The difference between rational and irrational?

What the pros call folk psychology has been taking a beating for quite awhile when it comes to our decision-making, the integrity or lack thereof in conscious processes, and the will. I will cite some Nietzsche in a minute to show that but I have been thinking about a couple of more modern ideas. Remember that my favorite philosopher, Susanne Langer, elucidated how symbolic thought is by nature only loosely connected to reality or some version of truth conceived as such. Thus, we think crazy thoughts all the time, from the Atargatis religious perversion (see my post on that) to the Mayan culture which sacrificed so many humans that it contributed to their decline to the anti-science unbelievably extant today here and around the world. Oh, and our political discourse currently at an all time low though still nothing really new about that when you look back at our history.

So two recent books have contributed some important specifics to this ongoing examination of ourselves and our minds. The most recent is Michael Lewis’s (what a great writer) The Undoing Project about the friendship and collaboration of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The research of these two showed fairly clearly that our usual intuitive decision making (and yes, that would include when we consider all the options, pros and cons) is fraught with mostly unconscious biases, fears, wishful-thinking, etc. and errs quite often in all but humdrum affairs. The most reliable way of improving this is to rely more on algorithms and to stay close to data based considerations.

The other book is a few years old now, Blink: The power of thinking without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he discusses research also showing that our considered decisions, counter to what most people think, are really shallow intuitive considerations that deserve little faith in their adequacy. He does, though, discuss, some who are better thinkers than most who do so by selecting key data points and organizing them into a coherent pattern. Now some expert opinions are expert and some just flash in the pan. I am reminded of research showing that experienced well-regarded therapists can detect lying no better than the general public, which is at a chance level. The only group who were good at lie detection was specially trained FBI agents and they did so better than chance but not approaching certainty. I am also reminded of micro-emotions, emotional expressions that flit rapidly across our faces, imperceptible to all but a few talented individuals who can note and read them, integrate them into decision making and so have more accurate empathic intuition of others’ intentions. This last is actually a very specific keen instance of data based thinking.

So now when I remember medical tales of patients who have lost sensation and control of a limb through a stroke or other neurological insult who maintain that they are not impaired and explain that the inert arm is not theirs but someone else’s like the doctor interviewing them, I think that is actually standard operating procedure for us rational creatures. Consider as well that in subjects undergoing functional brain imaging like EEG, researchers can see a decision to move a hand made in the premotor cortex before the subject is conscious of that decision and moves. And one more, consider Jonathan Haidt’s findings that we develop a rational for our moral and political stances after we arrive at them.

So back to Friedrich Nietzsche. What a cranky guy. Reading Beyond Good and Evil published in 1886 at the time Freud and William James were just starting out (and shortly before Friedrich himself went crazy, to use a colloquialism) forces me to consider what he was arguing against and for, because our understanding of psychology was so very different than now. Still, Nietzsche saw the human will very differently from most others back then (& now), including other philosophers. Consider these quotes:

-Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name

-the will is not only a complex of sensations and thinking, but it is above all an emotion

-Freedom of will is the expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition [my note: a wayward two year old comes to mind]

-we act once more as we have always acted—mythologically.

These perspectives put human behavior in a different light than that in which most people view it. It seems that resistance to this understanding, which after all counsels us to be more careful, considerate, data based, and democratic in the sense of scientific consensus, is rock solid, ongoing and blindly so. For example, look at who we elect, at how the media covers news (my favorite analogy is of a dog yapping at every leaf fall), and at our failures to address problems effectively.  Drawing rationality from irrationality continues to be a challenge.

So if you see any Mayan priests with bloody knives or Atargatis initiates holding their testes looking for a good dress to wear, tell them we will probably be joining them sooner than later in the halls of the failed ideas. And if you see Friedrich Nietzsche wandering the asylum, tell him that some in the future heard him loud and clear but to little avail so far. Travel on now to firmer ground.


Young Friedrich

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