Naturally, we are inherently rational.

jread
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Naturally, we are inherently rational.

Good early morning RRS. I want to receive some feedback on a thought put forth by John McDowell in his book Mind and World. In his section titled "Lecture IV. Reason and Nature" he says, "we need to see ourselves as animals whose natural being is permeated with rationality" (85). If any of you have read this book, or heard of McDowell, I'm sure you already know that he is difficult to understand. So for those of you who haven't read him before, I would like you to simply either express your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what he said and why you feel that way.

 

My aim in getting feedback about this concept is not entirely narrowed as of yet. Although, I do feel that it is important because of the implications of his attempt to argue that nature inherently implies rationality. I would like to primarily hear your take on McDowell's argument in relation to most of the topics discussed here at the RRS.

 

Initially, my view is that McDowell's position supports the atheist conception of human existence as primarily being a result of purely natural events. Therefore, applying McDowell's view as support to an atheistic position would explain rationality in purely terms of nature without the need to appeal to a supernatural "god".

 

I look forward to hearing other perspectives/takes on this.   

 

The implication that we should put Darwinism on trial overlooks the fact that Darwinism has always been on trial within the scientific community. -- From Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth R. Miller

Chaos and chance don't mean the absence of law and order, but rather the presence of order so complex that it lies beyond our abilities to grasp and describe it. -- From From Certainty to Uncertainty by F. David Peat


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I have not read Mind and

I have not read Mind and World, but I am familiar with Josh's work, and I have extreme reservations about anything he writes. He has demonstrated an almost limitless ability to create non sequiturs and equivocations, and I am not aware of a competent philosopher who gives him the time of day.

Anyway, what about rationality and nature?

It's a very complicated question because rationality is most likely not defined properly. Evolution works very rationally, but it is not rational. In other words, we can use logic to describe the process of evolution, and everything fits right where it should. However, evolution is a process, not a sentient lifeform, so it cannot be described as rational -- possesing the capability of thinking or acting rationally. You see the equivocation?

Humans, like other animals, behave rationally. That is to say, they behave as we would expect them to behave based on what we know of their nature. Evolution has blindly generated animals who perceive their environment and respond to it. Since these responses are based on empirical data, they can be described as rational.

Humans and other animals often act irrationally. This is painfully obvious. Here's an interesting example. In one episode of M*A*S*H, there is a Korean mother with an infant riding in a bus with the surgeons. The bus breaks down in enemy territory, and they go to blackout conditions and silence. Despite the potential presence of the enemy, the baby begins crying.

This is not a rational act. But, it can be described rationally. The baby is acting exactly as it should act, given what we know about babies. Though this baby is acting irrationally (based on our knowledge of its situation) it is a rational creature (thinking and responding to its environment empirically).

The mother, realizing the predicament her baby was causing, smothered her baby, killing it.

From many points of view, this is quite rational. Yet, people will describe it as "unnatural" or "extraordinary circumstances." What these people are missing is that it's completely natural. Humans are competitive and smart, just like our cousins. War is part of what is programmed into us by evolution. Given the choice between saving themselves and saving their babies, almost all higher creatures give a valient effort to save their babies, but retreat at the last minute, saving themselves. It matches the world perfectly. It's quite rational.

Everything about that scene was rational, even though individual acts could be called irrational from a certain point of view.

In short, humans, like all other animals, are born rational (capable of using empiricism and some degree of cognitive ability to react to the environment). Humans, like other animals, often behave irrationally (contrary to that which is demonstrably true).

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Is rationality only a

Is rationality only a function of consciousness? Like, given two choices equally within one's capability, there may be an option that is only favored given a conscious prediction of the outcome (or other evaluation that depends on having an internal representation of the problem); whereas in unconscious nature, least resistance, or chance determine "choice" between similar propositions. But then, I wonder at what point we cease to be a manifestation of an unconscious natural process, or if this distinction is even justifiable. Sealed Good to see you posting again, jread. 


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hi jread it's nice to see

hi jread it's nice to see you back.

i haven't read Mind and World and i'm not sure how to read what you've quoted.  that is, in what sense is he referring to 'need' in that sentence? It could either be:

a. advisory ; eg you need to know this

or

b. commentary ; eg an inherent need to feel satisfied

so is he advising us to see ourselves as inherently rational, or is he commenting on an instinctive need to feel rational ?

