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What is Reason Good For? The Rationality-Intuition Debate

Reason is under attack. Lobbing bomb shells is its twin brother who thinks unconsciously, quickly, and with less effort; I speak of intuition of course. It’s unclear when the rationality-intuition debate began, but its empirical roots were no doubt seeded when the cognitive revolution began and grew when Kahneman and Tversky started demonstrating the flaws of rational actor theory. Their cognitive biases and heuristic program, as it came to be known, wasn’t about bashing economic theory though, it was meant to illustrate not only innocuous irrationalities but systematic errors in judgment. What emerged, which is now beautifully portrayed in Daniel Kahneman’s new book, is a dualistic picture of human cognition where our mental processes are dictated by two types of thinking: system 1 thinking, which is automatic, quick and intuitive, and system 2 thinking, which is deliberate, slow and rational. We think, as the title reads, fast and slow.

It was only in the last decade that literature on system 1 and system 2 thinking made its way into the eye of the lay audience. Gladwell’s Blink, which nicely illustrated the power of thinking without thinking – system 1 – made a splash. On the other hand, Ariely’s Predictably Irrational spurred public debate about the flaws of going with your gut. In the wake of this literature, reason suffers from a credibility crisis. Am I rational or irrational? Should I go with my gut or think things through? Questions like these abound and people too often forget that context and circumstance are what really matter. (If you’re making a multimillion dollar business deal think it through. If you’re driving down the highway stick with your intuition!). Lately though, I’ve seen too much reason-bashing and I want to defend this precious cognitive capacity after reading the following comments, which were left in response to my last post by someone kind enough to engage my blog. His three points:

  • Consciousness-language/self-talk is trivial and epiphenomenal. It means very little and predicts less.
  • It is post-hoc pretty much anything interesting in brains processes > behavior
  • All other animals and living things get along just fine w/out it.

With the exception of his third point, which is worth a debate elsewhere, he (or she, but for the sake of writing I am just sticking with one pronoun) captures what many psychologists believe – that our vocalized beliefs are nothing more than post-hoc justifications of gut-reactions. Jonathan Haidt, for example, uses the metaphor of the rider atop an elephant where the rider ignorantly holds himself to be in control of his uncontrollable beast. There is more than a grain of truth to Haidt’s model, and plenty of empirical data backs it up. My favorite is one study in which several women were asked to choose their favorite pair of nylon stockings from a group of twelve. Then, after they made their selections researchers asked them to explain their choices. Among the explanations texture, feel, and color were the most popular. However, all of the stockings were in fact identical. The women were being sincere – they truly believed that what they were saying made sense – but they simply made up reasons for their choices believing that they consciously knew their preferences.

There is a problem with the whole sale reaction of reason. It is difficult to explain why humanity has made so much moral progress if we believe that our deliberations are entirely uncontrollable. For example, how is it, a critic of Haidt’s model may ask, that institutions like slavery, which were for the most of human history intuitively acceptable, are now intuitively unacceptable? In other words, if we really are solely controlled by the elephant, why aren’t we stuck in a Hobbesian state of nature where life is violent, brutish and short?

One answer is that through reason we were able to objectively look at the world and realize that slavery – and many other injustices and immoralities – made society worse. As Paul Bloom explains in a recent Nature piece: “Emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve. The extent of the average person’s sympathies has grown substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.” Bloom’s point is thoroughly expanded in Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature, where Pinker argues that reason led people to commit fewer acts of violence. In his words: “At various times in history superstitious killings, such as inhuman sacrifice, witch hunts, blood libels, inquisitions, and ethnic scapegoating, fell away as the factual assumptions on which they rested crumbled under the scrutiny of a more intellectually sophisticated populace. Carefully reasoned briefs against slavery, despotism, torture, religious persecution, cruelty to animals, harshness to children, violence to women, frivolous wars, and the persecution of homosexuals were not just hot air but entered into the decisions of the people and institutions who attended to the arguments and implemented reforms.” In regard to my commenter’s first point – that conscious talk is trivial and epiphenomenal – I think there should be little question that reason played and plays an important role in shaping society for the better and that it is certainly not trivial or epiphenomenal as a result.

His second point – that reason is all post-hoc justifications – is also problematic. Although conscious deliberate thought depends on unconscious cognition, it does not follow that all reasons are post-hoc justifications. For example, solving math problems requires unconscious neurological cognition but nobody would ever say that 1+1=2 is a post-hoc justification. The same is true of scientific truths; are Newton’s laws likewise post hoc justifications? No. This is because there are truths to be known about the world and they can be discovered with reason. As Sam Harris explains, “the fact that we are unaware of most of what goes on in our brains does not render the distinction between having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones any less clear or consequential.” Reason, in other words, separates correct beliefs from incorrect beliefs to justify truths from falsehoods. It requires unconscious thought as neuroscience now knows, but it does not follow that everything our rationality discovers is a post-hoc justification.

