Friday, April 3, 2009

All my closest online friends say...

I recently recommended a book to a friend. We were chatting in Gmail. A few moments later he replied that the book had earned "only mediocre reviews on Amazon." I was a bit stymied. After all, I myself, his close friend of several years, had just endorsed the book to him specifically. I added a few more reasons for the book's worth. He seemed nonplussed. So far, I don't know if he will have a look at the book.

I mention this in order to ponder the nature of rationality. On the one hand, it is respectably rational to go by a close friend's specific endorsement of a book, or, say, a movie or a restaurant. On the other hand, this being a largely stochastic, statistical world, it is respectably rational to heed the statistical pattern of yea's and nay's for the book, film, or restaurant. But which method of discernment is more rational? Isn't my friend being irrational by ignoring my personal recommendation, specifically raised to target his known interests, in favor of a basically anonymous pool of reviewers from who knows what kind of background? Or, isn't he being irrational by just taking my word for it and not betting more in line with "the odds" (i.e., if the average readers gives it a 6 out of 10, he'll probably give it a 6, and that would be a waste of his money/time). He may know what "all the people on Amazon say" but he doesn't know all the people on Amazon, so he has to add some other layer of rationality to their reviews in order to respect them in the first place. On the other hand, he knows me better than anyone on Amazon, and yet seems to complicate that "rational purity" by superimposing another layer of rationality concerning mass psychology and his own tastes as a socially formed reader.

What splits the decision in terms of ideal rationality? Personal testimony or mass appraisal?

24 comments:

unBeguiled said...

I think decisions are rational, irrational, or non-rational.

If I am thirsty, it would be irrational for me to try to quench my thirst by dropping a brick on my foot. But whether I choose chocolate or vanilla is a non-ratinal decision.

Your friend's choice not to get the book was non-rational, but not irrational.

the Cogitator said...

I'll ponder that taxonomy, thanks.

I would also add this for your own consideration: If there is no rationale (no reason) for my choosing vanilla or chocolate, what decides (tips the scale) that I decide as I do? You can say "just your neurons" but then we face the problem that deterministic chemical reactions in brain are non-rational, and therefore any decision brought about by such neuronal activity is likewise arational. Ergo, both ostensibly rational and irrational actions, according to your materialism, are collapsed into the non-rational category of action. Ergo, there are no rational actions, n'est pas?

unBeguiled said...

"but then we face the problem that deterministic chemical reactions in brain are non-rational, and therefore any decision brought about by such neuronal activity is likewise arational."

NO NO NO

Fallacy of composition.

Something more from nothing but. Rationality from nothing but non-rational neurons.

"according to your materialism"

Tag me with Naturalist please. Naturalism does not entail materialism.

the Cogitator said...

Moreover:

If "inner drives" do not cause all our actions (e.g., such as what you said caused me to go to the pub in my earlier post about footsteps), then it must only be the chemicals that cause our actions. But again, this just means irrational chemical processes control our supposedly non-rational choices like vanilla vs. chocolate. Reading rational commands off of irrational chemical processes really is no better, or worse, than deer-tongue augury. A non-rational action, if caused by irrational forces, is an irrational action.

Moreover, it seems highly problematic for a rationalist like yourself to say we should, as a rule, choose based on the best evidence and only with sufficient good reason, but then to admit that we can make perfectly acceptable decisions for no good reason at all. If after you chose vanilla (I'll forgive you this hypothetical time, though I am an ardent chocolate man), surely a determinist could retrace the causal steps from the ordering-of-vanilla to the deliberating-between-choco-and-vanilla; otherwise the choice-event would be literally inexplicable (i.e., it would lack any reason at all for having taken place). But if a reason, however subtle, were found (e.g., some Freudian yarn about your childhood, or some cog-sci story about the influence of advertisements on your walk to the shop, etc.), then your choice for vanilla would be a rational decision (i.e., it would have a ratio for its occurrence). Hence, I find the non-rational category asymptotically small and theoretically gratuitous.

