Rationality, Scaling and Other Trivial Matters

Updated: May 6, 2021

A thought has been on my mind for about a year. I hinted at it in this version of Things on my mind. I will begin a series that fleshes out the thought as I go. The topic is “scaling of rationality.” Rationality scaled through Christianity, democracy, federalism, the rule of law, scientific method, etc., that enables us to function as a society despite our most dire emotional proclivities. How quickly does rationality scale? What’s the threshold beyond which scaling becomes inevitable? Why does it even scale at all? To begin this inquiry, let’s start at the tenet of the idea: Scaling.

Definitionally, scaling is interesting because it varies by academic field, and is prevalent in the real world (believe me, those two rarely meet), which places it in an echelon of its own. However, a quick google search defines it as ensuring that a product is robust enough to survive for many people to adopt it. Which closely tracks the way the broader public understands the idea, i.e., through business. The business analogy offers several good insights on scaling by answering why a product scales or, in other words, what makes a product scale.

  1. Product X must solve a problem a large number of people have. For example, Amazon cracked the problem of shopping in physical locations by offering ease and speed of shopping. Facebook did the same by providing a way to connect with friends we might otherwise lose.

  2. Product X must be relatively easy to adopt and must improve your life at a specific margin—for example, Google.

  3. Product X has to have the implicit promise of growth and change as part of the package—think phone and other website updates.

Let’s use those heuristics on the question at hand. It is reasonable to believe that Christianity scaled partially because it gives people an impossibility project. I am unsure of the source of the idea, but a rough definition is: that which is more significant than you such that it lives on after your life ends. I officially claim that there is indeed a deep human need for this project. Proof? Civilization and education. We won’t have a civilization if people didn’t sacrifice their resources to a project worth dying for. As for education (and to a considerable degree, civilization), people vote with their feet. They acquire degrees in fields that will live on after them and, if they’re incredibly productive, they contribute to the collective human understanding at that margin. Having and raising children also satisfies this desire, and so do projects like charity. The scientific method scaled because it solves the problem of biases and flaws in our thinking. The broader lesson to glean from this point is that for an idea to scale, it has to solve a problem or issue shared by all humans, be it trivial like shopping at the grocery store or abstract like a desire to matter in the world.

That said, point two is quite counterintuitive in “ideaspace.” Ideas like those in Christianity are challenging to adopt, but the adoption does make one’s life better at specific margins. For proof, see the success of the West. The scientific method is also not easy to adopt, as evidenced by the years of training, it takes to become a scientist skilled at wielding the tool. One can also conclude that the tool has been instrumental in shaping and understanding the world around us. This hints at something profound about the reason ideas scale. Ease of adoption may not be a requirement at all. Said another way, it may be that we embrace the difficulty of some of these ideas when the benefits outweigh the costs. This means, for an idea to scale, its benefits have to far outweigh the costs of adoption.

In like manner, the third point is exciting because the ideas of Christianity, democracy, federalism, the rule of law have within them the implicit balance of the tension of growth and change with stability. For example, in Christianity, the protestant reformation. In the instantiation of the rule of law in the United States, the balance is seen in the legal structure. Rulings from lower courts can be appealed, and laws of the land can change. Meaning, for an idea to scale for an extended time, pure stability cannot be its pitch, and neither can constant change.

Overall, in this installation, I have learned one central meta point that ties this piece and builds on a previous point I made. Fundamentally, scaling is based on the survivor principle. To scale, first survive. For an idea to scale, it first must survive the intense battle of logical opposition and sift out the more inefficient or downright harmful ideas to leave only the efficient ones that people are willing to adopt. It must also fulfill some or all of the requirements laid out in this post. We will explore this further in later posts.

Certainty rating: 89%


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