The Evolution of the Irrational

Evolution on a wall
Image via Wikipedia

While doing my part to keep the print media alive, I read Sharon Begley’s “The Limits of Reason .” Yes, I do see the irony in linking to the online version.

Begley begins her discussion by pointing out the obvious: humans are bad at reasoning. While she notes that psychologists have been documenting this from the 1960s, I would be remiss not to point out that philosophers have been discussing this since the beginnings of philosophy.

According to Begley, a new wave in philosophy and cognitive science is the view that such failures of reason have a purpose in that they enable us todevise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people.”  She notes that  Hugo Mercier and  Dan Sperber claim that this poor reasoning is, in fact, an effective strategy aimed at winning arguments. This point is, of course, something that has been made by teacher of logic and critical thing for quite some time. For example, when I taught my first logic class a student asked me why people use fallacies. I  still use the two answers I gave back then. The first is that people are generally bad at reasoning. The second is that it works (as a way to persuade).

In philosophy, it is generally assumed that the goal of argumentation is to establish truth. However, Begley considers the idea that argumentation is about overcoming opposing views. That is, the goal is to persuade rather than to prove. The idea that people argue in the informal sense in order to persuade is, obviously enough, nothing new. However a standard approach in critical thinking is to distinguish between the goal of argumentation (truth) and persuasion (to get someone to believe). Part of making this distinction involves  pointing out that people often confuse persuasion and argumentation. As such, to say that the goal of argumentation is to  overcome opposition is to merely call persuasion by the name “argumentation.” Since there are two distinct goals and methods, it certainly makes excellent sense to maintain a distinction in terms.

To anticipate some obvious objections, arguments can be used to persuade and persuasive techniques can be used in arguments. However, the fact that a hammer can be used to pound in screws does not make it a screwdriver.

Begley then turns to a specific error, that of confirmation bias. As folks who read blogs have surely noticed, people tend to focus on evidence that supports their view and ignore that which goes against it. She notes that this serves a useful purpose when “arguing” because  “it maximizes the artillery we wield when trying to convince someone…” Mercier even claims that “it contributes to effective argumentation.”

Having observed this numerous times, I do agree that it can be an effective persuasive tool. Of course, it depends on the opposition not being prepared with evidence and also on the ignorance of the target. Someone who is aware that the person using this artillery is selectively focusing on supporting evidence will hardly find this approach convincing (either logically or rhetorically).

As a tool of argumentation in the proper sense, it is obviously not effective. After all, falling victim to the confirmation bias is not an effective way to establish truth. If someone wants to say that the goal of argumentation is persuasion, then that is fine. However, we will need a new term for what it is that we do when we try to establish truth. Sticking with the spirit of the thing, perhaps we should call that “persuasion.”

Begley moves on to note the value of motivated reasoning. An example of this is when a person looks very hard for flaws in a blog that supports a position she disagrees with. Another example is when people dismiss evidence that goes against their view. From a logical standpoint, falling victim to this is an error since it will impede an objective assessment. However, as Begley points out it does have its advantages. Someone who falls victim to this will tend to be more effective in finding flaws. Of course, there is the concern that the flaws might be imagined as opposed to real. There is also the concern that evidence will simply be ignored (as in Begley’s example of the Birthers who refuse to accept Obama’s birth certificate as real).

Begley finishes with a last example, what she calls the “sunk-cost fallacy” (often presented as a slippery slope variant). This fallacy occurs when a person believes that she should or must follow a course of action because she is already embarked on that course.  This, as she notes, is a rather effective persuasive device. For example, this sort of fallacy was used to “argue” in favor of re-electing George Bush. As another example, this fallacy is sometimes called the “Vietnam fallacy” and that war nicely illustrates how persuasive it can be. However, it is clearly bad logic.

While Begley does not go into any detail, the subtitle of the essay “Why evolution may favor irrationality” suggests her overall point. The idea seems to be that the dominance of bad reasoning can be explained on the grounds that bad reasoning confers an evolutionary advantage.

Based on my own experience studying and teaching critical thinking, I can attest to the persuasive power of poor reasoning and fallacies. As I mentioned above, I tell my students that one of the main reasons people use fallacies is because they work marvelously as persuasive devices. This, of course, gives those who effectively use such methods an advantage in terms of convincing others. Presumably this provides a reproductive advantage so that people who are bad at reasoning but good at persuading tend to be selected.

However, fallacies and poor reasoning are obviously not very effective when it comes to getting things right.  In fact, the fallacies and errors Begley used as examples tend to lead people towards disaster and death.  For example, the sunk-cost fallacy can keep people stupidly grinding away on a failed plan, war, or way of life.  In a nutshell, our greater persuasive skills can overcome our inferior logic skills and convince us to do remarkably unwise and stupid things.

Obviously, poor reasoning has not killed off the species…yet. However, it is interesting to speculate what the long term consequences might be if the hypothesis that Begley considers is correct.

While the evolution folks tend to focus almost entirely on what they think are the evolutionary advantages of our traits, they should give due consideration to the negative aspect of natural selection. To be specific, perhaps our tendency to reason poorly and to be persuaded by poor reasoning are traits that will result in our species being selected out of the evolutionary game. Perhaps a long time hence clever academics from whatever species succeeds us will be writing essays about how evolution weeded out the irrational animal known as man.  I imagine one of the sentences would be something like this: “Homo sapiens became extinct largely because humans were very good at persuading each other to believe very stupid things and very bad at telling what was, in fact, very stupid.”

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  1. I doubt that there will be any consequences on evolution, because people have a feeling for truth even if they have a miserable grasp of logical validity. I think the drive for truth is pervasive across people of all walks of life. For one thing, in the relevant cognitive science experiments, the experimenters found that people who failed the experiments that tested knowledge of logical inference (like the conditional), those very same people succeeded when they asked people about everyday concrete examples of those logical inferences in action, suggesting that truth-content is more important than logical form. For another thing, everybody resents a genuine fool, because fools are hard to work with and hard to trust.

    Of course, the feeling for truth is only a satisficing desire. Our curiosity only runs as far as our enthusiasm. We are apt to settle for a degree of truth that is proportional to the amount that we care about the subject — if true beliefs cannot be found, approximately true beliefs will do. Beyond that minimum requirement, we’re prone to be persuaded by charismatic errors, wishful thinking, and so on.

    It’s also true that our desire for truth can pose personal risks. If the truth of a candidate belief entails that the sophisticate Bob is an idiot, then Bob will naturally be inclined to say that it must not be true after all. (Or Bob might say that he doesn’t know about whether or not it’s true, and doesn’t care.) But the vast majority of our ostensibly true beliefs don’t seem to pose personal risks. Rather, they mitigate those risks by providing us with comfort, safety, and the ability to trust. That’s why the desire for truth won’t be going away.

  2. No! I can’t believe evolutionary forces favor irrationality. Without our ability to reason we’d be still way back there looking under rocks for grubs, although even that requires some rationality. Humans can be perfectly rational under proper conditions, for example when producing mathematics, or building and using computers, etc. The difficulty is when we have to deal with ill defined terms, or pseudo-facts and our emotions.
    If we operate strictly irrationally, as it often seems lately, we’re doomed, sooner rather than later.

  3. Hey Mike,
    I visited Sharon Begley’s article you mention above. She has the following:

    Consider the syllogism “No C are B; all B are A; therefore some A are not C.” Is it true? Fewer than 10 percent of us figure out that it is, says Mercier. One reason is that to evaluate its validity requires constructing counterexamples (finding an A that is a C, for instance).

    To see that the syllogism appears to work you can draw a picture (Venn diagram,) but that’s not my concern here. Maybe you, or someone else reading this can confirm or show me where I’m wrong.
    First, one doesn’t prove something by coming up with counter examples. Counter examples are used to disprove a conjecture. Also, finding an A that is a C would not be a counter example, anyway. In fact, it would show nothing.
    If I’m wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time on this blog (Is this a blog?) I’ll try and be more careful in the future.
    But if I’m not wrong, then the question is, what right has this person to pontificate on humans inability to reason when at a critical moment, viz. writing about the same, she demonstrates a lack of reason?

  4. Those who persuade rather than reason generally depend on the force of the personality, animal magnetism, charisma, a winning smile, an alpha personality.

