Saturday, April 4, 2009

Upstairs, downstairs, no stairs…

Entering and leaving the movie theater today I opted to use the stairs, while my two friends took the escalators. It dawned on me as I left that, while one escalator went upward, and the other moved downward, the staircase (and any staircase, for that matter), paradoxically goes neither upward nor downward and yet also goes both upward and downward. Or as the old riddle has it, "What goes up and down but does not move? … A set of stairs!"

Since rationality and irrationality have been on my mind of late, the analogy came to me that, ex hypothesi, the category of "rational action" is the upward moving escalator, while the downward moving escalator corresponds to "irrational action." For those who add a third category, "non-rational action," I suppose that would have to be the immobile, bidirectional staircase. Moving neither upward nor downward, the stairs are non-moving; analogously, being neither rational nor irrational, non-rational actions just sort of happen. They don't register any motion on the Rational-Irrational Meter.

But the analogy seems flawed for this reason: the only reason a staircase "goes" up or down is when we ascend or descend the stairs. It is our willed action to go up or down that invests the otherwise immobile stairs with a direction and a sense of motion. Hence, when combined with our walking (which I, in this analogy, correlate to our making a decision), a staircase is either "rational" (upward) or "irrational" (downward). Apart from our using its bidirectionality for some purpose, of course, the stairs really are "non-rational."

The point is that I still see no place for "non-rational reasons" in a theory of action. The only staircase that would be truly non-rational would be a completely flat one, in which case, however, it would not be a staircase.


UnBeguiled said...

You do love the analogies Eliot. After our exchange I was also mulling over what I mean when I say rational.

Usually I will label an action 'rational' if the agent has good reasons to suppose the action will accomplish the goal.

But of course that just pushes the issue back to what do I mean by 'good reason'.

A few examples. My parents are Christians because being part of a church community greatly enriches their lives. They are not too concerned with the truth value of any metaphysical claims. Rather, it seems to me they are Christians because in a pragmatic way it simply makes their lives better. So, I consider their actions rational in this situation.

What if a reasonably well-informed parent has a goal to help her extremely ill child recover. To accomplish this goal she decides to pray rather than take the child to a doctor. That is irrational. There is no good reason to suppose that praying will achieve her goal of a healthy child.

All prayer is not irrational of course.

UnBeguiled said...

Oh, and back to my ice cream analogy. Suppose after mulling over the choice, I still could not decide whether chocolate of vanilla would best satisfy my jones.

So I flip a coin.

This is I guess what I mean by non-rational. Both choices will accomplish the goal. I know you could say choosing to flip the coin is rational, and that's fine, we will just be hair splitting. It's not that big a deal.

I just think many of our day to day choices are like this: which can of three remaining beers of the same brand do I grab from the fridge, is another example.