Saturday, August 7, 2010

Reason's Role in Human Action, If Any

For those of us who style ourselves Enlightenment rationalists, that will be a provocative title. Jonah Lehrer marshals evidence to suggest that reasoning and action have much less to do with each other than you might think. In fact, reason can interfere with and degrade our ability to evaluate things and make decisions. (Don't believe me? The experiment is linked in the article.)

There are many implications of this, among them a strong suggestion that rational and mathematical formalists are right, at least in the weak sense of how human cognition actually works. But the most relevant to atheists, and most disturbing: that reasoning about something that is otherwise a non-propositional process (for example, whether we like one jam more than another as in the cited study) interferes with that process. Our moral sense would seem to be one such process: much like I know that nattoo is disgusting without having to reason through why, I have a feeling that stealing is wrong because when I think about doing it I get an unpleasant feeling. (If you don't know what nattoo is, count yourself fortunate.)

If this is the case, then shouldn't the idea of reasoning about our moral sense be greeted with circumspection, at the very least? This is certainly not the only such study showing there can be such an effect. Some time ago a poster at Lesswrong asked exactly this question in the context of reasoning about how to be more rational. The implication here that could be used by a clever and alert theist would be that morality is in fact damaged by the application of reason, and we rationalists have to give up our futile attempts to discover moral truth through reason and just resign ourselves to reading Scripture XYZ like s/he does. My counterargument would be that even for those few of us inclined to think about morality in more abstract terms (self-labeled rationalists or otherwise), we don't make daily moral decisions through such a process - so we don't have to worry about it. Or do we? How do we study this question?

[Added later: in the territory of "conscious decision-making interfering with ability", a perhaps-related paper about soccer experts' predictions becoming significantly less accurate when given time to think about their decisions.]

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