Rationality

In common usage, people sometimes tend to use the words rational and logical somewhat interchangeably. The purpose of this post is to distinguish between these.

Logic:

Logic is the set of rules that allows me to evaluate an arguement independent of its content, purely from its structure. Just as I use grammar to parse a sentence and determine the relationships between the words in the sentence, I use logic to parse an arguement and determine the relationships between the statements in the arguement. Just as a grammatical sentence may be meaningless (Colorless green ideas sleep furiously), a logical arguement may be meaningless or irrelevant. However, the analogy with grammar only goes so far. There are many different grammars and all of them are equally valid within the context of their application – a given language. Any consistently applied way of meaningfully combining words in a sentence forms a grammar. Grammar is a matter of convention. The same is not true of logic. The word itself has no plural. This is a striking fact. Think about it. It indicates that man cannot even conceive of a plural for logic. There can be no such thing as my logic vs your logic. Logic is the structure of coherant thought. It is a part of the mental apparatus that man is born with. It is implicit in the capacity to think. By implicit, I mean that I cannot choose to think illogically (though I may make mistakes). To identify mistakes in thinking, the implicit rules of logic need to be made explicit by identifying them. This is a science. Like all sciences, the science of logic also presupposes several things. In particular, it presupposes man’s ability to use logic (implicitly). Whether the word logic refers to the implicit set of rules or to the science which deals with identifying them depends on context. In this post, I am going to use the word logic to refer to the implicit set of rules.

Reason:

Reason is the faculty of understanding and integrating sensory material into knowledge. Reason does not work automatically. To reason, man has to consciously choose to think and to direct his thoughts to achieve understanding. By directing thoughts, I mean preventing thoughts from wandering by staying focussed. Reasoning involves the use of logic. It also involves several other techniques. “Reason employs methods. Reason can use sense-perception, integration, differentiation, reduction, induction, deduction, philosophical detection, and so forth in any combination as a chosen method in solving a particular problem.” [Burgess Laughlin in a comment on an old post] Deduction obviously uses logic. I believe induction does too but the science on inductive logic is nowhere as well developed as it is on deductive logic. Sense-perception, integration and differentiation don’t use logic (Note: integration and differentiation refer to grasping the similarities and differences between various things). Reason then is not simply the faculty of using logic.

Rationality:

“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues… The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” [Ayn Rand, in The Virtue of Selfishness]

In the discussion that motivated this post, a colleague argued that if the use of reason does not guarantee correct decisions, it cannot be one’s only guide to action. A gut feeling or intuition might sometimes be a better guide to action. There are two separate issues here – the fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions and the claim that intuition can be an alternative guide to action.

Consider intuition first. Intuition is an involuntary automatic evaluation of the available choices. There is no conscious awareness of the reasons for the evaluation. Intuition is a learnt response from previous experience. As such intuition is extremely helpful in any decision making process. However, the fact remains that in every voluntary decision – the sort of decision where there is enough time to reason – intuition is only one of the inputs to the use of reason. As long as I make a decision consciously and deliberately, reason remains the only guide to action. The only alternative is to evade the responsibility of a choice. Relying upon intuition is not irrational in itself. I might decide that I do not have sufficient knowledge to reach a decision and choose to rely upon intuition instead. As long as I identify the lack of knowledge, my decision is fully rational. Identifying the lack of knowledge (and hopefully doing something about it) will actually allow me to learn from the new experience and improve my intuitions for future use. Blindly relying on intuition – by default instead of by choice – will actually weaken my intuition in the long run. Intuition is one of the most valuable tools for decision making but it needs to be carefully cultivated by the use of reason for it to be good or useful.

It is important to stress that rationality (in the context of making a decision) involves the use of all my knowledge to the best of my ability. In particular, this includes knowledge of the time available, the relevance of prior experience and any known gaps in knowledge. It is this last aspect of rationality – the use of known gaps in knowledge – that is the motivation for the field of probability. Probability is about quantifying uncertainty by making use of all known information and postulating equal likelihood where no information is available. The consistent use of the equal likelihood postulate is at the heart of probability theory and it is what gives probability its precise mathematical characteristics. In modeling an outcome for an uncertain event, I start with a uniform distribution (every outcome is equally likely) and use available information to transform it into a more appropriate distribution. The parameters of the transformation represent a quantitative use of known information. The shape of the final distribution represent a qualitative use of the known information.

