Tag Archives: Reason

Quote for the Day – Newton the Magician

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than ten thousand years ago…[Newton saw] the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt…He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…”

~ John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton, the Man”, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

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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

Should We Value Happiness? Subjectivism and Objectivism in Metaethics

This is another post inspired by the discussions we’ve been having in the Derek Parfit seminar. Metaethics seems to me to be a very difficult thing to talk about. So bear with me as I work this out in writing. The question debated in class today revolved around the distinction between Hard and Soft Naturalism. Hard Naturalism is the view that there are just natural facts, and that we do not need to talk using distinctively normative language; we can jettison normative talk and just use natural descriptions. Soft Natualism is the view that there are just natural facts, but we still need to use irreducibly normative language. Parfit thinks that Hard Naturalism makes normativity out to be trivial, and he thinks Soft Naturalism is incoherent because he thinks Naturalism is committed to a thesis about reduction. Just about everyone in the class was not satisfied by Parfit’s arguments against both Soft Naturalism and Hard Naturalism. Most people thought that we could somehow rescue normative language from purely naturalistic properties. That is, people were saying that we could dispense with talk about these spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts and be just fine in producing genuinely normative claims about what we ought to do.

Now, I’m certainly not endorsing any talk about spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts. But I’m not really sure a complete reduction of ought-statements is plausible. How does talk about atoms in the void getting you to ought-statements? Well, the thought goes, once you start talking about the biological and society level of reality, you can get statements about what’s most natural for humans to desire, and we can translate ought-statements into statements about how to maximize happiness in sentient organisms in virtue of well-known facts about the subjective preferences of organisms. This is basically the idea behind Subjectivism. Presumably, the thought goes, it’s rational to do what one ought to do. What is it that we ought to do? Subjectivism says we should satisfy the desires of ourselves and others under conditions of ideal information and deliberation.

Imagine a man who genuinely wanted to chop off his pinky finger. He had all the relevant information about what would happen to his subjective well-being if he cut off his finger, and he wasn’t deluded or out of his mind. He simply wants to cut off his finger because he has a genuine desire to do so. Here’s the question: would he have a good reason for cutting off his finger? The subjectivist position is this: the man would have a good reason to cut off his finger because that’s what would satisfy his desire, and rationality is about desire satisfaction. The objectivist would say that the man has no good reason to cut off his finger. Having a desire for something is not enough. One must have good reasons to want to do something.

Most people in class seem to think that Subjectivism is the right way to go, because it seems to be the only plausible theory compatible with naturalistic metaphysics. But I’m convinced there is a serious problem with Subjectivism and all other forms of noncognitivism, expressivism, quasi-realism, and any other desire-based, Humean story. The problem is this: all these theories assume the same thing: that all humans share the same values. Subjectivists make the following argument. They say that we can use naturalistic facts about what the average human desires, and use these facts to tell us what we ought to do. On this view, spooky nonnatural normative facts are just like regular natural facts, it’s just that these natural facts are about making animals happy or satisfying desires. But here’s the thing: Subjectivism does not seem like it is capable or even wants to give a rational justification for the desire for happiness, or any other bottom-level desire.

And here is where I think Parfit is really onto something when he says that for Subjectivism, nothing really matters. Notice in the subjectivist explanation of the man wanting to cut off his finger the justification looks like this: he wants to cut off his finger and it’s rational because he has a desire to do so. There is no need for the man to justify to Subjectivists why he desires to cut off his finger. He has thought about it long and hard, considered all the consequences, and he still desires to do so. Likewise with claims about happiness. Why ought we to promote happiness? The subjectivist says that we should promote happiness because we all fundamentally desire happiness. So the normative force of the moral principle “maximize happiness” stems from facts about what we, as typical humans, desire.

But why should we value happiness, as opposed to unhappiness? Why should we value life, as opposed to nonlife? If the suicidal person genuinely wants to end his life, how would appealing to the descriptive fact that most humans value life give the suicidal person a reason to not end his life? It just doesn’t seem to have any normative oomph to point to the descriptive fact about what typical humans under typical conditions value. The question is why should we value the things that we value. Should we value life? Should we value happiness? What reasons do we have for valuing such things?

This is why I do not think the complete reduction to preferences works. We cannot reduce the statement “One ought to value happiness” into statements about the natural fact that most people in fact value happiness. What if we just emphasized that, look, given that most people do in fact value happiness, doesn’t that provide enough reason to, say, prevent the killing of innocent life? Parfit’s answer is no. If rationality bottoms out at the level of desire satisfaction, and we can tell no justifying story about why we should have the bottom-level desires we have, then nothing really matters except the satisfaction of those desires. But take someone who happens to not have similar values to typical humans. Let’s say a man desires to kill an innocent person. Are we going to really just say that the only reason he is irrational is because he doesn’t have typical human preferences, that he is just biologically unusual?

I think Reason can do better than that. But as I emphasized in my last post, I think the Objectivist story about rationality only works with Human Rationality, which is distinct from the instrumental rationality we share with nonhuman animals. And this is why I don’t think evolutionarily inspired arguments for moral nihilism work. Such arguments would go through if the only form of rationality humans possessed was instrumental rationality. But humans are not limited to just that form of rationality. Human Rationality is capable of reflecting on the very bottom layer of human valuation and asking, yes we do in fact value happiness, but should we? Do we have good reasons for doing so beyond just appealing to the brute fact that we very often do in fact desire such things? Don’t we want more out of our moral theory than a translation of natural facts about what we already know we desire? Don’t we want our moral theory to tell us something above and beyond the natural facts? Don’t we want our theory to tell us what we ought to do, what we ought to value?

