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The Nature of Rationality Hardcover – June 14, 1993
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
To Harvard philosophy professor Nozick, rationality and belief are each an evolutionary adaptation to a world that changes in nonregular ways. Our acts resonate with symbolic meanings and "stand for" our principles and beliefs. In this boldly original, technical inquiry which will reward serious students of philosophy, Nozick uses decision theory to propose new rules of rational decision-making that take into account the symbolic, practical and evolutionary components of our behavior. He considers bias, the role of imagination, rational social cooperation and how society's decision-making results in incremental or sweeping institutional changes. This challenging treatise champions reason as a faculty that enables us to transcend our mere animal status and to strive toward goals by the light of principles.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Nozick is best known to the general public as the author of Anarchy, State and Utopia (BasicBks: HarperCollins, 1977), a work of political philosophy. He began his philosophical career, however, as a specialist in decision theory. Now he returns to his early field, suggesting a new approach that involves weighing conflicting accounts of rationality rather than choosing one account exclusively. Then he applies his approach to several unsolved problems. Contrary to most economists, he contends that it is often rational to take sunk costs into account; and he introduces a new category, symbolic utility, into decision theory. Nozick also innovatively addresses rationality of belief. He offers an evolutionary account of how the world shapes our beliefs and argues that goals can be evaluated by noninstrumental standards. This brilliant and intricately argued work is filled with original ideas. Despite some of the technical material, most of it is within the grasp of interested lay readers. Highly recommended.
- David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ. , Ohio
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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He admits early in this 1993 book, "The political philosophy presented in Anarchy, State, and Utopia ignored the importance to us of joint and official serious symbolic statement and expression of our social ties and concern and hence (I have written) is inadequate." (Pg. 32)
He suggests, "In the study of reliable processes for arriving at belief, philosophers will become technologically obsolescent. They will be replaced by cognitive and computer scientists, workers in artificial intelligence, and others." (Pg. 76)
He asserts, "My argument that instrumental rationality is not the whole of our rationality has not been disinterested. If human beings are simply Humean beings, that seems to diminish our stature. Man is the only animal not content to be simply an animal." (Pg. 138) He later adds, "But rationality's power does not reside only in its striking individual triumphs. Rationality has a cumulative force." (Pg. 175)
This is not my "favorite" among Nozick's books, but it is still of interest to students of contemporary philosophy.
For the brevity of the book, Nozick covers considerable territory. He discusses how reason itself functions and the functions themselves (interpersonal, intellectual, overcoming temptation, investment, symbolic utility, and teleological devices), using decision-value (the most technical topic), Newcomb's Problem, Prisoners' Dilemma, and other distinctions, to explicate how one arrives at rational belief, the reasons we want rational beliefs, and some rules to obtain it.
The most interesting (and disappointing) chapter is on evolutionary considerations. Few philosophers to date raise the specter of evolution at all (unless it is the topic), when, as Nozick rightly suggests, it may have its own overriding features and its own reasons and justifications. He's clearly on to an important facet and introduces issues that "limit" the need for rationality as well as require it.
My principal cavil is that he treats natural selection as a purposive agent without any disclaimers or caveats. Worse, his natural selection's purposive agency is, of course, teleological. First, that's bad form, and second, it's bad (actually wrong) evolutionary science. A subsidiary cavil is that evolution becomes a "rug" under which a-rational, even irrational, decisions may be swept (which may be true, if he is not persuasive).
Ultimately, "a rational decision will maximise an action's decision-value, which is a weighted sum of its causal, evidential, and symbolic utility" (137, passim). And, while rationality is predominately instrumental, it is not exclusively instrumental, giving excellent exemptions and reasons for them.
He considers the effect of biases, preferences ("it is a function of the preferences and believes to be rationally coherent and approximately true [and minimally consistent], and it also is a function of the mechanisms that produce such believes and preferences to produce things like that, with those functions" ), reflexivity, interpretation, conditionalization, probability, philosophical heuristics, and imagination on the outcomes, regardless of the cause.
Overall the book succeeds admirably in capturing the nature of rationality, those features and functions which we expect it to have, why they are important, why rationality remains important for everyone (not just philosophers), some basic rules to achieve it, principles to guide us, and its purposes in human life. He does so with economy, clarity, coherence, consistency, always reflexively to determine necessity and sufficiency. His presentation is paragon for doing and writing philosophy well.
As you know, the further discussion of these interesting issues would lead us to establish a large exchange of ideas.
"The man is conservator by own nature, but when this tendency weakens, the revolutions tend to preserve it"