Are You Rationally Competent To Assess Your Rational Competence?


Observation: The one who is incompetent at rational argument will never be persuaded of his incompetence by rational argument; nor will he be persuaded rationally of his position’s irrationality.

Update: corrections made at comments 2 and 3.

Corollary 1: If I am rationally incompetent I may irrationally persist in thinking that I am competent. (See also the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

Corollary 2: If I believe I am rationally competent it is no sure sign that I am.

Corollary 3: If I believe my arguments are rational it is no sure sign that they are.

Corollary 4: If I am incompetent at rational argument I will likely regard contrary arguments as irrational, regardless of their rationality.

Corollary 5: If I think I am competent and my arguments are rational, that could mean that I am competent and I have assessed these things correctly, or I am incompetent and wrong.

Question: Is there a way I can tell which of these from Corollary 5 is the case? Can anyone judge their own rational competence?

I think there is a way to make this self-assessment. I’ll let you go first on the question, though.

19 Responses

  1. Tom Gilson says:

    Corollary 6, heard on the street:

    “Ya wanna know who’s incompetent? It ain’t me! It’s those guys what disagrees with me. That’s who’s incompetent!”

  2. Hi Tom,

    We all start life incompetent at rational argument. The entirety of the human race is not still incompetent at rational argument. Therefore people have been persuaded of their incompetence and their irrationality. Suggesting this can never happen is a flaw in your original observation. Personally I argued the irrational case for a young earth for a long time before I was rationally persuaded that I was wrong.

    Reading the Dunning-Kruger study you linked to showed that people were much better at self evaluation after given minimal tutoring in the skill set where they were previously over estimating their own ability. Even though they had not made any great improvement with the skill, they had a much better idea of just how deficient they were. That indicates that it might be a relatively easy thing to show someone that their argument was irrational, even if it would be much harder to get them to think more rationally about the subject at hand.

    Your Collary 5 has your assessment of your competency AND your assessment of the rationality of your argument tied together. These things are independent, meaning there are two more options; You can be competent but your argument is not rational (in short you have made a mistake) and, less likely, You are not competent, however your argument is rational.

    Regarding the self-assessment of this … I don’t know. I would think a dialogue with others is the best way of learning so I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Shane: You are correct in what you said about the observation. The word “never” overstates the problem.

    Corollary 5 is also not exactly right, as you point out correctly. It should be,

    If I think that I have competently judged my arguments to be rational, that could mean that I am competent and I have assessed these things correctly, or that I am incompetent and wrong to think I have judged them competently.

    Note that an incompetent person could deliver a rational argument (by luck, perhaps), so that he might correctly judge it to be rational. Still he cannot competently judge it to be rational.

    Tutoring is part of the answer to the question. I’ll be interested to see what others suggest.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Would my observation be accurate, at least in most cases, if I put it this way?

    The one who is incompetent at rational argument, yet nevertheless is convinced that he is competent, will hardly ever be persuaded of his incompetence by rational argument; nor will he likely be persuaded rationally of his position’s irrationality.

    The one who thinks he already knows is unlikely to be ready to learn.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    I posted this observation in a Facebook group last night, before I wrote it up here. I committed an entertaining typo. It went like this:

    ME: “A person who is incompetent at irrational argument cannot be persuaded of his incompetence, or of his arguments’ irrationality, by rational argument.”

    NS: “Maybe you meant ‘rational’ argument. It is a rare person who is incompetent when making irrational arguments.”

    ME: “Oops…. Now I’m going to stay awake wondering whether it’s possible to be incompetent at irrational argument. Or what it even means.”

    I haven’t figured it out yet.

  6. TFBW says:

    The one who thinks he already knows is unlikely to be ready to learn.

    Doubly so if the only available teacher is the one who is disagreeing with him, per corollary 6.

    Can anyone judge their own rational competence?

