The Stupidity of Rationalism

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.

A game of Scissors, Paper, Stone.

Scissors, Paper, Stone. (Image from BBC website)

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.

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8 Responses to The Stupidity of Rationalism

  1. Julian says:

    “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.”

    And there’s a contradiction in this paragraph. On one hand it says there is a RISK of them getting 12 months if they say nothing, and but if both stay quiet they will go to jail!

  2. Julian says:

    ooops, the second part meant to say and “because if they both stay quiet neither of them will go to jail. “

  3. Julian – maybe the discussion wasn’t clear. To clarify: If either Jack or Jo say nothing, that individual risks 12 months in jail, because the other person may confess. If both of them stay silent, they’ll both get off free because the police have too little evidence to convict. Those are very different scenarios: where is the contradiction?

  4. What does embodiment theory predict about Jack and Jo’s decisions? How does it favor them both staying quiet and thus being “smart enough to get away with their crime”?

    Great to find this blog. Eager to learn more about ESC.

    • Administrator says:

      Embodiment theory is a huge area and different people would have different opinions, but for Depraz and Gallagher the “leading hypothesis” is that emotions are “inextricable from every mental act” (Depraz & Gallagher, 2003). If that’s so, then Jack and Jo’s decision will be enmeshed with how they feel about each other: there is no such thing as a rational decision that lacks an emotional component. Game theory can pretend that reason and emotion are separate for the sake of a philosophical discussion, but that isn’t the reality. Damasio presents the most developed theory of the role of emotion in cognition (Damasio, 2003. See References). Damasio’s theory correlates with Gendlin’s notion of the felt sense, which I’ve discussed in my post on (Eugene Gendlin).

  5. Nice illustration via metaphor. The whole idea of a completely detached mind is an obvious error, and Damasio is a fine champion of the idea. As a long-time practitooner of mindfulness (think of it like waking meditation), I have come to appreciate how much consciousness as we experience it is mediated by the body. There are some incredible experiences available to human beings just by bringing the mind into silent presence. In that presence the connection with the body becomes very apparent. There is no ‘mind’ in the conventional sense without relationship. However there are some very deep states of presence where sense of self evaporates, and that – in a sense – is ‘no mind’. You’d think that the death of Descartes’ error would spell the death of human spirituality, as the former – at least in many theologies – requires a disembodied spirit. In fact the reverse is true. Embodiment restores the human ‘spirit’ – not as theology or metaphysics, but as direct experience. You might not agree, but I see the embodiment of mind concept as a stepping stone to correcting a long-held false presupposition within neuroscience: that brain and consciousness are the same thing. Again, this is the opposite ‘belief’ that many embarking on the embodiment journey assume to be logically consistent and true. But that initial premise is false. Marcus

  6. Administrator says:

    I very much agree on your point about human spirituality, and embodied spirituality is one of the themes I’m exploring on this blog. Can you say more about the false assumption that brain and consciousness are the same thing? Again, we are in agreement but I’m interested to hear where you’re going with this. Are you familiar with Varela’s work on enactivism?

  7. Pingback: The Irrational Human | Bodymind Place

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