Our Faith In Reason

To put it matter-of-factly…

There is an assumption that most, if not all human beings make about our own reasoning capabilities (as individuals or as a species). The assumption is this: that the inner dialogue of reasoning that we use to support our avowals (or expressions of beliefs) is something that is infallible or can be trusted. 

Philosopher David Hume wrote in his work titled A Treatise of Human Nature, “Philosophy would render us entirely [skeptics], were not nature too strong for it.” What does he mean by saying that nature is strong? In this post, I would like to argue that human reasoning processes are ultimately influenced by our embodied minds, thus determining our choices. And yes — this idea is, for the most part, anti-free will. 

As agents, we exert an influence and force upon the world. But when we break down that process, what really happens between our minds and the world external to our bodies? Although we believe that the causes of our actions lie within ourselves as intentions, we fail to acknowledge the greater context that our actions occur in. Instead, we decide and act on decisions using factors that are actually laid out for us by nature, and not self-caused or freely chosen. Things like emotions and conclusions about the world drawn from experience leak into our seemingly “isolated” system of reasoning. Something that comes to mind when I contemplate this phenomenon is a young impressionable child growing up in the fifties and being taught to reject people with black skin. I know a handful of older men and women that still feel adversely towards people of African American descent, all the while convinced that they are “right” and blacks deserve not to be trusted.  

Although these beliefs are produced by our relationship with the environment, we use them to justify, well, everything really… Consider the limited options of those with adverse bodily circumstances, or someone who is making a decision in a different part of the world. They need to weigh in a whole different set of factors, things like what their body is really capable of, or cultural norms that are unique to their position in space).

This is all to say that we assume ourselves to be rational agents, while evidence and experience during our day-to-day lives shows otherwise. I believe we put too much faith in reason; each individual reasons only within the context of their own preferences and desires that have developed throughout the course of their lives. 

Reason In Context

Philosopher Alicia Juarrero posits that in nature, there are “positive feedback loops”: these occur when a system develops its direction only as it functions, and looking scientifically at an isolated part of the system is arbitrary with respect to discovering the character of the system as a whole. Within these non-linear dynamical systems, patterns emerge out of small, even random changes. Juarrero sums up the problem of isolating a cause within a system with regard to particles:

…Positive feedback loops among particles can result in self-organizing processes that, despite their superficially chaotic appearance, in fact embody very sophisticated degrees of order. These emergent higher-level phenomena, moreover, exert top-down influence on the very components that make them up. (Juarrero)

According to Juarrero, there is a type of circular causality at work in nature that science has not yet come to understand. An individuals chosen action is better off being looked at within its own context; as a reaction to something else, instead of a decision made based off of expected utility of outcomes. A “zooming-out” is necessary in order to understand the causal structure of action choice.

Juarrero also discusses her “information theory” in which she mentions something she calls “constraints”: these are when environmental qualities inhibit certain actions and allow for others. For example, in a pot of boiling water, the pot itself would be a constraint on the actions of the water and the direction in which it travels when it starts to boil. Juarrero explains that a pattern formed within a larger process can become autonomous and determine its own condition, depending on the qualities of its environment: “Once a system’s feedback loop extends into the environment and back in this manner, the environment is thereby brought into the phenomenon very structure — into its very identity, in fact.” (Juarrero) She uses the example originally used by Immanuel Kant of a tree that produces leaves but is also produced BY the leaves, exhibiting “a kind of causality unknown to us” (Juarrero). Human reasoning is formed in the same way: we maintain our assumptions about the world through positive feedback loops that we experience, and those assumptions are taken into account during the reasoning process. This, in turn, informs our action choices.

Perception Is Inherently Strategic

Late philosopher James J. Gibson supported the emphasis on the role of the environment and overall context of our actions. Gibson put forth the idea that there are affordances that exist objectively in nature, and we as humans adapt to suit them, and then learn to  eventually construct them for ourselves. Imagine a log: a log is just a log when our attention is on something else, but when we have been walking all day and are tired, a log becomes a chair. The log can be called an affordance because it affords sitting, based on our current mental attitude.

Gibson denies the “passive receiver” model of perception and states that instead, we actively construct what our perception is like; it is already a product of a function, meaning that our perception is serving some purpose greater than just informing us of how “external” reality is. He also uses the example of proprioception — things like balance, an inherent knowledge of our bodily position, or feelings of pain, or internal temperature — to explain how self-knowledge and our assumptions about our relationship to the environment can be influenced. He explains:

When an observer perceives edibility he perceives it in relation to his mouth and teeth and digestive system; when he perceives manipulability he perceives it in relation to his hands, to which the objects or tool is suited; when he perceives the possibility of locomotion he perceives it in relation to what his locomotor system is capable of in walking or climbing, the slopes it can descend or the ditches it can jump over. This is only to reemphasize that perception of the environment is inseparable from proprioception of one’s own body… (79)

Gibson concludes that our perception is incredibly adaptive to its context: we have an implicit knowledge that certain actions are within our power. This is flexible and we are able to take actions that in-turn change what is or is not within our power (for example, shutting off our cell-phones so that we don’t have to deal with our emotional responses to texts we receive). 

This relates to embodied reasoning and action context in that we are meeting the world as a range of choices that are determined for us by nature, rather than seeing the world as it is independently of our self. These choices are dependent on perceived opportunities, which are dependent on our past experiences and in turn our current circumstances. This feedback loop is flexible; when it becomes interrupted or breaks down, we become attentive to this interruption and it becomes a factor in our decision. But as long as we are acting in tune with our environment and surviving because of it, we do not need any new or accurate information to help us navigate. This cycle of causality and human action is evolutionarily-induced and a product of nature. To sum up Gibson’s point: the main structures of perception are relational. We are not seeing all possible patterns, but only those relative to us (whether that relation is physiological, spatial, functional, etc.)

Thus, our reasoning processes and actions are largely determined by environmental and mental factors;  conscious effort accounts for a very small fraction of overall action choice. We do not often reason our way to the best possible outcome, but instead react to a previous action without much deliberation, which is ultimately part of a larger web of actions. When we do reason upon our actions, we are highly influenced by things like our emotions and past experiences, which leads me to believe that we do not have free will in the way we think we do (or would like to).

Hey — relax, this means that you can let go and act without overthinking or stressful deliberation about which choices to make. Just let go and follow your heart! 

Works Cited:

Gibson, James J. Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology. “The

Theory of Affordances“. 1997.
Juarrero, Alicia. Intentions as Complex Dynamical Attractors.

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