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 Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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