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.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Thoughts About Thinking - A Review

by Steve Neumann

In one of his Tavistock Lectures in London in 1935, C.G. Jung said:

Thinking, if you ask a philosopher, is something very difficult, so never ask a philosopher about it because he is the only man who does not know what thinking is. Everybody else knows what thinking is. When you say to a man, “Now think properly,” he knows exactly what you mean, but a philosopher never knows.

In other words, there’s thinking, and then there’s thinking. But Jung’s philosophobia aside, his remarks encapsulate the subject matter of John Brockman’s book Thinking while at the same time providing a nice segue into yet another discussion on the relationship between science and philosophy.

Brockman is the curator of Edge.org, a self-proclaimed online science salon. Thinking is a collection of unedited talks and conversations from “today’s leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers” at various conferences, and it carries the subtitle of “The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction.” There are sixteen relatively short chapters in the book, with topics ranging from the predictions of political pundits to cognitive development in adolescence to moral judgment and reasoning. There’s a fair amount of redundancy in the book, because many of the chapters focus on decision-making processes explicitly, and necessarily discuss the impact of various cognitive biases.

Many of the chapters do focus on the difference between two conceptions of thinking that Jung differentiates, between what we might call common sense thinking and philosophical thinking. Our common sense, everyday thinking is closer to what George Santayana called “animal faith,” where we act on pragmatic beliefs that aren’t really the result of reasoning proper. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is much more involved, intentional, and rigorous. Jung was right on that count. Compare the “reasoning” of the contestants in your average competition-based reality TV show and that exhibited by Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues.

The implicit intention of the book is to help us live better lives by showing us how science is engaged in understanding the human mind. I say “science” because the book explicitly claims to be a report of the “new science” of decision-making and problem-solving. There is even a chapter entitled “The New Science of Morality,” which of course includes writer Sam Harris as well as philosophers Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe (of XPhi fame), among others. Here’s an excerpt from Brockman’s introduction to this chapter:

Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation… Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology.

I don’t know who Brockman means by those who study human nature without reference to its biological foundation because he doesn’t elaborate. And if he’s including philosophy in the other disciplines he mentions, I have to say I don’t know of any (naturalistic) philosophers who fail to take into account the biological history of the human being when attempting to understand it. Is it telling that, of the twenty-two authors represented, only four are philosophers? 

Of the sixteen chapters in the book, the six I enjoyed the most were: “Smart Heuristics”; “Affective Forecasting…”; “The Social Psychological Narrative…”; “Insight”; “A Sense of Cleanliness”; and “The New Science of Morality.” Interestingly, the only chapter that doesn’t seem to fit is Daniel Dennett’s contribution entitled “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind.” I like and respect Dennett, and enjoy his books even when I don’t agree with him, but this one didn’t seem worthy enough to include in the book. I expected something more profound or insightful from him. His chapter reads more like a series of notebook jottings.

“Smart Heuristics” by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer focuses on how we're able to make decisions in ordinary life in the face of limited time and incomplete information. His research looks into just how much information we have to ignore in order to make those decisions. The key is knowing what information is essential and what information we can afford to discard. How information is represented is equally important, and another issue he addresses is that of innumeracy. One of the hypothetical examples he gives is the case of a 40 year-old woman receiving a diagnosis about breast cancer. After her mammogram screening, she learns that it comes out positive. Gigerenzer tells us that, in his experience, about a third of physicians will tell the woman that her chance of having breast cancer is 90%. However, only 10% who test positive turn out to actually have cancer. Why the huge discrepancy? 

Gigerenzer believes we humans have trouble wrapping our heads around probabilities. But when we’re given information in natural frequencies, this confusion dissipates like morning fog along the freeway. He has us imagine 100 women, one of which has breast cancer — and she likely tests positive on the mammogram. But out of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, another 9 or 10 will have a false positive result nonetheless. So out of the 9 or 10 who test positive, only one will end up actually having cancer. Obviously, the patient would much rather hear that her chances of having cancer after testing positive are only 10% and not 90% percent — now she doesn’t have to get her affairs in order and make peace with her Maker.