Better it seems to me to admit that the deciding factor in such "non-rational" cases just is the agency of the person. There is sufficient reason for a man choosing between two apparently equally attractive options just because he ends up choosing one. Reasons can't be abstracted from the person that actually bears them (this relates to why I find the whole meme thing very inane). Retracing back from your vanilla order to your deliberation would legitimately pinpoint YOUR WILLING vanilla over chocolate as the integral reason for vanilla having been ordered. Once, however, the will is let into the causal parlor, where does its sovereignty end?

the Cogitator said...

Whoa, whoa, pal, you need to pick a side.

"Rationality from nothing but non-rational neurons."

First you say the vanilla-chocolate dilemma is a non-rational decision. Then when I note that something has to lead to you choosing one or the other, and I point to your mindless neurons as the guilty party, you object that the mindless cooperation of neurons is rational. Well which is it? A (neurally) rational decisions or not?

unBeguiled said...

"A non-rational action, if caused by irrational forces, is an irrational action."

I don't think "irrational force" makes sense. My neurons are non-rational. From my non-rational neurons emerge decisions which can be rational, irrational, or non-rational.

"but then to admit that we can make perfectly acceptable decisions for no good reason at all."

I never said that.

It seems we must be using the word "rational" in different ways here. By thirst/brick example was about as concrete as I can get.

unBeguiled said...

You are in a sense offering an Argument From Reason against naturalism. Plantingas' EAAN is another such argument. Carrier handles this briefly here and in depth here.

the Cogitator said...

Dr. Reppert has extensive replies and mini-replies to Carrier on his blogs, Dangerous Idea and Dangerous Idea 2. Also, Derek Barefoot has a substantial rebuttal to Carrier's review of Reppert: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/darek_barefoot/dangerous.html

The link war. Yawn, right?

the Cogitator said...

I'll concede that natural forces are normally only non-rational, but they are irrational WHEN they are included under what should be reasonable decision (i.e., one that can be analyzed in terms of abstract concepts, goals, desires, etc.). I flip a coin and see what gravity "decided"–– heads this time. But then in walks Two Face (à la Batman) and flips a coin to see if he will shoot me in the face or not. Tails! What a relief. No bullet in the face. Sadly, however, the guy in the next room does get a mouthful of hot lead in my place.

Did Two Face make a rational decision to abstain from shooting me? No, you'll say, it was simply non-rational.

What about the dead guy next door, though? Was Two Face shooting him in the face for no good reason eminently rational, merely non-rational, or flagrantly irrational?

the Cogitator said...

Oh, and afore you say Carrier has "handled" Plantinga, you should realize it is a very, very open question in academic philosophy whether ANYONE has handled Plantinga. Cf., e.g., the whole book (ed. J. Sennett) of responses to Plantinga's EEAN. Making Carrier your go-to guy does belie a certain, um, provincialism. There is more in philosophy than is conjured up on your Internet, Doctor! ;)

I can speak from personal experience, but please realize I am not trying to toot my own horn: in my senior year at UF, I and a Christian female were invited to debate the Prez and VP of the campus Atheist Association. When I deployed the EEAN and some related matters in Reformed epistemology, our opponents, I kid you not, were at a complete loss for words for about a minute. Literally mumbling and frowning while scanning their debate notes. Circling back and back to, I kid you not, the witch hunts, and fairies, and creationism, and other feeble irrelata. They were simply blindsided by the consequences of the EEAN, the argument from reason, and a non-foundationalist epistemology. Point being, the impact of this cluster of arguments –– AS WELL AS the still sorely neglected arguments concerning the immateriality of the intellect as such! –– has yet to become clear, probably by years, in the general atheist community. Carrier is his own little world. If materialists as a whole take these issues more seriously, the effects could be profound.

But who am I kidding. No one these days has much mental appetite for more than a Wiki stub.

Onward!

unBeguiled said...

Congratulations. Making the dweebs in the Atheist Club look foolish prolly did them some good.