With this brief treatment of probability, I can now address the obvious fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions. Consider an example. I have historical data for the exchange rate between a pair of currencies. I also have market quoted prices for various financial instruments involving the currency pair. To model the exchange rate at some future time with a probability distribution, I can use the historical data to establish the shape of the distribution and the market quoted prices to obtain the parameters of the distribution. If I had more information (say a model for other parameters that affect the exchange rate), I could incorporate that too. A decision based on such a model would be a rational decision. On the other hand, I could say that since the model does not guarantee success, I will simply use a uniform distribution (Ouch!! That is not even possible since the range for the exchange rate is unbounded. Let me simply restrict the range to an intuitive upper bound) with the arguement that the uniform distribution might actually turn out to be better. Yes, it might turn out to be better, but the arguement that it should be used is still invalid (Consequentialism is invalid and I am not going to argue this). Not all decisions can be formulated with precise mathematics like this, but the principle is the same. It is always better to use all my knowledge to the best of my ability.

Another aspect of the original discussion remains unaddressed – the claim that rationality is subjective. Since this post has already got long enough, I will just stress here that there is a difference between context-dependent and subjective.

Reason and ethics

In a comment on one of his posts, Sanjeev Sabhlok says

Reason must be balanced with ethical conceptions.

Where does he think ethical conceptions come from?

Book Review: Fooled by Randomness

I chanced upon Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb at a friend’s place and took the time to read it. Having a bit of a financial background – I work in a company that did some financial modeling before I joined it – I had heard of Taleb and was curious. Besides, I want to understand probability better than I currently do – I mean philosophically, not mathematically – and the title was attractive.

The book is divided in three parts. Part I starts off with a long and rather boring story of two traders – a rash, ignorant and over-confident John and a conservative Nero. John succeeds for a time – purely through luck – makes a lot of money and then blows up – market slang for losing more money than you thought possible. Nero remains risk-averse and makes a steady amount but suffers snubs from people like John before being vindicated. The reason for including this story is primarily to show how large a role randomness plays in the markets. Taleb also comments on the fact that Nero suffered emotionally from the snubs by people who made more money than him though he always knew himself to be better. Taleb says that this shows that the rational mind cannot prevent us from experiencing irrational emotions. Taleb then discusses an “accounting method” by which a dentist is much richer than a lottery winner. If one were to consider all the “paths” that the dentist’s life could take, there would not be much variation in the money he makes and the “average” would be close to what he makes in any particular “path”. If one considers all the paths that the lottery winner’s life could take, the average would be much lower than the money he makes on the winning path. This notion should seem familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Monte-Carlo simulations but I had not seen anyone putting it so explicitly. Taleb then goes on to discuss the difference between noise and significant information and how noise can affect perceptions in short timescales. He also discusses the dangers in fitting models to historical data. This is interrupted by an unexpected attack on Hegel’s pseudo-scientific philosophy that draws on Alan Sokal’s famous hoax. Taleb then talks of rare events, how their existence makes the difference between the median and the mean important and how most people including statisticians often unwittingly ignore this difference. He then talks briefly about Bacon, Hume and Popper in relation to the problem of induction and the difficulty of induction in the presence of rare events.

Part II deals with various biases in the perception and evaluation of events and outcomes in areas where randomness plays a major role. He draws on work by Kahneman and Tversky – which I am not even remotely familiar with – to claim that in dealing with uncertainty, our minds adopt certain heuristics/biases that are blind to reason (Prospect theory, Affect heuristic, Hindsight bias, Belief in the law of small numbers, Two systems of reasoning and Overconfidence). While it is easy to see how a person with no understanding of probability theory could be misled in the many examples Taleb gives, it is difficult to believe that people trained in probability would also be misled.

Part III deals with Taleb’s interpretation of stoicism as the solution to living in a world with so much uncertainty. Taleb writes that we should accept that we are incapable of making our emotions rational and attempt to behave with dignity in all circumstances. He writes that stoicism should not mean a stiff upper lip and a banishment of emotions but an acceptance of emotions and the uncertainties of life with the focus being on the process rather than the outcome. This part is titled Wax in my ears in a reference to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. Taleb writes that he knows that he is not as great as Odysseus and instead of tying himself, he chooses to have wax in his ears. That is, he chooses to accept that his emotions will always be fooled by randomness and the only solution is to avoid situations where he might encounter such emotions (by not listening to the news or not tracking prices of assets on a moment-by-moment basis etc).