To take a stab I am inclined to think it's the latter, and I'd agree with that, but then you say he is "argu[ing] that nature inherently implies rationality" which would imply the former and Im not sure I like that perspective myself.

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jread wrote: If any of you

jread wrote:
If any of you have read this book, or heard of McDowell, I'm sure you already know that he is difficult to understand.

Haha! Understatement of the year!
I've only come across quotes of his work where he's been mentioned in books on Metaethics and I also tried to tackle a chapter of his once before...
Even for a 6 line quote I needed to read it 3 times, read the quoter's own interpretation of it and then read it another 3 times just to get an inkling of what he was trying to say!!

Despite this, I think we think alike on a lot of issues.
We're both fans of Wittgenstein and I've heard (through another's interpretation of his work!) that his philosophy of mind is similar to mine. That quote you brought up sounds like my kind of thing.
Once we have develloped language to the standard that we have in modern society, reason is heavily ingrained in our thinking and is as much of our nature as much as we are now toilet trained!

I thought I should also remind RRS that John McDowell is a great and respected analytical philosopher, not to be confused with a theological hack with a similar name.

Hambydammit wrote:
I have not read Mind and World, but I am familiar with Josh's work, and I have extreme reservations about anything he writes.

Laughing out loud
I actually did the opposite thing when I first heard Josh McDowell being slagged off, wondering why an atheist would have a problem with the guy. With only an 's' for 'n' difference in their names it's so easy to get them confused at first glance!


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Hambydammit wrote: In

Hambydammit wrote:

In short, humans, like all other animals, are born rational (capable of using empiricism and some degree of cognitive ability to react to the environment). Humans, like other animals, often behave irrationally (contrary to that which is demonstrably true).

 

I understand what you're saying hamby, but that wasn't my angle (to suggest that we are incapable of being irrational because of some natural directive). And like Strafio said, I think you have the philosophers mixed up; I've never even heard of a Josh McDowell (and it sounds like I'm lucky to have never encountered his writing).

 

magilum wrote:
Is rationality only a function of consciousness? Like, given two choices equally within one's capability, there may be an option that is only favored given a conscious prediction of the outcome (or other evaluation that depends on having an internal representation of the problem); whereas in unconscious nature, least resistance, or chance determine "choice" between similar propositions. But then, I wonder at what point we cease to be a manifestation of an unconscious natural process, or if this distinction is even justifiable. Sealed

Good to see you posting again, jread.

 

Thanks for remembering my name mag Eye-wink You question hits on important background for the quote. Trying to sum this up will be difficult, but I will try.

McDowell's theory of experience is very different. When I first read it, it sounded like the traditional empirical compositionalism, he calls this traditional view "the Myth of the Given." Traditionally, experience is viewed as subjects passively receiving through our sensibility "bits" of experience (content) which are grounded in the external world, aka "The Given", and then we register that "bit" of experience as being about something grounded in the world to our understanding (i.e. seeing a tree, would indicate to a subject that a tree is in the world) Forgive me mind you, if my picture of the traditional view is amateur or incorrectly phrased. I hope you all can get the main ideas, because it functions in comparison to McDowell's view, and how it ties in with the quote.

O.K. so McDowell's view is trying to act as the third option between choosing "the Myth of the Given" and idealism (i.e. Berkelian idealism). McDowell says,

"I have been urging that we must conceive experiences as states or occurrences in which capacities that belong to spontaneity are in play in actualizations of receptivity. Experiences have their content by virtue of the fact that conceptual capacities are operative in them, and that means capacities that genuinely belong to the understanding: it is essential to their being the capacities they are that they can be exploited in active and potentially self-critical thinking" (66).

Now I'm sure a lot of you are like, "dude, that's idealism." or may be you're not. McDowell argues vehemently and convincingly that it is not, primarily because he emphasizes (in many other parts of the book which I haven't quoted) that we are passive in our reception of these conceptual capacities already at work in the experience itself (aka we aren't creating the picture of the world with our minds because we are passive in sensibility). In my opinion the passive part that he emphasizes is just mere world play, but that's not important.