I waffle on the force of the EAAN.

"Thus, Plantinga argues, the probability that our minds are reliable under a conjunction of philosophical naturalism and evolution is low or inscrutable."

That seems to me obviously false. The likelihood that unguided evolution would provide a mostly reliable cognitive function is extraordinarily high. That is backed by empirical data.

I am more persuaded by the intersubjective findings of science, rather than sophistical arguments.

But hey, that's just my neurons, I know yours are different.

unBeguiled said...

I may not grasp the point of your coin flipping analogy, but I will assume that you are saying flipping a coin is analogous to what our neurons do.

But that's false. The inputs that cause are neurons to do what they do is not arbitrary.

unBeguiled said...

Here is another brief paper that defeats the EAAN:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/wesley_robbins/contraplantinga.html

Carrier can be too wordy, this paper is more straightforward.

Anonymous said...

That paper doesn't defeat the EAAN. Not even close. Plantinga doesn't require that 'all beliefs are false', only that on average most of them will be. Nor does his argument hinge on a Cartesian theatre, but on the capability of evolution to 'select for' truth, when truth cannot be meaningfully instantiated in a purely physical system.

The paper devotes itself to sketching out a possible way in which a rational mind could be said to operate. That's fine, and will encounter its own problems if it attempts to do so based on a materialist-mechanistic picture. But the EAAN is about how a rational mind could come about through undirected, unguided natural processes. And there's the rub: If someone thinks up a plausible way for reliably rational minds to come about through evolution, are they describing an 'undirected, purposeless' evolutionary process? Or does evolution suddenly sound rather guided?

UnBeguiled said...

"Nor does his argument hinge on a Cartesian theatre, but on the capability of evolution to 'select for' truth, when truth cannot be meaningfully instantiated in a purely physical system."

I am not aware of any evolutionary biologist that would claim that evolution could 'select for' truth. Rather, evolution selects for traits that produce accurate models of the world. An organism with a more accurate model will more likely survive than an organism with a less accurate model.

Plantinga seems to think that evolution selects for beliefs. No one claims that. As usual, the supernaturalist misunderstands the science.

"And there's the rub: If someone thinks up a plausible way for reliably rational minds to come about through evolution, are they describing an 'undirected, purposeless' evolutionary process? Or does evolution suddenly sound rather guided?"

The literature on this is vast. See the references Carrier gives.

Evolution is 'guided' by natural selection. An unreliable brain will likely get the organism killed, while a reliable brain will likely keep the organism alive.

Natural selection is not a prescriptive process. It's a label we apply to an observed phenomenon.

the Cogitator said...

"I am not aware of any evolutionary biologist that would claim that evolution could 'select for' truth. Rather, evolution selects for traits that produce accurate models of the world."

Eeesh! Are you TRYING to miss the point here, or is it just a natural talent?

Are accurate models of the world true or not? If true, then nat. sel. DOES select for truth. But that gives away the game: the mind is then a teleological engine seeking formal truth, and truth is the hallmark of objective values as conceived in the mind of God. If not true, then, it turns out, nat. sel. does not select for accuracy. Take your pick, the left horn or the right.

A further snag. Do mental beliefs about the world have any real causal power over the bodily demands and physical causes of organisms? If so, then you are a dualist. If not, then nat. sel. has nothing to apply selection pressure to in the mental world. Nat. sel. has no traction on mental beliefs (i.e., truth and falsehood) is mental beliefs have no causal traction in the natural world. Ergo, there is no reason whatsoever for nat. sel. to select for and "improve" our truth-seeking capacities (not to mention there are means whereby purely physical selection pressures can influence mental contents, and vice versa).

the Cogitator said...

ERRATA: "…(i.e., truth and falsehood) *IF* mental beliefs have no causal traction in the natural world. Ergo, there is no reason whatsoever for nat. sel. to select for and "improve" our truth-seeking capacities (not to mention there are *NO* means whereby purely physical selection pressures can influence mental contents, and vice versa)."

