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Matt Grist on Sat, 7th Mar 2009 6:58 am (Edit)

Sorry, another fairly philosophical post...

I guess one thing I’m wrestling with at the moment is this. According to what we understand about the brain, the emotions play a fundamental role in making possible rationality. A recent experiment by Ariely et al showed that emotional cognition often actually makes us rational - in the case of this experiment it makes choices more consistent. And consistency is one of the two fundamental rational preference relations of rational choice theory!

There are two cognitive spectra: unconscious-self-conscious; rational-irrational.

I want to say that we shouldn’t hive rational cognition off solely into the self-conscious end of the spectrum. In fact, I would go as far as to say there is no such thing as irrational cognition. There is just rational cognition achieved either unconsciously or consciously - either through thought or emotion, or a blend of the two (and self-conscious thought is never without emotion, although emotion, it seems to me, can be without any thought - can be wholly unconscious).

Rationality means ‘with reason’. When we are compelled to find immediate reward intensely tempting - a classic emotional piece of cognition - this is not without reason: the evolutionary reason of securing what we need to survive in an unstable world.

So I think we should stop talking about rational and irrational cognition, about our rational and irrational selves. We are unified selves by virtue of a brain that integrates self-conscious (previously called ‘rational’) with unconscious emotional (previously called ‘irrational’) cognition, all the way down. This integration allows us to decide with reason, whether a reason we self-consciously grasp, or one evolution fitted us out to live by, or one we have learnt to act by unconsciously through habit and learning.


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