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What is Rational?
Posted: 17 September 2007 11:40 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The Podcast ‘Madeleine Van Hecke - Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things’, sparked a question that I have had for some time, and I’d like to put the question out there.

Basically, ‘what is rational?’

I think there are a number of definitions, and ways to answer this question, but I am particularly interested in hearing if people think if the accuracy of the conclusion is an important element in determining if a line of thinking is rational?

Van Hecke’s book seems to suggest that ‘smart people’ (I’m hoping this means people that use rational logic to come to conclusions) can often come to incorrect conclusions because they are missing key points of information in their overall scope of information.

So, question, do we need to know the context within which a conclusion is derived to determine if the conclusion was reached rationally, or can we determine from the concussion (in the case where its incorrect) that the thought process was irrational?

If you believe that an incorrect conclusion can negate the rationality of a thought process, and if we assume that we all have a certain degree of blind spotedness, can the individual ever determine the degree of rationality of their own argument, or are they bound to 3rd party interpretation, in fact, 3rd party interpretation that may change over time?

If you believe that the context is an important part of determining if a conclusion was reached rationally, could you explain more why? 

In philosophy, is a rational argument enough, or does the conclusion also need to be accurate, and are there other elements that are also important?

-baloo

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Posted: 17 September 2007 02:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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There are a variety of problems with many statements stated in a logical form.  You’ve mentioned some of them:  incorrect premises, missing premises, incorrect form, are three I can think of off hand.  However, one can have horrible logic and still come up with a true (but possibly not valid) conclusion.  Doug is far more able to give a comprehensive answer.

An example: 
1.  All dogs have four legs
2.  Everything that has four legs is an animal
===
3.  Therefore all dogs are animals.
The logical form is correct, both premises are incorrect (false), yet the conclusion is true.

When reading someone’s argument we can identify whether the logic is correct, but we have to depend on our experience or our research to determine whether the premises are correct (true) or whether some premises (information) are missing. 

Occam

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Posted: 17 September 2007 03:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

I am particularly interested in hearing if people think if the accuracy of the conclusion is an important element in determining if a line of thinking is rational?

Yes, I feel ones conclusion accuracy is an important element in determining if ones thinking was rational or not, but not the only important element. First off, If one’s conclusion is proven to be false, that would then lead the others involved in the discourse to question the concluders reasoning and logic to come to the false conclusion. The value of the false conclusion in relation to ones line of thinking is in that the false conclusion prompts everyone else to investigate the presenters logic and reasoning. However, a false conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean that a line of thinking was irrational. A person can reason with the information that is available to them and make a rational conclusion with that information. Even if pieces of information are missing that are critical to the verity of the argument and conclusion, the presenter could have been completely rational with what information he knew.

So, a false conclusion is sure to prompt ones reasoning, logic, and context to determine if ones line of thinking was rational or not, but it does not necessarily determine if one did not make complete rational efforts to come to their conclusion.

Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

do we need to know the context within which a conclusion is derived to determine if the conclusion was reached rationally, or can we determine from the concussion (in the case where its incorrect) that the thought process was irrational?

I feel we need to know the context from which the conclusion was derived to determine if the information within that context was thought out with logic and reason. I don’t feel the conclusion alone is enough to determine that one did not think rationally.

Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

if we assume that we all have a certain degree of blind spotedness, can the individual ever determine the degree of rationality of their own argument, or are they bound to 3rd party interpretation, in fact, 3rd party interpretation that may change over time?

I believe that one can determine a degree of rationality of ones own argument, but obviously only with the information that one knows.

Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

In philosophy, is a rational argument enough, or does the conclusion also need to be accurate, and are there other elements that are also important?

enough for what? to what end? A rational argument would seem to lead towards a more accurate conclusion then an argument made without rationality would it not?

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Posted: 17 September 2007 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Logic is famously truth preserving, that is, if you have true premises and use correct logical form, you are guaranteed of having a true conclusion.

Nothing else follows, however. If you have false premisses, nothing particular follows about the truth or falsity of the conclusion. If you fail to use correct logical form (and really, we very rarely use correct logical form in any sort of speech), nothing particular follows about the truth or falsity of any conclusion you make.

The concern over “reason” and “rationality” is basically an epistemological concern. It is to ask, What ways of thinking and arguing are more likely to provide true and/or reliable conclusions?