UnBeguiled said...

"Eeesh! Are you TRYING to miss the point here, or is it just a natural talent?

Are accurate models of the world true or not? If true, then nat. sel. DOES select for truth."

Take a deep breath and read what I wrote.

Natural selection does not select for "accurate models of the world", which to varying degrees approach what is 'true'.

Rather, NS selects for traits that produce accurate models.

Two forward facing eyes produce a model of the world with depth. Such a model might be "that tree is closer to me than that tiger".

NS does not select for that belief or model. It selects for the trait: forward facing eyes. Forward facing eyes are not 'true'.

I realize you folks desperately want a top-down world with a supernatural overload lurking beneath it all calling the shots.

But the evidence tells us otherwise. This universe is bottom-up stuff. We have looked for the crane. It just ain't there. Our minds are the product of matter. Matter is not the result of the magical thoughts of your imaginary lurker.

That's the way I see it.

So you want me to immerse myself in scholastic metaphysics.

Why?

There is no common ground of experience that shows metaphysics is a reliable method of obtaining knowledge.

It would be irrational of me to use such a method, since I have told you my nature is to seek what is most likely true.

I want to know what is most likely true. I think you would agree that the various of methods of science are a rather powerful tool toward that goal. That is our common ground.

Asking me to rely on an unreliable method is a betrayal of our common humanity.

I'll quit commenting now. Sorry I irritated you.

the Cogitator said...

unBe:

I'm sorry to see you cop out like this. Genuinely. You are not banned from my blog. But you have to understand that I have officially dispensed myself (and, now, with your consent) from any obligation to take your comments seriously. It is embarrassingly obvious that you are unwilling to read even secondary sources (like Ross's or Oderberg's essays), and instead want to dick around with a third string novice like me, since, I guess, it's easier to score rhetorical points on the living than on the dead.

"So you want me to immerse myself in scholastic metaphysics."

Such melodramatic handwaving. I'm asking you to IMMERSE yourself in Scholastic metaphysics by reading a 15-page essay published in 1992 in The Journal of Philosophy that contains a whopping three references (in three footnotes) to Scholastic thought?! I ought to frame that in my Bullshit Hall of Fame. Dude, you're doing yourself a great dishonor by bowing out like this.

The reason I am replying to your au revoir is so that it is on record that you have chosen to close the dialogue, lest you are tempted some day to use me as a textbook case of a creduloid, obscurantist godbot (or whatever the derogatory term of the day is when you are tempted) shutting you down and storming off in irrational outrage. You need to realize that you have intellectually "tapped out." That's fine with me, but don't pretend I am "kicking you out" or anything like that. The comment link is open, and once I see a fair attempt to get out of your wooden empiricist mindset and put your cognitive feet in another pair of shoes, then we can have resume having a real dialogue.

"I realize you folks desperately want…"

Whoop, there it is: the Freudian slip. Ever since Freud, definitively, at least, it has been the S.O.P. of atheists to revert to a high-handed psychoanalysis of their pitiful "creduloid" subjects when those subjects, darn it all, persist in making coherent claims.

Lastly, regarding your casuistry about nat. sel. enhancing truth-seeking behavior versus accurate modeling traits, let me ask you: Just who is aware that these traits are accurate? The animals bearing them? In that case, nat. sel. is enhancing the animals' grasp of truth. Or is it natural selection itself? In which case, we find ourselves right back in the ever-loving arms of teleology. WHY WHY WHY does nat. sel. for accurate-modeling traits when no natural necessity entails such capabilities (consider the lilies of the field and the crystals of the sea)?

Cheers,

UnBeguiled said...

"Whoop, there it is: the Freudian slip. Ever since Freud, definitively, at least, it has been the S.O.P. of atheists to revert to a high-handed psychoanalysis"

Ouch! Right you are. I shall punish myself by refraining from sexual relations with my girlfriend for 72 hours. She is not pleased.