    Those of us who lack the above traits depend on reason, but the mayority of humanity prefers to be seduced rather than to be convinced by reason and logic.

    In fact, there are a variety of negative words to refer to a person who uses reason and logic instead of the force of persuasion: nerd, wonk, and surely, many others than someone as out of it as I am does not know.

  5. Perhaps a consideration of what “irrational” means, of it’s foundational influence or unexamined effects might be considered, the brain being a tricky & not yet understood thing. It’s relational effect on identity & the process of judgment, or at least conclusions, are coming under scrutiny & the interactive connections are now becoming clearer.
    The “irrational” is integral to what it is to be human. We flatter ourselves to discount it to ourselves and attribute it to unfortunate others.
    Mr Laboissiere’s comments above, both selective & judgmental, on Obama & Bush, I would offer as something other than Kantian reason.
    Imperfection lays it’s hand on all our unsuspecting selves.

  6. Ralph: I use the venn diagram method myself.

    I tried the counter example method and I just got confused.

  7. Ralph,

    Interestingly enough, she does seem to make some mistakes here. First, she asks “is it true?”. As I tell my students, a deductive argument is not true or false, but valid or invalid. Maybe she meant to ask the reader whether the conclusion is true or not on the assumption that the premises are true. She does, after all, mention evaluating its validity.

    Second, doing a Venn diagram would show that the argument is actually invalid. After all, diagramming the two premises would result in shading and the conclusion requires that there be an X inside the A circle but outside the C circle. This, of course, is based on two assumptions in contemporary logic: 1) universal claims lack existential import and 2) particular sentences claim that there is some individual that has (or lacks) some property.

    To use a specific example to show the problem:
    1. No unicorns (C) are dragons (B).
    2. All dragons (B) are magical creatures (A).
    C: So, there is at least one magical creature(A) that is not a unicorn(C).

    Since there are no unicorns or dragons, the first premise is true. Since there are no dragons or magical creatures, the second premise is true. However, the conclusion is false (there are no magical creatures).

    However, if it is assumed that the A, B, and C classes are not empty (that is, that there exists at least one A, one B and one C) then the inference does work:

    1. No C are B.
    2. All B are A.
    3. At least one A, one B and one C exist.
    4. So, Some C are not B.
    5. So, Some B are A.
    Conclusion: Some A are not C.

    Using the Aristotelian square of opposition would also yield comparable results (via sub-implication and the contrary/sub-contrary relationships).

    But, someone who has had a class in contemporary logic would most likely take her example syllogism to be (correctly) invalid.

    You are quite right-finding an A that is a C would not be a counter-example to some A are not C. To use a concrete example, the claim “some of my students are not failing” is not countered by an example of a student who is failing. The claim “no A are C” would be countered by finding an A that is C. of course.

    Perhaps she is demonstrating that people are bad at reasoning. 🙂

  8. Amos,
    Mike says a Venn diagram will show the argument is invalid. It’s the two of us against him, so we win.
    If you’re trying to prove something (anything) using a counterexample you’re bound to get confused. It can’t be done. As the name indicates, it’s something that is counter to what is being asserted. If you come up with a c.a. then you’ve shown the assertion false.

  9. I have a circle A and a circle B.
    Circle B is inside circle A: all B are A. There is also a circle C, which makes no contact with
    B and may or may not make contact with A: some A (those which are B and maybe D, E….) are not C.

  10. Amos,
    Good explanation. That’s the way I looked at it.

  11. Ralph:

    Our brains still function.

    However, just as I walk more slowly than I used to, I get the impression that my mind works more slowly than it used to. We must have been two super-bright fellows 50 years ago. Life is sad. Best, Amos

  12. Great article!

  13. I had not heard of Sharon Begley prior to reading the article. Her suggestion that evolution may favour irrationality is plainly nonsensical. What survival value could irrationality possibly confer? I consider this suggestion was made for the sole purpose of arousing curiosity and thus attracting people to read the article. The content of the article expresses no more than that which is already part of a reasonably educated person’s knowledge. As Mike Labossiere pointed out- “philosophers have been discussing this since the beginnings of philosophy.” What is at issue here is persuading another person to one’s point of view, be it right or wrong, by any method which will work, as opposed to providing overwhelming empirical, or other thoroughgoing evidence that such and such is the case. In ancient Greece the Sophist Gorgias was a successful exponent of Rhetoric such that he was renowned for his verbal ability to speak convincingly on any topic regardless of his experience in that field.
    The Philosopher Francis Bacon, 1561 -1626, known as the father of Empiricism, in his Novum Organum 1620 drew attention to the fact that a inquirer should initially free his mind from certain false notions and tendencies which may impact adversely on the truth. He identified four kinds in this connection; Idols of the Tribe: Idols of the Den: Idols of The Marketplace: Idols of the theatre: The essence her is to pinpoint slapdash methods of instilling and acquiring beliefs which one may regard as true.
    So there is really nothing new here. Ramming beliefs into people by means of brain washing, bullying, providing insufficient instances to justify one’s case, raising the passions, appearing as a charismatic and persuasive speaker are just a few of the well known methods of instilling beliefs which do not have a solid foundation to support them. The pity is that so often these beliefs are taken on board as factual and disasters occur, as with Herr Hitler.
    The fact that fewer than 10% of us can not use Euler’s circles as I did, or Venn diagrams, to solve a a rather awkward logical test is pretty meaningless, What they exhibited was understandable ignorance, not inability.
    We have reached the Moon and other planets, and are currently trying to isolate the Higgs Boson. We can also blow ourselves into oblivion should we so wish. All this, and much more, has been achieved with rational thought at which the Human animal is very adept.

  14. Amos,
    Don’t look back. That’s depressing. And don’t look forward. That’s even more depressing. Yeah, I’m slipping in a lot of places, but I feel good about learning some philosophy,even though on a superficial level. I think as long as there’s something I’m capable of learning it’s not too bad.

  15. Ralph:


    Take care of yourself.

    Best, Amos

  16. I don’t see what argument has to do with truth. If we have trouble stating the facts then that is not arguing, it is shouting.

  17. Dennis Sceviour

    Sharon Begley’s discussions in the “Limits of Reason” are interesting, but it unfortunately focuses with a dualistic Aristotelian argument – that is, logic is supposed to divide between the rational and the irrational (meaning fallacy). Begley’s “motivated reasoning” appears as a specific case of the irrational. However, non-rationality is a third possibility in logic. As an example of non-rationality in evolution, consider the starfish. The starfish classifies as an animal because it has a digestive system and reproductive organs, yet it has no brain. Another example of non-rationality is the Zen Buddhist approach called logic through empty-mind. Is it possible that Begley is trying to say that our natural intuitions and instincts can override reasoning?

  18. On an individual level, primitive irrationality has its successes, often in those situations where fast reactions take priority over detailed analysis.

    Assuming that evolution keeps these things separate, I find it interesting that irrationality would dominate social interaction. Dealing with computer security and social engineering, we know that irrationality is very easily exploited–and tends to yield quick results (a boon for the impatient, and criminals are often impatient).

    However, there is a cost trade-off issue with the efficiency of irrationality versus objective logic, especially when you consider that irrationality exists as a kind of approximation. That is, irrationality has the benefit of having a low cost–when not burdened with the cost of getting things wrong. After all, we do choose approximations when taking the time to do a detailed analysis is simply too expensive. So, evolution can be expected to balance the two according to the productivity of each.

    On a more elementary note, it might be worthwhile to popularize a concept of a stay-the-course fallacy. This variation of the sunk cost fallacy often pops up in campaigns–using just those words. While the concept has its appeal, it’s clearly intended to keep people from examining the facts more closely and doing any real cost analysis of the alternatives. I just think it would be worthwhile to create more public awareness that this particular phrase is problematic.

  19. Re Dennis Sceviour

    “As an example of non-rationality in evolution, consider the starfish. The starfish classifies as an animal because it has a digestive system and reproductive organs, yet it has no brain.”