Work like Gigerenzer’s promotes effective heuristics that facilitate better and more reasonable decisions. Traditional decision theory says we humans diligently consider all consequences of a prospective decision, choosing the course of action that will lead to the highest expected value. The problem is, studies show that we don’t really behave that way. Of course, we don’t need studies to tell us that. But like others in this book, Gigerenzer’s work confirms that humans make decisions on a “bounded rationality,” not the omniscience of the traditional economist’s god. He says that “neither the extreme of hyper-rationality or irrationality captures the essence of human reasoning,” by which he means how humans really reason in everyday life.

Daniel Gilbert’s “Affective Forecasting...” picks up almost where Gigerenzer left off. Gilbert, another psychologist, conducts research into the nature of our ability to accurately predict our emotional reactions to future events — what he and others call “affective forecasting.” He says we’re pretty terrible at it; we make a lot of errors in this regard. But he distinguishes between one-time errors and more systematic errors. If you’re at your local pub, and you’ve had a few pints of plain while you’re playing darts with your mates, you’re going to miss the bull’s-eye fairly often. But your misses will likely be relatively close to the center of the board (unless you’ve been dropping shots of Jameson in your pints), and they’ll also be pretty randomly dispersed around it. But if all or at least most of your misses are in one spot every time, then that’s probably a good reason to see your local physician — you are making systematic errors, and that’s indicative of a real problem.

Likewise, if we humans — the only animal on the planet that can imagine possible futures — regularly make a certain mistake when judging the outcomes of potential future events, then that’s worth investigating. We don’t like to have our expectations messed around with — it’s unsettling. Gilbert and others say we tend to overestimate the impact of future events. We anticipate that they’ll be more intense and more durable than they actually turn out to be. He calls this idiosyncrasy “impact bias.” The studies his lab has done consistently show this effect, whether they studied something negative like the breakup of a romantic relationship or something positive like a professor getting tenure. And while participants regularly predicted they’d feel extremely unhappy or happy for a very long time after the event, the fact of the matter is they went back to their baseline emotional states much quicker than they predicted.

Gilbert thinks the culprit in this type of error is the fact that, when pondering a future event, our mind generates an affect-laden mental image that is capturing only one moment in time, and we become fixated on it. He says we become “slaves to the focus of our own attention.” But instead of shutting your eyes and imaging the future event and your reaction to it, Gilbert recommends finding someone else “who’s already experiencing that future and observe how they actually feel.” He believes that investigating how an actual, fairly similar human being to yourself reacts to the same experience you’re contemplating having avoids the kinds of errors that are endemic to imaginary experiences.

Sounds reasonable to me. But you might also want to think about taking up mindfulness meditation, where you cultivate a judgment-free attitude toward all thoughts that enter your consciousness. So if the thought of, say, your first child going off to college arises in your mind, and if this thought would normally cause you some emotional distress, you can calmly acknowledge that you had the thought without trying to imagine how it will make you feel when that day comes. Of course, I suppose we’d be susceptible to overestimating the power of mindfulness meditation as well!

Timothy Wilson, a long-time collaborator of Gilbert, sums up the current state of social psychology in “The Social Psychological Narrative...” Although this chapter is very similar to the previous one, it gives a general idea of what contemporary social psychology is all about (as well as a few other interesting tidbits). It gives its history as emerging in the 1950s as an alternative to the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and others, and was focused on what was going on inside peoples’ heads as opposed to the reinforcement environment in which they existed and acted (i.e., behaved). They thought that to fail to take into consideration the internal umwelt of individual organisms was a serious mistake.

