Paul Bloom has an interesting article at the The Atlantic, much of which I agree with.
Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal has recently taken quite a beating.
Part of the attack comes from neuroscience. Pretty, multicolored fMRI maps make clear that our mental lives can be observed in the activity of our neurons, and we’ve made considerable progress in reading someone’s thoughts by looking at those maps. It’s clear, too, that damage to the brain can impair the most-intimate aspects of ourselves, such as the capacity to make moral judgments or to inhibit bad actions. To some scholars, the neural basis of mental life suggests that rational deliberation and free choice are illusions.
Bloom’s main contention is that many of the finding in psychology and neuroscience are being over or simplistically interpreted. I think there’s a lot to this view, notably in the areas of free will.
As you read this article, your actions are determined by physical law, but unless you have been drugged, or have a gun to your head, or are acting under the influence of a behavior-changing brain tumor, reading it is what you have chosen to do. You have reasons for that choice, and you can decide to stop reading if you want. If you should be doing something else right now—picking up a child at school, say, or standing watch at a security post—your decision to continue reading is something you are morally responsible for.
Some determinists would balk at this. The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it.
This is the compatibilism my regular readers have seen me argue for before.
On the main thrust of the article, I agree with Bloom that it’s not a good interpretation of the research to say that we’re not rational creatures, or that we’re only fooling ourselves when we try to be rational. Certainly we aren’t perfect at it, but as he writes, we’re far better at rationality, particularly in our day to day activities, than any other entities we know of.
The one nit I do have with this article, is that it implies that reason, rationality, exists as a thing separate and apart from emotion. It doesn’t. The very desire to use reason arises from emotion, instinct, or desire. Without these things, we wouldn’t have anything to reason about or any arbiter to evaluate, to weigh the reasons in our reasoning.
This takes away nothing from rationality’s usefulness or power. It only recognizes its place in the cognitive hierarchy. To me, failing to do that is as big a confusion as the one Bloom discusses.