    I do not think that the possession of a digestive system and reproductive organs alone is sufficient too classify an organism as an animal. For instance Insectivorous plants have a digestive system and reproductive organs but are not an animals.
    Animals have several characteristics that set them apart from other living things. They are distinguished from plants which have rigid cell walls by lack of rigidity in the cells. All animals are motile at least in one part of their life and generally they pass through a blastula stage.
    The starfish so far as I am aware possesses all these characteristics. It does not have a central nervous system but does have a complex nerve net or plexus. By means of this the animal is sensitive to touch, light, temperature, orientation, and the status of water around them. The action potential in starfish neurons is additionally similar to that found in other animals. I would argue that it does have what may be called a rudimentary brain with which, it is successful as a starfish, as humans with their brain are as humans.

    The question is asked “Is it possible that Begley is trying to say that our natural intuitions and instincts can override reasoning?” I would reply in the affirmative to this, but would add this is nothing new. We know this can happen, but most often are, in the light of clear reasoning and thought, able to see through the fallacy and take if necessary the best action.
    The Human Race would for instance, not be at its present stage of technology had it been overwhelmingly bedevilled by irrationality such that the latter can be shown to be favoured by Evolution.

  20. @Ralph S
    >I can’t believe evolutionary forces favor irrationality.

    We have a diverse array of belief systems.
    They are all irrational, as they bestow supernatural attributes (to varying degrees).
    They are evolutionary adaptations to increased societal living…

  21. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,

    I was quoting from Microsoft Encarta, which defines a starfish as a “marine invertebrate animal.” The intention of the starfish example was not to present argument about biological classifications. The point was that life could evolve without an internal mechanism for advanced cognitive logic; which Begley, et al. seemed to be struggling.

    On your insinuation that the “present state of technology” favours evolution, I remind that life species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Some people hypothesize that technology might bring the end of evolution on earth.

  22. Dennis, I often argue that genetic evolution is in the process of being replaced by technological evolution. Technological evolution appears to progress much more quickly then genetic evolution (though it lacks some of the randomness that contributes to diversity).

  23. Re Emily C August 24th:
    Personally I would ask you initially, to define your terms here, and also give some supporting examples. Without that I am not sure of your meaning, or exactly what it entails.

  24. @Mike
    >Since there are no unicorns or dragons
    >the first premise is true

    Since there are no unicorns or dragons, you don’t have a first premise.

  25. Re:- Dennis Sceviour | August 24,

    You state:-
    “The point was that life could evolve without an internal mechanism for advanced cognitive logic;” I agree with this, it does seem to be what has happened.

    You state further:-
    “On your insinuation that the “present state of technology” favours evolution”
    I did not mean to state this, or insinuate it. What I intend to say is:- The Human Race would for instance, not be at its present stage of technology had it been overwhelmingly bedevilled by irrationality. Evolution which has over the ages refined the human mind in accordance with survival of the fittest, would have been hampered by an overdose of irrationality by the evolving humans.

    Yes we most likely are facing the Holocene extinction, the sixth great extinction, and Technology may well be paying a contributing part. However life here has survived five major extinctions prior to this so unless the planet is annihilated or becomes completely hostile to the production of certain organic compounds it seems probable that life will not be extinguished completely. Unfortunately we will not be here to observe, analyse, and try to explain what is going on.

  26. Re Emily C August Aug 24th:-

    I think he does have a premise.
    1/ because he says he has one, it is certainly not meaningless, and has the attributes of a premise.
    2/ because the premiss refers to the Universe of Discourse in which Unicorns and Dragons exist.That is Fairy stories and Myths.

    You would not query it if he said ‘no elephants are tigers’ because that is the Universe of Discourse which contains those animals.

  27. Emily,

    But I do. There is no requirement that a premise refer to things that really exist. Of course, it does seem a bit suspect that an A claim or E claim about things that do not exist would be true. But, that is the nature of contemporary logic. For a bit of the history, take a look at Russell and Strawson.

  28. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    Thank you for your response. We seem to be on the same track. There is a detail to clear up.

    Some people regard Darwin’s exposition of adaptation by Natural Selection as an endorsement of war, social conflict, unrestricted economic strife, and other violent and aggressive forms of politics. It was British political philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Darwin never went further that saying “the struggle for survival.”

  29. @Don and Mike:

    Mike is setting this up knowing it’s proving his point.

    He takes non-existing elements, runs the logical operands, then says, that as they don’t exist then this…

    The logic is fine, it’s the conclusion that is suspect.

    As Mike said “… I tell my students, a deductive argument is not true or false, but valid or invalid”

    Either we accept that dragons and unicorns are indeed a concept that everyone is familiar with and have indeed passed into the collective consciousness, or there is no such thing. You can’t define A is (or is not) B AND say both are mythical.

    Try repeating with entities no one has ever heard of – you can say that an izo isn’t an oz, but what value does it have? None, because it’s invalid.

  30. Re Dennis Sceviour Aug 24th

    Thanks for reminding me it was Spencer. I knew it was not a term used by Darwin but had you asked me I would have attributed it to “Darwin’s Bulldog” T. H. Huxley.
    The application of Darwinian Evolution to the social interactions of Human beings is I understand beset with great difficulties. Whilst there may be some similarities in all these processes, it is dangerous to describe and make predictions, applying Evolution in its Darwinian sense, e.g. Social Darwinism, to areas other than that which Darwin described.
    Darwinism was of course embraced by the Nazi Party who amongst other atrocities took steps to destroy those judged not fit to survive. Certainly Darwinian Evolution never endorsed calculated and brutal mass murder. Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and surely trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry. Because a person describes a phenomenon he should not be held responsible for what happens in that phenomenon. There is a difference between describing and advocating, and the two are often conflated.
    However it is interesting to note That in the “Descent of Man” Darwin did suggest social instincts such as sympathy and moral sentiments also evolved through natural selection, strengthening of societies in which they occurred. It occurs to me that Opposition and Immoral sentiments could also strengthen a Society.

  31. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    I cannot agree with your statement “Darwin did suggest social instincts such as sympathy and moral sentiments also evolved through natural selection…”

    Darwin introduced his theory of “reciprocal altruism” in the Descent of Man (1871): “each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return.” It is important to note that Darwin considered the factor a cognitive learning experience, and not genetic evolution.

  32. Re:-Emily C
    “You can’t define A is (or is not) B AND say both are mythical.”

    Surely in the context of Mythology that is to say where we speak only of mythological entities i.e. magical creatures, it surely makes sense to say No Unicorns are Dragons. You must surely know what I mean, unless you have no knowledge of Mythology whatsoever. These creatures do have existence in Mythology and can be treated with the same logical operations as we use in other contexts and I would say that again in the context of mythology, the statement is true. How does this differ from propositions made in the context of the Natural world in which all humans live? You would not query The proposition No Horses are Sheep. Remember it is so far as I can see, just a matter of which context, or as it is sometimes called Universe of Discourse we inhabit at the time of utterance. Fact or fiction, the logic is the same, and probably also the manner in which we would decide the truth of the propositions.

    “You can say that an izo isn’t an oz, but what value does it have? None, because it’s invalid.”
    This is not meaningless nor is it not ‘logically invalid’ (I am not sure what you mean by ‘Invalid’) because I can do logical operations with it. If I said no ‘I is O’ I can do all sorts of logical operations and inferences it. It obverts to ‘All I is non-O’. And converts to ‘No O is I’. All three of these are logically equivalent. It is also possible to form a Contrapositive which does have limitations and will not be discussed here.
    I would claim therefore that your ‘izo isn’t an oz’ does have some value notwithstanding that izo and oz are not defined. It is not a lifeless useless, inert, good for nothing expression by far.

  33. Re:-Author: Dennis Sceviour
    I take your point here. However Animals who indulge in reciprocal altruism as result of genetic mutation or whatever have in the appropriate cases better survival value for the species than those who do not. Again surely Cognitive experience itself, is not exempt from the evolutionary pressures. Far be it for me to argue against Darwin but I feel that evolution has played a part, sometimes a small one in all aspects of the living world.

  34. Don
    >These creatures do have existence in Mythology

    My point exactly.

    Mike “uses” this knowledge to make his logical operands, but then to “solve” them, says they don’t exist.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    If you have a mythological premise, you have to have a mythological conclusion.

