Sunday, April 19, 2009

Deciding How We Decide

There was a presentation of a new book called “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer on Cspan 2 It reports scientific research regarding how people make decisions. A guy in the audience asked a question. He observed how when you ask people why they do things – come to this talk by Jonah Lehrer for example – they come up with reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons they did what they did. So the questioner may respond to why he came to the talk: “I wanted to get out of the house.” Or “I’m really interested in the brain and how we decide.” Or “I wanted to be at this cool event to pad my ego.” So people create reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons for their actions.

But doesn’t this presuppose that there is a true, right reason that someone knows or could know? Who knows that reason and how? Is it the cognitive scientist who’s studied decision making? Is it the psychoanalyst who knows our unconscious motivations? Is it the common sensical observer with their no-nonsense take on things? Which way of determining motivation do we believe tells us the “real” reason? Isn’t that a contested issue? Who decides once and for all which perspective is the correct one for determining our motivations? Each commitment to a perspective on why we do things is, at some fundamental point, an existential act of allegiance.

What’s important is to know what mode of interpretation, what story of how things are we are choosing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this or that narrative and explanatory framework? The common sense explanation: “I felt like it,” has simplicity and avoids excessive rumination, but will be limited when more complicated situations arise that don’t yield to simple explanations or when simple explanations no longer work. More complicated psychoanalytic explanations may make intuitive sense but feel speculative or not offer a practical course of action if one is needed. The cognitive scientist’s laboratory findings may or may not apply in this individual case and could be contested on procedural grounds: perhaps the experiment is open to interpretation and criticism.

So each explanatory framework will have pluses and minuses. These pluses and minuses will be determined by the application of criteria from that explanatory framework or from one outside which, because of some overlap, will make demands on the framework being adopted. For example, the common sense observer may use the concept of the brain: “my brain’s not working right today.” The neurophysiologist can ask about the brain and pursue some logical line of inquiry which the common sense thinker, because of the array of reasons they are committed to, will feel obligated to answer. Since different interpretative or explanatory frameworks share concepts and criteria they make demands on each other that they feel obligated to answer in order to maintain their coherence and integrity.

The questioner presupposes the common framework of their being a “way in which things are” or “the real reason we do something” but who or what explanatory framework uncontestedly tells us that? It’s an absolutist assumption that can’t be redeemed.


Zetetic_chick said...

Hi Jeff,

Another good post, as always.

I think cognitive scientists, in general (and like other scientists), don't worry about the philosophical assumptions of their scientific practiques. Many of them are conteptually naive regarding the philosophical assumptions of their working framework.

Most of them assume at least 3 philosophical positions (all of them controversial in philosophy):

1)Ontological realism--the existence of an external reality- and its connected epistemic realism.

2)Mind-body materialism--the idea that mental states are produced by and reducible to brain processes.

3)Empiricism as a method of gathering objective knowledge about the external world.

The assumption 1 and 3 is hardly disputable for natural scientists and most analytic philosophers; assumption 2 is, in my opinion, in a weaker ground because some empirical evidence support dualist interpretations of the mind-body problem. A good summary of this evidence is available in this post:

So your question about the existence of a true framework makes sense in a philosophical discussion on epistemology; but if you pose that question to Lehrer or any other scientist, they wouldn't understand your point. They simply assume there is a actual way to understand the world, a way determined by how the world actually works.

Even when you confront them with the problems and inconsistencies of their assumptions, many of them reply "but it works" (asserting naively another philosophical position: pragmatism)

I hope to read soon Lehrer's book, it seems very interesting.

Jeff, perhaps you are interested in this recent paper of Steven Hales published in the christian journal Philosophy Christi

It's titled "What to Do About Incommensurable Doxastic Perspectives". Hales defends his book "Relativism and the foundations of philosophy" from some criticisms.

You could find it useful, because you have read Hales' book and understand his position and can judge if the criticisms and Hales' replies stand.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Z,

Thanks for the Hales reference. He's still convincing to me.

Yes, most scientists just accept the things you say. It's not their job to ask those philosophical questions.

One problem with what you say: You say "3 philosophical positions (all of them controversial in philosophy)" and then say "1 and 3 [are] hardly disputable for natural scientists and most analytic philosophers".

I go with the first quote, they are all controversial in philosophy. It could be that most analytic philosophers hardly dispute 1-3, but what we're interested in is those specific analytic philosophers who debate those particular issues. And from my only partially informed knowledge of philosophy all of those are live issues and debates.