Overall, several anecdotes in the book are mildly entertaining, but intellectually, there is very little that I gained from the book. I agree with a lot of Taleb’s views on the role of luck in the markets and the inadequacy or even meaninglessness of most financial models, but I had already reached these views before reading Taleb and frankly I don’t think they merit a significant part of a book. These views can be easily expressed in a few pages – perhaps I will write a post myself. Taleb does not provide any definition of probability – something that I had hoped for – apart from the following excerpt. Taleb’s style is quite disconnected and the numerous back and forward references are irritating, especially since the references are hardly convincing. For example in the following excerpt he refers to something in Chapter 3, but there is no convincing arguement there, not even a hint.

Ask your local mathematician to define probability, he would most probably show you how to compute it. As we saw in Chapter 3 on probabilistic introspection, probability is not about the odds, but about the belief in the existence of an alternative outcome, cause, or motive. Recall that mathematics is a tool to meditate, not compute. Again, let us go back to the elders for more guidance – for probabilities were always considered by them as nothing beyond a subjective, and fluid, measure of beliefs.

The only thing that I got from the book is a reminder that I need to formulate more completely a proper alternative to Popper’s scepticism.

Scepticism and Morality

I ended my last post with the statement that sceptics cannot take ideas – particularly moral ideas seriously. Here is an excerpt from the book Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that serves as an illustration of my point.

Current thinking presents the two following polarized versions of man, with little shades in between. On the one hand there is your local college English professor; your great-aunt Irma, who never married and liberally delivers sermons; your how-to-reach-happiness-in-twenty-steps and how-to-become-a-better-person-in-a-week book writer. It is called the Utopian vision, associated with Rosseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, and conventional normative economists (of the kind to ask you to make rational choices because that is what is deemed good for you), etc. They believe in reason and rationality – that we should overcome cultural impediments on our way to becoming a better human race – thinking we can control our nature at will and transform it by mere edict in order to attain, among other things, happiness and rationality. Basically this category would include those who think that the cure for obesity is to inform people that they should be healthy.

On the other hand there is the Tragic Vision of humankind that believes in the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act and requires an acknowledgement of this fact as a basis for any individual and collective action. This category of people includes Karl Popper (falsification and distrust of intellectual “answers”, actually of anyone who is confident that he knows anything with certainty), Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (suspicious of governments), Adam Smith (intention of man), Herbert Simon (bounded rationality), Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (heuristics and biases), the speculator George Soros, etc. The most neglected one is the misunderstood philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, who was born a hundred years too early (he coined the term scientific “fallibilism” in opposition to Papal infallibility). Needless to say that the ideas of this book fall squarely into the Tragic category: We are faulty and there is no need to bother trying to correct these flaws. We are so defective and so mismatched to our environment that we can just work around these flaws. I am convinced of that after spending almost all my adult and professional years in a fierce fight between my brain (not Fooled by Randomness) and my emotions (completely Fooled by Randomness) in which the only success I’ve had is in going around my emotions rather than rationalizing them. Perhaps ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need wily tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help. As an empiricist (actually a sceptical empiricist) I despise the moralizers beyond anything on this planet: I still wonder why they blindly believe in ineffectual methods. Delivering advice assumes that our cognitive apparatus rather than our emotional machinery exerts some meaningful control over our actions. We will see how modern behavioral science shows this to be completely untrue.
(emphasis mine)

To which I will only say: If our cognitive apparatus exerts no meaningful control over our actions, isn’t Taleb wasting his time writing a book? He should be composing music instead.

The Times of India and its liberal writers

Two days. Two ugly pieces in The Times of India.

First, in a pice titled Dilemma of a liberal Hindu, Gurcharan Das writes about his discomfort in acknowledging his Hindu beliefs among his secular friends.

Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past.

I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata. “Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?” I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act.

He concludes

As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.
(Emphasis mine)

Das says “Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason.” It is amusing to see that Das knows that respect cannot be demanded. But he wants it nonetheless. So, instead of demanding respect for himself, he demands it for ordinary Indians.

Das is clearly a mystic. Yet he wants respect from people who are not mystics. That shows how much respect for the truth he has.

——————–

And today, Jug Suraiya has a piece on the ethics of humor.