  35. Dennis Sceviour

    Emily C,
    On your comment, “If you have a mythological premise, you have to have a mythological conclusion”:
    Not necessarily. An irrational premise might stumble upon a rational conclusion by accident; that is, an irrational premise brings about a measure of unpredictability. Personally, I am abhorrent to fallacious, mythological irrationalities. I would prefer to use rational premises, or make no logical conclusion. Mythology is nice for entertainment, but offers no predictable substance. Some of the inconclusive debates of philosophy can be traced to the erroneous conclusions from ancient Greek mythology.

  36. Emily,

    My point doesn’t rest on dragons or unicorns. Rather, the point is that the argument is technically invalid using contemporary logic.

    Just using claim variables, here is the argument:

    1. No P are M
    2. All M are S.
    C: So, some S are not P.

    Now, if you do a Venn diagram for this argument, Premise 1 will be diagrammed by shading the intersection of P and M (thus showing it is empty). Premise 2 will be diagrammed by shading all the M circle that is outside the S circle. The conclusion requires that there be an X in the S circle but outside the P circle. However, there is no X, so the argument is invalid.

    As I mentioned, if it is assumed that the claim variables cannot refer to empty sets (so that there exists at least one S, one P and one M) then that would make the argument valid (with the unstated premise just mentioned).

    an izo isn’t an oz is not invalid, since it is not an argument. While I do know what Oz is supposed to be, I do not know what an Izo is supposed to be, so I cannot say whether the claim is true or false.

  37. Mike, you explicitly claim “Since there are no unicorns or dragons, the first premise is true”

    You are relying on the mythological status of Unicorns and Dragons to verify the veracity of your first (and second) premise(s).

    Draw a big circle, label it P.

    Draw a big circle next to it, not touching P; call it M.

    Draw a bigger circle that fully encompasses M, and partially overlaps P; call it S.

    You will see that there are “X’s” inside S, but outside P.
    So, some S are not P.

    >an izo isn’t an oz is not invalid, since it is not an argument.

    But replacing them with single letters, or unicorns, suddenly makes them so?

    Either its valid with P’s, Unicorns, or izos or anything else you choose, or it’s not. The logic operating on them will not change dependent on the item – unless you choose to invoke prior knowledge, or outside influence, such as denying their existence.

  38. Dennis:
    >An irrational premise might stumble
    >upon a rational conclusion by accident;

    I’m not sure how you would prove that with the logic equations being used. Unless someone’s god is involved. Although I’m pretty sure, in the example, there was no stumbling or accidental conclusions.

    But, to be honest, I think the logic equations are just parlour games anyway.

    >Some of the inconclusive debates of philosophy…

    Aren’t they all, inherently, inconclusive?


  39. “Those of us who lack the above traits depend on reason,”


  40. Re Emily August 26th:
    I agree that you cannot conflate different contexts e.g. Mythology and Reality. As you say you can’t have it both ways.
    However I do not think this is what Mike is doing. The problem here is bound up by an incompatibility In Aristotelian Logic, and Contemporary logic, together with the concept of Existential Import.
    Thus the syllogism is valid in Aristotelian but not in Contemporary. Aristotelian Logic did not embrace the idea of Empty or Null classes, for example the class of USA Prime ministers is empty as there are none.
    Contemporary logic has it that the universal propositions: All S is P. and No S is P express no existential import i.e. no members.
    However the particular proposition Some S is P. asserts that there exists at least one S which is a P and the particular proposition Some S is not P asserts there is at least one S which is not P.
    So Universal Propositions do not have existential import but Particular propositions do.
    This brings us to the rule that no valid categorical syllogism with a particular conclusion can have two universal premisses. To violate this rule is to go from premisses which have no existential import to a conclusion which does.
    To my way of thinking and returning to the Begley article I imagine that one would not expect a person who has not studied logic to these sophisticated levels to have such knowledge. Thus it seems a reply, to the question by Begley “is it true?” may be considered acceptable reasoning, whether it be arrived at by means of Aristotelian or Contemporary logic. After all we are testing the ability of people to reason not their depth knowledge of Logic.
    I think Begley was plainly wrong to ask if the syllogism were true, she should have asked if it were valid. If you refer to the original article by Mercier and Sperber you will see that no mention is made as to the conditions under which the test was carried out or whether people were asked if it were true or false or valid or invalid they use the term “figuring it out.” So far as falsifying the conclusion is concerned it seems people are reluctant to do this preferring to hold to the first model which occurs to to them. Additionally Mercier and Sperber point out that failure on this test is often as a result lack of motivation and not ability. It is also indicated that the more unbelievable a conclusion is the harder people will try to give counter examples. Thus ‘all fish are trout leads’ to diligent efforts to prove the contradictory that ‘some fish are not trout’
    I still remain unconvinced that Evolution may confer irrationality as Begley suggests.

  41. I think it best to just leave (me out of) the Some-S-is-not-P debate – I guess I’m just not on the same page.

    However, this spikes my interest:

    “I still remain unconvinced that Evolution
    may confer irrationality as Begley suggests”

    So you think irrationality is only culturally acquired?
    It’s a learnt behavior?

  42. Re Emily: Sorry I misquoted Begley. I should have said “Evolution may favour irrationality.”
    I cannot see how being irrational, can confer better survival value than being rational. I think it can be culturally acquired and probably learnt behaviour also. Whatever the case, the rational person must surely generally score over the irrational one. If you were in the hands of a leader who claimed to be able to extricate you from a life threatening situation would you feel more likely to survive were he known to be rational or irrational?
    This word ‘may’ is so often a bugbear. Anything within the realms of possibility may happen; well it may, so what? May embraces a large stretch of vague probabilities. One sees advertisements for medication which state ‘may’ help with such and such a malady.’ May is no good to me, I want something that will help.

  43. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    On your observation, “Aristotelian Logic did not embrace the idea of Empty or Null classes”, Excellent! I have mentioned this several times in the above discussion. I am glad someone has finally noticed. The Greeks had no symbol for the number zero.

    Classical logic is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also Boolean logic used in computers, non-linear logic used in robotics machinery, and quantum mechanics. Correct me if I am mistaken, but the principle of unpredictability is essential to quantum theory. The question that philosophers face is not only what these logic systems are, but also what these logic systems ought to be used for. As you said above,” there is a difference between describing and advocating.”

  44. Dennis Sceviour

    Emily C,
    “Some of the inconclusive debates of philosophy…””Aren’t they all, inherently, inconclusive?””

    I hope not. It only supports the argument that philosophy is a waste of time. It might give ground to shoot all the philosophers. Even a temporary conclusion is acceptable. I would at least conclude from the above that:

    (1) Irrationality is not an evolutionary principle. Irrationality is a cognitive experience, and sometimes a political agenda.
    (2) “The Evolution of the Irrational” is a misnomer for the title of an article.

  45. Emily,

    In contemporary logic, claims such as All S are P and No S are P are true when the classes are empty. So, I am not doing anything sneaky here.

    As far as your circles, I’m using the Venn diagram method for testing validity. In regards to your method, where do the Xs come from?

    No, what makes an argument is premises + a conclusion.

    The argument is technically invalid under the assumptions of contemporary logic. However, as I mentioned, if it assumed that there are members of the classes in question, then the conclusion does follow from the premises.

  46. Don:

    In contemporary society we are not often faced with life-threatening situations. Therefore, the fact that rationality has more survival value in one has little importance today.

    If one observes young people in a party or a discotheque, one sees that good looks, a winning smile, a forceful personality,
    behavior which conforms to gender stereotypes have much more reproductive success than a rational or thoughtful personality.

    What’s more a rational young person, even if he or she has reproductive success, is more likely to use birth control, given that he or she foresees the possible consequences of his or her acts.

    I note that the most rational people in historical terms, the great philsophers from Plato to Wittgenstein, with the exception of Socrates, Aristotle and Marx, did not reproduce.

    However, after the bloom of youth fades, rational people are apt to be more successful, healthier, to make more money,
    and to live longer. It is probable that rational people have more reproductive success than less rational ones after, say, age 35.

