What "War on Reason"? Kahneman's Truce

What "War on Reason"? Kahneman's Truce

Are reason and emotion sworn enemies? Many expert reasoners feel they are. But these supposed opposites overlap, emotions have logic and reason often blunders. Plato’s chariot and the anti-Freud can clarify.

In “The War on Reason,” Paul Bloom complains that scientists are popularizing the view that rational deliberation is an illusion. Bloom feels this “unacknowledged rebooting of Freud”, by focusing on “emotive desires,” and “scattered… instances of irrationality” misrepresents our “rational foundations.” When “thirsty, you don’t...squirm...at the mercy of unconscious impulses,” you rationally plan and execute quenching it. 

Here Bloom follows Freud in conflating the unconscious with the irrational and seemingly partly ignores Daniel Kahneman’s work. Although Kahneman (the “most influential living psychologist”) says that “faith in human rationality” is ill founded because systematic inconsistencies, called “cognitive biases,” are “built into the design of our minds,” he also says that much of the unconscious is rational. That makes Kahneman the anti-Freud.

Commenting on Bloom, Jerry Coyne contrasts rational choices with those “swayed by emotion.” For Coyne thinking is simply evolved “input-output” data processing. Expanding on that: good thinking has three parts. First, inputs of data and assumptions; second appropriate thinking tools; and third desired goals to judge by. Each can be mistaken, causing different kinds of irrationality. Bad inputs or goals justify Shakespeare’s “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”  

Perhaps neither Bloom nor Coyne fully grasp the title, or key message, of Kahneman's book: “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Emotions and intuitions are fast thinking. This rapid data processing can be rational (or not, depending on training). And irrationality often isn’t caused by emotion.

Plato explained this by comparing the mind to a two horse chariot. Reason is the charioteer. The horses are emotions, one good, one bad. The good horse naturally pulls toward rational goals. The unruly bad horse must be batted. Without the emotions reason gets nowhere.     

Hobbes in 1651 nailed how Bloom, Coyne, and Kahneman differ: “Reason is not...born with us; nor gotten by experience only, as prudence is; but attained by industry.” Basic experience teaches everybody how to slake a thirst. Basic experience ensures, to quote Isaac Chotiner, that we live “according to...reason 99% of the time.” But Kahneman works mainly on numerical decisions. Since “humans didn't evolve to think about numbers,” that sort of rationality requires training (industry).

Coyne’s observation that we are mostly rational, with a “dollop of irrationality,” is an advance on  Freud’s un-falsifiable fictions. But Kahneman’s cognitive-bias patterns beat that dollop and should finally rid us of Freud’s demons. However Kahnemen’s work also has demons. Cognitive biases have two sources of error, the observed behavior and the “rational” goal, but economists use “rational” differently. Their methods, and inputs, and goals can sometimes be mad. 

Modifying Hume’s “Reason Is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions:” Input passions (intuitions) happen before reasoning. And reason should work toward passionate goals.


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

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

  • How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
  • One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
  • A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
  • The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
  • The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Keep reading Show less