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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Between Spock and McCoy (via Aristotle)

By Massimo Pigliucci
Spock: Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.
McCoy: You admit that?
Spock: To deny the facts would be illogical, doctor.
This dialogue seems to me like a good summary of my own struggles during the years to reconcile reason and emotion, a problem that without much exaggeration can be said to vex all of humanity by the very nature of what it means to be human.
As many young people attracted to reason, I started out as a self-professed son of the Enlightenment, predictably one of my favorite periods in human history (the other, equally predictably, being Athens in the 5th century BCE or thereabout). Accordingly, when it was time to go to college, I chose a career in science, which I was lucky enough to be able to pursue from 1982 (when I first set foot in a lab as an undergrad in Rome) to 2009 (when I closed my lab at Stony Brook University).
Later in life came the onset of philosophical reflection (which could probably have been anticipated from my very early interest in Bertrand Russell, dating back to high school), which eventually led me to go back to graduate school to actually get a degree in philosophy, and finally culminated in switching careers and becoming a full time philosopher (of science) at the City University of New York last year.
In a sense, I started out under the influence of Spock and with a certain degree of disdain for McCoy, and it took me some time to appreciate both Spock’s own inner struggle with his half-human half-Vulcan nature, and McCoy’s humanity and delightful sense of humor. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may be reading the wrong blog, or you may want to check here and here.)
Of course, Spock’s continuous attempts to control his emotions and to put reason firmly in charge are reminiscent of Plato’s theory of the soul, where the rational part ought to be in charge, keeping the “spirited” and “appetitive” parts in check. The idea is that we share emotions with other animals, but that what distinguishes us from the rest of the biological world is precisely our ability to reason through things before making up our mind about what to do.
The again, McCoy’s character is also complex: he is a trained physician, a man of science, and yet his emphasis is on the primacy of emotion. His philosophical equivalent was, of course, David Hume — a skeptic, a friend of major figures of the Enlightenment, and yet one who famously said “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Notice that this isn’t just a description of how things are for human beings, “ought” here is prescriptive.
For Hume, we do things — including writing about philosophy — not because they are eminently rational, but because we care about them. Accordingly, he also said that “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” meaning that reason can only be instrumental toward achieving objectives that we already care for, it cannot tell us what to care for.
Modern neurobiology tells us that both the Platonic and the Humean programs are doomed to failure. As Antonio Damasio put it in a series of three highly philosophically informed books on the science of consciousness (check this one, for instance), a healthy human mind is one that constantly negotiates between the excesses of reason and those of passion. Too much leaning on one side, and one becomes incapable of empathy, possibly embarking on the destructive route to psychopathology. Too much on the other side, and we join the long history of destructive irrationality against which the Enlightenment was a valiant, if flawed, reaction.
While it’s nice to have modern science validating with facts the idea that a sensible human being ought to try to steer a middle course between the Scylla of too much reason and the Charybdis of too much emotion, it was yet another philosopher who had arrived at that conclusion 24 centuries ago: Aristotle. His virtue ethics is based on the insight that we improve our happiness (in the holistic sense of the ancient Greek eudaimonia) by a combination of reflecting about what we do and why, and practicing virtue so that it becomes second nature. Not reason against emotion struggling for primacy inside us, then, but rather a continuous flow aiming at a dynamic balance between the two. (Before anybody even thinks of making the analogy, let me assure you that I do not have any eastern mysticism or new agey crap in mind.)
Okay, Massimo, could you please get off the historical-philosophical-Star Trek train of thought and give us a concrete example? I am tempted to talk about serious issues, but this isn’t a therapy session, so let me take my own lifelong struggle with weight management instead. I am now a reasonably healthy male in his mid-forties, I achieved a quasi-ideal body weight about a decade ago, and have kept it since.
This has not been easy, and still isn’t. I started out as a rather chubby kid (by European standards, don’t think of modern McDonald’s babies), who went through the standard yo-yo of various kinds of diets for many years. At some point I realized that a radical change of strategy was needed, and I discovered the basic principle of healthy living: eat everything with moderation (with almost no fried or sweet stuff) and exercise regularly. It worked, and it’s still working. But it also is a constant struggle, because I don’t particularly enjoy going to the gym, and I am constantly tempted by any kind of chocolate I encounter.
But Aristotle was absolutely right: contra Hume, I initially used my rational understanding of the problem to guide and reshape my behavior and my emotions. It worked! The more I practiced healthy living, the more I not only got used to it, but I began to enjoy it, especially the feeling of well being and of power over my own life that it gives me. But contra Plato, I no longer strive to suppress my passion for food, but instead, enjoy the variety and quality of cuisines that I find in this constantly bewildering place where I am lucky enough to be living: New York City.
My newfound situation, however, is not the end of the struggle, but merely the current point of dynamic equilibrium concerning that aspect of my life. As Aristotle thought, life is a project that ends only with one’s death (the later the better — with certain conditions — thank you very much), and eudaimonia is not a final state, but an ongoing quest. It is as if I am trying to roll Spock and McCoy into one person, not so that they can (rather amusingly, it must be said) forever fight with each other, but because the result of that mix is a most fulfilling human existence.

