When three is one

Paul Seabright

  • Motivated Irrationality by David Pears
    Oxford, 258 pp, £14.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 824662 5

Outside the community of analytic philosophers (and occasionally, subtly, within it) few figures are regarded with quite the mixture of coolness and condescension accorded to the thoroughly rational man. Robert Musil wrote of the wife of a civil servant that ‘what she called “soul” was nothing but a small capital of capacity for love that she had possessed at the time of her marriage. Permanent Secretary Tuzzi was not the right stock to invest it in ... apart from the period of honeymoon caresses, Permanent Secretary Tuzzi had always been a utilitarian and a rationalist, who never lost his equilibrium.’ Rationality, we are invited to conclude, may be good for you in doses but can wither the spirit; beyond a certain point its study becomes the province of moral pathology. It has not always been thought so, but there would be few dissenters nowadays. So when David Pears writes of his book, Motivated Irrationality, that ‘Western philosophy has always puffed the pretensions of reason, which, therefore, can do with a certain amount of deflation’, one has a sense of relief that a philosophically neglected subject is at last being accorded serious treatment. But it mingles with curiosity as to whether his iconoclasm will be radical enough to shock any but the most austere professionals. David Pears writes with an abstract analytical rigour that is an unexpected vehicle for his anti-rational ambitions. As with every poacher-turned-gamekeeper (or is it vice versa?), his qualifications for the job could not be better – but one wonders how far his heart is in it.

Certainly, the book’s agenda of problems is a familiar one. It considers both the formation of irrational judgments and intentional action against one’s better judgment. It is often difficult to decide which of these two is at issue when we perform actions loosely describable as ‘weak-willed’. Did I talk myself into thinking that a large lunch would not be undermining my concentration as I write this review (Pears and red wine don’t always go happily together) – or did I simply cave in without the need for self-deception? Either way, there are difficulties in explaining my behaviour, and the book goes through these in a systematic way. First, irrationality is defined as ‘incorrect processing of information in the mind’, and is sharply distinguished both from incorrect perception and from memory failure. The undefended claim that there is a clear distinction here gives the book a strongly empiricist stamp from the outset, a point to which we shall return (it is in any case surprising, given Pears’s admission that what one forgets can be influenced by wishes). Next, Pears challenges the neo-Freudian assumption that incorrect reasoning must always be due either to lack of competence (in which case it cannot be helped) or to the unconscious operation of a wish. Experimental work by psychologists suggests that human reasoning processes have certain natural biases built into them (such as the tendency to accord undue weight to evidence that is conspicuous or easy to remember). Although the interpretation of these findings is controversial in a way he does not discuss, it does seem plausible to describe what he calls ‘reason’s own perversions’ as representing a third possibility intermediate between the absence of reasoning ability and its distortion by wishes.

Pears goes on to consider a number of philosophical accounts of irrational behaviour. Aristotle’s term akrasia, though often mistranslated as ‘weakness of will’, is better represented by ‘lack of control’, the implication being that the agent’s reason is not in control of his actions. Aristotle clearly uses the term to cover both faulty reasoning and weak will. The first half of this book concentrates on the former phenomenon. It appears in stark form as self-deception, which philosophers have often found problematic. Suppose someone systematically ignores evidence which suggests that his lover is deceiving him: one is tempted to say that he either believes his lover to be deceitful or he doesn’t, but not both. The paradox is inherent in the term ‘self-deception’, for a deceiver must, we feel, know the truth which he hides from the deceived – but how can this be if the deceived is himself? The Freudian answer is to appeal to the unconscious as the true agent in the matter: the unconscious is the deceiver, the conscious mind the deceived. Sartre objected to this that the mental ‘censor’, which keeps an unpalatable belief out of consciousness, must in turn be deceiving itself, and so on in a way that threatens infinite regress. Pears deftly rebuts this by denying that the mental censor can be considered conscious in the same way as the whole person, so the same paradox cannot arise. And he stresses rightly that self-deception is only a strong version of a more general and important phenomenon – namely, the drawing of erroneous conclusions from the available evidence.

