About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Crooked timber

by Ian Pollock

(A review of Matthew Hutson’s book, “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking”)

Like many RS readers, I value epistemic and instrumental rationality very highly. Of course, I could be accused here of making a hollow claim: “Surely everybody values rationality, as conceived by themselves! Maybe next you’ll drop the bombshell that you like good things?” To avoid triviality, therefore, I define rationality in terms of a set of specific ideas: Bayesian probability theory and its special case, classical logic; Ockham’s razor and related heuristics; considerations of internal consistency; decision theory, et cetera.

Matthew Hutson’s lovely book “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking” makes the case that even hardcore skeptics are (a) constantly violating their own stated ideals of rationality, and (b) that’s often — or at least sometimes — a good thing. Let me see if I can make a thumbnail sketch of his arguments, using examples from my own life (I’ll leave Hutson’s artfully chosen examples, which are far more entertaining, for the book).

Even as I type this paragraph, there are two things in front of me that Hutson might very well smile at. One is a wedding band. As everybody in our culture knows, these are tangible symbols of two people’s commitment and love for each other. However, Hutson argues, since we instinctively believe that “objects carry essences” (Law #1) and “symbols have power” (Law #2), my behavior with respect to this piece of metal is bound to be rather peculiar. For example, when I lost my original ring while swimming in Lake Okanagan a couple of years ago, I immediately apologized to my wife Vikki, and the apology was not merely for the loss of money to get it replaced.

On the pinky of my right hand, meanwhile, is a little stainless steel ring worn voluntarily by most Canadian engineers, called the iron ring. It is supposed to be worn on the working hand, to remind us of our ethical obligations to the public, to the environment, and to the people and organizations we work with. I will say nothing of the ceremony in which it was presented to me, except that afterward I did feel a serious sense of having changed by making an oath. This could be seen as a bit wooly, though. After all, oaths and ceremonies are just words dressed up with props and solemnity; it’s hard to see how they could affect the world.

Law #3 is that “actions have distant consequences,” a reference (in part) to the idea of lucky rituals and possessions. Having done a good deal of fishing in my life, I am no stranger to such things. My father has a set magical phrase he uses to make the fish bite (he would be very offended if I revealed it to strangers). A family friend can “read the water.” As for myself, I wear a raggedy old hat that has now shrunk to at least 2 sizes below my head size, and although I don’t explicitly think of it as lucky, it’s hard to explain why else I still occasionally wear the ugly old brain-corset.

Every year on November 11, the Commonwealth observes Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day in the US). In many public and private institutions (schools, for example), a minute of silence is also observed, during which it is understood that one makes an effort to remember the sacrifice of the allied soldiers (rather than, say, making plans for the weekend). This could be interpreted in terms of an implicit idea that if the allied war dead are remembered by the living, they are better off for it. It’s as though we imagined that our thoughts had spooky causal power (Rule #4, “the mind knows no bounds”) — not only that, but dead people (!) are in a position to be somehow benefited by those thoughts (Rule #5, “the soul lives on”). Of course, we can also cash it out more prosaically by saying that it serves the purpose of reminding us of the cost of war, in order that we might not treat the decision frivolously.

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my two cats, George and Gracie, have fully developed human-like character traits, as discovered by their cat-to-human simultaneous translators (my two years in linguistics proving their worth!). Gracie is haughty, aristocratic and sporting; George is mischievous, a bit cowardly, and slightly obtuse. I have to admit that I do now tend to think of them in these ridiculously anthropomorphized terms, which just goes to show our tendency to interpret the world in terms of human psychology (Rule #6, “the world is alive”).* Of course, the most amusing instantiation of this tendency comes about when people talk about gods, moving effortlessly from abstract pronouncements about “the ground of all being” to asking a larger version of Brian Blessed for his help in winning the Superbowl.

People who are in good relationships will also find it hard to square the sheer contingency of their love lives with the feeling of retrospective teleology that often accompanies them. Objectively speaking, I have no reason to suspect that the set of counterfactual worlds in which I grew up in a different city and never met my actual wife or friends, would be unusually bad worlds for me to live in. I would not be uniformly less or more happy in them than I am in the actual world. Yet from a personal perspective, certain relationships seem as though they were (or ought to have been) inevitable. Lovers want to hear this from each other, too — that they are the only possible felicitous combination.** This ties in with Hutson’s final Rule #7, that “everything happens for a reason.”

