Last weeks edition of ‘In Our Time’ (BBC Radio 4) discussed game theory and gave a telling account of a scenario called The Prisoners Dilemma. Imagine that Jo and Jack have been arrested for a crime. The police know they’re guilty but can’t prove it, so they split them up and make each of them an offer: “If you admit guilt and incriminate the other person, you’ll get 6 months jail and they’ll get 12 months”.
According to game theory, the most rational decision for either prisoner is to confess and incriminate their partner in crime. If either Jack or Jo say nothing, they risk getting 12 months, but the first to confess gets a reduced sentence. There’s an acknowledged paradox here, because if they both stay quiet neither of them will go to jail. But, according to the rationally that underpins game theory, they won’t do that.
The Prisoners Dilemma illustrates what I’m provocatively choosing to call the stupidity of Rationalism. Traditional Western philosophy – the philosophy of Rationalism – splits reason from emotion, just as it splits nature from culture and mind from body.
From an embodied standpoint, that’s really stupid. Most posts in this blog could serve as an illustration of why, but for now consider just a sliver of the evidence from neuroscience.
Damasio’s research demonstrates that reason cannot be split off from emotion; in fact emotion is integral to cognition (Damasio, 1994). Furthermore, Lakoff and Johnson claim that “What our bodies are like and how they function in the world … structure the very concepts we can use to think” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). As Johnson explains, reason itself is embodied: The way we conceptualize and reason depends on “the kinds of bodies we have, the kinds of environments we inhabit, and the symbolic systems we inherit, which are themselves grounded in our embodiment” (Johnson, 1987).
According to games theory, both Jack and Jo will get at least 6 months behind bars. According to embodiment theory, Jack and Jo might just be smart enough to get away with their crime. That conclusion may not be moral satisfying, but it isn’t stupid either.