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Why do we humans think the way we do? Is cognition based on rational logical analysis, intuitive guesswork or a mixture of the two? Do we really know? Why are reason and intuition such important evolutionary adaptations? How can a deeper knowledge of thinking help us to optimize communication and cooperation? Are other animals capable of logical thought that is more than inherent?
In this colloquy we will explore the several paths and disciplines where philosophy, psychology, biology and economics intersect to delve into these questions. Our basic sources for readings and discussion will be Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011 and Mercier and Sperber’s The Enigma of Reason, 2017.
Charlie Stone, a Brooksville resident, is a retired developmental pediatrician with a research background in neuropsychology and neurophysiology. He has a lifelong passion for human evolution, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology.
David Porter is a Brooklin resident and retired professor of mycology who enjoys sharing his interest in natural history and learning new neuronal pathways.
SyllabusOur four sessions will use selected readings to address the following topics:
Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel in Economics) and Amos Tversky proposed a cognitive model of mental life by the metaphor of two agents which respectively produce FAST (automatic, easy both expert and heuristic types of intuition) and SLOW (deliberate, effortful, logical and statistical analysis) types of thinking. In their work they described the simplifying shortcuts of intuitive (FAST) thinking and through simple everyday thought experiments (which we will replicate in the colloquy) they documented systematic ‘errors’ in the thinking of normal people. All the same, using FAST processes makes sense: the lack of high reliability is a price rationally paid for day-to-day speed and ease of inference.
But SLOW thinking, the theory claimed, while “logical,” is quite costly in terms of cognitive resources. If people’s judgments are not systematically rational, it is because they are commonly based on “cheaper” FAST processes which in most ordinary circumstances, do lead to the right judgment. Unfortunately, cognitive biases from FAST thinking have been portrayed as ‘flaws’ in our thought process as suggested by lab experiments where the human decisions are contrasted with explicit probability theory. This is often the wrong yardstick.
Being ‘irrational’ (by the above standard) is a good thing for the way people successfully use intuitions to navigate the real world in their everyday lives. We humans don’t always make decisions by carefully weighing up the facts, but we often make better decisions as a result. In the everyday world, humans simply don’t have the time or the capacity to consciously calculate statistical probabilities and potential risks that come with every choice. In a world of deep uncertainty neat logic simply isn’t a good guide.
Instead of explicitly relying on complex statistics to make choices, humans tend to make decisions according to instinct. Often, these instincts rely on “heuristics,” or mental shortcuts, where we focus on one key factor to make a decision, rather than taking into account every tiny detail. However, these heuristics aren’t simply time-savers. They can also be incredibly accurate at selecting the best option. Heuristics can tune out the noise, which can mislead an overly-complicated analysis.
Are these evolved capacities and do they have some adaptive advantage? One could argue it is irrational to try and weigh up all these unknown factors and it’s more rational to try and rely on gut feelings!
Reason, we are told, is what makes us human, the source of our knowledge and wisdom. If reason is so useful, why didn’t it also evolve in other animals? And if reason is that reliable, why do we produce so much thoroughly reasoned nonsense? Is it reason itself or some dummy mistaken for the real thing? Is reason really a thing?
In their groundbreaking account of the evolution and workings of reason, Mercier and Sperber set out to solve this double enigma. Reason, they argue with a compelling mix of real-life and experimental evidence is not geared to arriving at better beliefs and decisions on our own. What reason does, rather, is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others, convince them through argumentation, and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.
Reasoning and argumentation had been viewed by most philosophers, as the path to greater certainty and as the only method for drawing inferences. Even animals form expectations about the future. Their life depends on these expectations being on the whole correct. Since the future cannot be perceived, it is through inference that animal must form expectations. Are we humans so different from other animals? Like them, we base much of our everyday behavior on expectations that we arrive at unreflectively. Just like other animals, humans are capable of forming expectations and drawing various kinds of inferences in a spontaneous and unreflective way.
We should realize that in order to do its adaptive job, the brain has to build, maintain, and constantly update an internal model of the external world in order to predict the most likely alternative possibilities for the immediate, short-term and long-term future in a highly uncertain environment. The brain accomplishes this astounding task through the use of a wide range of inference mechanisms in perception, memory, and verbal communication to name a few of its familiar jobs.
It is hoped that this discussion of the nature of everyday thinking in the context of the functional design of the brain may be a contribution toward dealing with our excessive confidence in what we think we know and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.
Toward that end, we might consider adopting the following guidelines for more reliable learning and constructive dialogue, to be more adaptive for ourselves and for others:
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