Friday, July 27, 2012

Choice: The opposite of rationality

Think of a time you had to make a choice. There were options, you weighed them up, they whirled around in your mind for a while... And then you chose. Later, you may have reflected, "Was that a reasonable choice?" Let me take the liberty of answering your question: no.

You see, if you had to make choice - if the experience felt at all like choosing - your choice was unreasonable. Disagree? Let's try to think of an example of a completely reasonable choice. You are given options A and B, and you must choose between them. It is clear to you that in this situation it is appropriate to apply a particular kind of reasoning. You apply the reasoning to the situation, and work out, rationally, that choice A is, without a doubt, superior. You can prove it with your reasoning, and you can also prove that anything else is wrong or suboptimal in some way. Then you go ahead and choose option A. Can the process of applying your reasoning be justly called a choice?

Granted, most times in life, it is not clinically clear what the superior course of action is. Most times we have to guess (make an actual choice). But at times when something is clear, it is not a choice, no matter how long it takes to work out the correct answer. What do I think 1 + 1 is equal to? 2. I don't have a choice. What do I think 2938395 x 2395545 is equal to? I don't know. Let me work it out. It's ok, it won't take too long. Just wait here for a sec. Ok, I have worked it out, and I think it is equal to 7039057450275. I doubt I can convince myself to choose to think otherwise. Or can I? I can choose to "be rational" or not. I cando that. But if I were to choose to be rational, I don't have any more choices to make. (And if I choose to be irrational, my choices are hardly going to be reasonable, are they?)

Now I'm going to reward myself with an ice cream for my hard efforts. What ice cream flavour should I choose? Chocolate, vanilla, or Tiramisu cheesecake (yes, that flavour exists!)? Ok, let me just go and work it out... Um... I'll just weigh up my desire for each on a scale of 1 to 10, and then... Um... subtract terms representing dietary considerations... Ah, stuff it, I'll just have Tiramisu cheesecake ice cream. I don't care what you say! (Did I make a reasonable choice?)

Most choices in life are like the ice cream one - there is no correct answer. The reason for the lack of a correct answer is because rationality is only a thing that makes sense in relation to some agreed upon objective. In fact, to act rationally is to act optimally with some predefined goal (MacGuffin) in mind. It makes no sense to ask, "Was that a reasonable choice?" It only makes sense to ask, "Was that a reasonable choice with respect to objective X?"

But enough about easy choices. How come some choices are easy but others are hard? Think about a really hard choice you had to make. Not one like the math one, or the ice cream one. Like, what if you could save one of two people you knew, and you had to choose who to save? Ok, perhaps not that hard, but hard, you know what I'm saying? Go ahead and think. There is no clear reasoning to apply. The right choice is not obvious. But why is this choice hard and the ice cream choice easy?

You may be familiar with the rider-elephant metaphor. Your mind is like a rider on an elephant. The rider is your conscious processes (over which you feel you have direct control); the elephant is your automatic processes (things you 'just do', or internal experiences that 'just happen' to you). The rider directs the elephant, but it is the elephant who does the walking. The elephant is much bigger than the rider, symbolising that most of your processes are automatic and the will is weak in the face of raw desire. (Like all metaphors, this one has limitations, but it is still a good way of talking figuratively about what goes on in the mind.)

I think a choice is hard when the elephant doesn't have an automatic behaviour for the situation and there is also no clear reasoning to follow. The elephant says, "I don't know what to do, rider! Have a look at this. Here are some emotions, here are some memories. Go and get a new way of thinking about this problem. I don't know, maybe read something, or go talk to someone, or just sit there and think it over and maybe something will occur to you." And rider goes and tries to work out the right answer with respect to some deep seeded objective. And then either the right choice becomes clear, or some time* passes and the elephant just chooses. Again, if an answer is logically worked out, the choice is dissolved, and if the choice is "made" then it can only be made illogically.

Wait, but isn't the rider supposed to be in control. If the elephant chooses where to go, then the rider just... plots out the course? Or maybe supervises the process? Or what is it that the rider actually does? When one starts thinking about it in this way, the role of the rider becomes increasingly nebulous. (If you've done some insight mediation, you'll know exactly what I mean.) Some people, when presented with the rider-elephant metaphor, think, "Oh, right, so I'm a rider controlling the automatic processes of my body and subconscious mind." But this is not the case. The metaphor is for the whole of you. You are the rider and you are the elephant. All of your desires and value judgements - and as we now see, choices - come from the elephant. The rider is biased towards zerself, thinking that ze is the definition of zer identity. But this is an illusion. In a sense, the elephant defines the features of identity more than the rider does. All of a person's 'personality' comes from the elephant. The rider, it seems, has been taken for a ride.

