What We Talk About When We Talk About “Reason”:

Last month, Steven Poole wrote a long form essay on the problems of “reason” and assuming human beings are not reasonable at Aeon. It’s aim is the chorus of research on cognitive bias and identity protection, which has illustrated that an Enlightenment notion of pure reason is not a human norm, and thus, to use Aristotle’s terminology, cannot a be telos of what it is to be human. Poole’s most significant point is that overly formalized versions of “reason” do not actually do the work people seem to think it does.   I would suggest everyone reads the essay, but the basic point is that there are hueristics which do not meet economic or formalized logical definitions of reason but make perfect  sense within a framework of motivated exposure to qualiative information.  In short, it is “reasonable enough” to function in a framework of situated instead of “pure” rationality.

Poole’s point is illuminating, but we can see some problems.  One) despite our Enlightenment and post Enlightenment rhetoric, we do not have a set of cultural shared prepositions for what constitutes reason as a cetagory.  It is logic?  Logics, however, are sets of formalizations. Is it economic rationality?  That definition of rationality is circular (people do things because it satisifies desires and we know this because they do it).  Is it any number of differing kinds of intelligences?  What is it just thinking scientifically?  That opens up a entirely more problematic can of worms as the demarcation problem remains highly unsettled.  Two) IF we limit ourselves to the most coherent notion “reason=logics”, then one is dealing with formalization.  Formalization is incredibly useful, but it cannot, by definition, deal with qualia.

The lament over the lost of pure reason is at one level profound, and another level problematic.  Situated “rationality” does not mean the threshold of pure science or pure logic.  It is neither pure reason.  This brings me back to Max Weber–instead of the recent attempt to continuously lament human’s lack of reasoning–we should got to a taxonomy of types of reason before some kind of Ur-form.    Weber devided reason up into instrumental reason, value reason, affectual reason, and conventional reason.   Weber’s heirarchy here should not concern us, but see that he recognized that in effect people are reasonable in context of either a goal or an identity.   This means that reasoning to meta-identity positions is bound to problematic.

Yet, as Dan Kahan’s work on cultural cognition and the work on cognitive biases play into each other: identity maintaince can lead to “irrational” and sub-optimal results, but this not irrational or even a-rational.  It is a situated rationality, and one that makes sense because identity and ideology matter.  Social beings maintain themselves this way, and attempts to be highly paternalistic on this (as Pole points out) are often actually just as given to cognitive bias.

This leads us to a set of hard questions: In addition to the structural constrains of funding, the recent discussions of failure of peer-review in scientific research, etc. For example, a lot of motivated rejection of scientific findings such as “climate change” or “evolution” do not correlate with general literacy in science. It is a value-reason motivated rejection in conflict with what appears to be strong scientific fact.

This means that “reason” is not the objective, singular ground of safety most assume.  In fact, it is just as contested. It has to be: qualia does matter.

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25 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About “Reason”:

  1. Number of “problematic” and downright indefenible assertions here. First, you say “formalization can’t deal with qualia”. Now, leaving aside the fact that “qualia” isn’t synonymous with qualitative information, which seems to your intended target, your claim is also factually untrue: formal semantics is an entire discipline devoted to the formal analysis of qualitative information in language.
    Second, you credit Weber with recognizing that people reason from their identities and goals but this is a truism in cognitive scientific and neuroscientific research on thinking and reasoning. Furthermore, that people do reason from their identities and goals doesn’t mean that thinking and reasoning ought to be done that way. Other than the is isn’t ought objection, the devastating counterpoint to your view comes from cognitive and neuroscientific research on thinking and reasoning which shows that the cause for failings of reasoning are precisely identity and goal based qualitative/ narrative thinking. The cognitive scientific upshot is that if people reasoned more formally they would certainly think better than if they continue to think in loaded heideggeran amphibolisms.

    Finally, you rehabilitate ‘situated thinking’ as though that exculpates its error-ladenness and intractability in comparison with formalised thinking procedures. Unless by situated reasoning you mean reasoning that’s situated-on-the-more-often-erroneous-than-right-side-of-rationality you’re talking against the consensus in the scientific and logical literature on the effect of formalisms of thinking [yes, they make thinking way less error prone, and far more capable than personalised idioms of poetical navel-gazing].