    Without outside assistance? Not easily or reliably. If one can apply reasoning to a real-world task that is likely to succeed or fail (in a clear-cut manner) in proportion to the quality of one’s reasoning, then that can provide the right kind of feedback. Computer programming is one such possible task, since it involves extensive reasoning about the problem at hand. The mind is the primary tool of the trade, and blaming that tool is equivalent to admitting incompetence.

    Even there, however, I have encountered programmers who write awful code, yet think that they are top-tier. Their code works enough to sustain the illusion of competence in their own eyes, but every programmer left with the task of maintaining the code after they’ve moved on will curse them for it. Failure can also be dismissed as the result of attempting to solve a very hard problem, rather than personal incompetence.

    If we allow outside feedback, then things are much simpler, but still potentially subject to stalemate (e.g. by corollary 6). If you can find someone who is competent, and get them to teach and assess you, your degree of aptitude will quickly become apparent. The trick is that you need some means of determining their competence which isn’t reliant on your own questionable competence in the first place. Practically speaking, that usually means seeking out a teacher (or institution of learning) with a good track record.

    I’ve encountered this problem twice in my life. When I first started programming computers, in the early 1980s, competent teachers were not readily available (particularly in high school), so I was largely self-taught. I came to suspect that I was pretty good at it, but it bugged me immensely that I had no real way to measure my capabilities. Eventually, of course, I went to university, and got grades which confirmed my suspicions. These days I also have good references from co-workers, past and present.

    Later on I started to get interested in philosophy, and wrote some essays. In doing so, I received encouraging feedback from other intelligent but untrained people, and came to suspect that I had not only a passion for it, but an aptitude for it. I went back to university to test my mettle, and once again, I’m pleased to say, my grades vindicated my suspicions.

    My confidence in my abilities is not solely based on my own assessment of those abilities, and I think that’s what’s necessary to defeat the dilemma of corollary 5.

  7. This seems to set up a binary classification of competent/incompetent. You might want to adjust it to recognize that rational analysis is a skill to be learned, which means it comes in varying degrees of competence, with no one achieving a perfect “10” on every attempt. In other words, there can be a level of competence that falls below perfect competence (does anyone achieve this) yet cannot be called “incompetence.” I’m not sure how such a level fits in your schema.

    Also, some people can be quite sharp — can excel at rational analysis — in their chosen field, yet completely fall apart when they apply their skills to other areas. Thus a person who is rationally competent in one area may be unable to assess their competence in other areas.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Good points.

    I’m still listening to viewpoints here.

  9. John Moore says:

    Another issue is motivation. Perhaps many people have the raw skill of rational analysis but fail to apply that skill, because they don’t really want the truth. They are comfortable with the explanation they already have, so they aren’t motivated to look closely and use rational analysis, even though they have the raw capability.

    You can see this in different contexts. Some people can be perfectly rational in contexts where they don’t have much emotional investment, but their rationality vanishes when it comes to issues they care deeply about.

  10. Hi Tom,

    “I committed an entertaining typo.”

    That did make me lol. And I will be pondering “incompetent irrationality” today myself.


  11. scblhrm says:

    Rob makes good points. We’re dealing with a spectrum more than rows of boxes. Experience unearths potential. Actualized potential is I think what Tom is aiming at: 1) Is it there. 2) Can we know it is there. 3) How to extricate it. The wise truly can be fools, and, those taken for fools truly can find that tangent wherein they bypass the many. Strength in all tangents – Super Man – is nonentity. A troubling layer is reached, however, and that is the business of agnosticism as to the nature of The Real. If naturalism: it is not that no one is competent, rather, it is that the mind of man cannot be competent. At best it all ends in utility, not awareness, as the very word “skill” becomes nonsense within the metanarrative of mereological nihilism. TFBW makes a good point in appealing to the many as a sounding board by which to evaluate the one. We are, after all, social beings. If the one is open to the many we count it as housing the teachable, and thus housing potential. Of course, as Dr. Craig points out, the man who knows he is innocent of the crime he is accused of seems delusional as he – to the bitter end – denies the mountain of evidence to the contrary. The principle of sufficient reason thus can actualize along uncanny lines. The one truly can outperform, out-know, out-actualize the many…….if his eyes have seen the real………..