The way the above quote connects to the quote I posted in my original post is this: by McDowell saying we are "as animals whose natural being is permeated with rationality" he is applying his general conception of experience to other issues. [The issue in context with the chapter that I quoted from is ethics and what he calls "second nature."] I see McDowell's point that we are "animals whose natural being is permeated with rationality" coming from his view of experience as "states or occurrences in which conceptual capacities are passively drawn into operation" (30) because experiences themselves have "conceptual capacities" within them which allow the activity of spontaneity upon them. Think of it this way, where are experiences supposed to come from? The world. What's another name for the world? Nature. McDowell says that the experiences themselves have conceptual capacities already in them before we receive them (that's the way our understanding/spontaneity is able to make anything of them). Therefore, because experiences are of/from nature (the world) then the world (nature) can be said to have conceptual capacities within it. Making the world made up of conceptual capacities.

Yes, it's super confusing. Yes, I'm probably not doing the best job explaining of myself or McDowell's view. But, believe me I'm trying.

The phrase then, that "naturally, we are inherently rational" I titled this post with, in my mind suggests what McDowell's view is trying to get at. Which is, because of these conceptual capacities in the world that we sense(because he does not believe that there is non-conceptual content) then the world itself is essentially rational. And since we are animals in the world, what we sense, is of the world, then what we sense is rational from its origins. Essentially, dooming us to be rational animals in the sense that we perceive rationality. (but like hamby pointed out, this does not mean that we cannot be irrational in our own thoughts.)

 

Note: he also insists that "experience is rationally linked" (33) in relation to the way the conceptual capacities are arranged in the experience itself. Providing a kind of restraint, or justification if you will, for the experience expressing "that things are thus so" [I added this part in case you were having problems with McDowell's view cohering so far as I have presented it. What I presented is a product of, so far, only getting through the first 4 chapters of his book and having 8 weeks of seminar class discussion on the material. oh and plus one class presentation on my part of chapter 2. I realize there may be limitations to what I was able to convey in a few pages, when it took McDowell 87 pages. I apologize.]

 

Eloise wrote:

hi jread it's nice to see you back.

i haven't read Mind and World and i'm not sure how to read what you've quoted. that is, in what sense is he referring to 'need' in that sentence? It could either be:

a. advisory ; eg you need to know this

or

b. commentary ; eg an inherent need to feel satisfied

so is he advising us to see ourselves as inherently rational, or is he commenting on an instinctive need to feel rational ?

To take a stab I am inclined to think it's the latter, and I'd agree with that, but then you say he is "argu[ing] that nature inherently implies rationality" which would imply the former and Im not sure I like that perspective myself.

 

Thanks for the memory Eloise, I'm glad to be back posting. I honestly had nothing come to mind that I felt would be worth posting up until now. In response to your question, I'd say that McDowell is meaning a little of both. It seems that he is telling us that this is what we need to conceive ourselves as under his view, and also telling us that this is actually how it needs to be viewed outside of his view (perhaps).

 

Strafio wrote:
Haha! Understatement of the year!

As I'm sure you all see now, having read my feeble attempt at explaining this guy.

 

So I wrote most of my reply above, in attempt to clarify the background and motivations of my post. In summary, I conceive McDowell's view as creating a regress of rationality. If conceptual capacities are in the world and are what essentially makes it up, then where did they come? An interesting question perhaps is: has modern science discovered atomic particles possessing a kind of rational behavior or "capacity" if you will? (even though capacity in the scientific sense if probably different than how McDowell uses it)

I tend to have problems with a less scientific question and that is: if nature, the world, whatever you want to call it, is made up of rational components of the understanding (ie conceptual capacities) where did they come? How did they take their conceptual form? Did something rational create the world made up of rational components (conceptual capacities)?

Or is that I have it all wrong? I also see it as being quite possible that the order of superiority in the world, rationally speaking, is perhaps 1. The world itself (universe) 2. Human beings. and that is where the line of regress ends. No God, no ghosts. Rationality came from somewhere, and here we are, naturally rational because the world we experience is rational. Hmm. Plausible I suppose, it seems like what some of the positions are that I've read expressed here on the forum (pantheism comes to mind.)

So I suppose this is my question for you all: what are some concerns/thoughts/reflections, that you have on McDowell's quote that we are "as animals whose natural being is permeated with rationality" in relation to his general theory? Do you see problems with the entire theory? What are those problems? Do you like the view McDowell holds, but feel that my interpretation of it is misguided or missing something? And if you just plain have no clue what McDowell is trying to say (so far as I have attempted to present it) then ask those type of questions. I really enjoy reading McDowell because of his difficulty, but I understand that without the background of his view from his own mouth, it may be incomprehensible.