  47. Mike:
    >where do the Xs come from?

    The same place as yours – sorry, I did make an assumption that your X was an individual who could be in any group… (I thought this was your “member of the classes”)

    >using the Venn diagram method for testing validity

    Again, I guess I just don’t get this – I’m not sure why my circles are not Venn diagrams, although yours are…

  48. Dennis;
    I realize this is probably frowned upon in philosophical circles, but I did put a smiley at the end!

  49. Re;_ Dennis Sceviour | August 27
    I agree with all you say here.

    Emily said recently “I think the logic equations are just parlour games anyway.
    >Some of the inconclusive debates of philosophy
    Aren’t they all, inherently, inconclusive?”
    I was tempted to reply that it is thanks to logic, and all it embraces, that we are able to converse here in the way we do.

  50. Amos,

    You said “If one observes young people in a party or a discotheque, one sees that good looks, a winning smile, a forceful personality, behavior which conforms to gender stereotypes have much more reproductive success than a rational or thoughtful personality.”

    This reminds me of the lions mane. The recent portrayal of the male lion in recent documentaries says that he’s a poor hunter, and the lioness does most of the hunting. They also say, that the males are bigger because that’s what the females select (and I make no presumptions about which sex is more rational). Assuming they’ve got this right, does the larger size of the male lion server any purpose other than appearance. Could it provide a stronger defense against threats outside the pride? I haven’t heard an answer to this one. But, in that hot climate, it’s hard to imagine a function for the mane itself other than appearance.

    Historically, breeding behaviors do not have a reputation for being highly rational. But, these behaviors exist in more species than rationality as we know it.

    It seems to me that contributing to future generations requires some motivation that is balanced with motivations for self interest. That is, without social motivation, even rationality would be influenced by self interest alone, and that’s just not enough to keep things going.

  51. Dennis Sceviour

    Emily C,
    Not at all. In some places, people risk serious criticism and consequences for making an ethical conclusion. 🙁

    Here are some suggestions for a more appropriate, and equally provocative, title for the article:

    “Evolution and the Irrational”
    “Evolution or Irrationality”
    “Evolution is not Irrational”

  52. Re;-Posted by amos | August 27, 2010, 3:51 pm
    Amos, I am not sure I agree with your claim that ‘In contemporary society we are not often faced with life-threatening situations’. How would you know this? Surely each time we cross a road, or drive a vehicle, have a little too much to drink, over eat, smoke too much, or forget or neglect to take our medication for say, hypertension, our lives are threatened. It is rationality which makes us aware of these threats and accordingly we usually act in such a way to reduce the threat.
    The business of survival here, I think, is not so much survival of Human beings but that rationality itself has survival value as a genetic trait it becomes evolutionarily selected over irrationality. The body is just the vehicle of the genes (if you go along with Richard Dawkins) the genes call the shots and adapt the body for their best survival.
    It seems to me that in a vast pool of organisms, if we could make the appropriate observations, we would see rationalism preferred to irrationality. This of course is merely an hypothesis which would need verification. Looking at the problem from the viewpoint of social science I do know that verification is difficult and often inconclusive.
    I do not think that rationalism and and a thoughtful reflective personality necessarily go hand in hand as you suggest. There are many who just for the hell of it throw caution and rationality and thoughtfulness to the winds and behave irrationally. They are probably doing what we call enjoying themselves. Most often they come to no harm because when it really matters they know, if only subconsciously, what, for want of a better expression, the score really is. Thus an underlying rational nature probably has more survival value to it than an irrational one.

  53. Don:

    We are not discussing whether rationality has survival value, as far as I know, but about the relation between rationality and evolution.

    In my previous post, I said that rational people live longer and are healthier, so I do not deny the survival value of rationality.

    What I call into question is the evolutionary value of rationality in contemporary society, since at the age at which most people reproduce, rationality does not confer a reproductive advantage and may actually be a disadvantage.

    Thus, irrational people may reproduce more (they are less likely to use birth control, for example) and the human race may be evolving towards a more irrational population.

    Most of the life-threatening situations which you cite, drinking too much, smoking, overeating, not taking my hypertension medication, may cut my probable life span from age 85 to age 70, but very few of us reproduce between age 70 and age 85.

    In a more primitive society, young people face life-threatening situations which they must face in order to reach reproductive age, and thus, in the neolithic age, for example, a rational personality had a clear evolutionary advantage. I doubt that that is still the case.

  54. Amos, thanks for your prompt reply I am impressed. I wish I could put my words together so readily. It is not old age, I have always been slow in this respect, it was a bugbear in exams of course. Google scholar has revealed some interesting articles, concerning the evolution of rationality, and I am minded to research further.
    I am not quite clear of your meaning when you say “We are not discussing whether rationality has survival value,  as far as I know,   but about the relation between rationality and evolution.”

    It seems to me that enhanced survival, is the mainstay of evolution. That being the case, how can you speak about the relation of rationality and evolution without mentioning survival value. The effects of evolution are surely only revealed by the apparent fact that the fittest survive. I do appreciate that notwithstanding, there is still a Rationality v Irrationality problem here. If as Begley, at the head of he article suggests, ‘evolution may favour irrationality’ the only way it can favour it is by irrationality having greater survival value than rationality. Perhaps I am wrong, but is that not the essence of the question posed here?

  55. Don:

    I’ve always been better at words than at science.

    I may be mistaken about how evolution works, but I thought that it was not about survival value per se, but about surviving long enough to reproduce. Those who survive long enough to reproduce pass on their genes and thus, the population will in the long run have traits similar to those who reproduce.

    Thus, Jim is rational and has only one child, while Tim is irrational and has 7 children with 7 different women, leading him to bankrupcy after various suits for child support payments, while Jim thrives, has good medical care and lives 25 years longer than Tim. Yet Tim’s genes and those like him will begin to predominate in the population.

    Under more primitive conditions, Tim’s irrationality probably would not assure his survival until the age of reproduction, since in primitive conditions, one needs lots of smarts to survive each day.
    However, in contemporary society,
    things are fairly safe and easy for anyone who is middle class or richer.

    It is interesting that periods of great historical creativity, the Athens of Pericles or the Renaissance, follow periods in which things were hard, Homeric Greece or the Middle Ages. That is, during hard times, only the smart survive to reproduce (and smarts involve not only logical rationality, but also creativity, the ability to think outside the box), and their descendents, the Athenians of the age of Pericles, inherit that creative survival ability and use it to create great works of art and philosophy.

    That’s my bull-shit history lesson for the day. Don’t take me too seriously.

  56. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    I still cannot agree with your opinion “The effects of evolution are surely only revealed by the apparent fact that the fittest survive.”

    I know we have spoken about this before. Your statement has no scientific basis, and is usually associated with a political agenda. Your entire thesis revolves around this ridiculous fallacy.

    For example, a species of marine turtle lays it eggs on the beaches. When the eggs hatch, the baby turtles dash for the ocean as the sea birds above swoop down and gulp them whole. Only a very small percentage of baby turtles make it to the ocean for survival. Their survival does not depend on fitness, but on good fortune.

    When you use the word evolution, I assume you are using the meaning from Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” As a defender of Darwin, I point out that he took steps to disassociate himself with evolutionary ethics. Perhaps you could explain how you conflate Darwin’s evolutionary observations with cultural conditioning and political agendas.

    If you still insist on making an ethical conclusion, then perhaps you might consider using Darwin’s population theories as a rational scientific basis. Darwin defined minimum population levels to sustain a species before extinction. For example, if the baby turtles disappear, then the sea birds will lose their food source and also disappear. This chain reaction is what is happening. Life is disappearing both above and below the ocean surface. If the numbers go below a minimum level, then all life will disappear – very quickly.

  57. Re:- Dennis Sceviour August 29th

    The expression ‘survival of the fittest’ does not embrace exactly what Darwinism is about; yes it goes much deeper than just that. I used the expression here in anticipation that some readers who are not Darwinian scholars (not that I am), would, as it is a familiar phrase, hopefully follow my argument. Also the expression is used by me in the same spirit of Darwin when he wrote “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”(6th Edition of The Origin).

    ‘Survival of the fittest’ does have military, social, and political connotations. In this connection I have already stated “The application of Darwinian Evolution to the social interactions of Human beings is I understand beset with great difficulties. Whilst there may be some similarities in all these processes, it is dangerous to describe and make predictions, applying Evolution in its Darwinian sense, e.g. Social Darwinism, to areas other than that which Darwin described.” I had no intention of conflating Darwin’s evolutionary observations with cultural conditioning and political agendas. I have elsewhere also mentioned the problem of inexactitude which at times bedevils the discipline of social science. To predict exactly what man will do, is of extreme difficulty and often proved wrong.