  12. TFBW says:

    @Rob Tisinai, #7:

    This seems to set up a binary classification of competent/incompetent.

    You can interpret it that way, of course, but nothing about the argument demands it. There are people of varying degrees of competence who have a sober judgement of their own competence, as well as those who overestimate or underestimate it. The focus of the discussion, however, is that particular problematic case illustrated in corollary #5, and it doesn’t hurt the discussion to simplify that down to the “competent” and “incompetent” alternatives.

    Thus a person who is rationally competent in one area may be unable to assess their competence in other areas.

    Certainly. All reasoning is reasoning about something, and competence can be subject-matter specific. Take mathematical reasoning, for example. Even within that domain, I can’t give a simple answer as to whether my skills are strong or weak, as it very much depends on which kind of mathematics we’re talking about.

    None of this affects the main point of the discussion, except to say that competence in reasoning is not a thing that can be measured in a single dimension. Indeed, a person’s demonstrated strength in one kind of reasoning (say, empirical science) might imbue them with a false sense of competence in other areas (say, the philosophy of science), rendering them simultaneously competent and incompetent in distinct fields.

    @scblhrm, #11:

    The one truly can outperform, out-know, out-actualize the many …

    True, and there is such a thing as “privileged information”, but the general thrust of the discussion here is one of reasoning ability, not access to specific information which might give one an edge. For the sake of argument, it’s best to assume that all parties have access to the same information, and it’s simply the case that they are drawing different conclusions from the data. Under those conditions, when a large number of competent people tell you that your reasoning full of rookie mistakes, then it’s probably true, even if your reasoning looks perfectly solid from your own perspective.

    That’s not a hard and fast conclusion, though. It could be that your critics are operating within a particular paradigm, and your remarks are only wrong from that perspective. Even purely logical statements are only true or false within the context of a particular logical framework.

    Nobody said this was going to be easy.

  13. scblhrm says:


    Tom is of course aiming at the proper use of the same body of information all around as you note. I was offering the contrast between “evidence” and “sufficient reason”. Convergence of construct (conclusion) is by no means sufficient. In fact, it is not even be necessary. The One’s tangent may be brilliance for all the Many “know”, or, the One’s tangent may be the irrational. The door is not closed to the former merely by the consent of “Conclusion-X” by the Many, so to speak. The One may be – with the same information – an outlier, and see through that body of information to some wider self-evident end which the Many (the “average”) fail to apprehend. Some scientific statements have been marginalized until a generation later when – finally – the Many having acquired more data points – finally sees what the One saw a generation ago with far fewer data points. What “works” is useful in a particular field, but in the wide generalization of reasoning there are doors that do not “work” in that sense and yet – by the self-evident – wait for us up ahead. The collective is in danger of the infamous “mistake” as is the individual, and for the same reasons, broadly speaking.

  14. scblhrm says:


    We have well described levels of competence in our field and they tend to go in stages as knowledge (not experience) is first acquired, and then, as experience is mixed in atop that, higher orders of both knowledge and reasoning emerge, giving birth to a more robust application. Bear in mind that the end product is by and large a very competent professional – but actualizing that potential is dealt with by expectations based upon one’s level of exposure, rather than by any hard and fast Yes/No. A key ingredient here is TFBW’s application of community as it relates to continuous feedback on one’s behavior (intellectual justification for action A or B, and so on). That whole arena of community, of Self-Other is ever in play as one’s attempt at X is dissected and redirected either by large degrees in the obvious or by subtle degrees within nuance.