Wilson says economists today still tend to think that human behavior is solely governed by a system of external incentives. But Wilson notes that recent social psychological research suggests that incentives can backfire, depending on the individual you’re considering. External incentives can sometimes undermine the intrinsic interest in an activity because “people begin to think that the only reason they’re doing it is for the money.” Think about Daniel Pink’s book Drive, where he reports that “autonomy,” “mastery” and “purpose” are the Holy Trinity when it comes to finding meaning in one’s work. Autonomy is about having the opportunity to choose which tasks to focus on; mastery is the process of, well, mastering a chosen activity; and purpose relates to the desire to improve the world in some way.

Wilson also mentions the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, noting that it can be a useful heuristic as an explanation for some current social behavior, generating hypotheses that might not have been conceived otherwise. But he wisely concludes that the plausibility of a just-so evo-psych story isn’t really a good way of settle a question scientifically.

In “A Sense of Cleanliness,” social psychologist Simone Schnall provides what I think is a pretty good summary of the whole science-vs.-philosophy issue. She studies “judgments and decisions from the perspective that emotions, and all kinds of feelings, including physical sensations play a really important role.” She notes that, traditionally, it had been thought that people think rigorously and systematically about problems and potential decisions, that they contemplated all the rational reasons pro and con, etc.; but both everyday experience and more rigorous social science studies have put the lie to this narrative. Of course, Nietzsche (among others) claimed this long ago: people don’t really think that much; many if not most of our thoughts are “created” subconsciously and arise in consciousness of their own accord, and our ego simply assumes ownership of them. Instead of a sophisticated calculus of reasoning, all sorts of accidental or serendipitous factors are in play, including feelings and intuition.

But social science hasn’t discovered this phenomenon, it has simply confirmed it. Social science hasn’t superseded philosophy, it’s bolstered it. So even if social science confirms that all sorts of things happen outside of consciousness, and that rational thought isn’t really happening that much in our lives, then can’t we still say that it’s the job of philosophy to change that state of affairs, to increase the employment of rational thought — in a word, to think? Social science and philosophy go hand-in-hand; you can’t really engage in social science without philosophizing. To my mind, first-order philosophy is essentially the art of dialectic: engaging in argumentation within the confines of logical reasoning.

This brings us to the final chapter from Thinking worth mentioning: “The New Science of Morality,” which includes brief conversations from Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, David Pizarro and Joshua Knobe.

As you can imagine, Harris’s portion reiterates his framing of the question of morality into three distinct projects: to describe what people do in the name of “morality”; to get clear about what we actually mean by the term “morality”; and to persuade people to change their moral commitments in light of the first two projects. He says that the second project is about “understanding right and wrong in universal terms,” and that “there are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment.” Harris has been taken to task on this issue by all and sundry. 

But what I do like about his contribution here, and which he elaborated on in The Moral Landscape, is the way he frames the problem of morality. His first project, that of describing what people do in the name of morality, is by far the bulk of work that most social psychologists are engaged in — and this is especially true of Haidt, Greene, Bloom, and even Knobe. The second and third projects, which are about providing a foundation for morality and persuading others to change their moral commitments, respectively, are pure philosophy. They’re about dialectic and rhetoric (second-order philosophy): arguing about what morality is, and then trying to convince others to agree with one’s position and to follow it. 

Harris’s framing of the problem of morality as a list of projects is actually a convenient heuristic for solving the problem of science versus philosophy. And Brockman’s book showcases this difference. The work of social science, of social psychology and neuroscience especially, is dominated by description (for example, “This is what’s going on in our minds when we reason about moral dilemmas”). But as we develop better and better descriptions of how we do what we do, in the name of morality or otherwise, philosophy can work on more cultivated and compelling prescriptions of what we should do. 

So I’m happy to think of the work of social psychologists as Moral Science. Moral Science is description and diagnosis. Moral Philosophy is prescription and prognosis.


  1. Human brains can create and upload new programming for thinking and behaving beyond what chimp brains (just to take our nearest animal cousins) can do. So biological evolution, which resulted in human brains, actually has little to say about constraints on human thinking and behaving. Where does new human-brain programming come from? Literature, movies, television, ...

  2. Philosophy and Truth
    The thought of truth unites everything including me. =


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