The War on Reason – Paul Bloom – The Atlantic

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.

via The War on Reason – Paul Bloom – The Atlantic.

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.

23 thoughts on “The War on Reason – Paul Bloom – The Atlantic

  1. As an incompatibilist, I’m quite happy with the terms “choice”, “decision”, “want”, “rationality” etc.

    It’s really only the specific term “free will” I have a problem with, because it really does connote the supernatural to me, and I suspect I am not alone. If you don’t mean to imply that there is anything metaphysically special about how humans decide to do what they want, I don’t know why you wouldn’t just call it “will” or “freedom” depending on the context.


  2. “You have reasons for that choice, and you can decide to stop reading if you want.”

    But you can’t decide to want. You will only stop if a (strong enough) desire to stop rises in you, or some pressing matter (as you perceive it; and you do not decide how to perceive things) draws your attention.
    “You can always stop/do something else” is the most naive, simplistic and ignorant defence of free will thinkable. It is a statement, not an argument.


    1. I agree that we can’t decide what to want. That’s part of our programming. But, based on our genetics and experiences, you and I may want different things. The ability to exert effort to seek what you want, as opposed to, say, what I want, is a type of freedom.

      Would you agree with that? If so, what term would you use to describe it? Would maybe “volition”, without the theological baggage, be more acceptable than “free will”?


  3. Thanks for sharing this; interesting read. As you might guess, I find myself agreeing with Bloom where you disagree with him, and disagreeing with him where you agree with him (being in agreement with Bloom’s rejection of emotivism/expressivism in morality, but opposed to Bloom’s compatibilism).


  4. While I think a lot of the “intermediate” positions on Free Will vs. Determinism are really attempts to avoid claiming to be Determinists without the stigma of mysticism, it’s good to have an article clarifying that position. Even if I disagree that there’s anything to clarify 😛


    1. I’d say you agree with most of the community here. I wonder though if you see determinism as the same as fatalism. If not, would you say that is worthy of clarification? If so, I’m curious how you would distinguish that from what Bloom is attempting.


        1. It depends what you mean by fatalism, as fatalism can have more than one interpretation.

          One is “there is only one possible future, which we can say is fated”. This is consistent with determinism.

          The other is “the future cannot be avoided no matter what we do, so it doesn’t matter what we do”. This is irrational and not consistent with determinism, because on determinism there is only one possible action we can take so it is meaningless to say it “no matter what we do”, which phrase seems to indicate that there is more than one possibility. It does matter what we do, because what we do (what we MUST do) is part of the explanation for why the future pans out as it does.


          1. Good distinction. I think I’d call “there is only one possible future” hard determinism, and reserve “fatalism” for the second, but of course it’s a matter of definitions.


          2. Interesting. I’ve definitely seen philosophers use the phrase in what the SEP author refers to as the “commonly” used way. The “usually” modifier makes me suspicious. But anyway, we agree about the undesirability of “an attitude of resignation”.


          3. If there is only one possible action we can take, then isn’t it incoherent to talk about the future being fixed no matter what we do, since we can do only one thing? The very question seems to hinge on the choice to do otherwise, which seems to be free will.

            This seems like a false difference created by a trick of language…


          4. “isn’t it incoherent to talk about the future being fixed no matter what we do, since we can do only one thing? ”

            Yes. But it is not incoherent to talk about the future being fixed. Determinism recognises this, but is not a motivation for resignation and apathy, which the second form of fatalism is.


          5. I would differentiate between “emotional fatalism” and “philosophical fatalism”. I’d also distinguish between “apathy/resignation” and the negative emotions that may follow.

            Philosophical fatalism and the apathy/resignation that follow can be a great source of joy, as they can lead to non-attachment, and some philosophies acknowledge this. Spinoza comes to mind.

            Likewise, the negativity that is often associated with apathy can easily result from free will. Some of the more depressing existentialist “condemned to be free” angles come to mind. In fact, when people lose structure or find themselves adrift and thus depressed, might be reacting to the surplus of freedom in which they find themselves — a freedom (whether illusory or not) — that is a source of misery rather than anything positive.


  5. Thanks ‘SAP’, this one has led to quite a bit of searching, reading, researching, and some rereading. It was no small effort just getting through Bloom’s “essay” to start with. Then J Coyne’s critique and Bloom’s reply and, back at ‘The Atlantic’, 300+ comments with one being a link to a 60 page paper and I just searched the title and see several responses to it. Anyway …

    The one statement that really stood out for me was the claim that reason “reigns over all”. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that sounds almost like a somewhat poetic Vulcan aphorism that strikes me as more than a little “radically overstated” itself.

    I think tomorrow I’ll get back to ‘The Self Illusion’ 🙂


    1. Hey amanimal. Good hearing from you.

      I agree that Bloom oversold reason, although I also understand what he was reacting against. Reason and emotion exist in a synergy. Reason has no purpose, no goal, without emotion. That doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable tool, only that it functions as a tool of emotion. When we have conflicting emotions, reason can also serve to help resolve those conflicts, but that resolution depends on us having an emotional commitment to finding it.

      I’m in the final stages of reading ‘Leviathan Wakes’, a science fiction novel, but then plan to swing back to a few nonfiction books again including, hopefully, ‘Who’s in Charge?’. (I used to interleave my fiction and non-fiction reading. I probably need to start doing that again.)


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