I have skipped over a lot of fascinating exposition here, in the interests of laying a groundwork for the rest of this post. Hutson has done some thinking about the causal factors involved in all of these funny little cognitive tendencies of ours, as well. Some of it is rather speculative, but certainly food for thought.

I want to address what I take to be Matthew Hutson’s main point, but first, one large nitpick. The chapter on Rule #4 (“the mind knows no bounds”) treats free will and ethics as if they were obviously delusions (useful delusions, but delusions nonetheless). Very well. I am a compatibilist, Hutson is not. I am a moral (quasi-) realist, Hutson is (probably) not. What I object to is the lack of qualifiers in his discussion here: he presents the Benjamin Libet experiment (enough with the Libet experiment already, people!) as proving that our conscious will is an illusion, and — that’s it! No mention of the possibility of compatibilism, or different interpretations of the Libet data (as opposed to the standard asinine “your brain makes the decision before your mind does” interpretation). I think that when we take non-trivial philosophical positions, we ought to make it clear that we’re staking a philosophical position rather than objectively presenting science.

Now, what is Hutson’s overarching point in his book?

I take him to be attempting to vindicate certain aspects of what he calls “magical thinking” as psychologically useful, and in many cases essential to our humanity. At the very least, he succeeds in showing skeptics to be (typically) massive hypocrites on this score. However, two responses occur to me.

One is that Hutson often seems a bit overzealous in pronouncing a phenomenon “magical.” I have already ranted about free will, but what about speech acts (such as the marriage vows and oaths I alluded to earlier)? I do not see these as especially spooky, yet Hutson presents them as if he were a triumphant Poirot in the library, exposing the culprit’s villainy.

Second, we might wish to think about the conditions in which we want our behavior to be epistemically rational, and those in which we can relax with a bit of nonsense. Part of the reason that I am more than happy to wear my lucky fishing hat is that (a) it really looks like it doesn’t matter, (b) somewhere in my head, I do actually have an explicit model of reality that precludes unusual interactions between haberdashery and ichthyology. For other irrational beliefs in other circumstances, neither of these conditions applies, and this may matter very much indeed, as the irrational subject may in fact mentally model the world explicitly according to their irrational ideas. This is much more worrisome to me, not least because failing to have an accurate model of phenomenon X renders very suspect any judgements you make about how much phenomenon X matters. Not only is a hardcore cult member epistemically wrong, their bad epistemology makes them also unable to appreciate the gravity of their situation.

Lastly, I want to try to put some of these phenomena in the proper perspective. I think the common thread with many of these quirks of human psychology is that something which appears epistemically irrational might in certain circumstances be instrumentally rational. For example, it might be wise to believe in your own abilities a bit more than is truly justified — take William James’ example of the person who needs to climb down a cliff or die, but is not a particularly talented climber: “I believe that I will make it! I believe that I will make it!”

Very well then, it may sometimes be rational to violate epistemic rationality for the sake of other considerations, like pragmatic needs. But the only reason we need to do so, is because our psychology is already skewed. What kind of lunatic would design a mind such that its abilities were affected by its beliefs about its abilities?! It would be like designing a car engine to be controlled using the speedometer needle.

I have mild astigmatism and nearsightedness; my eyeballs are warped such that they don’t focus properly. The cure for that is to put another warped optical element in front of my eyeballs. This definitely does not imply that somebody with 20-20 vision should wear my glasses. The analogy doesn’t quite hold for cognitive flaws, because by and large all humans have the same flaws. Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be made here between what we might provisionally call “ideal rationality” — what you would design for, if you were building a thinking machine — and “crooked timber epistemology” for mere humans, which sometimes necessarily uses flaws to correct other flaws. I thank Matthew Hutson for motivating me to make the distinction.


* I do also want to add that although my cats do not have all the character traits we playfully ascribe to them, they certainly have distinct and recognizable personalities.

** Explanation of this behavior in terms of signaling arms races left as an exercise for the reader.

Note: Matthew Hutson will appear in a soon to be released episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo and Julia. Stay i-Tuned...


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  2. When you actually review the book will you let us know?

  3. P, Bob,

    I find your comments exceedingly unhelpful. Any particular reason why what Ian has written qualifies as a straw Vulcan, or why his comments did not amount to a review?

    1. I think P might be accusing Hutson of making a straw vulcan argument... not entirely fairly, in my opinion.

    2. I take it that a review is a speech act which reviews. There are also many other kinds of speech acts. Seems to me Ian gives us some interesting thoughts about his own epistemology but not much on the arguments in the book he is reviewing.