So, let’s not forget that one of our species’ most important assets – reason – is a vitally important cognitive capacity that shouldn’t be left by the way side. Psychologists have done insightful work to demonstrate the role of the cognitive unconscious but this is not to disregard the power of human rationality.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is growing evidence that consciousness-language is trivial. Rationality is mainly and ideological (wishful thinking-marketing ploy). All animal brain are instinctively Bayesian, but unconsciously so.

    We find Sam Harris’ essay wrong headed and ideological as well. For a supposed neuroscientist he would do well to cite a few studies, at least.

    Our question of all the human exceptionalism claims is — if it were some useful and important why can’t we find it in other species, especially the most basic species, e.g., social insects.

    November 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      1) I agree that conscious-language is trivial and that rationality is mainly ideological, but let’s not through the baby out with the bathwater.

      2) In regard to Harris, if you are speaking of his latest book, The Moral Landscape, his footnotes go into the relevant neuroscience specifically, they are very thorough and I recommend reading them. However, I haven’t read his other two books and recent essay so your criticism may be fair.

      3) Because natural selection doesn’t work that way.

      November 3, 2011
  2. Oh, these were our points. OK….let’s see. We’ll construct a more complete response. Probably not today. Good form not naming a commentator. It’s about ideas, not personalities.

    Principled arguments, not personalized ones, are the best way to learn from each other.

    November 3, 2011
  3. Okee dokee, let’s unpack this. There is a lot here to debate, so let’s cut away some of the underbrush. We can only speak from our own imperfect understanding and study – “So much science, so little time.” We’ll try to be brief.

    There are a lot of ideas in this essay that need a few more drafts, but we’re game.

    “Reason is under attack. ….

    Well, that’s a rhetorical flourish. In fact, it seems that:
    – There is no neurocognitive evidence of consciousness-language (verbal signaling) driving behavior.
    – There is even less evidence across species for verbal signaling or some sort of internal self sense being anything more than correlated with behaviors. Causal needs to be proven.

    The term “attack” is a good first sentence hook, because, indeed (and we respect this) not supporting the ideology of “reason” feels immediately and deeply threatening. Facts and data are not threatening – they just are.

    BTW, the equation of reason and intuition seems contradictory, but let’s set that aside as a symantic matter.

    “when Kahneman and Tversky …. systematic errors in judgment. What emerged, which is now beautifully portrayed in Daniel Kahneman’s new book, is a dualistic picture of human cognition where our mental processes are dictated by two types of thinking: system 1 thinking, which is automatic, quick and intuitive, and system 2 thinking, …… Gladwell’s Blink….. Ariely’s Predictably Irrational spurred public debate about the flaws of going with your gut. In the wake of this literature, reason suffers from a credibility crisis. Am I rational or irrational? Should I go with my gut or think things through? Questions like these abound and people too often forget that context and circumstance are what really matter. (If you’re making a multimillion dollar business deal think it through. If you’re driving down the highway stick with your intuition!). …”

    This is the typical pop “fruit salad” of “irrationality” and behavioral economics nonsense — some of it dangerous, it appears. The evidence we have seen debunks all of this a silly headline and policy maker chasing pop platitudes with no evidence basis. But pretty good sales and marketing ideas.

    The whole idea of “irrationality” is just obeisance to obsolete 17th century econ and social dominance and racial ideas. Behavioral econ is just a marketing scam, but that is a separate longer post.

    Here’s a core problem – How do we define “irrational?” Over what time frame? How is it measured? Finally, how can anything that evolved ov er billions of years be said to be “irrational?” Unless, you’re a tenured econ prof.

    “…..It is difficult to explain why humanity has made so much moral progress if we believe that our deliberations are entirely uncontrollable. For example, how is it, a critic of Haidt’s model may ask, that institutions like slavery, which were for the most of human history intuitively acceptable, are now intuitively unacceptable? In other words, if we really are solely controlled by the elephant, why aren’t we stuck in a Hobbesian state of nature where life is violent, brutish and short?”

    OK, this seems the emotional crux of all ideological and anti-science fears about evidence-based knowledge. It is not trivial. It is the “pathetic fallacy.” It is the brain stem based, immediate and very primitive drive to ascribe certainty to our emotions of the moment and simple run of the mill human exceptionalism.

    The quick answer is simple. If consciousness, morality, talking the 10 commandments we required or even conducive to pro-social behavior, there would be now colonies of bacteria, schools of fish, prides of lions etc.

    If pro-social behavior is beneficial, and even critical, to life nature is going to hard-wire it? You bet!

