Rational Agency and Personhood

Reacting privately to my posts on Cognitive Development, Rational Moral Development, and the OODA Loop, an immensely valued critic wrote:

It remains unclear to me why you are skeptical of rational agency despite having no problem with rationality, metacognition, or other related concepts. My sense is that you see intelligence, and thus rationality, as residing mostly in automatic, domain-specific processes, and associate agency with more controlled and general forms of reasoning that you think are more likely to undermine rationality than to enhance it.

Since getting this email last week I’ve been tossing it around in my head. I think I agree.

People know much more than they can say. Our verbal descriptions most closely match our behavior when we are new at a task, and know it only as a series of steps. With practice we no longer think about those steps — we automate them — so that we can perform them mindlessly while thinking about other things

The human ability to think has two main purposes: to allow us to learn new thinks (reorientation) and disrupt the execution of already automated tasks (disorientation). That is, thinking is a tool that should be used when our orientation is insufficient for the actions we have to perform. Normally, we rely on anxiety, or disorientation produced by orientation, to tell us when we need to calculate a new path or go back and reorient ourselves for a later time. Metacognition is similar to anxiety, except that it’s controlled by decision instead of orientation.

So why am I skeptical of rational agency, the idea that being human means having well-thought-out reasons for one’s actions? Because the tool of thought is just that, a tool. Decision is a tool used by persons in situations where they are unable or undesirious of trusting what they already know — it is not the essence of personhood.

One thought on “Rational Agency and Personhood”

  1. Two things.

    1) From Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, “Intellect” [1] —

    “What you have aggregated in a natural manner
    surprises and delights when it is produced. For we cannot oversee each other's secret. And hence the differences between men in natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the
    savant. The walls of rude minds are scrawled all over with facts, with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions.”

    2) Have you used reason to write your blog posts, or should the many typos frequently witnessed suggest to us that your blogger output is always a result of automaticity in action? 😉

    [1] http://www.readprint.com/work-653/Ralph-Waldo-Emerson

  2. “disorientation produced by orientation”

    –reminds me of some of my recent thoughts re: offloading [1] and the three “types” of activity I previously gave in my exploration of the OODA:

    “Both reflexive/habitual acts (3) and impulsive acts (1) result from a habit of offloading cognitive processing and are in fact quite related by this feature. The reflexive/habitual actor offloads onto the environment and other individuals: he does not have to consciously process, or rationalize, related prevailing circumstances, because his cognition depends upon unchanging, familiar circumstances. Other actors in his environment are expected to act in expected ways. The impulsive actor also depends on unchanging and familiar circumstances; but his fault is the offloading of cognition, onto other actors and environmental conditions which he expects to remain the same but do not.”

    [1] http://www.dreaming5gw.com/2007/10/offloading_and_5gw.php

  3. Final response for now (thanks for tweaking my mental juices!) —

    I think you have an assumption lurking in your post/thinking, which incidentally relates to the post from D5GW I linked above.

    The assumption is this: that prevailing circumstances, or The World in which a person may operate, is sometimes static. I.e., you have a question in parts which a person must face: Orient? Dis-Orient? or Float with automaticity?

    But why, pray tell, would the option to **Float** ever occur, given the dynamism of Life, the Universe, and Everything? (42 notwithstanding) Or in other words, why wouldn't a person always be in a position to orient (which would often involve, also, dis-orienting)?

  4. Curtis,

    Wow! That's what I call feedback.

    Going through your points…

    Once a task goes into automaticity, it is both easy to perform and difficult to change. So my typing, for instance, is cognitively simple for me but I find it very hard to correct my habit of bad spelling.

    Not sure what you mean by dualism, but it certainly is a dual processing model of cognition [1]

    Good tie-into offloading!

    I don't assume a static world. Consider finger-tip feeling in war: a dynamic, hostile, ambiguous environment is best dealt with through automated and semi-automated (gut feeling) on the part of experts. Systematic warfare, the decision-oriented approach of the French, lead to a disasterous victory (World War I) followed by a disasterous defeat (World War II).

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/10/13/ooda-alpha-part-ii-dual-processing-systems.html

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