Deductive reasoning (“logic” so-called) is one way, but it’s a tight straightjacket. There is also inductive reasoning, that is, reasoning from past occurrences. It doesn’t guarantee truth, but generally it’s a good way to reason. There is also abductive reasoning, that is, inference to the best explanation, which is the technique that Sherlock Holmes uses with Dr. Watson: given A, B, C, the best explanation of the murder is that Dr. Brown did it. Again, this conclusion isn’t guaranteed to be true (there are an infinity of possible alternative stories we could cook up), but usually they are pretty good, and we take them as probative in court cases and our daily life.

The general concern, however, is for the evidence and for how that evidence supports or fails to support the conclusions we are making. Someone interested in reason will be concerned with asking what the evidence is, with taking it seriously.

Take the famous example of Kepler, who was absolutely convinced that the planets went around the sun in circular orbits. It took only a handful of Tycho Brahe’s measurements of the position of Mars to demolish that pet theory for good. Kepler could have rejected the observations, but his belief in Brahe’s accuracy was such that he did not. Instead Kepler went with the evidence and formulated the correct theory which is that the planets move in elliptical orbits, a much “messier” but truer picture.

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Posted: 17 September 2007 05:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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2.  Everything that has four legs is an animal

Yeah, I have to stand on an animal every time I change a light bulb in the living room.  LOL

psik

PS - If I could just get the stupid cat to stop scratching my leg.

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Posted: 17 September 2007 08:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I think there is ample evidecne that sound reasoning can lead to mistaken conclusions, for all the reasons given above by Occam and Doug. I also think heuristics, short-cuts in thinking that are less accurate than formal logic but much quicker, are a big part of the problem. They are reasonably good at giving us correct conclusions, but we often trusts them to excess, and then we have trouble giving up mistaken conclusions arrived at in these common, informal, and usually good enough ways. Whenever pssible, science and formal processes for determining the validity of a conclusion should be applied, becasue they are better than our everyday methods. But we don’t always have the time, resources, or data to do this, and then we make the best of what we have, which is ok so long as we recognize conclusions thus arrived at as provisional.

FWIW, I don’t think that the correctness of a conclusion is necessarily that helpful in evaluating the rationality of the thought process that led to it.

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Posted: 18 September 2007 12:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Occam - 17 September 2007 02:52 PM

When reading someone’s argument we can identify whether the logic is correct, but we have to depend on our experience or our research to determine whether the premises are correct (true) or whether some premises (information) are missing. 

I love it! 

What happens when one lacks the experience to determine if the premises are correct?  Or, how should one deal with this?  For example, I go to the dentist and the dentist says, ‘you need X because of Y’. Because I lack the ability to determine the validity of Y, how do I determine the validity of the conclusion ‘I need X’?

Also, any thoughts on what one does in the unavailability of information?  Or when information is known to be unavailable?  Say, I’m the dentist and I need to know the total quantity of sugars that a person is consuming, and the approximate rate, and time of day of the consumption to recommend the best toothpaste, but this information is unavailable because the person is unable to recall that information, can I still make a rational recommendation, even though I know I lack the needed information to make the optimal recommendation?

-baloo

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Posted: 18 September 2007 12:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Hi Morgatj,

morgantj - 17 September 2007 03:08 PM
Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

I am particularly interested in hearing if people think if the accuracy of the conclusion is an important element in determining if a line of thinking is rational?

First off, If one’s conclusion is proven to be false, that would then lead the others involved in the discourse to question the concluders reasoning and logic to come to the false conclusion. The value of the false conclusion in relation to ones line of thinking is in that the false conclusion prompts everyone else to investigate the presenters logic and reasoning. However, a false conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean that a line of thinking was irrational. A person can reason with the information that is available to them and make a rational conclusion with that information. Even if pieces of information are missing that are critical to the verity of the argument and conclusion, the presenter could have been completely rational with what information he knew.

So, a false conclusion is sure to prompt ones reasoning, logic, and context to determine if ones line of thinking was rational or not, but it does not necessarily determine if one did not make complete rational efforts to come to their conclusion.

This seems to suggest that false conclusions can have value (assuming there was no harm in coming to these false conclusions), because they allow others to observe the logic and reasoning that led to the false conclusion.  This is a bit of a jump, but if one knew that a conclusion to a given set of logic was false, to what extent should they dismiss the reason and logic as flawed and not worth review, and to what extent should the review the premises and reasons to see where it all broke down? 

morgantj - 17 September 2007 03:08 PM
Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

do we need to know the context within which a conclusion is derived to determine if the conclusion was reached rationally, or can we determine from the concussion (in the case where its incorrect) that the thought process was irrational?