Considerable space is given to the notion that we can explain irrational judgments and behaviour as the outcome of conflicts between sub-systems within a single person. Freud’s theory is only one way of doing so, and relies for its explanatory power on our ability to identify separately (by ordinary questioning and by hypnosis) which beliefs and desires belong to the conscious and which to the unconscious sub-systems of the mind. Another way of making the division is along functional lines. Sub-systems are not distinguished by whether they are conscious, but beliefs or desires are ascribed by definition to separate sub-systems whenever they conflict. It is as though one’s psyche were run by a committee. Just as committees composed of individually rational people with different aims and beliefs may end up taking very irrational decisions, so we may understand irrational judgments as the product of political compromise between individually rational members of the committee of the self. Weak will is when the lady with the blue rinse carries a motion to condemn sin, but the treasurer’s strictures defeat attempts to finance a clean-up campaign.

Pears stresses the danger that such functional explanations will be vacuous unless there is a way of explaining why sub-systems have different beliefs. But his explanation, that they are to be conceived as organised like people, rationally pursuing their own (separate) desires and thus inhibiting the sharing of beliefs, itself leaves a lot unanswered. For why is it any easier to understand that sub-systems can have different desires (when they share the same body) than that they can have different beliefs? Why does it explain anything to think of sub-systems as rational (that is an epithet we apply to people, which is why we find it helpful in explaining the behaviour of committees, which are composed of people)? The committee analogy of the mind, though suggestive, remains so far just an analogy.

The book’s second half is concerned with intentional action against one’s own better judgment. Pears calls this ‘last-ditch akrasia’ to describe the condition in which someone is guilty of no intellectual irrationality, but forms a sound judgment, and ‘whispering “I will ne’er consent,” ’ consents. Ever since Socrates argued that such action was impossible unless unconscious, philosophers have had what one can only describe as a weakness for discussing this problem. Their fascination is due to the fact that, although it seems an all-too-familiar phenomenon, there appears to be something self-contradictory about it. This has been described in two ways: either the agent is thought to contradict himself by behaving in a fashion that does not correspond to his own judgment, or there is thought to be something self-contradictory in the description of an agent as behaving in this way. The difference between these two cases is important: the first is like someone who avers both ‘I will ne’er consent’ and ‘I will consent’, which is inconsistent, but perhaps possible; the second is like someone who both consents and does not consent, which is impossible.

So is it reasonable to see last-ditch akrasia as itself a judgment which in some way contradicts one’s explicit better judgment? Pears discusses at length whether practical reasoning can be considered a variety of theoretical reasoning. He considers whether certain components in a piece of reasoning may have (like imperatives, perhaps) a status between the descriptive character of statements and the brute self-sufficiency of actions. He then goes on to focus on Professor Anscombe’s contention that actions can themselves have a species of truth, which she calls ‘practical truth’. This property might belong to actions independently of their conformity to value judgments, but in her theory (whose attribution to Aristotle Pears disputes) it is simply another name for such conformity. He rightly counters that the ground thus gained is empty: ‘Any theory that tries to assimilate action to belief formation has to be so general that it loses most of its content in order to preserve its truth ... actions do not in general point beyond themselves in the way that would be required if their consistency or inconsistency with value-judgments were at all like theoretical consistency or inconsistency.’ If successful, the move might indeed have demonstrated that last-ditch akrasia could not occur, Pears believes, for it would have made it akin to conscious self-contradiction, which he claims to be impossible.