I don’t think any of this requires talk of spooky nonnatural properties. It requires only a proper understanding of what it is exactly that Human Reason is up to when it enables humans to augment their decision making and go beyond instrumental rationality.

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Reason Is a Tool

I’m taking a seminar on Derek Parfit’s new book On What Matters this semester. In it, he defends an Objectivist account of reasons. Roughly stated, this view claims that the normative force of reasons concerning our attitudes towards an object stems, not from our subjective desires concerning that object, but from the nature of the object itself. In contrast, a Subjectivist account of reason basically says that the normative force of reasoning comes from our subjective preferences. The way Parfit sets up the debate, most metaphysical naturalists and empirically minded moral psychologists  essentially accept a Subjectivist account of reasons, and they do this based on evolutionarily considerations. This empirically minded Subjectivist tradition stretches back at least to Hume, who said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. This tradition has tried to argue that pretty much all reasoning is a matter of post-hoc rationalization for prior emotional convictions. This tradition has been recently taken up by people like Jonathan Haidt, who have argued that Reason is the tail being wagged by the emotional dog, and not the other way around.

Most people in the seminar are very skeptical about Parfit’s Non-Naturalist Objectivism, which makes out Reason to be this very mysterious and spooky thing, that seems to have magical normative powers to compel us to act in certain ways. Most people in the seminar, including the professor (Julia Driver), seem to basically accept the standard Humean account of Reason as the best and least mysterious account in the market.

Personally, I do not believe in the Humean story. I do not think that Reason is the tail, and emotions are the dog wagging that tail. I think the slave-master metaphor is a bad one, because both Reason and Emotion are masters in their own way. Let me explain. First of all, in order to tell my story of Reason, I need to make a distinction between what I will call instrumental rationality and Human rationality (for lack of a better term, though I think you could substitute conscious here just fine). Instrumental rationality is the rationality we share with all nonhuman animals in virtues of being the types of entities who have survival programmed into their genome. So if I am starving it is instrumentally rational to eat some food. If I am being attacked by a wild boar, it is instrumentally rational to try and defend myself. So far, so good. Instrumental rationality is not very mysterious and the normativity of instrumental rationality is fully compatible with a Subjectivist, Humean account.

However, I do not think Human rationality (or at least human-typical rationality) operates according to the same normative logic. I think there is a different normative structure in operation that governs the rationality of Human Reason. So this leads to a natural and obvious question: What is Human Reason? I propose an answer: a tool. Human Reason is a tool that is a product of cultural evolution, in the same exact way that Dan Everett has recently (and convincingly, imo) argued that language is a tool, in the same way that a bow and arrow is a tool. We do not grow the ability to make bows and arrows, we learn how to make them. Likewise, we learn language. And similarly, I am claiming, we learn to be Rational.

If Human Reason is a cultural tool, then it is going to operate according to a different evolutionarily logic than instrumental rationality. I see no reason why we should apply the Subjectivist story about instrumental rationality to Human Reason. They are simply very different things, although of course Human Reason bidirectionally interacts with instrumental rationality in very complex ways. I believe the story I am telling about Human Reason vs instrumental reason is more or less compatible with modern dual-process accounts of reason. On dual-process theory, there are basically two different reasoning systems in humans: one is evolutionarily ancient and shared with nonhuman animals, and one is evolutionary recent and likely unique to humans. My particular claim is that the reason why System 2 is evolutionarily recent is because it is a product of cultural evolution. Being a Jaynesian, I believe that Human Reason was “invented” through the mechanisms of cultural evolution very recently, perhaps within the last 10,000 years.

Moreover, I believe that philosophy as a cultural practice represents the loftiest instantiation of Reason as a tool. When humans invented the practice of philosophy, we developed a cognitive toolbox that opened up new vistas for human development. Indeed, natural philosophy itself eventually transformed into perhaps the most powerful tool of all: modern science. Science is the ultimate extension of Human Reason as a toolkit. It allows us unprecedented control over our environment. It allows us to, for example, surf the internet on our tablet computers while (someone else, hopefully) is driving a car which is being guided by GPS satellites. Science as a tool also allows complex feedback loops with instrumental rationality in virtue of the development of medicine as a means to prolong and maintain our biological health.


I started this post with a brief overview of the debate between Objectivists and Subjectivists about Reason. I rejected Parfit’s Non-Naturalist Objectivism because it makes Reason out to be this spooky, magical thing. But I also rejected Subjectivism for inappropriately applying the normative logic of instrumental rationality onto Human Rationality. The normative structure of Human Rationality is closer to Objectivism. However, I offered a cultural explanation for the origin of Human Rationality. Human Reason is a tool, in the same way that a bow and arrow is a tool. Just as there is (probably) no unique gene for making a bow and arrows , there is not a unique gene for Human Reason. It is a social construction. Which isn’t to say that there are not particular neural dispositions underlying our capacity to learn Human Reason that have a definite genetic basic. To say that Human Reason is a tool is to say that our brains do not grow the capacity for Human Reason, but learn it. For me this is essentially an optimistic picture, for it flips the depressing story about the dog and it’s tail around. Although emotion is certainly a force to be reckoned with, so is Human Reason when properly wielded. Not constrained to the evolutionary logic of spreading genes, Human Reason can allow humans to rise above the selfish-programming of genetic evolution and strive for decision making that is based on the application of principles that we have given to ourselves in virtue of our capacity to step back and think about what we ought to do. This gives me great hope, for it means essentially that Reason is not and ought not to be the slave of the passions; they are both masters in their own way.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology