The Nature of Reason

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 9, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) In my previous post, we examined how we got here. Now we turn to the nature of reason.

Computers and reason

Reason involves three tasks, each of which computers can now perform: correspondence, logic, and retrieval.

‘Correspondence’ is the ability to recognize a pattern and give it a name. Document scanning software does this when it recognizes a particular shape of ink as a certain letter or symbol.1 Antivirus programs recognize certain damaging patterns of code and destroy them. And if you bought a camera recently, it can recognize human faces in its sight and automatically focus on them.

Computers can also perform logical operations on data, for example adding and subtracting, conditional analysis, algebra, fuzzy logic, creative scientific induction, and more.

‘Retrieval’ is the ability to figure out what data are relevant from a vast store of information. Google succeeded because it had a better retrieval system than other search engines; it gave more relevant search results. Wolfram Alpha is another impressive engine that pulls up relevant facts and statistics based on your input.

Using these tools of reason, computers can now learn how to best regulate a power plant’s cooling system, invent scientific hypotheses and test them, predict what new bands you will enjoy, translate Chinese to English without being programmed with a word of Chinese, and much more.

Human reason

But human reason surpasses computer reason in at least three ways.

First, the human brain has more processing power. Today’s smartest computer has about the processing power of a mouse. But in about 40 years, the world’s smartest computer will have about the processing power of the entire human population on earth.

Second, humans have a superior perception complex. Computers have been programmed to navigate the world with what they see through cameras, but their perception is about as sophisticated as that of lower animals.

Third, computers are not yet self-aware. They are not conscious. (See The Nature of Mind.)

Reason and intuition

Intuition is a skill we develop for rapidly making decisions or “educated guesses” without having to go through the entire process of reason. A skilled and experienced lover will have decent intuitions about how to please the opposite sex, a skilled and experienced commander will have decent intuitions about how to win a battle, and a skilled and experienced jazz guitarist will have decent intuitions about which chord progressions will achieve certain moods.

Intuition has many advantages over reason. It’s faster, often automatic. And it can be applied to many circumstances that are too complex for reason to even consider (except, perhaps, for supercomputers of the future).

But reason has its own advantages. Reasoned conclusions can be checked for error – even by other people. Reason allows us to simulate possible circumstances, while intuition requires trial by error – and sometimes, error can be too costly to allow. Moreover, reason is a single skill that can be applied to all domains, whereas intuition is a new skill that must be relearned for each domain by arduous experience within it.

Why trust reason?

Intuition was the forerunner of reason in our evolution, and now we use both. Intuition is faster, but reason is more accurate and reliable.

But how do we know reason is so accurate and reliable?

Carrier gives two reasons: (1) Because it works, and (2) because natural selection ensures it.

Regarding (1): “If [science and reason] weren’t successfully getting at the truth, we wouldn’t be seeing their successes. It is their success, after all, that gives them such prestige and respect.” (This was discussed earlier.)

Carrier’s discussion of (2) is more complex, and I’ll turn to it next.

  1. This is called Optical Character Recognition; OCR software. []

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben September 10, 2009 at 5:35 am

I like your review.  The links were good.
 
One quibble:

 
“Third, computers are not yet self-aware. They are not conscious.”

 
I’d elaborate slightly on what being “self aware” means in order to short cut “lingual superstitions” that take off over buzz words.  All that would take is lifting a sentence or two from your other post that you link to, about the virtual modeling of the virtual modeling process itself (the brain’s eye view of itself).  At least some limited grounding in physicalist concept seems prudent to me.
 
No big deal, really.
 
Ben

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Lorkas September 10, 2009 at 11:11 am

OT, but TheoreticalBullshit has a great new video up answering the “What if you’re wrong?” question. It could probably be more concise, but I think it’s the best answer I’ve ever heard to that question.

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eric September 10, 2009 at 1:04 pm

<!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>
continuing OT… i’ve always considered it to be playing favourites when atheists answer the “what if you’re wrong?” question by assuming that the only alternative is that the christian god exists, whereas to be fair they would have to consider the possible existence of each of the 2,800+ gods that they reject. the theist must answer the same question as it applies to these gods that they also reject. which is why i plan to answer the question, as a theist with my tongue well in my cheek, if it is ever posed to me with this response:
“well, then i shall see you in valhalla!”
but seriously, my other thought when considering christians who pose this question is that they can’t possibly have considered the results should they be right. certainly the proposition that 99.9999…% of all humans that have ever existed will suffer misery for an eternal afterlife for the sin of their non-belief should be enough to turn any non-sadist away from a belief system… even if it was right… which it is not.

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eric September 10, 2009 at 1:07 pm

whoops, i meant “as an Atheist with my tongue in my cheek…”
i guess now i’m an agnostic…

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Reginald Selkirk September 11, 2009 at 5:18 am

eric: i’ve always considered it to be playing favourites when atheists answer the “what if you’re wrong?” question by assuming that the only alternative is that the christian god exists

There are multiple weaknesses in Pascal’s Wager. The multiplicity of gods & religions is just one of them.
 

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Lorkas September 11, 2009 at 6:44 am

eric: which is why i plan to answer the question, as a theist with my tongue well in my cheek, if it is ever posed to me with this response: “well, then i shall see you in valhalla!”

I usually just turn it right back around and say, “Well, what if you’re wrong (about Islam/Hinduism/Buddhism/[...])?” The fact of the matter is, none of us really thinks we are wrong, so it isn’t a very interesting question.

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Reginald Selkirk September 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

The point of Pascal’s Wager is that you’re supposed to base your calculations on the greatest promised benefit, and the greatest promised penalty, regardless of the probability involved ( A strategy I do not recommend for responding to Nigerian 419 scams, BTW). That’s why I’ve come out with a counter-offer: believe in me, and I’ll grant you two eternal lives in paradise.
 

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Jeff H September 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Reginald Selkirk: That’s why I’ve come out with a counter-offer: believe in me, and I’ll grant you two eternal lives in paradise.

Ooh! Where do I sign up?

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