The Struggle of Reason

In dealing with the overwhelming desire for cookies last night, I was struck by what I am calling the struggle of reason. Deep within my brain is some hardwired disposition to seek out sweets. This desire for sweets likely served some evolutionary purpose when food was once scarce. But now I can simply walk to the grocery store and purchase premade cookies that I can just pop into the oven. Obviously, if I always indulged in this desire for sweets, it would make me unhealthy in the long term, leading to obesity and diabetes and a host of other health issues. And since I have a strong desire for good health, I am in a dilemma. I could make myself happy in the short-term by satisfying my desire for cookies. Or I could make myself happy 50 years from now when I am enjoying the fruits of good health. There are then two desires at work: short-term cookies desires, and long-term desires for good health.

This can be understood as a competition. Using my powers of reasoning, I have concluded that my short-term desires do not know what’s best for me. So I use my reason to fight against my baser instincts. What’s interesting to me about this struggle of reason is where each desire came from. My desire for cookies obviously comes from my ancient evolutionary past. But where did my desire for health come from? In one sense my desire for cookies is also linked to a desire for health since it was once healthy to stock up on sweets in times of scarcity. But that cookie desiring system is incapable of understanding the complexities of a modern food system. And if I just always indulged my desire for cookies I would ultimately end up unhealthy. So what’s healthy for my cookie desiring system is really just healthy according to ancient standards of gene spreading. It once helped my ancestors to spread their genes to have a strong desire for sweets.

But what about my desire for health? It does not seem to be as closely tied into the basic circuitry for spreading genes. My reason operates at another level of objectivity that takes into account my consciously given values. For instance, I have consciously decided to marry my wife Katie. I desire to make myself healthy for as long as I can in order to be with her and provide for our future family. So if I was reasoning correctly from this desire, I would reason that I ought not to always eat cookies. So my consciously given desire trumps my evolutionarily given desire. This ability of conscious reason to trump baser desires is hugely important for understanding the modern human condition.

The struggle of reason is also interesting because it helps us better understand instrumental rationality. You are instrumentally rational if you make choices that help you satisfy your desires. Normally, instrumental rationality is associated with the reasoning systems of nonhuman animals, with perhaps the strongest desire simply being a desire to stay alive long enough to reproduce. But when we get to humans, instrumental rationality becomes more complex. Am I instrumentally rational to eat the cookies? In a way, yes, because there really are cookie desiring systems in my brain that would be satisfied if I ate the cookie. But eating the cookie would not satisfy my consciously given desire to stay healthy for the sake of my marriage. So there is a conflict of reason.

Some theorists have talked about this struggle in terms of there being two kinds of reasoning systems in the brain: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the evolutionary more basic reasoning system that would give me a nonconscious desire for cookies. System  2 is the reasoning system that allows me to inhibit my impulses to go to the grocery store and maintain rationality with respect to a higher system of norms, namely, norms and values that I have developed independently of any desire to spread my genes.

So next time you feel an intense desire to raid the kitchen in a late night munchie run, remember the struggle of reason. We are not predestined to give into these baser desires. Although it might be difficult, we are capable of trumping these desires barring any pathological breakdown in System 2 reasoning. It is my opinion that System 2 is ultimately the stronger of the two reasoning systems, which inverts the standard Humean story about reason being the slave of the passions. I believe in the power of the conscious mind to overcome the innate tendencies bestowed to us by evolution. Obviously there are limits to what exactly we can trump. But a healthy adult human with a working System 2 can, if they so choose, trump just about any evolutionarily given desire and act in accordance with whatever values they have worked out for themselves.  Humans are not robots. Although we do come stocked with some innate programming, we also are programmed with the ability to re-program ourselves, to assign new values that provide the basis for instrumental rationality with respect to culturally generated values. In my own case, the values I have placed on making my marriage work allow me to overcome any desire for unhealthy living. Of course, I sometimes fail in living up to my own standards. But I know this failing is not inevitable. To end with a cliche, with enough willpower, just about anything is possible.



Filed under Consciousness

2 responses to “The Struggle of Reason

  1. This is outside my area of philosophical study so… totally honest question:

    You define instrumental rationality as (roughly) choosing an action to fulfill your desires. This assumes it is possible to choose an action that does not fulfill your desires. Am I right to assume a common theme in the literature is debating the possibility of such a choice?


    • Gary Williams

      Hi Eric,

      Yeah, philosophers talk a lot about how we can choose an action that does not fulfill our desires. Usually this can be done by talking about false beliefs. So let’s say that I believed that my coffee was just coffee when in fact it was poisoned. By drinking the poisoned coffee I am thereby not fulfilling my desire. In humans, it gets even more complicated, because we could have true beliefs but still choose to not fulfill our desires. So a drug addict could still keep doing the drugs knowing full well it is against his or her ultimate interests. Addiction is a huge struggle of reason, and it’s one reason why someone might think that System 1 is always stronger than System 2. But, in principle, people can in fact break their addictions, some even going cold turkey. And whether a drug addict is “choosing” to harm themselves is a difficult question. It might be a choice made by System 1 but it wasn’t a choice of System 2. Or System 2 could choose to let System 1 make the decisions and go on a kind of autopilot. So it gets quite complicated when System 1 and System 2 start interacting with each other.

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