Notice that if the elephant makes a choice completely automatically without the rider noticing, like when you reflexively smile back at someone, we don't really call that a choice. A choice is when the elephant consults the rider before selecting an automatic action. The moment the choice is made is the moment when the rider relinquishes control to the elephant. The elephant goes ahead and acts, and promptly convinces the rider that it was the rider's choice. In a sense, when a choice disappears as we work out the right answer, it is really the elephant making the choice to be reasonable.

What about free will? Well, we don't have it! If we have anything at all, it is more like free won't. The rider can pull on the reigns and say, "No, not that," but the rider cannot take a positive action. In order for that to happen, the thought of an action first has to occur to the rider, and thoughts can only occur automatically (from the elephant). (Here's another metaphor - the elephant is the house of reps and the rider is the senate.)

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying, "Choices are bad because they're unreasonable - but we can't help it so we're screwed!" On the contrary, I would like to highlight the opposite. Choices are forms of self-expression, and we need not be worried about making unreasonable ones! Instead, we should focus our negative, critical energies on finding flaws with our logic and reasoning - an arena where "reasonable" makes sense. The choice to be rational is an irrational one! To be rational is a form of self-expression. I like rationality. I like the answers it gives. I like that it is a way out of making difficult choices. But also, I like that all irrational choices are a form of self-expression too, and that the harder a choice was the less worried I have to be that I made an unreasonable one.


* What governs the length of this time - up to the moment when we stop thinking and actually choose - is very complicated and may be the subject of another lengthy post.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open-mindedness and Skepticism

I hold it a virtue to be open-minded and skeptical.  Open-mindedness is the ability to momentarily consider any idea as true.  Skepticism is the ability to momentarily consider any idea as false.

The reason I like people who are skeptical and open-minded is because, given an infinite amount of time to express our ideas, we can always reach agreement (or at least we can lay out all of our reasoning and completely understand each other).  This is not necessarily true with those who are non-skeptical or non-open-minded.  Of course, there are things in life other than agreement...

Paradoxically, I like people who are confrontational rather than agreeable.  I find agreeable people tend to sweep issues under rugs, which is never a good thing for close friends (or lovers).  When people disagree with me I don't react emotionally.  I find it interesting, provided they don't have a shallow opinion that I've heard a million times before.  I'm lucky in this, because disagreements are plentiful in life and thus I'm provided with an unending supply of entertainment.

I like people who tell me when I'm doing something wrong.  I feel secure with such people because I know I won't unwittingly offend them.  Even if I disagree with their criticism, I appreciate their confrontation.  I try to be confrontational myself, but because I'm easy-going and virtually unoffendable I hardly ever find anything wrong with people (except for one thing).  Actually it's more like: all my friends are so awesome that they rarely do anything very wrong.

I know some people don't like arguments, they feel arguing only ever creates conflicts and no-one ever changes anyone's mind in any case.  These people are right.  99% of the time.  The vast majority of people are not skeptical or not open-minded, and with at least one such person in a discussion deadlock is imminent.  However, I feel discussing things is really important.  If I had never discussed my values and beliefs with people throughout my life, I would still have a philosophy and world view that I now look upon as vastly inferior compared to what I currently have.  While you may not change the other person's mind, exposure to other people's ideas and feelings broadens your own and gives you a deeper understanding of human nature.  As an added bonus, on a rare occasion you will change the other person's mind, and on another rare occasion your own mind will be changed.  These gems are worth arguing for.

The beef that people really have with arguments and confrontations is that they expect that the other person will get emotionally upset.  This is actually a very legitimate excuse for not confronting somebody, but should not be the case with friends.  You can say "hello" to someone in such a way that will offend them, you can swear at someone in such a way that it will make them smile.  The problem is not in the content of the argument or confrontation, the problem is that people suck at giving and receiving criticism.  In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if you can't confront or disagree with a friend because you're afraid of their emotional reaction then you need to either learn how to present your criticisms more sympathetically or get a better friend.

So have you figured out what that one thing is that I rarely get to confront people about?
       Bad epistemology.  (Epistemology being the philosophy of knowledge, i.e. What do we know? What does it mean to know something? How do we know what we know? etc..)  Most people are flexible in some parts of their thinking, but too much of their mentality is based on unaltering assumptions, as though these are handed down from some higher power.  Interestingly, in my experience epistemic arrogance is independent of intelligence.  Very smart people will cling to certain ideas, especially if the ideas are deep and nuanced, and regard them as the absolute truth.  Whereas skeptical and open-minded people are less likely to be fooled by emotion, blinded by grand ideas or shackled to iron logic based on flawed assumptions.  Their knowledge is malleable and adaptive, they don't hold on to it like a treasure, and it tends to converge to something resembling actual reality.  I have an opinion: I think people should be skeptical and open-minded.  Perhaps I'll confront you about it soon.