What, then, of the second claim, that it is self-contradictory to describe someone’s behaviour as displaying last-ditch akrasia? It is a claim that arouses our worst fears of philosophers’ legislating for ordinary language, since most of us use the term ‘weakness of will’ to apply to perfectly familiar psychological events. The claim comes in two forms: the first says that one cannot describe an action as intentional without implying that the person concerned had a desire to perform the action thus described. If a fault occurs it lies within the reasoning that led up to the formation of the judgment, not between that and the action. The second claim is that we cannot describe someone as sincerely assenting to a judgment that he should give up smoking if he nevertheless lights up at the first opportunity. The difference between the two claims is that the first makes the action entail the judgment, the second making the judgment entail the action. Pears gives both these arguments fairly lengthy shrift, but shrift it is, and he refutes both. The intentional performance of some action may indicate the presence of some enabling judgment or desire, but this need not be a considered overall verdict. Likewise, only an exalted view of the supremacy of reason would suggest that action must follow sincere judgment as the night follows day (unless the notion of ‘sincerity’ is so expanded as to make the claim vacuous). To act on a desire is not the same as to judge it right. Unruly desires simply can affect our actions, and unmysteriously so.

Then why all the fuss? ‘If it is true and understandable that conscious last-ditch akrasia is a real possibility,’ writes Pears, ‘why has anyone ever denied it?’ Well might he ask. He applies his own analysis to this particular example of irrational belief formation by diagnosing a biasing wish – the wish to exalt reason, and perhaps, less reprehensibly, to extend its realm by making people more conscious of its power. The diagnosis is neatly done, but it is hard not to feel that it represents a belated catching-up of philosophy with common sense.

In a curious way, the very rigour and precision, the very reasonableness of his own analysis tends to disguise the extent of this. He takes his reader through an immense tangle of conceptual argument, anchoring it only occasionally in concrete example. This inevitably makes the book a difficult one to read, and its abstract and measured prose will not create many insomniacs either (one chapter opens with the ingenuous admission that ‘the territory traversed in the last two chapters has been a little arid and low in human interest’, and continues with a three-page discussion of why this should be so). He concentrates on a few paradigmatic cases of irrationality which are referred to repeatedly (sometimes confusingly – as ‘the third version of the story of the guest at the party’, when one has forgotten which version was which). This is not just a question of readability: it has some more serious consequences.

Firstly, philosophy of great subtlety is erected upon psychology that is at best uncomplicated. In a topic that promises such rich pickings from cognitive psychology there are surprisingly few references to that literature (and quite a number of these turn out to be to the same book, Human Inference by Nisbett and Ross). More importantly, not enough of the references are used to give a sense of the complexity and ingenuity of the strategies of irrationality that the mind can adopt. The conclusion to one chapter claims that ‘the writ of reason does not extend so far as is commonly assumed ... some of the details of this picture were taken from the writings of the Japanese psychologist Masanao Toda.’ But this turns out to refer to the one remark, that reason ‘often tries to make its proposals attractive to the more primitive elements in the psyche’, plus a single footnote to Toda – which hardly constitute ‘details’. One gets a fuller sense of the sheer wilful unreasonableness of the human mind from a chapter of many a novel than from this book which avowedly takes wilful unreasonableness as its theme.

Surprisingly for one who argues that the boundary between philosophy and psychology is blurred, Pears is very confident about what philosophy can and cannot claim. Is it really ‘impossible to believe the conjunction of two contradictory propositions’? Well, it is and it isn’t, one is tempted to say. Certainly, contradictions often set up mental tension, so that it can help for ‘the two beliefs to keep their distance from one another’ in the mind. Sometimes Pears seems to treat mental distance as present by definition whenever someone assents to a contradiction; at other times he writes that mental distance cannot be present when two sentences contradict one another within a short argument. Then what of blatant contradictions: ‘God is Three and God is One’? Or the speech I remember James Callaghan making when he was prime minister, in which he called for special attention to be given to the lowest paid, and to the maintenance of differentials? In religious language especially, self-contradiction has often been thought a positive virtue, emphasising the separation of reason from faith. (Remember Tertullian’s ‘certum est quia impossibile est.’) ‘Very well then I contradict myself,’ said Whitman placidly and many of us, some of the time, will placidly agree. Rigour can be both tiring and tiresome, as it would scarcely be if it came to us on the wings of a philosopher’s definition. Of course, we often seek to salvage apparent contradictions by explaining that the two halves are true in different senses (witness the Athanasian creed). But sometimes, as for Whitman, the effort seems too great, or just unappealing. To avoid conscious irrationality does not always attract us, even if perhaps it should. For rationality can be intolerant, not only of confusion and superstition, but of some kinds of imagination whose worth is not quickly visible to the linear intelligence. Even in a secular context much creative thought moves crabwise, accommodating internal conflicts to exploit the lateral energy of a contradiction sprung. We are all more or less hospitable to multitudes. So to explain when a contradiction in someone’s beliefs is real, and when it is only apparent, requires not a priori legislation, but an analysis of the particular context of the beliefs, in which psychological detail and philosophical constraint interplay.

The point can be generalised. At one stage Pears adds the rider that ‘there is no conflict between incompatible elements in the psyche of a person who is unable to detect their incompatibility.’ This looks like a convenient escape clause, since what are ruled out now are merely subjective contradictions (which can be defined as whatever people are unable to accept). But most of the time Pears wants to rule out beliefs that objectively contradict one another. Only thus, indeed, can the claim have any content. Although one may disagree about detail, this has to be the right direction to go. Using the language of rationality and irrationality has to be related to the objective description of people’s behaviour in their environment. We cannot, for example, suppose that someone systematically misperceives every feature of his surroundings, for unless he perceives some of them correctly we have no basis on which to ascribe to him misperception of the others. In trying to understand someone’s claim that God is Three and God is One we normally suppose that he uses the terms ‘three’ and ‘one’ to refer to the same numbers as we do. We would only refrain from doing so if he seemed to count oddly – but we would only say he counted oddly if we supposed that he perceived the same numbers of objects as we did. And so on.

A resistance to the possibility that someone may consciously believe a contradiction is best viewed, then, not as a mysterious conceptual truth, but as a pragmatic constraint that helps us make sense of behaviour (though even here, as I have suggested, it is too strong). It is this fecund marriage of philosophy and psychology that most lacks illumination by this book. Irrationality must in the end be related to a certain objective way of behaving, and cannot be sealed within the workings of the mind. Pears’s distinction between misperception and faulty inference cannot be made sharp. Suppose, for instance, that in the course of some econometric estimation I omit to calculate the Durbin-Watson statistic, whose value would have signalled that my equation was mis-specified. Is this a failure to perceive a signal (and thus not irrational), or a failure to make a rational inference from the raw data? Which we answer is likely to depend, not simply on the bare facts of the single case, but on how I behave elsewhere and at other times. Likewise, it would be hard to say of someone that he always acted against his better judgment, for what basis would there then be for saying that he had a better judgment? None of this is to claim that objective behaviour is the only or even the main ground for ascribing to individuals the beliefs and desires with which the mind may plot its irrational course. But the mind’s links with the environment cannot be severed in such an investigation. Sufficiently strange behaviour will count as irrational, and whether we diagnose the strangeness as perceptual or inferential is a subsidiary matter.

The fogginess of this boundary closely resembles that of two others – the disputed borders between actions that are immoral and those that are either accidental or sick. In none of these cases has it proved helpful to carve up responsibilities neatly between disciplines, with philosophers setting the boundaries and psychologists policing them. And in none has it proved realistic to separate consideration of the inner state of the mind from that of the mind’s relation to the world. Immorality is not simply rust in the soul, but affects the workings of the limbs. And irrationality is likewise not just an introspective cloudiness, but shows itself in a certain lack of integration in one’s outward behaviour. David Pears expresses himself sympathetic to a pragmatic view of the relation between philosophy and psychology, but proceeds in a precise, confident way that belies this admission. His avowed intent to curb the pretensions of reason contrasts with a ready willingness to deploy unaided reason to settle the most vexed controversies in this field. Like Permanent Secretary Tuzzi, this book never quite loses its equilibrium, but at some cost in fidelity to the bumpy terrain across which it moves.