38 comments:

  1. Lovely article. Fantastic

    "Too much leaning on one side, and one becomes incapable of empathy, possibly embarking on the destructive route to psychopathology."

    I am interested in this aspect. Does it truly make you incapable of empathy or just unwilling to acknowledge it? Would a rigorous moral system prevent you from becoming destructive?

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  2. Nicely written, Massimo.

    But I think there's some confusion here because you're conflating two different things under the same name "emotion."

    First, our ends, or "passions," as Hume put it, which are not dependent on reason; they are just what we happen to want as a result of the way we're constituted. And we use reason as a tool to achieve those ends. There is no conflict here, because reason and these "passions" are not two alternate approaches to doing something -- they're just the means and the end, respectively. Pitting them against each other would be a category error.

    Then the other thing I think you're conflating with our "ends" are our emotional reactions to events. These can be counter to reason in the sense of being based on untrue beliefs about the world, or in the sense of being counterproductive to our own ends. And here I would say you can pit emotional reactions against reason, in the sense that they're two alternative approaches to achieving your ends. And I think reason wins -- it's more likely to achieve your desired ends than acting based on emotional reactions. Usually, anyway.

    To sum up: We all have "ends," or desires. We can try to achieve them either by (1) using reason, or (2) acting as our emotions dictate. Usually, (1) is more likely to succeed.

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  3. As a young person, I was fascinated by several issues raised on Star Trek. I now see the show's exploration of the relationship between reason and emotion as interesting, but (predictably, given the constraints of television) narrow and biased. I wrote about this a while back. In one episode, Spock says: "May I say that I have not enjoyed serving under Humans. I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant." Bah!

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  4. Massimo, you were chubby? That's difficult to imagine :)

    Julia, the passions of a smoker urge him to smoke, because that's what he likes. His reasoning, if advanced enough, tells him that smoking is bad for his health and that he should avoid it. Thus, there is no category error, since both, reason and passion fight to control our decisions.

    Of course, one can argue that being healthy is a passion as much as wanting to smoke is, and the fight is actually between two different passions, not between reason and passion.

    So maybe, in the end is between our immediate and our long-term desires, both of which, as I understand, dictated by passions. As in the above example, short term desire for immediate physical pleasure or long term desire (if it can be called so?) to be healthy.

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  5. Wow Massimo, from your pictures I always thought you were a naturally skinny body type guy.
    But giving up chocolate? That isn't rational thats crazy! :)

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  6. Julia, there is no category mistake, for the reasons Val explained. Hume wasn't the type to make that kind of elementary philosophical mistake... ;-)

    Sheldon, who said anything about *giving up* chocolate? I just choose my chocolate forays very carefully, favoring quality (dark) to quantity.

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  7. Massimo, I didn't think Hume was making a category error. I thought you were making a category error because you were confusing
    (1) using emotions to determine WHAT our ends are (a la Hume), with
    (2) using emotions to determine HOW we pursue those ends.

    So the category error that I thought you were making was in talking about rationality as an alternative to (1), when really it's an alternative to (2).

    But maybe I just haven't understood what you meant when you advocated a balance between rationality and emotion. Why is your example of using rationality to figure out how to get healthy "contra Hume," as you say? Wanting to be healthy is a passion just like wanting chocolate, so you just used rationality to figure out which end you wanted more, and how to get it. Right?

