Thore Husfeldt's Reviews > The Enigma of Reason

The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier
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really liked it

Reasoning, as we know today, sucks. People are able to convince themselves of all kinds of bullshit, and the smarter we are and the longer we think, the more stubborn we seem to become. The function of Reason seems to be to justify our intuitions, not matter how silly they are.

Many recent books include delicious descriptions of these fallacies of reason, such as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion or Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which I enjoyed immensely. But how does this gel with the equally thought-provoking Thinking, Fast and Slow, where Kahneman’s System 2 seems to be a Reason module (objective, effortful) that can sometimes trump our subjective and lazy System 1 intuition? That view, after all, seems to be closer to the perspective of classical philosophy, according to which Reason is a cognitive superpower that sets us apart from other animals.

If reason sucks (as we know it does) how and why can it be used to overcome even worse intuitions? From a Darwinian perspective, there is even more of a puzzle: Reason clearly is maladaptive (leading humans to rationalise obviously unfit behaviour)—so how can it have evolved? For instance, is Reason just it a byproduct of a cognitive module that is actually useful? And if, with Kahneman–Tversky, we grant positive truth-finding powers to Reason, then why is this (allegedly fitness-increasing) module effortful?

These are delicious, thought-provoking questions. I admit that I hadn’t thought of them in this way.

The book’s first half contains the authors’ description of what Reason is (and not). This is quite dry, and the style is scholarly. Here’s a prose excerpt:

Higher-order intuitions in reasoning are metacognitive rather than just “metalogical.” Reasoning is based on rich and varied intuitions about intuitions. Take the kind of reasoning that would classically be represented by means of a disjunctive syllogism with a main premise of the form “P or Q.”

These first 200 pages are interesting, but somewhat dense and require attention.

But then, in Part IV, the book finally hits its stride! The authors soundly reject the (classical) view of Reason, which they call intellectualist, according to which Reason helps the (sole) reasoner to reach a better conclusion. We know this is wrong, empirically. So why do we have this module? Because of the interactionist model: Reason is a social module. Its function is epistemic vigilance—to evaluate the claims of others (and build your own arguments in anticipation of such interactions). This fits the evidence and makes evolutionary sense: we need such a module lest we become helpless recipients of the deception of others, or unable to receive their good advice.

Mind = blown.

Imagine standing in the Vatican, in front of Raphael’s School of Athens, with Plato and Aristotle at the center, majestically vying for your attention and sympathy with their opposing epistemologies. But if you’re like me, your eyes wander slightly to the left, to the portly figure of Socrates, engaged in discourse. He, alone, uses Reason in the way it was selected for. Reason in its environment of adaptation.

I find this quite beautiful.

So if, like me, you like that particular bias confirmed, this book is for you.
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Reading Progress

May 25, 2017 – Started Reading
May 25, 2017 – Shelved
May 26, 2017 –
4.0% "Oho! A critique of Kahnemann (Thinking, Fast and Slow), which I loved, is promised. Book, you have my attention."
May 27, 2017 –
12.0% "Very good, so far."
May 28, 2017 –
June 8, 2017 –
page 251
June 11, 2017 –
June 13, 2017 –
page 299
June 14, 2017 – Finished Reading

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