030828 – Are human beings rational?

030828 – Are human beings rational?

My wife asked an interesting question: Do I think that human beings are inherently rational.  I think the answer is emphatically no.  Human beings have the ability to learn procedures.  One of the procedures that human beings have discovered, found useful, and passed along culturally is the procedure of logical analysis or logical thinking.  The fact that in many cases logic enables us to find good solutions to certain classes of significant problems ensures that logical analysis will be one of the procedures activated as a candidate for execution in a broad range of external circumstances and internal states.

What strikes me is that the end result of evolution selecting organisms with greater and greater ability to learn and apply procedural patterns has resulted in an organism that is capable of learning to simulate serial computations, at least on a limited scale.  Certainly it was Dennett who put this idea into my mind, but I do not believe that he arrived at this conclusion by the same path that I did.

This raises an interesting question: what kind of pattern and procedural learning capabilities are required in order to be able to simulate serial computations or, more precisely, to be able to learn and execute a logical thinking pattern?  Human beings certainly aren’t much in the way of serial computers.  We’re not fast.  We’re not computationally adept.  We don’t have a lot of dynamic memory.  Our push down stack for recursion seems to be limited to one level.  (The fact that we must use the logical thinking pattern to analyze pathological sentences like, “The pearl the squirrel the girl hit bit split,” rather than the (unconscious) language understanding pattern simply underlines this limitation on our capability for recursion.)

So, is human language ability the result of the evolution of ever more sophisticated procedural pattern learning capabilities?  Is the driving force behind the evolution of such enhanced procedural pattern learning the advantage obtained by the organisms who best understand their conspecifics?  Is this evolution’s de facto recognition that brawn being equal, better brains confer a reproductive advantage?  Now if better understanding of one’s conspecifics is the goal, language ability may just fall out automatically, because if one has a mechanism that can build a model of others, it makes it a lot easier to figure out what the other intends or is responding to.

Clearly, since the ability to take the viewpoint of another person does not manifest itself in children until some time after they have acquired at least the rudiments of language, the manifestation of the ability to take the viewpoint of another person is not a requirement for the acquisition of at least the rudiments of the language.  There seems to be a subtle distinction to be made here: when daddy says “hudie” (the Chinese equivalent of “butterfly”) and looks at, or taps, or points to a butterfly or a representation of a butterfly, something has to help the child attend to both the butterfly instance and the sound.  That something may be the emerging model of the other.  Or maybe it’s the other way around as I suggested earlier: the trick is for the parent to take advantage of his or her own model of the child in order to intuitively construct or take advantage of the situation in which both the butterfly and the sound of the word will be salient to the child.

Still, I keep coming back to the idea that the internal model of the other is somehow crucial and the even more crucial is the idea that the internal model of the other contains the other’s model of others.  As I think about it though, it seems to me that creating an internal pattern, that is to say learning a pattern, based on experience and observation of the behavior of another organism is not a capability that is uniquely human.  It would seem to be a valuable ability to have.  What seems to be special about the patterns we humans develop of other people is that we attribute to the other a self.  An or to animal can get a long way without attributing a self (whatever that means) to other creatures with which it interacts.

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