Saturday, March 05, 2011

Towards Understanding Rationality and its Limits Regarding Complex Issues

Rwahrens recently penned an article on this Blog addressing what he called real challenge for Democrats and “progressive voters” – should they support Obama for a 2nd term, or should they send a message to a party and president who is not being progressive enough. Rwahrens presented what seems a reasonable argument that Progressives should agree on one thing: “beating the Republican Party and preventing them from getting into office” For example he pragmatically cited the damage that a Republo-Conservative tide could effect which should override “every single other issue you may have.” It also makes reasonable arguments, including historical precedents such as what happened when moderates were beaten by ideological conservatives. But it is also true that some of the assumptions can be challenged. I’m not writing here to fight this specific battle, which is obviously an important one, but rather to briefly (very briefly) frame some of the problems that make it difficult to reach objective conclusions on such issues. The questions concerns conceptualization of truth and objectivity and why we think certain things (x, y, z) will happen if we have a or b. Well it is usually complex and there is a threefold mix of rational, empirical and pragmatic elements in all such arguments that make the pursuit of good judgment difficult.

All 3 elements (rational, empirical and pragmatic) are part of the humanist tradition, but the type of reasoning we call rational is probably a good place to start. The pre-Socratic Greeks, starting with Thales, gave us a style of natural/rational explanation of phenomena. History notes that Anaxagoras brought philosophy and the spirit of rational inquiry from it start in Ionia to Athens where it developed further. Much later the Enlightenment humanists built of this idea and its products using what they called reason and logic to create moral and ethical systems. This was not just armchair philosophy as they advanced the proposition of using reasoning as a progressive tool to effect good in society. It is natural for modern day humanists to pursue a rational system of inquiry to advance the good in and through the political realm. The Secular Coalition, for example, commits to:

“ promoting reason and science as the most reliable methods for understanding the universe and improving the human condition. Informed by experience and inspired by compassion, we encourage the pursuit of knowledge, meaning, and responsible ethical codes…”

Which brings me to the scientific-empirical side of reasoning and logic. We now know more about the limits of human rationality and reasoning. It is deeply flawed and subject to leveraging by all kinds of biases. Indeed the American Pragmatists like Peirce, James and Dewey, who built on Kant’s critique of reason (pure reason ends in irresolvable paradoxes), were all over this limitation in the late 19th and early 20th century. Humans reasoning, as given to us through the building blocks of our animal evolution, is in practice, often limited and not strictly logical. Our reasoning includes adaptive heuristics that offers quick and compelling judgments, which ignore details that are too hard to compute. Indeed cognitive studies have shown that much of thinking depends on emotion, and that people’s rationality is bounded by limitations of attention and memory. This means for example, that we find it difficult to employ all relevant facts. For one thing facts and asserted arguments are not passive, objective things. People are actively trying to make their case and using selective facts, shading issues and fuzzing up arguments all the time. We live in a dynamic mix of half truths and manufactured positions. We often have to rely on external fact checking because, to paraphrase Twain, much of what we are exposed to in the media just ain't so. This inability to handle all the uncertainly and complexity that we find in our culture means we focus on some details/facts and avoid or dismiss others. We are aware of this in debates on complex topics, but often in debate we aren’t sure of why reasonable arguments, based on empirical evidence, do so poorly in persuading others. Can’t we see the facts, for example, of what a Conservative administration has done (2000-2008) and just extend the inferences to current and future situations? Well yes, but mechanistically it requires lots of assumptions and long lines of reasoning that can be challenged along the way. It is an inexact science and subject to influence by the intents of the reasoner.

Another way of speaking about such reasoning (and reasoning in general) is that it is practical and serves our pragmatic purposes. A tool for this pragmatism is to frame issues and using metaphors to organize our thought. This idea has been developed by the linguist George Lakoff, who argues that most (if not all) thought is based on unconscious metaphors that are usually physical in nature. So when arguing about the economy we heard then Fed Chairman Greenspan talking about “headwinds” slowing down recovery. This grounds us in the idea of resistance, but what exactly is the nature of these headwinds? They are certainly an uneconomic item. The familiar metaphor allowed him to ignore real economic details but give us a sense that we understand what is going on. Beliefs on complex issues, such as economics or politics, are largely determined by the metaphors in which these ideas are framed. Facts are organized to serve the purposes of frame designers and they influence how we feel about them. We see this in some of the arguments used in the Wisconsin union collective bargaining dispute. Actions by the executive, that seem extreme by one standard, are framed as powerful action to avoid fiscal disaster. Increasingly, such political arguments are understood in terms of physical conflict, struggle, disaster and war or sports metaphors –e.g. They shot down my argument, He couldn’t defend his position, or She attacked/tackled my theory. These are all motivating metaphors which can push rational argument to the back of the bus.