The classic comedy scenario involves a man, preferably fat and pompous-looking, walking down the street, stepping on a banana peel and falling on his well-padded bottom…Perhaps of all forms of communication – the tragic, the poetic, the prosaic, the descriptive – humour is the one that is most in need of a code of ethics to regulate it. The reason is that humour has in it an intrinsic element of cruelty, of rejoicing in the misfortune of others…can you laugh at yourself? If you can, you’ve passed the first test in the ethics of humour: before you laugh at anyone else, first learn to laugh at yourself. Like charity, humour begins at home. There is one proviso, which is the second test in the ethics of humour. Legitimate humour is always directed from the lower to a higher level: always laugh at (or with) those who are metaphorically above you, socially, economically, physically, or in any other way.
(Emphasis mine)

Contrast that with Ayn Rand’s position on humor

Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element—which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . . The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.
(Emphasis mine)

Suraiya’s position – “always laugh at those who are metaphorically above you” – is just plain disgusting. What can be more nihilistic than that? But it is not particularly surprising. Suraiya, after all, is quite happy to participate in The Times’ “experiment” of not capitalizing the pronoun ‘I’ on its editorial pages.

Intuitions and a-priori knowledge

In a comment on my post on hypotheticals, Krishnamurthy asked:

When you say “Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions “, the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition, and if he cannot do the complicated expected utility maximization, then he can only arrive at the principles by evaluating the outcomes of his previous actions. But to evaluate he would need some principles to begin with. (on second thought, even to do expected utility maximization, he would need to make some evaluations). how does a human being find the principle to base his actions on ?

I hold that knowledge can never be a-priori. To see why, consider these questions

Does a digital balance know how to measure weight?
Does a computer know how to add numbers?
Does my heart know how to pump blood?
Do my eyes and brain know how to distinguish objects from each other?
Does a parrot that recites 2 + 2 = 4 know that 2 + 2 = 4?

My answer to all these questions would be no. There is no knowledge involved here. Knowledge, in the sense applicable to a human mind, involves the exercise of free will. An entity that does not have free will cannot have any knowledge. It is like a machine that does certain things because that is its nature. Since no exercise of free will can occur before one exists, knowledge cannot be a-priori.

Now consider the human mind. I believe that the mind is built with the capacity to use logic, but not with the knowledge of the laws of logic. This is a subtle point. What I am saying is that the mind has an inbuilt ability to determine whether something makes sense. But active effort is required to use this ability. And further effort is required to identify why it makes sense. Men obviously have been using logic for millenia. But it took Aristotle to identify the laws of logic. The operation of the laws of logic is part of the nature of the mind but the knowledge of the laws of logic is not. It takes active effort to grasp the laws of logic – to realize that when something “makes sense”, it is because that something is consistent with the laws of logic. The faculty that is capable of doing this grasping is reason. Man is born with the faculty of reason. But it is the use of reason that results in knowledge.

Recollect the time when you learnt the truth table for “p AND q” where “p” and “q” are propositions. How did you grasp that the truth table was correct? I did so by substituting actual propositions for “p” and “q” and verifying the values in the truth table. This indicates that knowledge of the truth table was not a-priori but the ability to verify particular propositions was. The truth-table was <i>induced</i> from the ability to verify particular propositions. More importantly, this also indicates that in the absence of any particular propositions, I could not have induced the truth table for “p AND q”. This is another reason that knowledge cannot be a-priori.

The ability to understand and evaluate propositions and to induce principles is inbuilt. If you want to call this ability intuition (I call it reason), I have no problem accepting the validity of intuitions, provided effort is made to express the result of this “intuition” in terms of the laws of logic, observations and any other principles one has already validated. But I don’t think this is what anybody means by intuition. For example, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines intuition as
1: quick and ready insight
2 a: immediate apprehension or cognition b: knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
Note the parts I have emphasized. They all indicate that intuition is knowledge achieved without active effort and without the use of reason.

Does this answer your question?