    • Well, let’s break down what you seem to be saying is my position: ” In short, it is “reasonable enough” to function in a framework of situated instead of “pure” rationality.” =/= ” Unless by situated reasoning you mean reasoning that’s situated-on-the-more-often-erroneous-than-right-side-of-rationality you’re talking against the consensus in the scientific and logical literature on the effect of formalisms of thinking [yes, they make thinking way less error prone, and far more capable than personalised idioms of poetical navel-gazing].”

      I never make an “ought” statement about the formalizations being bad–I may a neurological statement about identity investment means that they aren´t done in a non-motivated rational. Again, you misread my statements Mr. Troll.ing, like you did the last time we interacted on “legitimacy” where your definition was circular. You are impuning an argument I don’t make.

      “Furthermore, that people do reason from their identities and goals doesn’t mean that thinking and reasoning ought to be done that way.”

      I am not making an “ought” statement. You are reading a value judgment into a descriptive discussion. Situated-reasoning is a way to talk the way people ACTUALLY reason. Something that neuroscience has confirmed, and that sociologists talked about 120 years ago. The fact that I credit Weber for a distinction confirmed by neuroscience.
      .
      But back to the point: “The cognitive scientific upshot is that if people reasoned more formally they would certainly think better than if they continue to think in loaded heideggeran amphibolisms.”

      Yes, but there is no evidence that people do reason that way about things involved in identity comitments. For example, you don’t at a base level: Your attack on my questioning the legitimacy of the Mexican government because percieved legitimacy was based on a formalization of a bunch fo value tautologies. The formalization did not lead you to question those value tautologies because they are base-assumption meta-ethical commitments. No, formalizing that makes it clear if and only if we formally analyze the axioms, but that doesn’t tell me ANYTHING about the substance of those axioms.

      Lastly, I DO make a distinction between qualative information and qualia: I am not confusing the sign for what it represents there. And, yes, one can clearly formalize the structure of information points (they are already symbolic), and one can formalize analyze experience. But it seems to be me to be a category conflation to say they are the same thing.

  2. First, you keep saying my definitions are circular when they are precisely the definitions political scientists use. Forgive me and better educated political scientists for taking it that you don’t know what counts as a circular definition; our proposed definitions feature rule-circularities as opposed to premise-circularities, consequently they are epistemically informative and virtuous. Whereas premise circular definitions are vicious and epistemically uninformative.
    Relatedly you treat tautologies as though they’re worse than heideggeran amphibolisms which you yourself use. But that’s clearly not the case, as not all tautologies state trivial facts; a tautology is at least as non-trivial as the number of steps it takes to get from a set of premises to the said tautology. Whereas a heideggeran amphibolism, say ‘rhyming dictory thesis of history’ has absolutely no decision procedure and no bounds on the number if steps required to get from premise to amphibolism.

    As to “situation-rationality” I clearly did not claim what you quoted of my comment as your position. In it I’m saying what you should be claiming when you talk about situated rationality [basically the more modest idea that people do reason in goal and identity driven ways]. If you’re only saying that people don’t think formally about their identity and goals, I agree; but I do think further that they ought to think about them formally.

    • “First, you keep saying my definitions are circular when they are precisely the definitions political scientists use. Forgive me and better educated political scientists for taking it that you don’t know what counts as a circular definition; our proposed definitions feature rule-circularities as opposed to premise-circularities, consequently they are epistemically informative and virtuous. ”

      See you are are moving from descriptive to normative to value-laden in the same sentence as if it isn’t problematic, and doing so with a vague reference to “Political scientists” (who are better educated than you).

      For someone so concerned with the virtue of rigorous formalized logic (and with any respect for basic informal logical fallaciies), you should call yourself on the bullshit argument you just made.

      • “you are are moving from descriptive to normative to value-laden in the same sentence as if it isn’t problematic”

        No I’m not, and I contend your complaint is 1. inapplicable as it doesn’t show that is the case in the widely recognised distinctions between premise and rule circularities I identified. 2. the way you use “descriptive to normative to value-laden” is fundamentally unintelligible to anyonewho knowledge of these terms comes from the literature on the matter.