    What about that example contradicts the idea that rationality is the superior way to achieve one's ends?

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  8. Julia,

    you *are* accusing Hume of the fallacy, since it was him who posed the problem in terms of reason vs. (1), not (2). I don't talk at all about (2) in my post.

    Wanting to be healthy is not really a passion, at least not for most of us, and certainly not in the same emotional sense in which I crave chocolate.

    Moreover, Hume's point *was* that rationality is a means to an end, except that pure rationality is left without an internal engine, so to speak (see Hume's quote about the end of the world vs. scratching a finger).

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  9. Wanting to be healthy is not really a passion, at least not for most of us, and certainly not in the same emotional sense in which I crave chocolate.

    Having read some Damasio myself a while back (viz. Descartes Error and Looking for Spinoza), I recall that one of his positions is that reason is never independent of emotion, but always requires emotional input.

    If so, then perhaps it helps to conceive of thought along a "passion spectrum", with a chocolate craving at one end and a desire to be healthy (say, as a long-term goal, derived from love) at the other. At no point along the spectrum, however, is any thought strictly emotional or strictly rational.

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  11. Oh, I think I understand your point, Massimo: Hume claimed we use reason to achieve whatever our passions dictate... whereas you actually used reason to change your passions (about food)?

    Am I understanding you correctly now?

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  12. Julia,

    Almost! I claim that passion and reason are to be negotiated, with reason playing both an instrumental and a filter role, and passions actually motivating us to action. Hence the Aristotelian happy medium between Spock and McCoy,

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  13. @Massimo -- ok, makes sense.

    How is that different from your previous position, though? How would Former-Massimo, the one who was too Spocklike, have handled the weight problem differently?

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  14. Ah, good question! He would have determined what the rational thing to do was (control portions, go to exercise), and failed miserably for not having allowed a role to emotion (treat yourself, don't obsess, find creative ways to exercise without getting bored, etc.). An even better example is available when it comes to more personal issues, but we can chat about those over a glass of wine, not in front of thousands of readers...

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  15. Julia's initial reply hints at thoughts I've had about "reason vs. emotion" discourses that I've encountered before. It seems that in such discourses, certain goals are inevitably portrayed as "rational" simply because they indicate a lack of empathy for other human beings. Fascists, communists, and unscrupulous corporate executives are said to demonstrate the "problem of too much reason" or of "using reason alone". There are many ways I could attack this sort of phrasing, but this simple fact does much to illuminate the problem here:

    There is no such thing as a rational ultimate goal; there are only rational ways of thinking about truth.

    My ultimate goal of experiencing pleasure is not "rational" or "irrational". It's just what I want. To be rational, my desire would have to constitute a belief about the world. But my desire for a beautiful picture of the Cigar Galaxy does not commit me to acceptance of any literal propositions about the galaxy in question other than ones without which I could not even hold the desire (eg I could not have the desire without believing that the galaxy exists and that photography is possible, etc). My desire for a such a picture does not mean that I believe that the Cigar Galaxy has some sort of objective ultimate beauty, that it is an objective moral good to look at a picture of the galaxy, that looking at the Cigar Galaxy will increase my IQ and thereby raise my GMAT score, etc. Desires and beliefs are different things. If Massimo and I are at a Mexican restaurant, I might want guacamole while he might not. There is simply no legitimate sense in which our preferences even could be rational or irrational.

    I think that the confusion in this matter results from inadvertent double-dipping between the philosophical and economic uses of the term “rationality”. In Philosophy, “rationality” denotes the use of deduction and induction to determine truth. In Economics, “rational” means “self-interested” or “maximizing of personal utility”. There most certainly is such a thing as too much rationality in the economic sense, but the economic sense of the term is not borne of the philosophical concept of rationality.

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  16. Since desires themselves do not admit of rational evaluation (they cannot be said to be rational or irrational, just as a brick cannot be rational or irrational), it makes no sense to think of certain goals as rational and others as emotional. Jeffrey Skilling and Thích Quảng Đức do not represent polar extremes of human desires, the former “coldly” logical, the latter warm and selfless. The desire for more and more money and the act of caring for other people do not represent different combinations of thinking and feeling.