This view of our rational abilities is humbling. It further undermines the Enlightenment ideal of conscious, universal, and dispassionate reason based on logic. It even challenges an easy scientific formulation that empirical facts combined with reasoning gives us a privileged view of the world. This is possible, but it requires great discipline since we are attracted to compelling arguments that offer a good story (as previously posted on the Meme idea). Such narratives do make sense based on our experience, but these too are shaped by a non-logical process. To make sense of the world we inevitably see things from a particular point of view. This point of view includes the many experiences and biases accrued over our lives and is hardened into beliefs that serve our immediate needs. Beliefs and opinions are further shaped into belief systems by our cultural experience, exposure to stories and as member of political groups and parties. In most conversation these selective, easy to communicate and attention-getting, subjective experiences and judgments tend to be dominant over purely objective experiences.

Which I guess brings me back to the recent blog on “beating the Republican Party and preventing them from getting into office”. How do we decide? We are rarely isolated and reflective enough to have an objective base, but it may be possible to expose the issues involved, the relevant data and the chains of reasoning over time. It takes time and we need tolerance in our conversation to avoid continued conflict between formulated and preprocessed perception of reality. This is especially true in complex situations such as political topics which are generated from frame models of reality. This is not to criticize the Humanist tradition of rationalism, science or empiricism. Indeed these are important. It is just that these aren’t enough, without being integrated together into a system that deals with the imperfections of human cognition. These remain part of a larger systematic solution which includes a sustained effort to understand. Understanding rather than debate for its own sake is a useful goal and part of real process of inquiry. Open inquiry in turn depends on critical thinking, some tentativeness if not doubt and pragmatic ways of resolving uncertainty.


Don Wharton said...

Thanks Gary! I have been working on a post on economics to make a very similar point. When we look at very complex systems it is very difficult to create anything close to a sound, objective understanding.

rwahrens said...

You make some good points about making objective conclusions and how people get there.

But my point wasn't about "objective" conclusions, it was about emotional ones. My essay was an appeal to people's emotions, drawing a picture of how our failure to work together to defeat the Republicans creates situations that we should be afraid enough of to shock us into a more rational mode of thinking.

If the events now transpiring don't frighten progressive voters into going to the polls next year to elect progressive Congressional Representatives and Senators (and President), then nothing will.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


To speak broadly I like arguments that the point our concerns, which in turn generate emotions & ideas of danger, opportunity. That makes the issue clearly worth discussing. But the arguments, data etc. should be sound so that the concern is about realistic things. We are awash in much less than half truths that are full of "hot button" emotional appeal which makes for attractive memes.
Brodie wrote a book called Virus of the Mind which provides full of lists of  "hot buttons" areas - think sex and danger as in fiction bestsellers sprinkled with thrills &love stories. There are deep psychological reasons why these buttons work on us.

Brodie summarizes the 4 core drives as the four Fs:
        Fighting, fleeing, feeding, and "er … reproducing."

Because of their importance in surviving and continuing the human species, information involving danger, food, and sex gets our attention and spreads faster because we are wired (for physical survival) to pay more attention to them — we respond quickly to a hint of these subjects. But over time culture has evolved from the direct form and elaborate them into familiar social scenarios:

Crisis: These quickly spreading fear along with specific details.  These can  save lives but also be a manipulation.

Mission: Communicating fighting an enemy, building a shelter, or finding food helped people survive during adversity or scarcity. Some groups evolved to be good at sending and receiving the mission idea enabled by a social tendency to  work together for a common goal. This implies the idea of meme groups supporting one another.

Problem: Identifying a situation – no food, competition for mates, etc – as a "problem".   This defensive posture allowed individuals to better to survive and mate.

Danger: Knowledge about potential dangers, even if not immediate crises, was valuable: knowing where predators hunted or where water was poisoned enhanced survival and mating.

Opportunity: Acting quickly to avoid missing out on a reward – food, prey, potential mate – was a benefit to our ancestors and so was passed along.