    I have some issues with your example of the turtles. I do not think good fortune is especially relevant here. In point of fact turtles nearly always hatch at night when predators are at a minimum so their survival is thereby better. Thus there is an obvious evolutionary drive to hatch at night, when survival rates on the beach are much higher.
    The small number who do hatch during the day do get decimated but a few escape. I tentatively suggest that those who have escaped may have done so because they inherited certain survival techniques or that their parent laid eggs nearer the sea line which they reached, whilst their less fortunate companions perished. Just to put it down to good fortune does seem short sighted it is not really an explanation, nor could it be put forth as an hypothesis. I am not claiming there is no such thing as apparent blind good fortune but scientifically it is surely not the first port of call and I would be surprised to see it quoted in a reputable scientific paper without some reservations, and or further explanation.

    My main concern in this question, or as it appears to me, is to find some grounds that Rationality and Irrationality can function as components in evolution. If this be the case, then which of the two is likely to favour survival. I have come to no firm conclusion here other than to voice an hypothesis that common sense would favour, Rationality, and to suggest this might be testable. I make no claim that this is correct it is at this time the best I can suggest. To go further would need more research into the problem and I have noted in this connection that some have already addressed it: for instance, cf ‘The Evolution of Rationality’, Synthese 46 (1981) 95-120. The fact that we have become much involved in discussions of Logic and the fine points of Evolution whilst very interesting and instructive, do not seem to contribute much to the basic question at issue.

  58. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    On your comment “I do not think good fortune is especially relevant here”, I apologize if my literary device was too colorful. However, the synonyms inexactitude, uncertainty, unpredictability and randomness are frequently found in scientific papers. A detailed philosophical examination into the causality might include a discussion of determinism; which goes far beyond the scope intended in this article.

    I have already taken the position that irrationality is not an evolutionary principle, and I see no submission to change that position. With the exception of the original author, no one in the above discussion has said otherwise. Therefore, I take it the issue is closed.

    I agree the question remains whether rationality favors evolution. Two issues appear. First, is whether the question goes beyond the scope intended from the article and its discussion. Our debate has already progressed further than I anticipated. Second, an answer would require one to make a conclusion in evolutionary ethics, which has debatable consequences in itself considering its history. As a defender of Darwin, I can add the following observations:

    Several incongruities confronted Darwin in his book “On the Origin of the Species.” For example, he could not explain the existence of drone bees whose genetic traits could not be transferred, (I hope you approve of this example). Thus, Darwin revised some of his thoughts in “The Descent of Man.” In particular, Darwin took steps to separate cognitive experience from evolutionary traits.

    I am tempted to hypothesize rationality is not an evolutionary principle.

  59. Re Dennis Sceviour Aug 31st
    I have read your reply with interest. I attach an extract from paper by Richard Feldman (Journal:Philosophy of Science Vol. 55. No 2(Jun1988) pp 218-227. This more or less is my own view of the matter. He also states similar Arguments are to be found In Dan Dennett and Jerry Fodor. I have not had the opportunity to examining these at the moment. Most likely there are also more recent publications in this connection.

    “A tempting argument linking evolution and rationality goes like this: if a being has beliefs at all, it is better (that is, more conducive to survival) for it to have true beliefs than false beliefs. True beliefs about where one’s food is are more helpful for finding food, and surviving, than are false beliefs. Similarly, true beliefs about where one’s predators are and how to escape them are more survival enhancing than false beliefs about these matters. So, natural selection is likely to select for believers that have mostly true beliefs. The best way, perhaps the only way, for believers to have mostly true beliefs is for them to have reliable belief-forming mechanisms or strategies. Reliable mechanisms or strategies are ones that lead mostly to true beliefs. Hence, natural selection will select believers that have reliable belief-forming mechanisms. Beliefs that result from reliable mechanisms are rational beliefs and the believers using such mechanisms are rational beings. Thus, natural selection selects rational believers. Since people are believers that are the product of a long period of natural selection, people must be rational.
    Perhaps it is an argument along these lines that Daniel Dennett has in mind when he states that “natural selection guarantees that most of an Organism’s beliefs will be true, most of its strategies rational”. Perhaps Jerry Fodor has such an argument in mind when he mentions Dennett’s views with approval and claims “Darwinian selection guarantees that organisms either know the elements of logic or become posthumous”.
    Feldman does conclude his article with a brief defense of agnosticism with regard to the selective advantages of believing truths and using reliable belief-forming strategies.

    Dennett D. (1982)”Making Sense of Ourselves” in J. Biro and R Shahan (eds), Mind, Brain, and Function. University of Oklahoma press pp 63-81.

    Fodor, J. (1981) “Three Cheers for Propositional Attitudes”, in J Fodor “Representations”, MIT Press pp 100-123.

  60. I think I’m beginning to pin down a certain unsettled sense that’s be brewing in my head. The quote that Don provided above is very interesting. However, I feel that it lacks something or that it attempts to create a definition that is too narrow or absolute.

    In my personal view that what can exist within anyone’s mind is at best a summary of something in the real World, I don’t see how rationality can be more than some small subset of reasonable beliefs.

    What I do like about that quote is that it addresses the relevance of “true beliefs”. But, I think it’s clear that rationality doesn’t always guarantee a true belief or a usable belief. While this fits with my idea that we are limited to a summary, perhaps it would be meaningful to say that rationality is not limited to precise logic but includes an acceptable range of statistical approximations (as would fit with many views of a mind that is independent of reality).

    Note that approximations are much more coarse when time is more limited. And, time tends to be very limited in the presence of an imminent predatory threat, e.g. a jaguar jumping down upon you. In such situations, survival is much more dependent upon quick reactions then any detailed rational analysis. I can think of two meaningful reactions to such an immediate threat: freeze or run (or fight if you can manage to defeat a jaguar). And, these would appear to be the reactions that we are evolved to perform. However, I would not say that those reactions come from any rational place, at least not one of a detailed and deeply pondered analysis. (Precision is not required, but erring on the side of caution is very acceptable.) Instead, I think such reactions come from the place that is most associated with what we call irrational. That is, most of what we call irrational comes from the part of us that was permitted to be imprecise as long as it errs on the side of caution. For example, prejudices that can be very harmful to society are an irrationality of caution.

    At this point (and my thoughts on this are still settling), I would be cautious about what can be said about the relationship between rationality and evolution. Surely, they are not incompatible, as they do coexist. I would even accept that our rationality is a product of evolution. But, I would not say that evolution requires rationality. Nor would I say that rationality replaces any other form of survival mechanism. At best, I think rationality is an enhancement that expands, compliments, and magnifies the other survival mechanisms (and hopefully soften the other mechanisms in cases like prejudice).

    If we attempt to discard the mechanisms that got us this far in favor of rationality, then we may lose a necessary foundation and end up with less than or worse than what we have. I’m very much in favor of the old saying (as worn as it is) “the right tool for the job”.

  61. Re: Posted by Tesserid | August 24, 2010, 2:58 pm

    On your statement “I often argue that genetic evolution is in the process of being replaced by technological evolution,” perhaps you could expand on your basic definition of evolution. I am familiar with the definition based on Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. It seems to me you are merging technology with a different meaning for evolution.

  62. Dennis,

    I agree.

    Most of my supporting evidence comes from the way in which we use technology in ways that overrides evolutionary selection. For instance, cosmetic surgery is used to alter traits affecting the selection process involved in breeding.

    But, the part of my claim that I think you are addressing is the idea that there is still going to be a selection process at a technological level. These are, of course, more directly influenced by conscious decisions, but our conscious decisions don’t and can’t account for all possible side effects of our technology. So, much of the technology we have is not purely a matter of engineering every little detail. In fact many an engineer will tell you that there is plenty of trial and error involved. What we end up with, regardless our understanding of the technology, is what works. Ultimately, technological survival of the fittest is about what fits our desires rather then what fits the environment alone.

    The trick is that the rationality involved in this sort of technological evolution, while it is capable of greater precision, can fall into certain kinds of algorithmic traps. Genetic evolution, however unfeeling, will always have the advantage of randomness–the one thing (as far as I know) that breaks the tightest of algorithmic traps.