    Massimo states, “Wanting to be healthy is not really a passion, at least not for most of us, and certainly not in the same emotional sense in which I crave chocolate.” This is deceptive, and it is so for the same reason that Val’s objection to Julia is off-target. Massimo and Val are failing to distinguish between intermediary goals and ultimate desires. One might use healthiness as a technique to reach higher goals, like personal happiness, longevity, etc. But every intermediary goal can be traced upwards to a higher goal. These higher goals remain unqualified; we simply have them. This is why it is deceptive to pit a desire for chocolate or nicotine against a desire for health: it is a pitting of an ultimate pleasure (the pure physical bliss of chocolate, for example) against the technique (or, as I’d put it, the intermediary goal) of being healthy. This latter goal—the goal of being healthy—can be said to be rationally selected only because it has been rationally determined to aid in the pursuit of higher, deeper drives, drives that themselves are not rational or irrational.

    When someone gives up smoking to be healthy, they are giving up their satisfaction of a desire for nicotine because they realize that the health it will bring them will bring them more pleasure in other ways down the road. But the pleasure that they want to experience by being healthy is still pleasure; it is still preference satisfaction; and that is why Julia is right. She’s right in that our ultimate goals are never justified, and so conflicts between reason and emotion occur only in the way they affect how we approach our ultimate goals.

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  17. There's certainly a problem with the platonic suppression of emotion as a tool of happiness - at least, if one takes psychiatry seriously. I think the confusing thing about the relationship between emotions and reason is that the source of emotions, in mundane terms, is relatively mysterious; that is, more mysterious than other senses. We wouldn't at all be tempted to describe reason's role as one that must deny what we sense with our eyes, so, why so with emotions, which seem to merely be another kind of sense data?

    I think the temptation to imagine emotions as a different sort of fact, apart from sights and sounds, is a kind of skepticism with regard to the origins of emotions. If I were such a person, I would want to be sure that emotions were not impressions (in the Humean sense) caused by reason in the first place; because, if reason is the cause of emotions, then reason should be as much at home functioning in a Platonic sense as in an Aristotelean sense.

    Where do emotions come from anyway?

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  18. I generally agree with the concept of a complex, variable, dynamic tension between reason and emotion and have a couple related thoughts:

    1. Re Julia's position that reason is "superior": Emotion often seems to preempt and/or overpower reason. It seems to present itself much more rapidly. Perhaps it retains an evolutionary hierarchical precedence. If we want reason to prevail in various situations and emotional states it seems like we have to create some goals or rules in advance and then practice them sufficiently. On the other hand, in some cases we might very well prefer to let emotion drive certain types of reactions/behaviors without "interference" from reason. In those cases, too, we may have to work at the desired balance for a while. Goals and methods alike seem to be forged by reason and emotion together. Only the proportions vary. Creating the desired balance, if that doesn't happen "naturally" by default, seems to depend on repetitive effort and the net positive or negative reinforcements that are encountered.

    2. The same kind of tension or axis might exist between other cognitive "polarities" and they might act concurrently with the reason-emotion dynamic: conscious-unconscious, visual-verbal, interpersonal-intrapersonal, etc. If we arranged multiple axes like wheel spokes, we could theoretically plot the relative contribution of many cognitive co-factors to any behavior or goal. It would be especially cool and awesome to relate the cognitive factors with actual neural areas and networks.

    3. Any thoughts on how the "theory of multiple intelligences" as proposed by Howard Gardner and others (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences) might apply to this conversation? Would "emotional intelligence" be a product of combining and/or training reason and emotion in various ways over time?

    Poor Richard
    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010
    http://almanac2010.wordpress.com/

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  19. Ritchie,

    I'm not sure Val and I are making the mistake you attribute to us. Aristotle definitely makes the distinction between short term desires and long goals, but again, there is no such thing as a passion for long term goals - that's the result of rational thinking. Hence the tension between the two.

    On the other hand, I agree that when economists say that something is "rational" they simply means that it is good for the individual. But I certainly reject that conception of rationality.