Poverty

What is poverty? What are its causes? Is it a personal problem or a social problem or a political problem? Whose responsibility is it? What actions are needed to eradicate it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poverty as

1 a: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions b: renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property

2: scarcity , dearth

3 a: debility due to malnutrition b: lack of fertility

Note the difference in definitions ‘1 a’ and ‘2’. The perspective of ‘1 a’ is social, egalitarian and materialistic. It emphasizes a comparison between the material possessions of people. It equates self respect with prestige and prestige with the possession of material values.  It seeks to identify people in terms of class. By this definition, a worker in an industrial society who owns a car and is able to provide for his daily needs is nevertheless in poverty, simply because there are a large number of people who have bigger, better or more material possessions than him. If this definition is accepted, then it is in the nature of society for some of its members to be in poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty would then be a (necessarily futile) revolt against the nature of society. The nature of society cannot be a problem in itself and no further analysis of this definition is necessary (The fact that ‘1a’ ranks above ‘2′ is quite interesting but it is not the topic of this post).

This post will therefore be concerned with definition ‘2′ – poverty is scarcity. But scarcity of what? Scarcity of the values and conditions necessary for a proper human life. What are these values and conditions? Food, shelter and clothing are often considered to be the basic values necessary for life. But man needs to earn these values (and all others) by conscious, wilful and sustained effort and by the application of knowledge. Neither the effort nor the knowledge is automatic. Both are affected (to some extent atleast) by social and cultural conditions. In the absence of proper conditions, the lack of the basic values for life becomes endemic. This sort of poverty is a social and political problem and it is this that is the concern of this post – poverty as the lack of the social and cultural conditions necessary for man to flourish.

What are these conditions? The primary condition for a flourishing society is a respect for the mind. Man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge, his only judge of truth, and his only means of survival. All the values he needs to live, from basic material values like food, to abstract intellectual values like art, are a product of his mind. A respect for the mind has three aspects – rationality in ideas, egoism in ethics, and liberalism in politics. Rationality is the recognition that the mind is capable of understanding and dealing with reality. Egoism is the recognition that the mind (or self, or ego) is one’s greatest value. Liberalism is the recognition that the mind cannot coexist with force.

The primary cause for endemic poverty is a lack of respect for the mind, most commonly in the form of supernatural and religious beliefs. Supernatural beliefs destroy all three aspects of respect for the mind. By claiming that the truth is beyond the reach of the mind, they destroy rationality. By claiming that man’s ultimate purpose is something greater than his life (whether an after-life in heaven or a cosmic consciousness), they destroy egoism. By claiming that the truth is revealed only to certain prophets, they create figures of authority and destroy liberalism. Societies flourish only when some of their members are able to shake off these beliefs. Shaking off supernatural beliefs is not enough however. The many experiments in all kinds of socialism in the last century are a good illustration of this. The advocates and leaders of these experiments claimed to be rational and scientific even as they rejected egoism and liberalism. They only succeeded in plunging their societies into poverty and economic collapse. Rationality, egoism and liberalism are merely different aspects of the same philosophical outlook and it is not possible to practise them selectively. The only solution to endemic poverty is a culture of reason and the social and political institutions that are necessary to maintain it.

The crucial thing that must be understood is that endemic poverty is not just a lack of wealth but the lack of the conditions that make the creation of wealth possible. Unless these conditions are established, no amount of wealth redistribution will have any positive effect. Unearned wealth is not a solution to poverty but a catalyst for corruption and violence. It allows the unscrupulous powers that invariably rule irrational cultures to maintain their stranglehold on people by preventing their collapse. Over the past few years, there have been vigorous calls for action to end poverty by a certain date, mostly focusing on Africa. The proposed action consists of writing off loans and granting new ones to the corrupt and tyrannical regimes that rule most of Africa, the loans to be funded by tax payers in the developed world who are not responsible in any way for the irrational and primitive cultures in Africa. These calls for action are extremely repugnant – morally, practically, politically and economically. Morally repugnant, because they are attempts to achieve a sense of altruistic greatness, to be paid for by the forced redistribution of unearned wealth by selling unearned guilt to the people who produce that wealth. Practically repugnant, because a century of such attempts has shown that forced redistribution of wealth results in economic collapse and a loss of all individual rights. Politically repugnant, because such action can only be carried out by the further enslavement of productive individuals in a global welfare state, and because the beneficiaries of such action are corrupt and tyrannical governments. Economically repugnant, because such action consists of punishing success and rewarding failure.

This post is a call for action – not the action of donating to charities that help to sustain corruption and violence – but the intellectual action to discover, understand and apply the moral, political and economic principles that govern man’s life. An examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a good place to begin.

Note: This post was written for Blog Action Day 08. It is also available on desicritics.org with an independent comment section

%d bloggers like this: