supporting him despite his potentially disqualifying traits are (1) There is no proof that anything happened; and (2) whatever happened was so long ago. Bart Simpson has a line that covers the bases – something like “I wasn’t there. You can’t prove it happened. I don’t know anything about it.” None of Bart’s justifications are consistent with each other, and likewise the two easy justifications for supporting Kavanaugh are like that too: It is inconsistent to argue both that nothing happened, and that it happened a long time ago.

Then to resolve the inconsistency, the cemented beliefs are constructed, and they feel dangerous. The could be abstractions like “violent assaults are inconsequential” (a way of saying it anything happened, it doesn’t matter). The only way a person can say that shamelessly is by adopting beliefs such as: rape is not a real crime, and women are not fully human in a way that makes crimes against women “real”. Possibly rape is imagined by men as not that bad, if they can only visualize themselves as the rapist. Or people have claimed the victims are fake, or that caving into the real concerns of the opposition fuels some kind of liberal conspiracy.

So the danger is that in the rush to pretend to be rational and escape buffoonery dissonance, millions of people invent and adhere to dangerous beliefs.

My guess is that the left (including me) is doing the same un-reason, and if the nominee was a Democrat with the same history, both sides might have adopted exactly opposite “principles”. One way to test the theory is to assume a hypothetical nominee 20 years in the future, and all we know is that he probably committed some misdemeanor or felony decades earlier that was not reported, but we do not know his political leanings. What would our principles be then? Without knowing our self-interest in a question like this, we usually resist answering, and when I’ve asked people questions like this, I get a lot of “it depends”. They will not say what it depends on, and I tend to think that what it depends on is self-interest at the time, which has to remain unsaid because we rarely can admit to our real impetus.

When I try to bring my own un-reason sequence into consciousness, I get some data from the introspection, but I doubt it is really possible to know oneself enough to fully escape buffoonery. I can admit that a crime in the distant past should not be a disqualifier for most any job. Relatedly, most people working to help ex-offenders re-integrate are left-leaning, but they do not want to apply that same principle to this hearing. However I also then feel drawn to the justification that the particular job of Supreme Court justice should have higher qualifications than others. Also I am drawn to the notion that he should be disqualified for lying under oath, but at the same time President Clinton did that and at the time I felt it was not consequential because the subject matter was not of national significance. To be fair I would have to admit that Kavanaugh’s probable crimes are also not of national significance. That is about as far as I can get with looking at my own un-reason.

Teaching and change

I wonder if the balance of buffoonery versus rationality could be partly influenced by culture, or if it changes in different time periods. On one hand if feels like a solid part of how the brain is wired. On the other hand there is a case to be made for buffoonish cultural patterns. For example when we want children to act rational and we ask them why they did something we do not approve of, they say something to answer the question, like “I was tired” or some other justification. When we engage with them on that level, it is as if we have believed that there has to be a lie and we can only talk about the lie, whether refuting or bolstering it, but always staying at that level. So parents can be the gatekeepers of pseudo-rationality by colluding to stay within the un-reason pattern and limit the conversation to which lie out of the many possible justifications is an acceptable one to settle on. Thus we are teaching and modeling dishonesty. But maybe that way of teaching is culturally prescribed and change is still possible. If we had a cultural pattern of not engaging in pseudo-rationality with children, we might not have a culture that appears to celebrate lying so enthusiastically.

I also wonder about the cycle of shame and revision with people who are introspective: I do not know if the cycle is really just adding so much sophistication to the lies that they really get convincing, or if we inch towards actual rationality. I worry that the more I cultivate the idea that I’m being rational myself, the more I’m building up “principles” that let me have more cookies without risking the shame of inconsistency. And that goes for all of us who feel that we are fair and benevolent.

I also wonder if the cycle of shame and revision is less prevalent in the internet age, and that could be why the Kavanaugh hearing seems to be so much more buffoonish than things in politics in the past. I cannot recall seeing that “you got me” shame in public in recent years, but I think I remember it from earlier. My memory might be limited to local settings and not national politics though. If that is a real culture shift, it could be related to the new internet-age phenomenon of people avoiding anyone they disagree with, so they can never be caught in their inconsistencies. Without ever being caught, the inconsistencies could grow larger without anyone noticing. Possibly related, the president now is someone who cannot be caught because he has no principles, therefore can rarely feel inconsistency or shame.

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A glop taxonomy

In my lifelong quest to un-confuse myself, I have gradually awakened to the fact that I was constantly thrown off by words that are defined associatively, because classical definitions are so much more accessible. As a toddler I would have been so much more aware of the world around me if people answered my demands for meaning in the form “X is a thing in set Y, but distinguished from other members of Y by variable Z”. Because no one would give me a clear definition like this, I spent all those decades not completely sure what an ottoman was, or a hatchback, or a ranch house, or khakis or bows or blouses, or salads or tarts or barbecues. I was more clear about things that can be defined classically, such as that fermions are particles distinguished from bosons by their spin, or that a county is a kind of jurisdiction that allocates 100% of the land area of states into non-overlapping regions. That kind of definition is so much more accessible than trying to figure out why some cars with doors in the back are hatchbacks and others are not, when no one could tell me the distinguishing feature of the class. When people would debate whether a tomato was a fruit or vegetable without defining fruit and vegetable, I thought there was some mysterious classical structure behind their claims, and I came to find out as an adult that there is not, and the question itself (which stole precious minutes from my life) was wrong. A fruit is that part of deciduous plants containing seeds, and a vegetable is any edible unprocessed plant part. At the time those minutes were stolen, I was too young to catch on that the dichotomy was unreal – the two options are not members of the same parent set.

The particular problem category I’m working on in this paper is words defined by fluid consistency. For example if we assume that peanut butter is made of the two ingredients peanuts and butter, as I naturally did, then we miss the critical understanding that “butter” does not indicate animal fats at all, but is instead used as a reference to the resulting consistency of ground peanuts. Coconut milk, by the same illogic, contains no milk. All my childhood I would wonder “what is oil” and “what is wax” and no one could say because every definition would fail to account for all other things that they would also call oil or wax but which were clearly different than the thing in question.

So it turns out, as everyone else already knew, that the meaning of words like butter, wax, and syrup is not about what is actually in the thing, but only has to do with how the thing interacts. In particular since the non-solid parts of us, and biomass in general, are mostly salt water, sugars and lipids, so many word definitions center on how materials interact with water, sugar and lipids. A “syrup” for example need not contain any sugar, but it is just anything that is “syrupy” – but then how do we know in the classical sense if something is syrupy? Answer: it has a certain range of solidity, coherence, and adherence; also it absorbs water and thus is easily washed by water. Molten metals such as mercury might have the same solidity but they lack adherence to water so they are not syrupy. Olive oil has the same solidity and the same adherence as something syrupy, but it repels water so it can’t be called syrup.

The variables

These variables appear to be the most relevant to how we define words for non-solid things:

  • solidity – at one extreme, a measure of how pourable the thing is, or at the other extreme, how much it tends to return to shape (rubberiness)
  • elastic energy – the effort required to re-shape the thing
  • friability – a measure of how pressure tends to either break the thing (like tofu) or stretch the thing (like sugars), or both (like corn starch or silly putty)
  • cohesion and adhesion – the binding qualities of the thing to itself and to other things, affecting surface tension and mixability

A note on elasticity vs solidity: While they might appear to be the same thing, consider jello (and generally things called “gels”) – it is easy to reshape compared to molasses, even though they are both sugar water. Jello has low elastic energy (moves with a light touch) but high solidity (does not pour), while molasses has higher elastic energy (requires greater time or force to spoon up) and lower solidity (it pours).

There are many other variables that chemistry knows about, but they don’t appear to be major players in word definitions. For example:

  • The volatility of solvents is a phenomenon you can feel (such as how hand sanitizer seems to disappear with use) but I could not think of a common word describing liquids with that quality.
  • Density does not appear to affect word choice, possibly because everyday things have very similar densities.
  • The irregularity of a thing because of contained materials affects word choice; for example grout or other cement, sand and gravel aggregates would never be called milky or pasty even if they match other properties of such materials. However there doesn’t appear to be an everyday noun describing aggregation.
  • The quality of surfactants, or soapiness doe not appear to have a word for the class of substance behaviors.

The taxonomy

Now to turn to the actual taxonomy of glop-words, I’ve placed those annoyingly un-definable words into a context of some of the variables above.

  • words for water-absorbing things with low elasticity, low friability, ordered from low to high solidity
    • water > milk > batter > glop > paste > dough > putty / clay
  • words for water-repelling things with low friability, ordered from low to high solidity (and also low to high elastic energy)
    • cream > oil > slime > grease > butter > wax
  • words for water-adhering things, ordered from low to high solidity (and also low to high elastic energy)
    • syrup > gel / jelly > marshmallow > gum > rubber

This is a limited attempt to give a classical definition to these 20 words by defining the class and the variable differentiating the thing from other things in the class.

There are a variety of other words that describe what a thing does for you, or how it affects a process, like a lotion, balm, or detergent. However we don’t use these words as a noun class defined by the exemplar of the class, the way we do with milk, syrup, and the other words in the taxonomy.

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