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20171103 – The Enigma of Reason



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The main idea of this book is that human reason is misunderstood as a feature of individual survival, when in reality it is the feature of group survival. As such feature the reason had recently came under attack as sloppy and ineffective due to various biases, failures of statistical and logical thinking. The attack came from psychological research that convincingly demonstrated all these deficiencies. Authors reject the idea of dual thinking: fast and sloppy vs. slow and accurate, as insufficient and propose argumentative theory of reason where biases and other failures serve as tools to include into consideration as wide range of opinions as possible and flash out evolutionary viable solution via argumentation between people with strongly held views.


Introduction: A Double Enigma

Given that humans are animals and as any other animals were shaped by evolution, why do they have such an expensive mechanism as reason and why only humans have such mechanism and no other animals? It is also interesting from another angle: recently psychologists found a lot of flows with human reason such as failures of logic, inability to think statistically, partiality of thinking and many others. So the double enigma is why we have this tool and why it is so flowed. Authors claim that the reason for this is that it is only one tool of many in arsenal of human thinking and provide graphic representation of its place as imbedded within other ways of thinking:

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The traditional Western dogma of reason as source of human superior abilities was shuttered by the last 50 years of psychological research and newly applied constructions such as “Fast and Slow” thinking or “Dual processing” could not meet explanatory requirements created by the data.

  1. Reason on Trial

In this chapter authors review multiple failures of human brain to correctly represent input from senses and/or solve simple logical problems from misevaluating levels of gray in 2 squares in the picture of checkers to producing inconsistent logical sequences such as A>B>C>A.

  1. Psychologists’ Travails

This chapter demonstrates that usual believe in inseparable combination of reason and logic is not really as strong as we want to believe. After using a couple tests that clearly demonstrate the case, authors move to describing idea of duality of thinking:

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Without going deep into the details authors discuss it as division of thinking into: “Mental Models” and “Mental Logic” with psychologists divided between supporters of one idea against another.


This part is about understanding Inference, its base mechanism and procedures.

  1. From Unconscious Inferences to Intuitions

This starts with two questions: Why and how we reason? First authors look at reasoning in animals, specific example they use is about ants capable to find way by memorizing and calculating the previous path. Then they look at human perception, demonstrating how brain reprocesses and modifies raw information from senses to constructing a meaningful representation of reality. As prove they use a couple of optical illusions like small monster pursuing a big one on the picture while in reality they are of the same size. Authors discuss not only sensorial illusions, but also nature of human memory and research demonstrating that it has not that much reproductive as reconstructive character. This follows by a piece on Intuitions that authors define as interpretation of inferences. In case of monsters the inference of their size and positions lead to intuition that one is running after another. The third process used is reasoning, which is slow, conscious, and sequential process based not only on perception and intuition, but also on the knowledge base available. Here is graphic representation of these processes in the framework of two systems:

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The final point here is Metacognition that is “cognition about cognition” that humans use to evaluate their own mental states.

  1. Modularity

Authors start this discussion with look at interaction between instinct and expertise. To clarify it they bring notion of instinct as “natural expertise” and “expertise as “acquired instincts”. After that they are going into mechanics of face, words, and norms recognition as examples of such acquired instincts. The final part of the chapter is about modularity of the mind, which authors define as biological modules with cognitive functionality. They reject notion of rigid innate modularity and support idea of cognitive functionality based on biological tissue, using reading as example.

  1. Cognitive Opportunism

Here authors discuss cognitive abilities through prism of evolution, rejecting in process the idea of mind as unitary and principled. They look at presentation and low-level procedures of mind’s working such as logical AND gate also know as conditional reflexes. However their overall assessment of logical and probalistical processing of the mind moves away from simplistic Aristotelian ideas to much more complex and chaotic processes that sometimes contradict formal logic, but seems to be beneficial for survival.

  1. Metarepresentations

This is about human attempts to understand how mind works via comparison with other animals and folk ontology that tend to assign reasoning and acting ability to just about anything including unanimated objects. Authors also discuss here mental representation versus public representations and high order presentations about presentation, which they define as metapresentations. They provide two similar sets of statements about representation of:Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 7.29.28 AM


In this part authors are presenting their ideas about reason being a tool used by individuals to justify their actions, convince others in validity of these actions, and obtain their support, rather than develop a course of action.

  1. How We Use Reasons

Here authors are trying to provide support for their idea of reason as tool for explanation and justification of thoughts and actions after the fact. They start with the story of a man who killed stranded woman-motorist who was banging on the door of his house looking for help because he believed that he is under attack. They used this and a couple of similar stories to separate actual cause of actions not necessarily consciously understood and psychological reason that people create to justify their actions. Authors discuss experimental research supporting this idea and references to theoretical work supporting it. They also link it to previously discussed modularity of mind, presenting an idea that reason for subconscious control of action is that modules just do their own processing without necessary regard and coordination so eventually conscious mind left with need to find reasons to whatever subconscious made the body to do. The final part of the chapter discusses why there is need for reasons in the first place and concludes that it is for external social consumption.

  1. Could Reason Be a Module?

Here authors move to deeper discussion of the issue of reasons in both modes: retrospective and prospective. They provide a logical tree for this:

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After that they discuss reasons as product of inference from the perceived factual data and regularities of environment. Authors also present some research supporting ideas that people have intuitions about reasons and eventually propose an idea that reasons are product of separate module mainly used for justification and explanation, but practically not involved in decision making.

  1. Reasoning: Intuition and Reflection

Here author discuss nature of arguments and conclusions as components of reasoning as representation of processes conducted in the reason module and provide a small table to illustrate it:

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After that author discuss reliance of reason on language and use of logic as heuristic tool for reasoning.