I feel we need to know the context from which the conclusion was derived to determine if the information within that context was thought out with logic and reason. I don’t feel the conclusion alone is enough to determine that one did not think rationally.

Agreed.

morgantj - 17 September 2007 03:08 PM
Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

if we assume that we all have a certain degree of blind spotedness, can the individual ever determine the degree of rationality of their own argument, or are they bound to 3rd party interpretation, in fact, 3rd party interpretation that may change over time?

I believe that one can determine a degree of rationality of ones own argument, but obviously only with the information that one knows.

Baloo - 17 September 2007 11:40 AM

In philosophy, is a rational argument enough, or does the conclusion also need to be accurate, and are there other elements that are also important?

enough for what? to what end? A rational argument would seem to lead towards a more accurate conclusion then an argument made without rationality would it not?

Re: ‘enough for what? to what end?’
I think the short answer is ‘enough to avoid due criticism’.  But, I think I may be looking for something more.  For example, CFI has as a core purpose ‘to promote and defend reason’.... at what point can we say that reason has been defended?  CFI also states that its ‘interested in providing rational ethical alternatives’, which I like because it seems to suggest that not only does a conclusion, and argument need to be rational, but ‘ethical’ as well….

So, is Rational and Ethical enough?

-baloo

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Posted: 18 September 2007 01:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Hi Doug!

dougsmith - 17 September 2007 04:14 PM

Logic is famously truth preserving, that is, if you have true premises and use correct logical form, you are guaranteed of having a true conclusion.

  So at minimum if the conclusion is found to be false, you know that either the premises were inaccurate or the logical form was incorrect?

dougsmith - 17 September 2007 04:14 PM

Nothing else follows, however. If you have false premisses, nothing particular follows about the truth or falsity of the conclusion. If you fail to use correct logical form (and really, we very rarely use correct logical form in any sort of speech), nothing particular follows about the truth or falsity of any conclusion you make.

  This seems to suggest that there are going to be very few good sources of truth, until a conscience effort is made to re-write, or re-think much of the human experience in proper form.

dougsmith - 17 September 2007 04:14 PM

The concern over “reason” and “rationality” is basically an epistemological concern. It is to ask, What ways of thinking and arguing are more likely to provide true and/or reliable conclusions?

Deductive reasoning (“logic” so-called) is one way, but it’s a tight straightjacket. There is also inductive reasoning, that is, reasoning from past occurrences. It doesn’t guarantee truth, but generally it’s a good way to reason. There is also abductive reasoning, that is, inference to the best explanation, which is the technique that Sherlock Holmes uses with Dr. Watson: given A, B, C, the best explanation of the murder is that Dr. Brown did it. Again, this conclusion isn’t guaranteed to be true (there are an infinity of possible alternative stories we could cook up), but usually they are pretty good, and we take them as probative in court cases and our daily life.

Very cool!  So we have more than logic to depend on, but should probably note when a conclusion is inducted or abducted as opposed to deducted so that those that may use the conclusion know the reliability of the methodology in the case where they find contradicting/collaborating evidence.

dougsmith - 17 September 2007 04:14 PM

The general concern, however, is for the evidence and for how that evidence supports or fails to support the conclusions we are making. Someone interested in reason will be concerned with asking what the evidence is, with taking it seriously.

Take the famous example of Kepler, who was absolutely convinced that the planets went around the sun in circular orbits. It took only a handful of Tycho Brahe’s measurements of the position of Mars to demolish that pet theory for good. Kepler could have rejected the observations, but his belief in Brahe’s accuracy was such that he did not. Instead Kepler went with the evidence and formulated the correct theory which is that the planets move in elliptical orbits, a much “messier” but truer picture.

  Seems like there is a nice natural flow from Abductive reasoning (planets are going around the sun, things go around in circles: therefore the planets are going around in circles) to inductive reasoning (Brahe’s measurements showed location set {X.Y.Z},location set {X.Y.Z} are on an elliptical path: therefore planets go around in an elliptical path), At what point does Deductive reasoning enter the sciences? Mathematics?

Very interesting stuff!