  63. Re: Posted by John Jones | August 23, 2010, 4:17 pm
    “I don’t see what argument has to do with truth. If we have trouble stating the facts then that is not arguing, it is shouting.”

    Argumentation is part of learning philosophy. It is important to learn how to present an argument without shouting. I know this is hard to understand after listening to government house with all the hooting and catcalling. Probably our greatest public orator in the present time in history is Barrack Obama. He has a gift for saying nothing, and saying it beautifully.

    You might be interested in joining a club called “Toastmasters.” Here you can learn how stand and modulate a speech before an audience. Hopefully, the study of philosophy can add a truthful substance to an oration.

  64. Tesserid,
    It is important that we agree on the definition and meaning of basic terms before discussing ideas that are more abstract. I sifted through your posting and this is the best that I can figure your definition of evolution.

    “Evolution is the conscious trial and error decisions to fit our desires.”

    Perhaps you would like to refine and amend my interpretation of your meaning of evolution.

    Microsoft word contains seven different definitions for evolution. This is the closest equivalent I can find:

    “Evolution – gradual development: the gradual development of something into a more complex or better form, e.g. the evolution of democracy in Western Europe”

    Philosophy looks for more than the question of how logic works. Philosophy also asks questions like, Where did rationality come from, What am I to do with rationality, and Where will rationality go? One of the greatest engineers and philosophers of his time was Rene Descartes. His philosophical conclusion of the relationship between mind and matter was profound when he concluded, “I think, therefore I am.”

  65. Dennis,

    That should give me pause to review what I’ve written and further hone my skills. But, I should first respond that my points had a somewhat different intent. And, as I mentioned before, my thoughts on this are still tentative.

    First, one point that interests me is: as consciousness and self awareness (however rational) increases, it will increasingly meddle in those things that affect evolution.

    And, while it may need refinement, I would hope that the preceding statement can stand on it’s own.

    So, when I refer to a concept of “technological evolution” as opposed to that of “genetic evolution” there is both the thing that is evolving along with the things that influence that evolution.

    One thing that fascinates me is that evolution, as biological science portrays it, involves not only physical traits but behavioral ones as well. That is, behaviors are selected and propagated forward through genetic encoding. Another fascinating thing is the rather circular notion that behaviors that are selected are behaviors that are involved in the selection process.

    So, I think we should not be surprised that being consciously aware of evolution also affects the course of evolution.

    The question I am raising is a matter of how traits are encoded. Biological Science focuses on genetics (and now epigenetics). Social Science, I suppose focuses on culture, where encoding is a matter of ideas passed down through the generations. In technology, the ideas are a matter of technological design. But, now we have technology that is specifically designed to encode information. Whether or not that technology will be able to have its own ideas or simply remain a way to record aspects of our ideas is still a matter of debate.

    Perhaps, my biggest question is, to what extent can we override genetic evolution without making ourselves extinct?

    If we are unable to find a way to encode our humanity, along with the ability for humanity to evolve, in a medium other than genes, then we should be very careful about irrevocably diverting the process of genetic evolution.

    (Well, I think that’s enough for a single tentative comment, though I realize that I haven’t done much to refine this definition of technological evolution. Your feedback is appreciated.)

  66. We want a definition of Biological Evolution. We are not interested here in concepts like the evolution of the Motor car, or the Computer, or Education or Democracy. It is the evolution of living things in themselves. The word obviously embraces other concepts which lie outside of Biology. In my opinion this often causes confusion. A quick look (but I may be wrong here) for instance at what I have of Richard Dawkins (although he is far from the ultimate authority) and what I remember, does not reveal a thoroughgoing definition of Biological Evolution. His work is abundant in examples but no once and for all, definition. The word does not appear in “The Origin” The best definition I can find is:- “The theory that groups of organisms change with passage of time, mainly as a result of natural selection, so that descendants differ morphologically and physiologically from their ancestors.”
    cf Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. © 2007 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier,

    Philosophy does embrace more than Logic and continually seeks to question even what appear to be accepted facts. In his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” John Locke describes the occupation of philosophy as something in the nature of ‘an ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge’. Very often in life it becomes fashionable, or the custom to say, for instance A is B; it is accepted without further thought. Such I believe is the case with Descartes’ Cogito, generally thought to be infallible, and as was stated profound. It was in its time maybe, but further analysis throws some doubt on it.

    When Descartes stated “I think therefore I am” it seems reasonable to ask on what grounds can it be held he is the same I today as he was yesterday. Appealing to Bertrand Russell may not it be the world only came into existence five minutes ago?

    Søren Kierkegaard provided a critical response to the cogito. He argued that the cogito already pre-supposes the existence of “I”, and therefore concluding with existence is logically trivial.

    The objection, as presented by Georg Lichtenberg, is that rather than supposing an entity that is thinking, Descartes should have said: “thinking is occurring.” That is, whatever the force of the cogito, Descartes draws too much from it; the existence of a thinking thing, the reference of the “I,” is more than the cogito can justify.

  67. Don, I wouldn’t want you to think that I was interested in the kind of discussion you describe as “the evolution of the Motor car, or the Computer, or Education or Democracy”. But, I am interested in the relationship between rational thinking and genetic evolution, and the implications thereof. My discussion of technology here is a matter of technology being a product of rational thinking that has an effect upon and/or is a product of genetic evolution. Also, I was tempted to take a poke at good old Descartes by saying “I think, therefore I evolve”, but my feelings are mixed about where that could lead.

  68. Tesserid,
    Your reply is one of the better efforts I have seen from the above postings. However, you are evading the central question I was looking for, that is; we need a basic agreement for the definition of evolution before making a conclusion in evolutionary ethics. Perhaps you are prepared to leave your approach of technological evolution, and stay with biological evolution.

    The interesting observation “as consciousness and self awareness (however rational) increases, it will increasingly meddle in those things that affect evolution” supports the argument that rationality is not an evolutionary principle. Rationality might be an evolutionary interference.

    “Perhaps, my biggest question is, to what extent can we override genetic evolution without making ourselves extinct?” Many noted scientists say that the planets biological clock is ticking and the answer may be much nearer than we imagine. There have been doomsday prophets before, but this observation has rational science on its side. Only in the ocean trenches does life appear safe. If (or when) they find a way to depressurize the life and bring it to the surface without exploding, then even the deepest ocean trenches will be scraped clean. Do not expect the politicians to do anything. Perhaps the best opportunity lies in philosophy being able to make a profound conclusion about evolution, and then expressing it in a manner that is simple enough to interpret without digression. Surely, survival of the fittest cannot be the answer.

    I am still very cautious about making a conclusion in evolutionary ethics. The written word is sometimes useful when modeling how things are, but the written word is confusing and deceitful when describing how things ought to be.

  69. Dennis,

    Well, I’ve certainly gone far enough with citing technology as evidence (at least, for now).

    Note that I am aware of past problems with attempting to derive ethical notions from evolution. One issue that I’ve noted with those past attempts is the attempt to use evolution as an example of how to establish order, which places a heavy emphasis on evolution as a mechanism of refinement. When I learned of this, I wondered if it shouldn’t be turned around the other way, and I think we are now seeing discussions of that sort suggesting that evolution requires a key mechanism for diversity, which is randomness or chaos (often taken as the opposite of order). I know that others have been tempted to tie this to the uncertainty principle and such (at least on a very speculative or superficial level). Personally, my temptation is to tie it to Computer Science, which I’ve hinted at in previous comments here.

    But, while I may see these things as elements of evolution, I don’t see them as clearly defining evolution.

    There is one recurring thought that I have when reflecting on these issues, and it may manage to cut to your question. And, I’ll present this without the reasoning that leads me to it (for now).

    The one thing that evolution does, from it’s very seed and carried forward into the deepest complexity it may achieve, is that it propagates self-repeating patterns (with enough change to insure that the propagation continues). (Um, there may be a redundancy in that statement, but I haven’t yet convinced myself that its wrong to say “propagates self-repeating patterns” and it may, in fact, be key.) Note that in this statement I don’t bother with the notion that evolution produces some kind of improvement. While I must admit that I am fond of many of the things that evolution provides that we we would call improvements, I fear that this is where we begin to cast a sense of judgment over evolution, often with an anthropomorphic tone.