    “The Better Angels of our Nature, where Pinker argues that reason led people to commit fewer acts of violence. “

    That’s dum. Verbal social signaling that we may call “reason” may accompany fewer acts of violence but claiming they are causal needs to be proven. This is our challenge to San Harris – Why do we assume correlation is causality with suicide bombers religious explanations for what they do? Duh.

    “His second point – that reason is all post-hoc justifications – is also problematic. Although conscious deliberate thought depends on unconscious cognition…“

    Is there evidence for this or is the proof “Everyone knows…”

    For example, solving math problems requires unconscious neurological cognition but nobody would ever say that 1+1=2 is a post-hoc justification. The same is true of scientific truths; are Newton’s laws likewise post hoc justifications? No. This is because there are truths to be known about the world and they can be discovered with reason. As Sam Harris explains, “the fact that we are unaware of most of what goes on in our brains does not render the distinction between having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones any less clear or consequential.”

    Sure, the apple fell, verbal signaling followed.

    “Reason, in other words, separates correct beliefs from incorrect beliefs to justify truths from falsehoods.”

    Nope, this is a lot more complex process and it’s mainly social interactions.

    “It requires unconscious thought as neuroscience now knows, but it does not follow that everything our rationality discovers is a post-hoc justification. So, let’s not forget that one of our species’ most important assets – reason – is a vitally important cognitive capacity that shouldn’t be left by the way side. Psychologists have done insightful work to demonstrate the role of the cognitive unconscious but this is not to disregard the power of human rationality.”

    OK, back to the crux question – if this verbal signaling ability, and that’s all it is, is so vital: 1) Why don’t we see it in other species, 2) Where is the billion year development of this?

    If it’s so darn special why would nature only evolve is 20k-40k-7k yrs ago!? Duh

    November 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Your rambling message lacks coherent thoughts and ideas worth responding to. I don’t know what you are talking about, in other words. From your complete misunderstanding of behavioral economics to your misspelling of “dum,” I’ve decided that you don’t know what you are talking about.

      You are welcome to comment but please keep your messages non-ideological, a bit shorter and well-written.

      November 3, 2011
      • Dum is misspelled on purpose for irony. Duh. All the best.

        November 4, 2011
  4. Eli #

    Hi,

    Interesting. Well, firstly, the end of slavery was made possible by a revolution in technology and energy extraction. That, of course, includes the plantations. Just economically speaking.

    However, if you were to say such factors alone are not enough to facilitate the cultural shift to make slavery unacceptable, I will agree. In my opinion, what really happened was that denial of acceptance of slavery became… sexy.

    I, along with Jared Diamond, am a big fan of signaling theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honest_signal .

    So, “rationality” or “gut reaction?” I’ll go for the latter.

    November 4, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m not sure if you are saying this explicitly, but slavery did not end because it was failing economically. In fact, it was a hugely profitable enterprise that generated millions up until it was abolished (this is especially true in the United States).

      Abolition movements didn’t became sexy or trendy. I think that through literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin people became more empathetic, which moved them to do something.

      November 4, 2011
      • Eli #

        Sam,

        No, I am not saying that slavery was unprofitable economically. In fact, what I’m saying is that the only reason such a profitable enterprise was made possible to be retired (albeit still not fully in our modern times) was the Industrial Revolution and subsequent explosion in productivity made possible by high EROI (energy-returned-on-energy-invested) due to machinery and high quality fossil energy sources.

        The next part of my argument was admitting that this _by itself_ was not enough. The crucial thing that happened was individuals, especially in position of power, making display of their unacceptance of slavery. One of the most grandiose of such displays, conducted, in fact, en masse, was the Civil War.

        And that “display” can be explained by Signalling theory, whose explanation I linked to in my previous comment.

        In essence, it is economics + signalling that allow our culture to evolve. But “reason” is absolutely necessary here, beyond being a shorthand device to… justify our intuition.

        November 4, 2011
        • Eli #

          Oops. Small typo: “absolutely necessary” ought to be ” absolutely unnecessary”

          November 4, 2011
  5. My view of intuition is that it is based on information that you have already processed, and it’s therefore more reliable with more education or experience in whatever context you are in. An analogy I like to use is to consonance and dissonance in music. When you are presented with a new situation or information, it is compared to all other information in the brain as a whole, without considering any specific information in detail. The new information, or options in the situation, will either harmonize with the previous information, like a consonant chord, or it will create dissonance in the mind. This is perhaps why we say that things “ring true” for us. This also explains why one person can have different intuitions than others. Some people seem to think that we don’t need to reason things through, that we just need to follow our intuitions… but that’s what Hitler did, and I think his intuitions were a little different than, say, Gandhi’s. This is not to say that intuition does not have a valuable role to play. Basically, if reason doesn’t get you anywhere, and you’re just reasoning yourself in circles, go with your gut. It’s all about balance.

    November 4, 2011
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