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  20. You assert that "there is no such thing as a passion for long term goals - that's the result of rational thinking". But long-term goals, like short-term goals, inevitably hinge on the psychological appeal of hypothetical personal states. You might wake up strong-willed to do away with smoking, junk food, TV, video games, idleness, and partying, determined to follow long-term goals. But what you consider to be worthy long-term goals depends on your tastes and preferences. You can rationally evaluate whether certain goals are achievable, how they should be achieved, and so forth--what intermediary goals to set, what techniques to use, etc. But the ultimate, long-term goal itself still hinges on your personal tastes. Do you want to marry and have a large family? Do you want to play the piano as well as Franz Liszt? Do you want to become the president of your university? Do you want to cycle across the United States? Inevitably, even when assessing long-term goals, your own personal preferences determine what you find desirable.

    Given the varieties of things you might find appealing (using a flying carpet, walking safely on Pluto, etc), you must use reason to determine which desires can be met, which desires conflict with each other, and so forth. If you find that one goal conflicts with another goal, you can try to use reason to stamp out one of the conflicting goals. But inevitably, reason is a toolbox to work with the raw material of desires. Long-term goals, just like short-term goals, find their roots in your tastes and preferences, and your tastes and preferences--ie, your passions..

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  21. Ritchie,

    if you really think that my passion for chocolate is the same sort of thing as my "passion" to achieve a reasonably healthy advanced age, we are using the word "passion" in completely different ways. That route we define the problem away, which I don't think it's helpful.

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  22. Sorry for the double use of "your tastes and preferences" at the end of the last post. I mean to elaborate further on something I just said.

    Suppose a certain hypothetical has psychological appeal to me, like, let's say, dating Natalie Portman. The actual appeal of this to me can hardly be said to be rational or irrational. When I analyze this desire, I rationally determine that it is a totally unrealistic goal. This is enough for me not to try to achieve it.

    Could reason actually reduce or increase the appeal of it? Sure. I might realize, for instance, that I really only want her because she is incredibly hot; after all, I don't know her, don't know whether she is interesting, funny, warm, etc. This might actually reduce the appeal of the hypothetical. But this reasoning has appealed to higher desires, like the desire for an intelligent romantic partner. I could analyze that desire itself--the desire for an intelligent romantic partner--and try to think about whether I really would get from it what I imagine I would, and so forth. But there comes a point where you can't reason your desires in or out because that's just how your brain ticks. And on that level, reason cannot reduce or increase the appeal of something. For instance, reason is powerless to reduce the appeal of the taste of fudge. Fudge just tastes good because my tongue likes it. End of story. So reason can be used to analyze desires, break them down, compare them, achieve them, etc. But the most atomic, fundamental desires of the human brain are just there, and reason can help as achieve them at most.

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  23. I think that your desire to reach a reasonably healthy advanced age is an intermediary step to other desires, like the desire to be physically active longer, intellectually active longer, and socially active longer (to put it all very briefly). In this case, your desire to reach an advanced age is a tool you're using to get a wide variety of different things: more walks through Central Park, more beers drank with friends, more Simon and Garfunkel albums listened to, etc. It's good that you use reason to get more of what appeals to you in life. But does your enjoyment of beer with a friend come from reason? No. Does your desire to take more walks in the park come from reason? No.

    So you're using reason to determine that being healthy will help you reach your desires. It will help you satisfy your passions. I would call your desire to stay healthy a rational technique used in the service of your passions.

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  24. One might well make the argument that one of the 'purest' desires a human being can have is the desire to know, but even that one is still a desire. I am definitely with Hume on this issue. Reason is a tool, but I definitely disagree with Julia that it is always (or nearly always) the best tool to achieve a desire. I don't think professional athletes are out there reasoning themselves to better performance. At least not in the more vigorous sports. There are also some biological functions which enjoy a great amount of popularity for which reason would be quite counter productive.

    One thing that no one seems to mention though is what should people want? For reasons I can't quite explain I find it somewhat disappointing that we as a species have no goal, and thus no collective purpose. We are instead a kaleidoscope of purpose, yeah it might be pretty, but you won't get anywhere with it like you would with a telescope.

    It doesn't even seem that we share a collective desire to survive since few people desire a sustainable planetary ecosystem on which their lives depend (at least not enough to exchange short term pleasure for it). A collective goal beyond bare survival would be kinda nice too.

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  25. Massimo Pigliucci said "...I agree that when economists say that something is "rational" they simply means that it is good for the individual. But I certainly reject that conception of rationality."

    I too reject many economists' definitions of rationality because they arbitrarily externalize important aspects of reason, predictable irrationality, self-interest, and utility.

    Just as they capriciously externalize inconvenient costs and benefits, they cherry pick the rational and irrational aspects of behavior that suit the model they desire, the model that gives the results they want.

    The whole field of economics is full of pseudo-rationality and pseudo-science. I think it is the most corrupt branch of academics, although that should hardly be surprising.

    As the life sciences, social sciences, and information sciences continue to penetrate deeper system complexity and integration, they eliminate many distinctions between "individual (special) utility" and general utility. As we continue to be further enlightened by the sciences, old distinctions between individual self-interest and the common good continue to dissolve into a "unified field" of enlightened self interest with many levels of associative complexity recursively nested one within another.

    Ritchie the Bear said "It seems that in such discourses [about "reason vs. emotion"], certain goals are inevitably portrayed as "rational" simply because they indicate a lack of empathy for other human beings. Fascists, communists, and unscrupulous corporate executives are said to demonstrate the "problem of too much reason" or of "using reason alone"."

    I agree that "rationality" is often set in theoretical opposition to empathy. This is pseudo-intellectual bullshit, however, used by mean-spirited greedy bastards to justify their pathological behavior. Rationality, and specifically a high-fidelity model of real general utility, is the ultimate, unimpeachable underwriter of ethics, morality, empathy, justice, etc.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  26. Ritchie the Bear said: The whole field of economics is full of pseudo-rationality and pseudo-science. I think it is the most corrupt branch of academics, although that should hardly be surprising.

    I'm torn on that question. On the one hand, I see economists (as representatives of various "schools") fighting each other in public over fundamental ideas, which says to me that the field is a house divided. On the other hand, I recognize the subject matter of the field as way too important to dismiss entirely, such that we "throw the baby out with the bathwater." (Even so radical a critic of the field of his day as Karl Marx rejected such a nihilistic approach.)

    At least when it comes to guiding policy (e.g. in the macro sense), I don't think economics can (or even should be) a pure science. Its goals are too value-laden and its stakeholders too diverse to be likely to produce anything like a "scientific consensus." Also, given the proven ability of special (powerful) interests to select for economic advisors that tell them what they want to hear, it seems that a healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate here.

    But I do think it's possible for economists to take a more evidence-based approach to their work, and revise their theories and models on that basis. Some recent, self-critical trends in the field (e.g. the behaviorial, ecological, information, and complexity subdisciplines) suggest to me that the potential for more scientific rigor is already there. It's more of a question of whose advice reaches the ears of powerful decision-makers.

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  27. Pure Luck said... "One thing that no one seems to mention though is what should people want?"

    The ultimate basis of morality (good and evil or right and wrong), according to Nietzsche, was power. If I remember correctly, Wittgenstein thought it boiled down to aesthetics. Hume suggests it is passion.

    I think general utility includes all of the above, and every other conceivable goal, and therefore it is the most transcendent goal both for the individual and the species.

    We can say that reason is only an instrument we use to ascertain and implement the greatest utility, but I prefer to think of reason (in a broad sense including science and knowledge) as a full and equal partner of emotion--not just its servant. I think that is best way to understand things like delayed gratification and the balancing of competing interests, values, and goals.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  28. Correction: My response above was to almanac2010, not Ritchie the Bear.

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  29. I think reflexive emotion is a product of hard wired logic programed by evolution. But there is also a layer of emotion that is conditioned over time by positive and negative reinforcement including that generated by conscious thought or reason.

    I think it is fair to say that reason, or rationalization, often follows emotion as a post hoc justification aimed at reducing cognitive dissonance. But over time reason and emotion mutually condition each other and should be considered equal partners. Over time they are inextricably interwoven into one cloth.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  30. Massimo, I think you may have interpreted Hume's word "passions" too narrowly. The way I (and I think Ritchie the Bear) interpreted it was to mean roughly any desire or preference, whether short or long-term. Whereas you seem to have interpreted it as only referring to short-term desires or urges.

    I do think my, and Ritchie's, interpretation is closer to Hume's meaning. The Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy says: "Hume later proposes that when we restrain our imprudent or immoral impulses, the contrary impulse comes also from passion, but often from a passion so 'calm' that we confuse it with reason."