    Aside from my cautionary follow up, one might not find my statement very useful. But, I wonder if it doesn’t say something about how we carry forward certain things that we value, only to change or abandon them when we are sure they are problematic (though, I admit this may be influenced somewhat by romantic notions of culture).

    This, in part, is why I previously argued that rationality does not necessarily replace other mechanisms in evolution simply because we find ourselves frustrated with the irrational. There are many things we have yet to learn about our irrational nature, and I would not replace one part of it without first being sure that it both solves a problem and does not irrevocably destroy some vital and yet undiscovered mechanism. Note that I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m against change (in fact, I’m quite prone to tinkering with things I shouldn’t), but I won’t take it that any particular rationality is automatically better then various associated irrationalities.

    I do think it’s interesting that there are now discussions about the role of randomness and diversity in evolution. Again, I wouldn’t take them as being the whole story, but it may manage to pull people away from the fallacious notion that evolution is primarily about order and refinement. Evolution is just a process of propagating patterns with enough change to insure that the propagation continues. If that propagation eventually continues in a medium other than DNA, I’m fine with that. But, I would like to carry forward some essence of the things that we value, perhaps our humanity, without placing unnecessary judgment on other forms or aspects of life.

  70. Tesserid,
    My position is that value (in the philosophical sense) changes over time. That is, no two people have identical values. I doubt that we could or should genetically encode value.

    Here is an interesting comparison of your technology approach with Descartes. After graduating from university, Descartes abandoned the study of Greek metaphysics and law (or the study of letters as he writes in “The Discourse on the Method”). He suggested philosophy should only be observed with a scientific method. Descartes thought studying a problem that does not yield an answer, is a problem not worth studying. This is similar to your argument presented above. Where I disagree is that you indicate technology ought to replace all other considerations including genetic biology. Science should add to it. Strict technological study does not answer the ethical questions.

    “I fear that this is where we begin to cast a sense of judgment over evolution, often with an anthropomorphic tone.” This is very well expressed. I will have to remember it.

    “Evolution is just a process of propagating patterns with enough change to insure that the propagation continues.” With each try, your definition gets closer to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Keep trying.

  71. Don,
    Too much time and critical material has passed that anyone could seriously consider Descartes “Cogito” as a useful basis for an argument. However, it was considered profound at the time, and the impact on philosophy has been profound.

    Perhaps the greatest shortfall of the “Cogito” is the emphasis on intrinsic (or self) value. Philosophy spends far too much time examining the self and moral consequences. What I feel is needed for an ethical conclusion in evolution might be a statement of our extrinsic (or universal) value.

    There is an appalling lack of material in philosophy on extrinsic value. The little material available is compared with the numerous arguments of the intrinsic. Most extrinsic observations come from naturalists and astronomers. Many extrinsic fallacies are already accumulating as science fiction writers fill in the void left by philosophy.

  72. Concerning, “What I feel is needed for an ethical conclusion in evolution might be a statement of our extrinsic (or universal) value.”

    I cannot see why we would seek for an ethical solution, ethics has been mentioned so many times. Surely what is required is a scientific conclusion. How do ethics become involved in a question about whether irrationality or rationality, i.e. getting it wrong, or getting it right, is selected for, in the process of Natural Selection?

  73. Dennis,

    I think your statement “value (in the philosophical sense) changes over time” is not at odds with what I’m going for here. But, I think we must admit that evolution does influence our sense of value, at least in the sense that values that contribute to the propagation of patterns will tend to have their supporting mechanisms propagated forward. For example, this includes the hormonal mechanisms that influence mating rituals, but it does not mean that cultural elements in mating rituals would somehow be genetically encoded. That is, where we have values that prevent mating, then there may be genetic patterns that fail to be selected. Though, I’m not saying this to place a value judgment on the Shakers.

    Also, I am not saying that we ought to embrace technology as a replacement for genes. What I am saying is that if our technology continues to advance, particularly bioengineering, then we may eventually find that our genetics becomes dependent upon technology–leaving us unable to biologically evolve without it. In which case, bad engineering decisions, rationally motivated or not, could result in our extinction. Of course, that doesn’t contribute much to general ethical questions, but it might say a few things about something like cloning.

    Perhaps a thing to keep in mind is that evolution would not necessarily end suffering. In particular, Buddhism describes an association between desire and suffering, and that sort of desire, along with the capacity to induce suffering, is perpetuated by evolution. For example, desire is an aspect of the patterns involved in mating, and many of us would readily admit that there is plenty of suffering surrounding our mating process. This has us selecting ethical ideas apart from notions of evolution that we then use to moderate the mating urge. So, we are not ones to put up with every motivation that evolution puts in us, and I don’t think there is anything in any evolutionary model that counts as an ethical measure against our attempts to ease such suffering. Thus, Buddhism includes the notion that Samsara should be escaped. And, I must admit that when considering issues where people impose suffering on others, particularly if it’s senseless, I often reflect on that Buddhist association between desire and suffering. But imagine what a Buddhist might say about my suggestion that we should still carry forward the things that we value–an attitude that reflects attachment.

  74. Tesserid,
    “I don’t think there is anything in any evolutionary model that counts as an ethical measure against our attempts to ease such suffering.” – I am not sure I agree. Perhaps you mean that we have to look outside of a scientific model. Your logic then is the premise is irrelevant to the conclusion. This does not form the basis of an argument in contemporary logic, unless you arrive at the null hypothesis. That is, rationality is not an evolutionary principle, and no conclusion is possible about evolutionary ethics.

    Thank you for reminding me about the Buddhist notion of Samsara. There is some measure of extrinsic value from Eastern literature.

    I am satisfied with the scientific conclusion of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection for the meaning of evolution.

  75. Dennis,

    The statement “rationality is not an evolutionary principle” is pretty much it. Evolution will always place a priority on propagating patterns and, where that is threatened, can dispense with rationality.

    I may be missing some of the finer points here, but what I see is an attempt to show rationality as an inevitable product of evolution and, thus, an essential part of evolution. But, likely isn’t enough to say inevitable and important isn’t enough to say essential.

    Consciousness seems to tie into this, and consciousness is also not essential to evolution. But, I suspect that there are meaningful things to say about the importance of rationality to consciousness.

    (Your questions here have kept me on track and have led me to reexamine some old ideas of mine. I do appreciate the input.)

  76. Christian Hunter

    I think it would be more worthwhile to account for what evolution actually physically changes, that is, in this case, the brain… rather than the ideas manifested in it.

    Rationality for everyone seems to be different. That makes it only a perception. If it is even considered. And that is only my perception by observing the people around me. Obviously I have only my perception to refer to, which has come about by probability as all others do in such a mundane but amazing way. I think it’s just the continual change of culture and how it forms societies. Popular media has shaped people in such a way. They would rather have attention than come to a truth or realization, or at least that’s what they’re (a good percentage) use to wanting. Humans are the greatest adapters and so we have adapted. Looking around you now you see the emotionally significant things you hold close. Our emotions decide what is ‘right’. To us. By perception. Truth then becomes how much you are willing or are able to doubt yourself. To detach or un-adapt and, see past the metaphysical emotional manifestations in emotional attachment.

  77. I would say that many arguments involve persuasion rather than proof, as for example a religious debate between two different religious orientations, where there is no proof of existence or non-existence of “the creator”. Is it so much the fact that we are poor at reasoning as opposed to being impacted by so many other factors such as inherent bias and emotions? I might reason that it is best to skip that delicious dessert for the sake of my health but eat it anyway for the sheer enjoyment of having it. As for the evolutionary path, has humanity not come so far so impressively? Look what we have achieved. Look what more we can achieve. Our reasoning and intellectual ability must be doing okay!

  78. David,
    On your comment, “Look what we have achieved.” What have we achieved?

  79. Christian Hunter

    That dessert bit capitalizes the state of evolution in which we are in. Obesity is widespread and humans have weapons, and are willing to use them, that can end, or drastically change or make inhabitable, the only planet of many that can support us. I believe our technology has evolved faster than we have. We’ve (the majority) progressed with the extensions of ourselves but not our actual selves. As much as it can be considered an accomplishment by some it’s still lacking.

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