The implication that we should put Darwinism on trial overlooks the fact that Darwinism has always been on trial within the scientific community. -- From Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth R. Miller

Chaos and chance don't mean the absence of law and order, but rather the presence of order so complex that it lies beyond our abilities to grasp and describe it. -- From From Certainty to Uncertainty by F. David Peat


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oooohhh  JOHN McDowell,

oooohhh  JOHN McDowell, not Josh McDowell.

Welcome back, Jread!


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Alright, I might not be

Alright, I might not be getting it, but I'll offer responses to what I think I'm seeing.

 

1). "Conceptual Capacities". I had problems understanding exactly what he meant by saying that nature had conceptual capacities. Does this mean that nature has the capacity to be conceived (understood)? Or does this mean that nature has the capacity to understand (conceive)? If it means something else, then I'm missing it because those are the only ways I could think of to interpret his term.

 

 1a). If it's the case that he's saying that the world and everything in it (including people) have the capacity to be conceived of (understood/conceptualized), and that therefore everything is rational, I would just wonder what his point is.

When I look out my window, I see a tree. I can conceive of the tree because my brain and all of my sensory organs are a part of the same physical world as the tree and have specifically evolved for the purpose of detecting physical objects in my environment. To say, in this case, that the tree has a "capacity for being understood" is like dumping a glass of water on the floor and saying that the floor has "a capacity for having water poured onto it." What's the point?

Understanding the world doesn't necessarily require a human-like consciousness either (and what does "consciousness" mean anyway?). A thermostat "understands" the world in a very simple way and takes action based on the world. So does an alarm clock. So does any device with a motion sensor. So does the computer you're using. When you press a key, the computer "understands" that key press and takes an action based on its perception---that is, to type the letter printed on the key you pressed. Do temperatures have the capacity to be understood by thermostats? Does time have the capacity to be understood by alarm clocks? Do fingers have the capacity to be understood by computers?

In a sense, yes, all those things do possess those capacities, but that's just physics. Parts of the physical, natural world have the capacity to act and react. To say that they have the capacity to "conceive" or form a concept based on this simple fact of physics is extremely misleading.

I just ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup! I'm so glad that it had the capacity to be tasted!

 

1b). But perhaps he's saying that the world and everything in it has the capacity to "conceive" (understand/form concepts)? Well, I would say that in some cases---like in the examples I gave above---it's easy for us to imagine something natural understanding something else. Flowers understand when the sun is up. Deciduous trees understand when the temperature drops for the winter months. Atoms understand when the are exposed to heat energy. But that's physics. To say "conceptual capacity" for this meaning is extremely misleading again.

It's a good thing that the scrumptious molecules composing the Reese's Cup I just ate were able to understand the enzymes from my saliva and the brute force with which my molars smashed down on them, otherwise the experience may not have been so great!

 

2. Touching on what Hambydammit has already said, for those of us with human-level consciousness, it's still possible to think irrationally. The reason for this is because we do not just have the ability to perceive, we also have the capacity to predict, and therefore to imagine, and therefore to conceive of that which is not actually a part of reality, which is really great!

This means that I can perceive a deer, which exists in reality; then I can perceive a penguin, which exists in reality; and then I can "conceive of" a penguin with antlers. Penguins with antlers do not exist in the rational world, and yet I am able to conceive of them.

However, I am NOT able to conceive of something completely original that is in no way associated with the rational world. For example, if I tried to "imagine" an animal that was in no way based on animal that currently exists on earth, I couldn't. The best I could do would be to chop up other animals and glue them together in horrifying monkey-fish-frog-like combinations. (This, by the way, is an excellent reason why conceiving of a "supernatural" god is impossible).

So it's possible for me to conceive of something that is NOT rational. Yet, I am able to create an irrational thought using rational pieces that have been horribly misapplied.

That is to say, irrationality seems to equate to misusing rationality rather than not having it at all.

 

But I'll admit that I'm not sure I'm in the right ball park here. I'm all for philosophical discussions now and then, but sometimes I think philosophers go out of their way to be difficult to understand.

 If an idea can't be discussed without ambiguous, pedantic nonsense terminology, I become skeptical automatically, simply because I'm aware that it's possible to "baffle with bullshit", as they say.

A place common to all will be maintained by none. A religion common to all is perhaps not much different.


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Archeopteryx wrote: 1).

Archeopteryx wrote:

1). "Conceptual Capacities". I had problems understanding exactly what he meant by saying that nature had conceptual capacities.