    ... which is exactly what I was arguing, that you used reason to figure out the best way to resist your short-term desires to eat too much, but it was all in the service of another stronger, long-term desire: to lose weight and be healthy. Neither desire can (or need) be justified with reason -- they're just two different things you want.

    This is mainly a question of definitions, as usual; but I just wanted to note that if you think Hume was wrong about the relationship between passions and reason, it may be that you were just misunderstanding his definition of "passions."

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  31. Julia Galef said... The Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy says: "Hume later proposes that when we restrain our imprudent or immoral impulses, the contrary impulse comes also from passion, but often from a passion so 'calm' that we confuse it with reason."

    [skip]

    This is mainly a question of definitions, as usual; but I just wanted to note that if you think Hume was wrong about the relationship between passions and reason, it may be that you were just misunderstanding his definition of "passions."


    In Hume's day there was no scientifically sound idea what either reason or emotion were made of. Today we know they are both products of the same brain. Neither is magical, spiritual, supernatural, or holy. They are both cognitive functions created by neurons and like many neural areas and networks they work in close partnership. Why make such a huge dichotomy out of it?

    If we have a "passion so 'calm' that we confuse it with reason," maybe it really is a hybrid of the two. In fact, maybe pure reason and pure emotion are rare. Maybe the two are almost always closely entangled.

    I think this idea of close entanglement and dynamic balance is the core of Mr. Pigliucci's article.

    The alternative ideas of a strict dichotomy, and arguments about which is higher or nobler than the other are simplistic, unscientific, and ideological.

    jcm said...

    At least when it comes to guiding policy (e.g. in the macro sense), I don't think economics can (or even should be) a pure science. Its goals are too value-laden and its stakeholders too diverse to be likely to produce anything like a "scientific consensus."

    No matter how politically and psychologically unlikely it is to establish scientific consensus on economics, that is what is needed. The alternative is business as usual: to cobble together the best mish-mash of heuristics and cognitive biases we can. The conflict between science and economics is a lot like the conflict between science and religion, except that economic agnosticism is not as utilitarian as religious agnosticism.

    jcm said... "But I do think it's possible for economists to take a more evidence-based approach to their work, and revise their theories and models on that basis. Some recent, self-critical trends in the field (e.g. the behaviorial, ecological, information, and complexity subdisciplines) suggest to me that the potential for more scientific rigor is already there. It's more of a question of whose advice reaches the ears of powerful decision-makers.

    Exactly. Well said. The pity is that good science in the public interest proceeds so slowly, because the bulk of scientific and academic institutions are thinly disguised fronts for special interests (the modern equivalent of the "patrons" of old).

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  32. What in essence is a living thing? A living thing is an agent of change. Living things, using energy (mostly of the sun whether current or stored in some form) change the matter of the Earth into something that is was not before. Typically they instinctively try to maximize the amount of matter that is them bounded by their environmental constraints.

    Human beings are living things and recent trends certainly seem to indicate that they are attempting to maximize the amount of Earthly matter that is human. The fundamental difference between us and most other life on the planet is that human beings are not purely instinctual. Although we are certainly constrained by the needs of our bodies and the legacy of our evolution still we can and do make decisions with knowledge of the consequences. As such we are to blame when we make bad decisions. So what should we decide to do? What's the goal? Should we just maximize the conversion of Earth to human flesh? (all-you-can-eat restaurants certainly seem to think so) This is a decision that we can make, but there are alternatives.

    The goal of science is to maximize the understanding of the interactions of matter and energy with the side effect of gaining mastery over them and maximizing our ability to manipulate them.

    The goal of philosophy and psychology is to understand and clarify the working of the human brain. (Feel free to disagree there. I am not at all sure that philosophers actually have a clearly defined goal other than publishing).

    So it seems clear to me that as a convergence of those goals the species goal should be to transform as much of the earth's mass as physically possible into living, clear thinking brain. Obvious really.

    And maybe that brain would have a mind so vast that it could actually hold in its conscious thought a model of all of the known and knowable laws of physics all at once which no present brain can do.

    And after Earth the rest of the universe.