"You need to realize that you have intellectually "tapped out.""

Who's in a fight here? Not me.

"Lastly, regarding your casuistry about nat. sel. enhancing truth-seeking behavior versus accurate modeling traits"

This is getting a little frustrating.

NS does not enhance anything. NS is a natural process we observe, kinda like gravity.

Again, "truth seeking behavior" is NOT selected. Selection occurs at the gene level. A gene that contributes to accurate modeling will more likely persist than a gene that contributes to inaccurate modeling.

"Just who is aware that these traits are accurate?"

A trait is not accurate accurate exactly, the model it contributes to is accurate. But I understand your question.

Me and you. At least we assume they are. All organisms instinctively use their senses.

"The animals bearing them?"

Most animals I doubt have this insight. Animals like you and me do.

"In that case, nat. sel. is enhancing the animals' grasp of truth."

Not the phrasing I would use, but nearly right.

"In which case, we find ourselves right back in the ever-loving arms of teleology. WHY WHY WHY does nat. sel. for accurate-modeling traits when no natural necessity entails such capabilities"

OK I think I understand your question. The necessary condition seems to be a certain uniformity of nature, as the presuppositional apologists like to say.

I don't know. Do you have a non-question begging answer?

UnBeguiled said...

"In which case, we find ourselves right back in the ever-loving arms of teleology."

It seems to me that this egocentric interpretation fails to account for all the data. Evolution is not a ladder. It's not directional. Consider all the extinctions. Consider all goofy purposeless vestigial organs. Animal bodies are what we would expect from a mindless process. Consider the universe during the first generation of stars. Consider where the universe is headed.

Perhaps you should lay off the metaphysics and partake in a big bite of astronomy.

Again, you are dancing around and not making plain your position. Can you give me a non-egocentric or non-anthropocentric explanation of the purpose of nature?

Try for a second to not believe that you or humans or life in general are what this whole show is about.

Elliot B said...

unBe:

I beg you, disclose not such intimacies of you and your lady, mine ears nigh withered off! ;)

No one is in a fight. As you know, I like vivid, figurative language. Tapping out vividly captures how you've handled my request to read up on my key claims.

I think in many ways we are trying to converge on certain key claims, and this, because I believe we both believe in and honor nature as a subsisten reality. That is, as I said in "My soul is not I", a preambula philosophiae. But I think our terminologies are clashing. This is why I would ask you to stick maybe two toes into the leads I send you (at least, repeatedly over an extended amount of time).

You tell me to look at where the universe is "headed." Why did you use that term, I wonder? Every organism has inherent directionality: to develop genetically in the womb, the develop from infancy to adulthood, to propagate its species (i.e., its proper form through matter), and so on. The universe is itself an organism, so... modus ponens. Everything that is a natural cycle, such as star formation and collapse, has a direction. Otherwise, the universe would be chaotic and unpredictable. That is all that teleological naturalism (my new term of choice for Aristhomism) proscribes with its theory of causation.

As for astronomy, that was actually first love as far as my amateur love for science has gone. Biology and neuroscience are up there too, but, see, you mistake my problem for one of details (as if I would agree with you bylooking at stars instead of starfish), but it is actually one of principles, the principles of creation versus the either anomalous or nominalistic "patterns" of naturalism.

Lastly, no Christian has ever claimed that the show is about us. Indeed, one of the principle (and, to recall Chesterton, most empirical) tenets of our creed is that humans have ruined the show by insisting that it be about them. Creation is about God's glory. Our role is derivative to that larger purpose, but it is no less a real and peculiarly privileged role for not being the heart of the story.

Elliot B said...

Oops, I mean, "principal tenet," not principle. I am ignoring the other glitches. Class time!

UnBeguiled said...

This conversation, and our different interpretations of order (bottom-up vs. top down) is explored in this excellent RadioLab podcast. The first 29 minutes are what I think you will really enjoy.

http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2009/01/13/yellow-fluff-other-curious-encounters/