  4. I'm glad to see these important issues get some airtime. One suggestion I have is this: these beliefs start looking a lot less "magical" when we expand our horizons a bit and accept the reality of what Searle calls "social facts" as distinct from natural facts. Too often, "rationality" is equated with "responsiveness to facts", where a fact is just an ordinary, physical fact about an object. When we recognize that our beliefs are responsive to social reality, on this view, they appear "magical".

    A great example of a social fact is the fact that certain small pieces of paper are worth a dollar. Nothing in the microphysical structure of the paper contains this fact, rather, there is massive collection of shared beliefs which establishes the (social) reality of its worth. Classical, simple-minded rationalists will call such properties "merely subjective", but there's something not quite right about this, because I can't just decide that my piece of paper is worth $5.

    Now, in the case of the engineering ring, there are a huge number of people who believe that it has a certain significance, and so, it *does* have significance. So it is with the wedding ring. And it's not a stretch to say that the monumental importance of Nov. 11th ensures that WWI and WWII soldiers are still *alive* in some sense.

    In short, I would suggest that once we take social reality into account, these supposed "false beliefs" start looking a lot more rational. But if we chain ourselves to a reductionist ontology of the hard sciences, we are stuck with this fragmented, Janus-faced approach to our lives, where we sometimes, in your words, help ourselves to a comforting "bit of nonsense".

    1. I was with you right up until - if I read you correctly - you want to include social reality in our *ontology*?

      Maybe we are just using different definitions of the word, though. Either way, we basically agree on the rest, yes.

    2. Sorry... I just meant that we ought to include the beliefs, desires and values of other people as things that exist, as facts to which our minds respond.

    3. Vanitas ~ I think you made some illuminating remarks, but wouldn't you agree that SOME actions
      can't be explained by societal convensions?

      There is a rational reason for stopping at a red light, even though it is just convention that decides
      to pick red rather than blue. There is also a rational reason for agreeing to have a paper picture of George Washington serve as a medium of exchange. These are just arbitrary decisions that society agrees upon that have underlying reasons for being.

      I disagree with the wedding ring example. There is no objective rational reason to prize the original ring above a copy. No scientific test could determine the difference -- but 99% of couples would rather have the original than a copy. It seems to me that saying it has significance because we SAY it has significance is circular reasoning.

      Likewise with reverence for the dead. A rabbi once asked Jerry Coyne if he would chop up his dead parents to be used as dog food -- the point being that we have feelings about such things that transend the scientific evaluation that you are merely dealing with so much dead meat.

  5. Is it the author's position that the mere use of symbols is a form of magical thinking? Because that would be a very hard nosed stance to take. It's not irrational to make use of symbols and metaphors as markers for significant ideas.

    1. No, he's more concerned with e.g., the veneration of symbols. For example, laws against flag burning, or treating one's wedding ring as non-fungible with other more or less identical wedding rings.

    2. On the wedding ring example; a few years after my wedding I traded the rather plain band for a replica of the LOTR "One Ring" - for no other reason than I thought it looked nice. People I told were aghast and wondered if my wife was unhappy. They got confused when I explained that she gave me my new ring as a gift after I said I wanted one.

      Neither of us thought the ring itself had any intrinsic value - no "essence" that required I only wear the original ring.

    3. "Neither of us thought the ring itself had any intrinsic value - no "essence" that required I only wear the original ring."

      Well, this anecdote is not strictly relevant here unless you're claiming that this makes you *more rational* than Ian. Are you making this claim?

    4. No. I'm making the claim that people thought I was odd to change my ring. Which adding on to Ian's "treating one's wedding ring as non-fungible with other more or less identical wedding rings." example seems relavent.

      Or not, suit yourself.

  6. Ian, I am trying to track your position versus his. He says magical thinking has utility? You agree that it might, in some cases, but magical thinking is an ad hoc solution to a problem that aught to be solved in another way? Our that magical thinking points to some paucity of reason?

    I agree with the latter. I think the only way to defend reason is to make it clear what a faulty tool it really is. Reason is being oversold. The very concept of dysfunctional reason is problematic, because it seems to have more dys than function. Reason must do something other than what it claims to. Why else would these "biases" be so prevalent?

    I think many cognitive biases are over generalizations of very, very important heuristics. But the heuristics are not used in the way people assume.

