Do We Need To Rescue Rationality?

The word “rational” needs to be rescued. Tom Stoppard’s new play shows that a major rational parable, the Prisoner's Dilemma, is widely misinterpreted. Seeing why "rationalists" do worse than Christians can help us avoid losing in evolution's "negative telos" games. 

 

The word “rational” needs rescue and realignment. Or we’ll fail evolution’s “negative telos” test. As Tom Stoppard’s play The Hard Problem shows, a key rational parable is widely misinterpreted.


1. Spike (a character representing “all the science that’s taught”) says to Hilary (a scientist who prays) that “altruism is always self-interest,” and “Darwin doesn’t do sentimental.”

2. Real-life scientist David Sloan Wilson disagrees. Wilson tells Stoppard (here) that Spike is wrong. Doing good can be rational and “altruism and morality” are explainable by evolution, and its games.

3. Darwin believed sentiments had evolutionary roles: “social instincts ... naturally lead to the golden rule”; anyone lacking social instincts was an “unnatural monster.” Indeed “Darwin was no Darwinian.”

4. Hilary and Spike discuss game theory and its celebrated Prisoner’s Dilemma: a two-player game with two options, cooperate or defect, and payoffs ranked Temptation > Reward > Punishment > Sucker. If the players cooperate, both get Reward. If only one defects, he gets Temptation, the other gets Sucker. If both defect, both get Punishment.

5. Spike’s conventional view says the other player “rationally” tempted, will defect. So you should “rationally” defect also. But this “rationality” guarantees poor results. Hilary posits other motives: Player A loves Player B, so sacrificing has a sentimental logic.

6. Evolution is smarter than Spike’s “rationalists.” Hilary’s and Darwin’s sentimental logic can beat selfishness. For example: Christians would beat “rationalists” in Prisoner’s Dilemmas. Like any Golden Ruled players, they’d cooperate. When we call foreseeably worse strategies “rational,” something’s broken.

7. Hilary says, “You can’t get an ought out of an is. Morality is not science.” She’s wrong. Some oughts are necessary for any is, to survive. Life needs no “telos” (grand purpose) to have a kind of “negative telos.” Nature and logic eliminate behaviors that damage what they depend on. This unnamed principle (needism?) governs evolution.

8. Game theory provides “behavioral telescopes” to scientifically study moral rules. Humans, being social and self-deficient, can’t thrive without rules. Certain rules work better. These long-term patterns are objectively assessable. Evolution is itself a game theorist, testing “endless forms [and strategies] most beautiful.”

9. In Prisoner's Dilemmas, Jewish norms beat Christian ones. Its best strategy, Tit-For-Tat (use the other player’s last move on them) beats Christian “turning the other cheek,” which is exploitable (as Machiavelli and Nietzsche complained). But Old Testament “an eye for an eye” becomes Tit-For-Tat, if forgiveness follows punishment. Divine or not, forgiveness can be adaptive.

10. A “Golden Punishment Rule” enables sustainable cooperation by preventing profitable cheating. Punishment must equal or exceed ill-gotten gains. That’s why Wilson is wrong to say, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups.” Social punishment (moral sanction) exerts selective pressures on within-group strategies as powerfully as any predator.

11. Our survival games are much easier than Prisoner’s Dilemmas. Only fools play with known bad cooperators (see Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins).

The stage is set for us to rescue “rationality.” We ought never to call “rational” self-maximization that’s foreseeably collectively self-destructive (in economics, or politics). Only “relational rationality” really makes sense.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • In some fundamental ways, humans haven't changed all that much since the days when we were sitting around communal fires, telling tales.
  • Although we don't always recognize them as such, stories, symbols, and rituals still have tremendous, primal power to move us and shape our lives.
  • This is no less true in the workplace than it is in our personal lives.

Has a black hole made of sound confirmed Hawking radiation?

One of Stephen Hawking's predictions seems to have been borne out in a man-made "black hole".

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Surprising Science
  • Stephen Hawking predicted virtual particles splitting in two from the gravitational pull of black holes.
  • Black holes, he also said, would eventually evaporate due to the absorption of negatively charged virtual particles.
  • A scientist has built a black hole analogue based on sound instead of light.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • The word "creative" is sometimes waved around like a badge of honor. We speak of creativity in hushed tones, as the special province of the "talented". In reality, the creative process is messy, open, and vulnerable.
  • For this reason, creativity is often at its best in a group setting like brainstorming. But in order to work, the group creative process needs to be led by someone who understands it.
  • This sense of deep trust—that no idea is too silly, that every creative impulse is worth voicing and considering—is essential to producing great work.