Sunday, March 13, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics II

While, so far, I am broadly in agreement with Goel's model, I am not particularly enjoying the presentation, which includes a fairly detailed history of cognitive science, going all the way back to William James and covering B.F. Skinner in some detail. In the context of his argument, their ideas apply primarily to the associative aspects of cognition and don't account for reason. He is gradually working from the autonomic to the instinctive to the associative to the reasoning modes, and most of the research is dated. He also rehashes the more recent research of Daniel Kahneman, which I don't find particularly enlightening. And he quotes several philosophers, who, as you might expect, I don't think add much to the discussion. However, unlike Kahneman, he is including research from evolutionary psychology, which I find helpful, and he is open to seeing cognitive science through an evolutionary lens. Above all, more than any other books I've read, he is applying his model to important real-world situations, such as Donald Trump's first impeachment. The Republican "arguments" in support of Trump's innocence were primarily ad hominem attacks on his critics:

None of these responses address the coherence relation between evidence and conclusion, that is, the soundness of the arguments for impeachment. They all commit common reasoning fallacies, but they do so intentionally, consciously, rationally! The official impeachment counteroffensive relied on the calculation that most of the MAGA faithful would fail to accept any evidence of wrongdoing by the President, if universal in-group/out-group instinctual systems could be activated. The group we belong to is always good, pure, innocent, and of course beloved of God; the out-group consists of elites, socialists, Muslims, and others trying to destroy us and our way of life for nefarious purposes....

As straightforward as this analysis is, you don't generally hear it in the news media, which coddles the public to such an extent that popular public figures are rarely criticized. Because of this, the news media is actually encouraging public irrationality.

I won't attempt to rehash all of the details of the book as I read it, and I'll just throw out whatever thoughts occur to me. There is the omission of Kant among the philosophers whom he quotes, and I think that at the moment one of Kant's ideas is at the vanguard of biological research into cognition. In Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge, by Giorgio Vallortigara, the argument is made that chicks perform more sophisticated cognitive tasks than one would expect with a neural configuration based on a sort of template of the world, which they have acquired through evolution. In all likelihood, all animals have such templates, and the template of one species is likely to be similar to the template of another. What is interesting is that these templates probably originated through an evolutionary process in which natural selection permitted organisms to survive when they had a template that triggered behavior that was appropriate for real-world situations. In the case of mathematics, even chicks were able to make calculations without the use of language or symbols. 

Where Kant comes in is with his distinction between phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the things that organisms perceive, and noumena are the reality behind their perceptions. The sensing organs of animals create perceptions, but animals have no direct access to the objects that cause them. Thus, animals, including us, behave as if the environment follows mathematical rules, but, since we lack direct access to reality, we can only know what our perceptions, which are produced by neural systems, tell us. According to Vallortigara, evolution is what caused these neural systems to exist, so it cannot be said, for example, that the world itself follows mathematical rules. We can only say that organisms with particular neurological arrangements survive, while others do not. Although this position does not contradict anything that Goel says, it places rationality in a humbler position than he seems to advocate.

Another area that Goel hasn't brought up yet in the book is the development of language in humans, as discussed in the books by Gaia Vince and Nichola Raihani that I covered earlier. I think that the existence of language alone explains most of what counts as human rationality and sets us apart from other species. Although language probably evolved for the dissemination of knowledge, it is probably the only biological feature available for engaging in the analyses which, on this planet, only humans are capable of making. So, in addition to the kinds of analyses that animals are able to perform in order to evaluate situations, the development of language, along with increases in brain size, allowed humans to engage abstract reasoning.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.