        Now, of course I appealed to authority in talking about what Political Scientists do take as the right definitions, but note that in no way does my claim depend on their endorsement. Your amphibolisms would still remain undecidable and unintelligible even if no political scientists refused your definitions.

    • ” say ‘rhyming dictory thesis of history’ has absolutely no decision procedure and no bounds on the number if steps required to get from premise to amphibolism. ”

      Agreed. Why do you keep reading my statements as Heideggerian?

      • I identify your general tenor as Heideggeran because he and you both endorse the specious view that talk is constrained by the idiom in which it’s spoken. I think it’s absurd because I would think it equally absurd if a scientist told me that one cannot think of mass apart from the unit of measure we use to talk about it, and that one unit measure can never be converted into the other coherently.

      • Okay. There is a lot of reading into what I am saying. I think “general reasoning” (not formal reasoning) is contained within an individual context. I think there is a sepearation between sign and signifier, but I do not think reasoning is constrained by its idiom because that would conflate reasoning with the expression of reasoning. I am not even sure all reasoning, formal or not, corresponces to lingustic concepts (hence my concern with qualia).

      • BTW, I’m familiar with and respect the work of Kahan. I don’t mean to take issue with your extrapolation of his claims into the issue of the demarcation of rational behaviour.

  3. Earlier Heidegger did think that descriptive language could never be translated into prescriptive language, and that all such talk was metaphysical in the bad sense and so on. But his late work takes that pessimism further to your direction. So, when you say, “I am not even sure all reasoning, formal or not, corresponces to lingustic concepts” you sound Heideggerian. This is pretty much what late Heidegger thought, when he said “Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being [Sein].”

    • “Your amphibolisms would still remain undecidable and unintelligible even if no political scientists refused your definitions.”

      Did you read the Poole article I am writing from? The imposition of Heideggerian terminology does not make since if you did.

      Which brings me to this:

      ” This is pretty much what late Heidegger thought, when he said “Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being [Sein].””

      Three differences: I am speaking about a sociological-psychological category of “identity” not an ontological category of “being.” I am pulling just as much from Steven Pinker on the fact that a lot of reasoning is pre-linguistic as I am from Heidegger, the induction of the category of qualia not widthstanding. If the grounding of tautologies (axioms, base assumptions) comes out of situated and motivated reasoning (I like situated only because of its sociological context), it still would say nothing of the validity or pragmatism of formalization. All it says is there is little evidence that people actually do function that way or that in most cases such huerstics are not completely botched in a pragmatic sense. It would still be the case that a formalized logic is preferrable to an evolved or motivated hueristic, bu the motivated hueristic should not be considered “irrational.”

      While this may lead to conclusions similar to the Heidgger of say “The Letter on Humanism,” neither the concerns nor operating principles would be the same or based on “amphiliolisms” any more than your use of tautologies are some kind of proof of reliance on Platonic form. Now the fact you did shift from “epistemologically valid” to virturous is the kind of conflation that proves my point, and that is just as undecidable becuase it stems from a freshman category error, or the fact you have not expressed the logic that would make a moral category and a epistemic category clearly identity equilivant.

      So my “tenor” may be Heideggerian, but in this instance the “rhyming dictionary” is more incidental.

      • That was a helpful response. I think you’re surely right to say people don’t reason that way; that’s uncontroversial, and that ‘in most cases such huerstics are not completely botched in a pragmatic sense,’ is correct. We’re in agreement here as long as we register that people Do stand to benefit from moving beyond heuristics to systematic thinking, I surely Don’t insist that we call nonnormative thinking ‘irrational.’

        ‘the fact you did shift from “epistemologically valid” to virturous is the kind of conflation that proves my point, and that is just as undecidable becuase it stems from a freshman category error, or the fact you have not expressed the logic that would make a moral category and a epistemic category clearly identity equilivant. ‘

        It seems you’re ascribing to me the claim that the definitions I offered were virtuous in a moral sense. I meant “epistemically virtuous” in the sense qualified by virtue epistemology [See for a sketchy overview http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-virtue/#EpiVal%5D. So, I can only plead you will allow me to reject your assessment, which is surely correct in the details about the difference between knowledge and morality, as it doesn’t extend to the notion of epistemic proprietary practice that I’m invoking in my claim that one way of thinking is more epistemically virtuous than the other.

