Monday, May 18, 2009

When Rationality Demands...

Sophia had always prided herself on her rationality. She would never take a decision that didn't conform to rationality and reason. Some motivations are of course not driven by reason - love, taste, character etc. But Sophia's argument was, not being rational didn't always imply irrationality. While it is neither rational nor irrational to prefer potatoes over tomatoes, it becomes irrational when a person who loves potatoes buys a pound of tomatoes, when circumstances don't dictate the purchase of one over the other. However, Sophia is faced with a dilemma now. A very intelligent friend of hers is trying to persuade her that it would be perfectly rational to set off a bomb which would kill millions of innocent people, without any foreseeable benefits that might arise due to the massacre. Sophia is sure that her friend's logic is skewed. But using her rationality she can't seem to place her finger on it. And the argument suggests that she needs to set off the bomb immediately, so time to think is hardly an option. Sophia is plagued with doubt, for she has always been against intuitions and hunches and only favored rational analysis. However if she follows reason in this case, she seems to feel that she would do a terrible wrong by killing people. Should she knowingly follow the less rational path, or trust reason over feeling and detonate the bomb? (Source: The Pig that Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

What's up with these successive discussions involving bombs and massacre?! My blog is going to be soon blocked if this trend keeps continuing. First off, I really am not convinced with this excerpt. I don't know how an argument could be rationally solid if it involved -1) committing a gross crime of massacring thousands, and 2) have NO benefits from committing such a crime. I really cannot think of an analogous scenario. Rational analysis always consists of costs, benefits and risks triangle as part of decision making. If benefits are zero, and the costs SO high, I cannot fathom what sort of a rational decision-making strategy it would fall under. What could the "rational" motivations for such a crime be?

The reason why I'm so convinced that there has to be a flaw in the argument is not entirely due to the fact that there are no benefits. It is mainly due to the fact that the outcome of such rational thought is evil and morally wrong, and I've been conditioned to believe that objective truth/decisions arising out of reason will only lead to good, not evil. And that is my little prejudice, for I have failed to remind myself of two aspects -
1) good, evil, right and wrong are perceptions. Hitler had his perceptions of "benefits" when he waged the war and tortured the Jews. From his view, his decisions could conform to rationality and reason due to his assumptions, inputs and perceptions. However my immediate objection would be that his "reason" was flawed and doesn't objectively correspond to universally accepted norms/"truths". Yet, I also am aware that there are no books on universal "truths"; everything starts getting subjective.

2) reason without feeling, need not always lead to morally acceptable "good" decisions. Imagine a ship were being run by a machine with no human intervention. Due to a storm the ship is flung off course and there's very less fuel to navigate the ship. The machine has alerted rescue operators. In the meanwhile the machine takes an inventory of the rations available on board and decides that they have just enough to sustain the 50 member crew for 22 hours. Now the machine spots a man hanging onto a skimpy piece of plank, shouting for help, a little further away on the waves. The rational calculation spits out the result that spending fuel and rations on rescuing this man will put the other members of the ship at high risk of surviving. Hence the machine rationally decides not to rescue the man (saving one versus millions, again). Well, the decision still is "rational" if feelings , emotions and moral conditioning were isolated.

I'm reminded of a statement I read long back - "A psychopath's decisions maybe socially unacceptable and irrational, yet inside his mind, the decisions and acts were very much acceptable; they were psychologically rational, yet socially unacceptable, due to the presence of only "reason" and no feeling." So where am I going with all this? Is calling Sophia's friend/Hitler a psychopath my conclusion?

I understand that although the massacre doesn't seem to hold any benefits to me or Sophia, in the eyes of someone (at least the perpetrator) there should be some "benefits," for even a psychopath is assured of the benefit of satisfying his aberration. If Sophie herself cannot see any such benefit that can rationally convince her, she can comfortably bank on rationality to not carry forward with the act. But if she can perceive benefits, she most certainly needs to involve both her heart and mind to settle into a middle ground before "cold-hearted" logic dictates a move; and this decision is not as simple as buying potatoes or tomatoes, it involves thousands of innocent lives. The gravity of the situation begs to involve feeling along with reason. The previous post on exercising torture to save millions is one of the trillions of cases in the real world that debates on whether or not to involve the heart in such decisions.

Human beings have evolved to develop more emotions, empathy, and compassion to their species and to others. Otherwise we would still belong to the barbaric tradition of killing people with a disease that has no cure, in order to save ourselves. At such a stage in evolution it is a sign of barbarism if the heart is not given a chance to be voiced out, during such decision making.

Now onto the mention of intuition. What is intuition? In this excerpt, intuition is totally isolated from rationality and is tainted with a "soft" color of gut-feeling. Is intuition really so cut off from rational thought? A book that I recently read paints a very different and surprising picture - can you imagine doctors in ER and firefighters in emergency rescue operations acting on their intuitions to save lives? And yet that's how experts make decisions! How does an expert cook? Is it their conscious cognitive effort that goes behind how much of what to put, when and how to judge if the food is done. How do they react when they have the faintest smell of a cake burning? Ask them for rational analysis and tips and you would get nothing, except a few hints on sensory perception. Such knowledge/skill is quite tacit and it's hard to verbalize our actions through rational means. The author and many other researchers claim that intuition is nothing but our ability to perceive very subtle cues in the environment to inform our decision making, which in the end almost appears automatic and intuitive. Even those like Einstein and Feynman have claimed that their discoveries were a result of their intuitive imagination that was further explained through mathematical equations.
But not all of us are geniuses to have the clarity to rationally verbalize all of our intuitive feelings. Feynman hence urges engineers to develop intuition and not always rely on analytical calculations.

But the word intuition is ascribed to many terms - ESP, sixth sense, clairvoyance and other concepts that go against the notion of free will, and that opens a huge can of other pestering questions that have no definitive answers. But the scientific definition of intuition at least attempts to bridge the gap between perceptual sensory cues (feelings) and reason. So at the end of this boring ramble, I insist that Sophia needs to use both her feelings and reason to make the decision. In this case, if her feelings overwhelm the cold-hearted logic of massacring thousands , especially when she foresees little to no benefit, it is justified to bank on feelings alone, for relying on feelings to make a decision is not necessarily irrational.


SecondSight said...

Finally sat down to catch up with the blogs :). I'm totally with you and the research on intuition- instinct/ gut feeling/ intuition are not irrational. In Carl Sagan's words- "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." - After all, any sufficiently advanced technology can seem like magic, even if the technology is a product of evolution ;)

Rationality and the perception of good/ bad- Morality is another product of evolution, and as such, our perceptions of good/ evil are not really unique to us- there is enough research, from monkeys to microbes, to prove otherwise. In simple terms, S,' friend would be a cheater in the population, whereas S. tends to look at things from an altruistic point of view.. as do most of us :)

Neeraja said...

Very well put! You have crisply summarized what I tried to convey in about 1000 words :)