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Bounded Rationality

We aren't gods

Philosophers have put a lot of faith in the ability of rationality to help us understand ourselves and reality. And of course many thinkers have suggested that there are just some things in reality that we cannot in principle. Just as my pet lizard is unable 'in principle' to understand astronomy so am I 'in principle' unable to understand how I can have thoughts and feelings.
I'm not sure that this boundary to rationality actually exists and other thinkers don't think it does. But I recently read an article by Mahzarin Banaji, professor of Social Ethics at Harvard that presents another sort of bound to rationality.

We might say that the function of rationality in an evolutionary context is to make certain sorts of abstract decisions. So rather than a smoothly functioning machine, what we call rationality is a grab bag of evolutionary good tricks cobbled together and pulled out at need.

Banaji puts it this way: (p95 of This Explains Everything - a compendium of good ideas) We are error-prone in the unique ways in which we are, the explanation goes, not because we have malign intent because of the evolutionary basis of our mental architecture. - the way in which we learn and remember information, the way in which we are affected by those around us and so on. The reason we are boundedly rational is because the information space in which we must do our work is large compared to the capacities we have.

For instance the economist Herbert Simon showed that people and organizations alike adopt principles of behaviours such as 'satisficing' that constrain them to decent but not the best decisions. Daniel Kahnemam and Amos Tversky won the Economics Nobel Prize for 2002 for his work in prospect theory which was based on a cognitive basis for common human errors which arise from heuristics and biases

The lesson here is that we make very basic rational errors all the time, not because we are lazy or negligent, but because our cognitive processes aren't rational. In a way we are lucky they work at all. But I take this sort of bounded rationality to be very hopeful and extensible unlike the doggish bounded rationality I mentioned at the start.

he reason is that this evolutionary bag of good tricks actually does seem to groping it's way towards better and better understandings of ourselves and reality. And it doesn't move to better and better understandings by building flawless logical structures. Rather it discovers better and better mental tricks that incorporate more and more knowledge in tiny conceptual packages. This is similar perhaps to how we can think of dna as embodying knowledge of reality.

Dawkins often points out that animals and plants have a huge knowledge of reality - they know quite well how to survive and prosper and how could they do that if they didn't KNOW. And he thinks of that knowledge as useful design information that makes structures that work very well in reality. School kids, fresh from memorizing their multiplication tables, might grumble that animals have it easy. But the kid might think that though evolution has given them their bodies, that education is another sort of evolution that gives them their minds.


Let me try to be a bit more concrete. Say I want to have a hard boiled egg for breakfast. I know how. Just boil it for 3 minutes. Just think how much knowledge is tied up in that short sentence "boil it for three minutes." There is so much knowledge in that sentence that you couldn't explain it - it takes years of growing and learning to get that knowledge.

But note - it's knowledge that's error-prone. It doesn't work at the peak of Everest. This is the trade-off for very powerful heuristic routines - sometimes something in the unseen details is significant. I saw an example of this on a video the other day. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2013/08/22/bc-bear-motorcycle.html A motorcycle guy with a helmet cam went from 0 to 140 km in 20 seconds - he was looking at his speedometer and didn't notice the bear crossing the road in front of him. Ran into the bear. Rolled down the highway. Cop gave him a speeding ticket. But think of all the knowledge involved in him being able to do that - knowledge detached from rationality perhaps.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.