-baloo

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Posted: 18 September 2007 01:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mckenzievmd - 17 September 2007 08:45 PM

I think there is ample evidecne that sound reasoning can lead to mistaken conclusions, for all the reasons given above by Occam and Doug. I also think heuristics, short-cuts in thinking that are less accurate than formal logic but much quicker, are a big part of the problem. They are reasonably good at giving us correct conclusions, but we often trusts them to excess, and then we have trouble giving up mistaken conclusions arrived at in these common, informal, and usually good enough ways. Whenever pssible, science and formal processes for determining the validity of a conclusion should be applied, becasue they are better than our everyday methods. But we don’t always have the time, resources, or data to do this, and then we make the best of what we have, which is ok so long as we recognize conclusions thus arrived at as provisional.
FWIW, I don’t think that the correctness of a conclusion is necessarily that helpful in evaluating the rationality of the thought process that led to it.

Ok, so, (A) I love heuristics, and the introduction of them into the discussion starts to make the conversation feel less theoretical and more practical.

That said, knowing what we know about heuristics, and knowing what we know about how big the decisions are that the World has to make everyday, and knowing how limited the information is to make these decisions, and knowing how little time/resources there are to make all these decisions, and knowing the difficulties in scaling heuristical systems across increasingly large groups,  and knowing how the brain perceives the validity of a decisions once it is made (especially when there is little time to revisit the decision)....how are we not destined to a heuristical train wreak of global proportions?  And, how do we root cause a train wreak as a lack of time/resources/information/anticipation/accurate heuristics vs a lack of reason.  It almost sounds if we want to promote the increased use of reason, we’ll also need to promote (perhaps as a predicate) a serious increase in time/resources/information/anticipation/heuristics to facilitate its use….

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the suggestion that a better understanding of heuristics is needed to solve the problems we have to solve…
I like it! very interesting!

-baloo

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Posted: 18 September 2007 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Baloo - 18 September 2007 01:19 AM

So at minimum if the conclusion is found to be false, you know that either the premises were inaccurate or the logical form was incorrect?

Right. And the logical form can be figured out with relative ease. It’s usually the truth of the premises that’s the issue.

Baloo - 18 September 2007 01:19 AM

This seems to suggest that there are going to be very few good sources of truth, until a conscience effort is made to re-write, or re-think much of the human experience in proper form.

I’m not sure I follow. Our sources of truth are based on evidence and experiment; one might well say that science is the best and only real source of true beliefs, or at least of beliefs most likely to be true.

But we all do small experiments in our daily life, we all do rely on evidence. When we want to know if there’s milk in the refrigerator, we open the door and look. That’s using evidence to support a hypothesis. (It looks like there’s milk in the fridge, so there probably is). The only difficult cases come where we’re trying to determine the existence of very tenuous causal hypotheses: like whether a particular liquid cures cancer. Then we need to be very careful to tease out the right variables by doing a well controlled statistically valid randomized and double-blind trial. It’s too easy to fool ourselves.

Baloo - 18 September 2007 01:19 AM

Very cool!  So we have more than logic to depend on, but should probably note when a conclusion is inducted or abducted as opposed to deducted so that those that may use the conclusion know the reliability of the methodology in the case where they find contradicting/collaborating evidence.

Well, I wouldn’t say that just giving name to a form of argument (“inductive”, “abductive”) helps us very much, except in the context of philosophical arguments about epistemology. We know that unless the argument is strictly logical (= deductive) the truth of the conclusion isn’t guaranteed by the truth of the premises. So we have to be doing some sort of likelihood calculation when we’re seeing the premises and the conclusion. Statistics is based on a roughly inductive idea that if this pattern of events has had a certain statistical correlation in the past, it is likely to do so in the future. So, if vaccines have correlated with immunity in the past, they are likely to do so again. However, we also know that antibiotics create resistance by Darwinian selection of microorganisms that survive administration of the antibiotic, so we also know that sometimes the statistical correlations are less than certain into the future ... all that has to be taken into consideration.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the logical form of the argument, though.

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Posted: 18 September 2007 09:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Baloo - 18 September 2007 12:54 AM

if one knew that a conclusion to a given set of logic was false, to what extent should they dismiss the reason and logic as flawed and not worth review, and to what extent should the review the premises and reasons to see where it all broke down? 

It depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are simply trying to determine the verity of ones conclusion, you could stop at the first sign that there is evidence that flawed logic and reason was used. However, value can be found in others flawed logic in that you can learn from their mistakes. If you are in pursuit of not only the verity of ones conclusion, but also the continuing improvement of your own logic and reason, you may want to pursue the entire line of thinking the other went through to come to their conclusion.

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Posted: 18 September 2007 04:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Baloo,

I think we may very well be headed for such a train wreck. In Complications Atul Gawande does a great job of illustrating why the individual doctor is probably fundamentally incapable of doing his job very well due to an inability to manage objectively large amounts of information. And this is even with the hyperspecialization that currently dominates medicine. I think the world may be too complicated for us, especially since we have all these probably innate little short-cuts that don’t serve nearly as well in a complex technical environment as they did on the savannah. But, we do the best we can. I think additional time and resources devoted to the most crucial problems would help. I think a wider appreciation and awareness of our natural tendancy to thought errors would help. I think a culture that values reason and logic and data and undertsands their limitations, rather than one that values quick, painless panaceas and the charisma of the individuals who sell it would help. Hey, it sounds like maybe we should elect Doug as president! Any takers? grin

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Posted: 20 September 2007 02:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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dougsmith - 18 September 2007 07:51 AM
Baloo - 18 September 2007 01:19 AM

This seems to suggest that there are going to be very few good sources of truth, until a conscience effort is made to re-write, or re-think much of the human experience in proper form.

I’m not sure I follow. Our sources of truth are based on evidence and experiment; one might well say that science is the best and only real source of true beliefs, or at least of beliefs most likely to be true.
But we all do small experiments in our daily life, we all do rely on evidence. When we want to know if there’s milk in the refrigerator, we open the door and look. That’s using evidence to support a hypothesis. (It looks like there’s milk in the fridge, so there probably is). The only difficult cases come where we’re trying to determine the existence of very tenuous causal hypotheses: like whether a particular liquid cures cancer. Then we need to be very careful to tease out the right variables by doing a well controlled statistically valid randomized and double-blind trial. It’s too easy to fool ourselves.

Hi Doug,

So I agree that ‘science’ is the best methodology of finding beliefs most likely to be true.
But, I wonder what percentages of the decisions that I have make, fall into the ‘look in the fridge and see if there is milk’ category.

Take, say, diet soda….  My wife says its gonna kill me….  science says it causes cancer in high quantities in rats… Coca Cola says I’ll be fine….  how does a reasonable people answer this? do I really have enough information to make a rational decision, even with science involved?

what about voting, is there a rational candidate?  Is there a rational choice as to a party? should I vote to increase taxes, or cut programs?  what about to buy or rent, do I really have enough information to make a rational decision?  what about my career, do I have enough information, and is there a rational decision there?  go back to school full-time, night school, or start my own company?  how about decisions with trade-offs, larger home less electronics, smaller home more electronics, which leads to happiness? live closer to work or where schools are better? one more kid? vacation at Disney, or donate the money to Kiva?  spend time watching tv, or posting to the forums?  spend $2 on a better sandwich at lunch or save up for a better car?  stay an extra 30mins at the gym or spend an extra 30mins helping my kids with homework?  go see a movie, go see a beach? eat meat or just vegetation? enjoy life or spend more time gathering information to make informed decisions, or more time thinking through the information already gathered?

How much of our decisions are based on preference, and how much on logic/reason/complete information? 
How much is based on previous recommendations from some outside sources?

What adds to the complexity is that, for the vast proportion of decisions above, once made, cognitive science suggests a few things (assuming I’m still happy with my decision, which is most of the time). 
1) I will think that I have made a better decision, than I actually did
2) I will think that I made a ‘logical’ ‘reasoned’ ‘informed’ decision to a degree much higher than actual
3) I will gather evidence to support 2,
4) I will ignore evidence that doesn’t support 2
5) I will forget a number of reasons why I wanted to make the opposite choice,
6) Much of the satisfaction gained from the choice will come from the proceeding 5,
7) I will recommend my choice to others based on the satisfaction I feel, and any benefit I think I might get from the recommendation. 

Knowing this, I think there is a fairly strong argument to be made that trial and error experience testing could very well, ‘decrease my objectivity’, ‘decrease my access to reason’, and ‘decrease my ability to pass on reason to others’, while making me think just the opposite.

Now, Socrates could come by and knock me out of this cognitive trance, but he rarely does.

So is, ‘just go and try it’, really a methodology that we think will increase the degree of reason, (ie ‘Promote Reason’) being used in the World?  And, would it ever be perceived that way?