      • Okay. Now you got me on deficit in my education I will openly admit because I was never exposed to virtue epistemology in the classes on epistemology I have taken and that apparently was a serious disservice. Given my general respect for the pragmatic (in the he small p sense) and pluralistic ethical theories around virtue ethics in say MacEintyre’s perspective, I instinctively see an out of some meta-epistemological problems that we run into. So we have a common language problem on virtuous, and I will retract my accusation. Let me do some reading and get back to you.

  4. “in effect people are reasonable in context of either a goal or an identity.”

    That caught my attention. Most definitely, the context must be taken into account. We are creatures of environments. We don’t use a supposed pure reason in a mental vacuum.

    “For example, a lot of motivated rejection of scientific findings such as “climate change” or “evolution” do not correlate with general literacy in science.”

    That requires qualification. At least one study has found something to the contrary of what you claim here.

    The more scientists knows about climatology and the more they have done climatology research then the more they agree with the scientific consensus about global warming. As one gets further from direct knowledge of the field, support of the consensus in the field goes down.

    That is as one would predict, according to common sense expectations. Not that common sense is always right or reasonable. But in this case…

    • See Dan Kahan’s work: at a national level, there is no correlation. (The US understanding of evolution is actually not significantly lower than that East Asia or Europe. The acceptance of evolution, however, is very much tied to it. Kahan has MULTIPLE studies on the subject. He has at least three on general science literacy and climate change denial.)

      “The more scientists knows about climatology and the more they have done climatology research then the more they agree with the scientific consensus about global warming. As one gets further from direct knowledge of the field, support of the consensus in the field goes down. ”

      You are conflating specialist knowledge with general knowledge, but most of the climates about science literacy are claims about general knowledge. That is what both Kahan and I are specifically targeting.

      Of course, a specialist in the field would accept the consensus on the field–in most cases this is good, but not all. The educational apparatuses around that knowledge do generally work as quality control, but then again, quality control can be also ideological control. its just that climatology, until the last two decades, was not a ideologically loaded place and still probably isn’t outside our current political debate. However, this tendency is a double edged sword.

      • “You are conflating specialist knowledge with general knowledge, but most of the climates about science literacy are claims about general knowledge. That is what both Kahan and I are specifically targeting.”

        My point is that the discussion should include both general and specialist knowledge, in order to have a fair discussion. If specialist knowledge is the key factor, then we need to encourage more people to learn more about this specialist knowledge. All this is saying is that those who know more agree more with the consensus. So, how do we get people to learn more?

        “Of course, a specialist in the field would accept the consensus on the field–in most cases this is good, but not all.”

        I would make two points.

        First, it isn’t just being in the climatology field that increases agreement with consensus. It is also how much direct experience one has in doing research and is still active in research. So, these are people who don’t just know climatology theory and the work of others. They have done their own studies.

        Second, this would involve diverse scientists. They come from countries all over the world. They work in diverse environments: private employment, non-profit research centers, academia, government agencies, etc. And they get their funding from diverse sources: corporations, non-profits, government, etc. This involves many different environments, expectations, and agendas.

        None of that is to be dismissed out of hand.

      • In the case of a specialist, the identity of one’s profession tends to trump one’s political identity for two reasons: it more readily affects your life, and you actually do have hard knowledge about the fact. Those should not be dismissed, but it should be contextualized: there is still no relationship between general scientific literacy and specific sector questions. Kahan’s research makes this clearer and clearer.

      • “there is still no relationship between general scientific literacy and specific sector questions. ”

        That is an important piece of info to keep in mind. But I’m not sure how much it can be generalized.

        The American public (or the world’s population more broadly) seems to lack much scientific education. I know the science classes I took were fairly basic and I’m probably typical. I’ve found even many college-educated people don’t appear to be overly scientifically literate.

        Is this actually a failure of ‘reason’? Or is it simply a failure of education, along with a failure of the media to inform people?