    Okay, talk a weird walk with me. Consider the male nipple. If you think nipples are the ultimate erotic/aesthetic expression of womanliness, then it will be confusing as to why men have them too. However, if you understand that nipples are the delivery system of milk to babies, then too many nipples in a species is obviously much better than too few. Better to err on the side of useless nipples.

    I think reason is primarily a consensus building social phenomenon (like consciousness itself btw) So, to attribute agency to inanimate objects, including dead people... these all point to how IMPORTANT these group think situations are to the primary human survival strategy. We need to model predict and conform to other minds. That's more important to us than figuring out logical truths. So other minds, agency, gullibility, self delusion, persuasiveness -- It's all nipples. Why? Because reason isn't about mapping reality. Reason is about politics, and politics is about competing with other peer groups and other species. That's why we are such bad environmentalists. We might individually understand the value of a functional eco-sphere, but as a collective, we see other species as either a resource or a marker of a resource.

    1. "Ian, I am trying to track your position versus his. He says magical thinking has utility? You agree that it might, in some cases, but magical thinking is an ad hoc solution to a problem that aught to be solved in another way? Our that magical thinking points to some paucity of reason?"

      Neither. I more or less agree that magical thinking sometimes has utility; I am just *very nervous* about drawing too sweeping a conclusion from that (like the conclusion that reason itself is flawed). As I tried to say at the end, I think the areas where magical thinking has utility highlight flaws in human cognitive systems, NOT in reason itself.

      I definitely disagree that reason is exhaustively a consensus-building social phenomenon. That *might* be the evolutionary origin of the human practice of reasoning, but as we all know, evolutionary origin says very little about what we ought to think of something, normatively. You may grow feathers for warmth, then use them to glide and eventually fly. You may develop reason for arguing and then use it to map regularities in the structure of reality.

    2. Reason as a consensus-building social phenomenon sounds like a nice story, but I wonder how might one go about testing it? And, as Ian points out, even if it were true in some significant sense, it does not therefore follow that reason is unreliable in delivering true beliefs about the external physical world.

      On the story as such, however, I am more than skeptical. First, this hypothesis seems to indicate that language is essential for reason, but we have very good reasons to believe humans make reasonable inferences without the use of language. Moreover, and more generally, there are other far less social primates who evidence reason (insofar as we define reason as making inferences from this-to-that and updating our beliefs via more data). I have in mind here orangutans.

    3. Communication is essential for reasoning in any social group, and there are no species that have evolved without learning the communicated examples of socially adaptive strategies from others of their species, even if they are the "born-with" lessons that had earlier become instinctive. No organisms have survived to replicate without some contacts at some point with otherss. Even the androgynous (for want of a better term) have social contacts. So in one way or another life forms survive by inferring rationally probabilistic meaning from communication.

    4. I might add that "reason as a social tool" seems intuitively far less plausible once you stop using the vague abstraction "reason" and substitute it with all the specific individual tools of reasoning that it refers to, like for example Bayes theorem or propositional logic.

      These are no mere contrivances for arguing, for (a) one can prove some of them from axioms, (b) one can point to specific examples of their being used for highly important tasks such as hunting submarines or designing microchips - tasks that have nothing to do with hunter-gatherer politics. To the extent that "human reason" consists in discovering such principles and attempting to apply them, it looks like a worthwhile endeavour & not just the jumped-up sophistry that the evolutionary story seems to imply.

    5. Reason is a social tool, no matter whether you've decided to use it for some individual or even anti-social purpose.

    6. Well, I support your position, Ian, I just think we can't ignore what became of the Enlightenment. The problem isn't that people are placing too low a value on reason, it's that they still place too high of one. We expect things to make too much sense. That can only be had through magic, it turns out. Russell and Whitehead showed us why. Euclid proofs can work for engineers, but there is no absolutely secure foundation. We have provisional and potentially shifting foundations (and that might be enough, we CAN rebuild this boat at sea, we just have to be aware that there are choices in how one builds ones boat with a limited amount of wood). So the "principles" you hope for may never come. What I predict we will get Instead is a clearer sense of why we need certainty so much and why we are willing to throw so much out the window to get it.

    7. OneDayMore,

      I don't care to get into a protracted exchange on the nature of the Enlightenment, but I have to point out how narrow sighted your view is. The attainment of certainty was not a principal feature of enlightenment thinkers or ideals. Of course some wrote about obtaining certain & indubitable knowledge about the natural world, but such pronouncements were not, on balance, the norm (note, for example, that it was at this time that probability began as a serious mathematical and scientific discipline). Also, the quest for certain knowledge of the physical world was just as much a feature of pre-Enlightenment times as it was during the Enlightenment.