My guess is that a great deal of the criticism that ‘group x is irrational’ is based on the fact that group x used a ‘just go and try it’ test, and got used to what they were doing, and in fact actually started to enjoy what it was they were doing, and in some cases, refined it to an art, that was valued much higher than the original need that was trying to be fulfilled.

Which is why I wonder if much of the human experience doesn’t need to be rethought out, and rewritten in proper logical form, and critiqued, before we can really start to examine all of the irrationalities that have evolved from our instinct to go and do.

-baloo

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Posted: 20 September 2007 02:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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mckenzievmd - 18 September 2007 04:49 PM

I think we may very well be headed for such a train wreck. In Complications Atul Gawande does a great job of illustrating why the individual doctor is probably fundamentally incapable of doing his job very well due to an inability to manage objectively large amounts of information. And this is even with the hyperspecialization that currently dominates medicine. I think the world may be too complicated for us, especially since we have all these probably innate little short-cuts that don’t serve nearly as well in a complex technical environment as they did on the savannah. But, we do the best we can. I think additional time and resources devoted to the most crucial problems would help. I think a wider appreciation and awareness of our natural tendancy to thought errors would help. I think a culture that values reason and logic and data and undertsands their limitations, rather than one that values quick, painless panaceas and the charisma of the individuals who sell it would help. Hey, it sounds like maybe we should elect Doug as president! Any takers? grin

Thanks, this makes a lot of sense!

So many questions I’d love to ask.
What does leadership look like in such a culture?  what does government look like?  what does science look like?  what does culture look like?  what does education look like?  what does parenting look like?  what does youtube look like?  cable tv?  etc, etc…

And, yes, what does party politics look like?  Does a new party need to be created, or can these values be graphed in?  If we were to elect Doug or someone else that could promote reason, how would that happen?

-baloo

ps, ok admittedly I’m way off-topic here….still fun to ask the questions, and perhaps if we knew what the world would look like, we’d be less likely to postpone the progress…

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Posted: 20 September 2007 08:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Baloo - 20 September 2007 02:03 AM

Take, say, diet soda….  My wife says its gonna kill me….  science says it causes cancer in high quantities in rats… Coca Cola says I’ll be fine….  how does a reasonable people answer this? do I really have enough information to make a rational decision, even with science involved?

Well, let’s take diet soda. I myself don’t enjoy the taste of aspartame and saccharin, so don’t drink the stuff for that reason. Also, unless you really guzzle soda you’re really not helping your weight much either. But that said, there is no good evidence that either one causes cancer in humans. There is only a very tenuous connection between things that cause cancer in rats and things that cause cancer in humans, and the rats were really stuffed with saccharin in the US studies. For one recent report on this issue, check HERE.

And at any rate, even assuming that these artificial sweeteners cause a small amount of cancers (which, to repeat, there is no good evidence for), the question is one of relative risk. If you are going to cease ingesting them for that reason, you should also certainly check out THIS page, which does a pretty good job at setting out the state-of-the-art on diet and cancer.

Re. your other issues, which lead you to say:

Baloo - 20 September 2007 02:03 AM

Which is why I wonder if much of the human experience doesn’t need to be rethought out, and rewritten in proper logical form, and critiqued, before we can really start to examine all of the irrationalities that have evolved from our instinct to go and do.

There is simply the issue that we, as finite creatures with finite time, must perforce make decisions based on imperfect information. It is physically impossible to gather all relevant information to any decision we make, and meanwhile the world is passing us by. One prime example of this is global warming. Spending more time on research before beginning to curb CO2 emissions may well be a very bad idea.

There is a famous philosophical tale called “Buridan’s Ass”, about a donkey placed equidistant between two identical bales of hay. Since there was no reason to choose one over the other, the donkey was unable to choose and hence starved to death between them. This is meant as an illustration that it is possible to be, in a sense, too rational; that is, too intent on gaining perfect insight into a matter before beginning to act. Sometimes action for its own sake is necessary, even on imperfect information.

However, if what you are suggesting is something more limited, pointed at particular issues where you feel that humans routinely make mental errors, then you are certainly right that critiquing and rethinking may be useful. This is the sort of issue that got Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky to start their work on cognitive biases. Their studies of these biases, however, were based in part on extensive testing of human subjects in cognitive psychology. That is, they weren’t simply doing theory.

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