  1. Reason: What Is It For?

This is an attempt to link authors’ understanding of reason’s use for justification to evolutionary need for cohesiveness of a group. They look at history of understanding of reason and discuss its various uses that improve fitness of individuals and their group from coordination to communication to argumentation


This part is an attempt to test hypothesis that reason serves not that much for decision making as for justification of already occurred actions.

  1. Why Is Reasoning Biased?

This is about reason being biased, which does not make sense if its function were to analyze facts and make decision that would lead to achieving objectives. However it makes a lot of sense if it is used mainly for justification. In this case any distortion of reality could be useful as long as it helps to achieve such justification. Authors look at advantages provided by a bias such as prevention of expensive investigation to identify truth and use cheap “good enough” solutions, also important is a part on complexity of science where real pursuit of truth lead to need in complex philosophical approaches such as falsification. Then they discuss a couple of typical forms of reality distortions such as confirmation bias and myside bias both of which make sense for justification, but not for correct way of actions.

  1. Quality Control: How We Evaluate Arguments

This is about a quite special use of reason in argumentation when it is clear that generally decision-making is not involved and objective of convincing is pursued via interaction with various argument some of which are quite illogical such as request for prove of absence. Here authors look at support for their position in the fact of duality of reason use when different criteria used for one’s own reasoning and for other people reasoning:

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  1. The Dark Side of Reason

This is about human capability to find reasons to confirm opinion whether these reasons viable or not. The examples provided are for literature, but also from the story of Dreyfus when famous detective who was hard believer in Dreyfus’ quilt could not be moved from his position by any valid proves that Dreyfus was innocent. After that authors discuss an interesting question: if the main use of reason is for self and others deception, how come evolution created humans with lots of such features. Their answer is quite interesting: the reason’s distortion of reality does spell disaster for individual, but it is beneficial for a group when diversity of strongly held opinions could lead to the better overall decision making via argumentation when only strong argument would survive.

  1. A Reason for Everything

This is about human ability to find reasons for everything, even when it is clear that there is none like in experiment with selection between several perfectly similar items when strong reasons for selection after the fact point to non-existing variances between items. However authors also discuss quite a few experiments when requirement for reasoning imposed before making decision changes the way decision is made. At the end of chapter authors review a sunk cost fallacy that makes people to take into account quite strongly some events of the past that really have no weight on the future such as decision to go into storm to use prepaid ticket, but not to go if ticket was provided for free.

  1. The Bright Side of Reason

The final part of this chapter is pretty much praise of argumentation and support to the idea that the best way to make decisions is via rigorous argumentation between several people with diversity of strongly held views.


The last part of this book designed to go out of psychological laboratories and experiments with clearly defined limits into real worlds and look at the use of reason in the wild.

  1. Is Human Reason Universal?

Here authors discuss validity of results of psychological experiments with the WEIRD people. As the example of cultural dependency they use a simple task of getting 3 coins out of the box with many. It is a very easy task for nearly all people except for Piraha Amazonian Indians whose language includes only count to 2 with anything more than 2 practically non existent. Only 2/3 of Piraha were able to succeed, while they were pretty good in multiple other tasks that did not require counting more than 2. Authors also look at specifics of argumentation in East Asia, small-scale societies, and such. At the end of chapter they are trying to reconcile evolutionary, cognitive, and anthropological perspectives for reasoning.

  1. Reasoning about Moral and Political Topics

Here authors look at especially difficult for people topic of use of reason for rationalization in areas of politics and morals. They refer to research demonstrating how some mundane factors influence human behavior in areas that everybody consider hugely important. A nice example was provided by judges whose sentencing decisions turned out to be highly correlated with condition of their body with people sentenced after lunch getting lighter sentences than those who were sentenced by hungry judge just before lunch. This follows by discussion on reasoning and morality and digression into history of slavery and abolitionism.

  1. Solitary Geniuses?

The final chapter is about science as a method of somewhat organized reasoning and argumentation, which allows to achieve results in the form of understanding of the world significantly better than occurs in other areas, despite scientists being as biased, prejudiced, and limited by the dominant paradigm as everybody else. Authors seem to suggest that it occurs because of good combination of solitary thinking and peer group arguing that allow producing new ideas without pressure, but rigorously test them afterworld.

Conclusion: In Praise of Reason after All

In conclusion authors state that the Reason is only one module of inference among others and is highly specialized for its domain of competence as any of them. Authors define this domain as domain of social interaction and present it as “argumentative theory of reason”. They reject idea of dual, fast and slow thinking and argue that human biases, illogical conclusions, and such are not a bug, but rather a feature of effective problem resolution where problem solver is not an individual, but rather a group and solution is found via argumentation between strong, intellectually and experimentally diverse individuals, rather than via logically consistent, non-contradictory, and algorithmically defined thinking.


I think it is a great book and I inclined to agree with authors approach to reason as tool for argumentation, convincing, and justification, rather than tool for analyzing facts and planning future actions. However I would still maintain that reason as planning tool is also evolutionary useful, but require unusually hard effort to apply it effectively, that majority of people usually do only in the case of few instances when decision they are working on is complex and consequential. While agreeing with authors that regular use of reason applied mainly for argumentation and justification, I think that the current and even more future development would expand use of reason for planning and execution of human activities because it is and even much more will be supplemented by logically and statistically perfect reasoning using computers, which have none of human deficiencies in logical thinking. The human task in achieving effective solution will be shifted from intellectual processing for data selection to feed into computer for processing. As perfect as computers are in sequential formalized intellectual processing, they have no common sense of what, out of infinite amount of data, is relevant and what is not, resulting in well-known phenomenon of “ junk in – junk out”. Actually this does not diminish argumentative value of reason, it just moves it to more sophisticated level when computer models support both planning and argumentation.



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