Found Content

Thinking about Thinking: It Takes Two

Jim Holt’s sober review of Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow — By Daniel Kahneman — Book Review – NYTimes.com) is wisely cautionary.  An excerpt:

“Even if we could rid ourselves of the biases and illusions identified in this book — and Kahneman, citing his own lack of progress in overcoming them, doubts that we can — it is by no means clear that this would make our lives go better. And that raises a fundamental question: What is the point of rationality? We are, after all, Darwinian survivors. Our everyday reasoning abilities have evolved to cope efficiently with a complex and dynamic environment. They are thus likely to be adaptive in this environment, even if they can be tripped up in the psychologist’s somewhat artificial experiments. Where do the norms of rationality come from, if they are not an idealization of the way humans actually reason in their ordinary lives? As a species, we can no more be pervasively biased in our judgments than we can be pervasively ungrammatical in our use of language — or so critics of research like Kahneman and Tversky’s contend.”

Holt’s question is the right one to ask; ‘rationality’ presumably enables those possessing it to do something, and each rational creature does whatever the amount of rationality she possesses enables her to do, no more and no less.  The urge is almost irrepressible to charge ‘nature’ with making us insufficiently rational.  But insufficient for what?  Without an answer to that question, of course, the charge is an empty one.  But the charge is in any case ridiculous: it assumes nature can be held to account, that it can make mistakes like giving rise to systematically irrational creatures.  And wouldn’t it be welcome solace if nature’s irrational progeny were bright enough to know where to cast the blame?

We endanger any useful understanding of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ if we persist in thinking that ‘irrational’ is something that we are or can be.  Irrationality is more profitably understood as a dismissal of a process of thinking that cannot currently be endorsed; to fix any belief is necessarily to reject many others and often the sequence of beliefs that brought it about. Any belief we currently endorse is, by our own lights, ‘true’, and the sequence of beliefs and inferences on which it rests, ‘rational’.  All those beliefs and sequences we acknowledge to be necessarily excluded are deemed ‘false’ and ‘irrational,’ respectively.  Irrationality (and, mutatis mutandis, falsity) is the necessary by-product of the acknowledged incompatibility of two (or more) distinct run-ups to a new belief.

Rationality is likely nothing more than the ability to think about thinking, and irrationality as the warning label for any kind of thinking one recognizes as incompatible with one’s own current performance (we can dismiss our past thinking as irrational, but not the present product; puncturing today’s pretensions to superior thinking must wait for tomorrow’s new and improved version).  If nature made us systematically irrational, it is because it made us rational.  The former is not the privation or dysfunction of the latter; rather they are two inseparable, close to indistinguishable, sides of the very same ability. Irrationality is the reflection rationality glimpses in the mirror: quite understandable, perhaps, but not quite right.

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Zizek on Charlie Rose

Here.  Most of my fellow philosophers will undoubtedly frown upon my paying attention to Zizek, let alone linking to him. But talk to me when you merit an invitation to share your ideas on Charlie Rose (or any other show), and then acquit yourself so well (physical tics and all).

Time to Think about What Comes Next

That was the headline I used back in October of 2011 when I first linked to the following article by Nouriel Roubini:

What Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Chilean students, and other global protest movements all have in common. – Slate Magazine.

OWS and the Arab Spring may now seem like little more than exuberant spasms of defiance dimly remembered (or would that be dimly imagined?) as, three and a half years later, the Middle East appears hell-bent on all-out conflagration and Americans prepare to endure eighteen months of a farcical presidential campaign among rival defenders of the status quo.

But now there a lot of people thinking about what comes next, thinking about what the Next System might be.  If you want something different, help them figure it out.

Change can’t come fast enough.

The Real Tragedy of the Commons

From today’s New York Times: David Brooks on the emergence of moral individualism 

The odd thing here is that we tend to be surprised and think something has gone wrong.  If you start down the road of privatizing the good, as we did at the birth of Modernity, this is where you inevitably arrive. What’s taking place is perfectly natural, given our history.

And so will be the inevitable reactions.  This, too, shall pass.