Sophia Maximus has always prided herself on her rationality. She would never knowingly act contrary to the dictates of reason. Of course, she understands that some of the basic motivations to action are not rational - such as love, taste, and character. But not being rational is not the same as being irrational. It is neither rational nor irrational to prefer strawberries to raspberries. But, given the preference, it is irrational to buy raspberries when strawberries are just as cheap.
Right now, however, she is in something of a fix. A very intelligent friend persuaded her that it would be perfectly rational to set off a bomb which will kill many innocent people without any obvious benefit, such as saving other lives. She feels sure that there must be something wrong with her friend's argument. But rationally, she cannot see it. What it worse, the argument suggests she should set off the bomb as soon as possible, so thinking longer is not an option.
In the past she has always thought it wrong to reject good rational arguments in favour of hunches and intuitions. Yet if she follows reason in this case, she can't help but feel she will be doing a terrible wrong. Should she knowingly follow the less rational path, or trust reason over feeling and detonate the bomb?
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 52.
Just as the mind and body aren't separate, neither are their products: reason and feeling. Each are highly related to the other with bidirectional feedback between them, all occurring inside a single organism. Sophia has set up a false dichotomy by insisting she should follow one at the expense of another. She should instead recognise that the conflict between her reason and feelings are a warning sign that one of them needs to change. In my post, What's Causing These Emotions, I pointed out how our emotions are in fact a product of our thoughts:
An influential theory of emotion is that of Lazarus: emotion is a disturbance that occurs in the following order: 1) cognitive appraisal - the individual assesses the event cognitively, which cues the emotion; 2) physiological changes - the cognitive reaction starts biological changes such as increased heart rate or pituitary adrenal response; 3) action - the individual feels the emotion and chooses how to react. Lazarus stressed that the quality and intensity of emotions are controlled through cognitive processes.
These thoughts that drive our emotions aren't always driven with words though. When I wrote later about how we are Learning to Tame Your Elephant, I noted that:
We also have unconscious cognitive appraisals - cognitive appraisals without words. This is how all animals think. The rise of language and an inner voice provides a loud layer of consciousness that allows us to “talk over” our emotions, but that should not be used as an excuse to ignore them. It is easy to lose touch with our emotions when we do not listen to our bodies by noticing all the subtle sensations we feel. We can learn to focus our attention though and hold an internal (or external) dialogue to figure out our unspoken cognitive appraisals. We must do so if we want to regulate them and change them.
Using these ideas, we see in this week's thought experiment that Sophia is experiencing a disequilibrium between the new rational argument to bomb people and the unconscious cognitive appraisal that is driving her feelings to reject such a bombing. She is momentarily stuck in the delay between her two systems of thought that need some time to catch up to one another. What are these two systems? As I also reported in Learning to Tame Your Elephant, "in Daniel Kahneman's latest book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the two different ways the brain forms thoughts:
- System 1: fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
- System 2: slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
In Sophia's case, her system 1 emotional clues are trying to lead her away from making a decision based on a system 2 argument that may or may not be right. We aren't told the elements of her friend's argument that make it "perfectly rational to set off a bomb which will kill many innocent people without any obvious benefit," but from that description alone it seems obvious that the argument must be false. If it's not, then with time Sophia's feelings will come around to be aligned with a new cognitive appraisal. Until her feelings and thoughts are aligned, however, she would be rash to act on either one of them. If forced to act NOW, she would do better to rely on her system 1 feelings, which have been built up over her lifetime of thoughtful judgment. That's the actual rational thing to do.
What about you? What are you feeling about this rational argument of mine? Or do you need to sleep on it to know for sure?