Indeed, you're not the only one with this problem. This was a question brought up in my seminar and no one could come up with a definitive answer. In my mind, "conceptual capacities" is used in both of the ways you described (to be undertood, and to understand). Although I must admit, I don't see how the idea of the world consists of things that "understand" instead of just being made of things which can be understood.

Quote:
1a). If it's the case that he's saying that the world and everything in it (including people) have the capacity to be conceived of (understood/conceptualized), and that therefore everything is rational, I would just wonder what his point is.

McDowell's point, it seems, is to describe the natural world and how we percieve in a way that would avoid a dilemma (Myth of the Given and Idealism) (he's also trying to avoid coherentism), thereby elminating previous philosophical problems surrounding the traditional pictures of how we percieve. Admittedly though, I myself am still trying to figure out his point. Hopefully I'll get a better idea once we finish the book in my seminar.

Quote:
When I look out my window, I see a tree. I can conceive of the tree because my brain and all of my sensory organs are a part of the same physical world as the tree and have specifically evolved for the purpose of detecting physical objects in my environment. To say, in this case, that the tree has a "capacity for being understood" is like dumping a glass of water on the floor and saying that the floor has "a capacity for having water poured onto it." What's the point?

Understanding the world doesn't necessarily require a human-like consciousness either (and what does "consciousness" mean anyway?). A thermostat "understands" the world in a very simple way and takes action based on the world. So does an alarm clock. So does any device with a motion sensor. So does the computer you're using. When you press a key, the computer "understands" that key press and takes an action based on its perception---that is, to type the letter printed on the key you pressed. Do temperatures have the capacity to be understood by thermostats? Does time have the capacity to be understood by alarm clocks? Do fingers have the capacity to be understood by computers?

In a sense, yes, all those things do possess those capacities, but that's just physics. Parts of the physical, natural world have the capacity to act and react. To say that they have the capacity to "conceive" or form a concept based on this simple fact of physics is extremely misleading.

I just ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup! I'm so glad that it had the capacity to be tasted!

It appears that McDowell would probably disagree with the way you described the relationship betweem experience and the external world. It sounds like what you're describing is that there is physical stuff out in the world (non-conceptual content as McDowell calls it) and we experience bits of it in a way that they would have the capacity to be understood, and may also, have the capacity to understand. This would, in my mind, make your view align with the Myth of the Given; the view McDowell is rejecting. So in this respect, you may be misapplying McDowell's theory into a Myth of the Given framework of experience. Essentially, it appears that you are noting how the two views, McDowell's and the Myth of the Given, don't make sense when applied to one another.

Quote:
 2. Touching on what Hambydammit has already said, for those of us with human-level consciousness, it's still possible to think irrationally.
I agree.
Quote:
So it's possible for me to conceive of something that is NOT rational. Yet, I am able to create an irrational thought using rational pieces that have been horribly misapplied.
Sounds good.

Quote:
That is to say, irrationality seems to equate to misusing rationality rather than not having it at all.
This is part of what motivated me to post this topic here. It seems that under McDowell's view, the very idea of irrationality would somehow change if we are all beings whose nature is permeated with rationality. Of course, this isn't to say that we cannot be irrational. But McDowell's view perplexed me in a way that suggested perhaps a new understanding of what irrationality is. I must admit though, I haven't quite formulated a decent "McDowell-ian" conception of irrationality within his system. The feedback that I recieve is meant to help this process.  

Quote:
But I'll admit that I'm not sure I'm in the right ball park here. I'm all for philosophical discussions now and then, but sometimes I think philosophers go out of their way to be difficult to understand.

 If an idea can't be discussed without ambiguous, pedantic nonsense terminology, I become skeptical automatically, simply because I'm aware that it's possible to "baffle with bullshit", as they say.

Indeed. McDowell definitely falls into this catagory. Whether or not McDowell is "baffling with bullshit" is not something I'm sure about. His ideas are intriguing, yet as we've all discovered, hard to understand.

The implication that we should put Darwinism on trial overlooks the fact that Darwinism has always been on trial within the scientific community. -- From Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth R. Miller

Chaos and chance don't mean the absence of law and order, but rather the presence of order so complex that it lies beyond our abilities to grasp and describe it. -- From From Certainty to Uncertainty by F. David Peat


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I wrote a paper on this

I wrote a paper on this particular book a few years back, but to be honest, the only thing I remember about it is thinking that it was total horse shit.

Hopefully something more substantial will come to me later.