    1) Unconsciously incompetent (one does not know that one does not know)

    2) Consciously incompetent (one realizes one’s frailty in thinking-it-through)

    3) Consciously competent (one by intentional force of reason finds himself able to function alongside his senior peers)

    4) Unconsciously competent (one without intentional force of reason finds himself functioning within the self-evident).

    Number 4 seems odd, but think of it as a dancer who no longer needs to think about each step – and merely becomes the dance, is the dance. It’s a weak analogy, but I think you can see the point.

    Corollary #5: “If I think I am competent and my arguments are rational, that could mean that I am competent and I have assessed these things correctly, or I am incompetent and wrong.” (Etc.)

    As Shane and TFBW point out, the business of community, of dialogue, is fundamental. The potential errors left wide open by that concept of convergence within community as the final say-so on conclusion are – as noted earlier – that convergence is neither necessary nor sufficient – as has been demonstrated fairly often historically.

    Here we find some irony: the Experienced Many – in tutoring the One – should they fail to remember that history – risk hubris and thereby risk incompetence. The Student and Tutor have this in common.

    That lack of humility emerges as fundamental to your question:

    Narcissism has certain traits – typically within interpersonal / social avenues – but such can and does exist within intellectual (reasoning through justification) interactions as well. We call this a personality “disorder” based upon community’s idea of what works. Of course, the metaphysical regressions within that diagnosis – that definition – are baseless as all sorts of determined photon fluxes within our skull “work” and “reasoning” here breaks down as the Ends (more babies) determine the Means (determined cascades of psychic phosphorescence). Sure, we can “define” the word “narcissism” any way we decide to, even as we fail to reason through that definition’s implications.

    The Intellectual Narcissist fails to (on lack of skill) or refuses to (on hubris) fully reason through to necessary ends and lives solely within the arena of what works, mistaking that for the whole-show.

    Is there hope?

    If that is done in lack of skill, there is clearly hope. If such is done on fear, there is less hope, but we still hope with good reason. If such is done on hubris, there is little hope. The One’s and the Many’s Paradigms just are part of the equation and the tutor or student who is not self-aware of such presuppositional subtexts will find contextual competence more evasive than will those who are aware of and include such sums.

    The key: tri-directional humility

    If humility fails to surface in the face of dismal failure – one is in great danger, or, one is an Einstein of sorts seeing through to some self-evident some-thing few others can see. If one claims to be an Einstein of sorts, very well, but a lack of humility will be strong evidence to the contrary, as one – by that lack of humility – will demonstrate unawareness of a whole array of “others”. If one is not claiming to be a sort of Einstein, and merely lacks humility, one is still in great danger, as humility is one’s gateway to the tutor – wherein – or by whom – wider pastures can be found. Let’s hope the tutor remembers his (our) history as well. If the tutor and the student both have such awareness we come upon bi-directional humility amid the Self and the Other begetting cohesive Singularity, as, of course, that Community, that Singularity, moves too in humility’s reciprocity – therein yielding what just is tri-directional humility. Such three-way interpersonal relationality ends all intellectual regressions, are a Hard Stop, in one paradigm that comes to mind as the business of intellect there coheres whether one is Einstein or his wide-eyed Freshman.

  15. scblhrm says:



    I said,

    “…..If one claims to be an Einstein of sorts, very well, but a lack of humility will be strong evidence to the contrary, as one – by that lack of humility – will demonstrate unawareness of a whole array of “others”….”

    By “others” there I mean to infer / include the long history of what discovery / reasoning actually contain, and not just “other people”, though that too. Hubris betrays, equals, an unawareness of an entire arena of how thinking/intellect happens and of the connection of that reality to the reality that is one’s own self/mind. And, when one is unaware, one can hardly be competent. Or, at least not as competent as another who is aware of such a broad component of the intellectual paradigm and its relation to one’s own self/mind. Humility betrays, equals, intellectual awareness, whereas, hubris betrays an unawareness.