        Science, like critical thinking or anything else, has to be taught. This requires it to be part of the core values of a society. Trying to define ‘reason’ can only be useful, if most people in society care about having such a discussion. Before any attempt at ‘reason’, there has to be a motivation to seek it, to understand it, and to learn it.

        On the other hand, if most are complacent to be ignorant, it all becomes just so much talk. What purpose can or should any supposed ‘reason’ serve? Why should anyone care about science, beyond nifty gadgets and the profits that go with making them?

      • “Is this actually a failure of ‘reason’? Or is it simply a failure of education, along with a failure of the media to inform people? ”

        This is where Kahan’s evidence is clear: in general, in less one has a professional stake in specialist knowledge, attempts to educate the public against misconceptions where those misconceptions are tied to a political, religious, or ethnic identity–not only don’t work, they reinforce the identity category and the related misconceptions.

        It is a form of “reason” in the sense that it is an active interpretation mechanism. I am not saying this is optimal. I am not putting a strong value judgment on such “situated” or “motivated” reasoning–it obviously can and does lead to sub-optimal outcomes in specific sectors.

        “Why should anyone care about science, beyond nifty gadgets and the profits that go with making them?”

        There is no universal answer to the question in a pluralistic society. I would say “truth,” but I would also say that this is actually an ethical and metaphysical presumption on my part.

  5. In my last comment, I was taking a step back. The notion of ‘reason’ is strange enough. We use words often without knowing quite what we mean. But what about the motivation behind what we say and we are trying to get at?

    I can say I care about reason and truth. My motivation is sincere and deeply felt. Still, it is an odd thing, to care about anything so far beyond the basic needs of life, especially when one has to struggle to even define one’s terms.

    If I try to argue with someone why they should also care, I ultimately come down to a gut feeling that they should care because they should. I could seek other more grand justifications. For example, I can point to the American founders and their love of intellectual and scientific pursuits. But most people don’t have much more interest in history than they have in science.

    What makes some people so excited by such things? Why did those during the Enlightenment Age make such a fuss over science? They saw it as revolutionary, a radical change in thinking and the entire social order. What the heck were they seeing in science? It is harder to imagine science as something quite as radical as it was seen back then.

    Beyond whether most people are capable of ‘reason’ (however we wish to define it), are most people capable of wanting to reason? Is there something unique about scientists who dedicate their entire lives to seeking knowledge? Or does that potential exist in nearly every person, only needing the right conditions to manifest?

    If most people could be made to care, what then? Even if we could perfectly define ‘reason’, would we be any closer to a reason-based society? What would such a society be? What could reason possibly mean on the scale of an entire population? Would we require our political leaders to pass a reason test? Would every law made have to have a reasonable justification determined by a panel of reasonable people?

    • “What makes some people so excited by such things? Why did those during the Enlightenment Age make such a fuss over science? They saw it as revolutionary, a radical change in thinking and the entire social order. What the heck were they seeing in science? It is harder to imagine science as something quite as radical as it was seen back then.”

      Yet, even removing ALL sociological considerations from the problems of the way scientists actually work, we are still left with two basic problems: in the Enlightenment, science was an a broad and early enough level that a person with a general university education (itself rare) could understand what was going on with a grasp of, at most, basic calculus. This is NO LONGER the case, even being educated in the general sciences, most of the educated are removed from the types of knowledge necessary. It no longer seems necessary because to be usefully educated in multiple sciences is nearly impossible.

      Conversely, at the same time, we have a more or less scientific world view. Humans remain similarly intelligent and “illogical” as ever, but we trust technology and even our “anti-scientific” attitudes must be given a secular, science like gloss. Even creationists don’t talk about symbolon and admit moral heuristics to the tales they give about creation, they assume literal science-like truth. It is a response to science that actually grants many of its basic assumptions while trying to undermine the entire enterprise. This is actually then a proof of the secularization and “scientificization” of our world views. This is true for almost all “Modern” humans in a capitalist economy from US to South Korea to China. It even makes reading about that time with a similar mindset difficult.

      I suggest you see today’s post on typologies for some of the problems you may be having here.

  6. Pingback: On Reasoning: Science and Experimentation | Marmalade

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