      No, the defining feature of the Enlightenment was elegantly stated by Immanuel Kant in his essay 'What is Enlightenment?': Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

      Read the rest of his essay here: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

    8. And then Kant came up with the categorical imperative, courageously shooting himself in the foot.

    9. Eamon, you are right to want to sidestep an argument defining the Enlightenment. I don't think, however, that Kant would want you to ignore history and pretend the Enlightenment worked out in such a way that Kant himself would be happy with. Also, rather than your link, I would refer you to, say, the title of Kant's book: "Critique of Pure Reason."

      What's more, I don't understand why you think that other animals exhibiting logical or rational behavior proves anything. Inanimate objects (including man made and natural) can function as logic circuits. I'm not saying Reason doesn't exist. I'm not saying Reason isn't good. I'm saying we are obviously not wired to be truth finding machines. I am saying that the foundational holy grail doesn't exist. We are too good at deluding ourselves for it not to have a very strong survival value. We are similarly way too gullible. As a link to these facts, I suggest you click on any random link other than the one you provided.

      So which of us has the "narrow sight"? My gaze includes history, psychology, current neurology. "Dare to know" indeed.

    10. OneDayMore,

      I am not clear as to your point. If you are arguing that humans are not bias-free, perfectly rational agents, your point is trivial. If you are arguing that human cognitive systems, and the abstract disciplines of logic, mathematics, and science (construed broadly) in general, are do not at all lead to true beliefs, your point is false -- and inconsistent. If instead you are arguing that coming to justified true beliefs about the external physical world is a messy business (given our propensities for believing false things and true things for all the wrong reasons), your point is uneventful: this theme has been a common one throughout philosophy and western science for quite some time.

      Now, my accusation of narrow-sightedness was in regards to your imputation of the quest for certain & indubitable knowledge as a principal feature to the Enlightenment ideal. This quest is *not* an essential feature, and thus the enduring success of the Enlightenment does not stand or fall on the point.

    11. OneDayMore,

      I should add that you should resist with ending witticisms and instead concentrate on making your point a bit clearer.

    12. "Inanimate objects (including man made and natural) can function as logic circuits."
      Is that supposed to demonstrate that inanimate objects can acquire reason? It's similar to arguing that inanimate objects have intelligence, because somehow early life moved from inanimate to animate by acquiring intelligence.
      Wait, that is what onedaymore is arguing, that some of our less reasonable animals who exhibited reason only appeared to be reasonable because they had the rudiments of logic circuits, but no logic until by lucky accident they acquired it.
      Some of us were taught that the body must have intelligence to use it.
      The body can be changed by accident and the intelligence it has must adapt to that accident. But intelligence can't be made by accident to adapt itself to an unintelligent body.

    13. Or maybe OneDayMore is claiming that animal reasoning can't be anything like human reasoning to start with, because reasoning in biological forms does not evolve, it just is. Purely a random accident of nature in every case, that is.

    14. Look, it's fine to talk about things like logic and true beliefs. But you just can't get around the fact that they don't really live up to their own hype. They don't deliver the goods. Now you can talk about the trivial "biases" that you seem to think can be talked out of existence (as do most people who buy into the skeptic project) but unless you blind yourself to what is happening (now and historically) you've got to admit that usually what happens is the other side adopts your jargon, but not your reason, and carries on as though nothing has changed. So the point isn't trivial. The point is to come to an understanding of why that is the case. And what I am saying is that on a foundational epistemic level, on a neurological level, on a social level there is a reason why this happens. And it aint that people just don't understand what you mean by Enlightenment, and it aint that they're just too dumb to understand your nifty syllogisms. There are actually good reasons why most logicians are not invited to most parties.

    15. In all honesty I don't know what you are trying to claim.

    16. I think he's expressing skepticism about whether people who are trying earnestly to reason will end up converging on the truth.

      OneDayMore, I think it is hard to follow you partly because you're not being careful enough to distinguish claims about reason itself, from claims about how humans reason. Sometimes you seem to be equivocating between the two.

    17. Thanks, Ian. That is my point in a nutshell. But I'd say my position is more pessimistic than skeptical. I love science. I think it's our best hope for converging on the truth. But, as the saying goes, it progresses one funeral at a time.

  7. Bob Lane & P,

    Rather than the offhand remarks, it would be both helpful to Ian and the blog readers if you could show exactly in what manner Ian misconstrued / failed to understand Hutson here.

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