    Yet another qualifier of humility:

    “But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims…….. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (GK Chesterton)

  16. scblhrm says:

    Humility is necessary (else unawareness) – though not sufficient – and, also, humility cannot claim agnosticism:

    An atheist once argued with me that the number 1 does not represent any real any-thing, for, with ever thinner slices, “one tree” becomes many branches, and so on, ever downward until all definitions and reason itself all die the death of mereological nihilism. I pointed out to him that Scripture and logic both state that Actuality (whatever “it” “is”) is – it is self-evident – Perfectly-1. If the Multiverse – well then, “that” is [Actuality], and so on. The conversation ended as the self-evident emerged. A mereological nihilist can do little – if anything – with the self-evident as it awaits us more distally – there at the end of an infinitum. Should he wish to avoid that self-evident end he must too jettison himself as the self-evident is traded away for absurdity. Agnosticism truly is unjustified hubris for it makes an full claim on the end of ad infinitum, that claim being we cannot know – ever – ya/na of that same ad infinitum it makes claims upon, claims to know about. We must be careful of the sort of humility which insists that abstraction’s 1 is nonentity of actuality. Logic’s ends of regression tell us otherwise. Humility mixed with a degree of confidence in the self-evident becomes a peculiar mixture that is a kind of gateway into exploring the nature of Abstraction’s Perfect-1 that is actual of Actuality.

  17. Nigel Owen says:

    For just a bit of fun:
    Would someone who is incompetent at irrational thought be someone who is incapable of rational thought? While incompetent and incapable aren’t necessarily the same thing; I think a fallible human being would not be incapable of irrational thought. Or without the double negative we are all capable of entertaining irrational thoughts.
    to that extent pehaps one could say there is no such thing as an incompetent irrationality.
    The exception would probably be God, as I imagine that God would be incapable of being irrational. Because irratonality would be contrary to his nature.
    However in the spirit of this conversation I am perpared to accept that what I have just written may infact be complete nonsense.

  18. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you for all the comments here.

    I wrote this post because of recent frustrating encounters with illogic. Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and seeing evidence of it in action, I began to think more generally about the whole question of whether persons who lacked rational competence might be able to recognize their weakness.

    Here’s my take on it, which I add to the above, with appreciation for the fact that most of what you’ve said is at least as valid as what I am saying here, if not more so.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect has both empirical and theoretical support. I believe it’s real. Some people are not rationally competent enough to recognize their rational incompetence.

    This incompetence is, however, neither global, nor absolute, nor terminal. It can express itself in limited areas. I’ve debated top-flight physicists, whose rational competence has been proved many times over in that field, yet who could not reason their way out of a paper bag when it comes to matters of ethics and spirituality. They just couldn’t tell a valid inference from a hole in the wall. (I’m thinking of one particular person who has not been here in several years.)

    But I was exaggerating–he wasn’t quite that bad. Rational incompetence is never absolute, except in some cases of genuine mental disability, perhaps. There are degrees of competence/incompetence. There’s always something there to work with, if the person is willing to do the work. There is a volitional factor at work, too: what conclusions is a person willing to consider? Illogic can protect a person from facing needed change.

    Rational incompetence is not a terminal disease: a person can learn. This learning is likely to happen in the usual ways: reading, taking classes, discovering reality through direct exposure, and so on.

    So there are conditions I would place on this idea of rational incompetence. Taking all that into account, though, it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s sad to see it.

    Or am I rationally incompetent and unable to see it? How would I know? The best way I can think if is by feedback from tests I’ve taken, from qualified logicians with whom I’ve interacted, and from interactions here. Generally speaking, I would say that the best test of rational competence here is one’s willingness to listen to direct challenges, and to respond to them with as much depth of understanding as possible.

    There are, as I said, degrees of competence. I’m sure I don’t live up to that standard the way I should. I hope I’m still growing. There are thinkers I look up to who outstrip me by miles in this.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts in answer to my own questions here. Thanks for sharing yours.