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  33. Julia, you sound positively Nietzschean in your latest comment! “The will to overcome an
    affect is, in the end, itself only the will of another, or several other, affects” -Nietzsche, BGE 117

    Of course, it (obviously, being part quotation expounding on Hume) sounds very Humean!

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  34. Julia,

    thanks for pointing out that passage about Hume. Your own quote, however, shows that Hume was making a distinction between short-term and long-term, and that the word "desire" or even better "goal" is best suited to the long-term, reserving passion/emotion for the short term. As I said before, clearly these are different phenomena , and they are best understood within Aristotle's distinction between eudaimonia (long term happiness) and akrasia (or weakness of the will, short term gain).

    But it's simply not true that neither desire can be justified by reason. I can show by reason and evidence the negative effects of bad heating habits, or the positive psychological effects of a different lifestyle. Of course one still has to *want* eudaimonia, but according to Aristotle, normal human beings do want it, by their very nature. If you really do not desire eudaimonia, you are sick, according to Aristotle.

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  35. Pure Luck said... "What in essence is a living thing?

    [skip]

    So it seems clear to me that as a convergence of those goals the species goal should be to transform as much of the earth's mass as physically possible into living, clear thinking brain. Obvious really.


    Pure Luck, I resonate with your desire to get to the bottom (essence) of things, but I think you are oversimplifying in the process.

    Brain tissue, especially the latest human type, may well be the most elegant material evolution has produced; and no doubt the consciousness that a human brain produces is also quite a marvel, despite its idiosyncrasies, biases, and pathologies.

    But all material, animate and inanimate, encodes information. Biologically and mechanically animated materials also process information. So the entire universe is already a vast depository of information and is also a vast, multi-platform, distributed processor of information.

    The human brain may be the latest and greatest information "technology" in the universe, but does that mean we should desire to replace all the legacy information technologies/platforms with this newest platform (human brain tissue)? I doubt it. For many purposes a legacy (natural) "technology" may be more efficient.

    We should only want to use human brain tissue to do what it can do more efficiently than alternative platforms, and what alternative platforms cannot do at all. Stone tablets may still be the best platform for certain types of data storage. And artificial information technology may be better at some kinds of work than human brain tissue.

    In fact, I predict that artificial platforms will eventually host the highest orders of intelligence, with biological brain tissue occupying only a specialty niche in the cosmic computing cloud.

    Each kind of material contains and/or processes data, and key issues in optimizing the universe of intelligence are 1) the relative efficiency of each material/platform at what it does best and 2) the ideal level of redundancy of each platform. These two issues control the ideal allocation of resources for the storage and processing of information.

    I further predict that artificial intelligence (AI) will be the level at which the ideal size and phenotype diversity of human population and the ideal variants of culture will be decided and regulated. In other words, AI will eventually domesticate human beings, along with all other animate and inanimate species, and AI will coordinate all animate and inanimate resources for the greatest general utility.

    Alas, I fear this is the only solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma.

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  36. Poor Richard

    Whenever I hear the words 'our limited brains cannot understand 'X" I always think that rather than throwing up your hands and giving up it is just a good excuse to design a better brain. The simple truth of it is that although the human brain is pretty good at what it does that doesn't mean that it is optimal (and here I am not speaking of machines, but good ol' meaty brains). It might very well be possible to optimize the brain or a brain. Similarly DNA might not be the best way to chemically encode life. Future biologists could find another way and that other encoding could encode a better brain.

    As far as legacy information goes I am all for cataloging, storing and even simulating it, but that is about it. Even if people had the means to bring back every life form that ever existed on our planet there simply would not be enough room for them. Who mourns the trilobite?

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  37. From Wikipedia, "Affective Neuroscience":

    The distinction between non-emotional [cognitive processes] and emotional processes is now thought to be largely artificial, as the two types of processes often involve overlapping neural and mental mechanisms..."

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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  38. Pure Luck,

    My main point was that maximizing human brain meat mass on earth is not the obvious be-all-end-all reason d'etre you suggested it was.

    And I think we may find it easier to optimize artificial brains than meat ones, but we'll try both.

    As a very minor point, trilobites may have produced venom that included novel anti-viral or anti-cancer proteins (though how best to conserve such information is a matter of available technology).

    Poor Richard

    Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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