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Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind Hardcover – Jul 25 2007
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"Why Think? is Ronnie de Sousa at his brilliant best-- immensely learned, witty, bold, and a model of clarity. This book is a timely balance to the weight of data emphasizing the emotions and nonconscious processing in decision-making. It weaves coherent story out of a lot of bits and pieces lying about in loose confusion." --Patricia Smith Churchland, President's Professor pf Philosophy, University of California, San Diego
"This book is a tour de force of scholarly insights on one of the most subtle puzzles in cognitive science--the relation between rationality and evolution." --Keith E. Stanovich, author of The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin
"This is a delightful book, in which de Sousa articulates some challenging convictions concerning the role of rationality in human thought, while also retaining and making deft use of some of his longest held views.... Why Think? is an important touchstone in helping us to understand how we can approach rationality as a phenomenon that must ultimately be part of a successful theory of mind."--Craig DeLancy, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
About the Author
Ronald de Sousa grew up in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. After completing school in France, he obtained a B.A. from Oxford, and a Ph.D. from Princeton. Based at the University of Toronto, he has lectured in over twenty countries on the emotions, philosophy of biology, ethics, and aesthetics. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What makes us so different from the other animals? What is "rational"? de Sousa asks. One major distinction, the author reminds us, is our social condition. Many species "school" or "herd", but the social interactions of Homo sapiens are far more complex than is the case with herring or wildebeest. We must keep track of what that individual over there has done or might do. Does that hunter owe me a dinner or must I gather up my tools and go provide for him and his family? The expansion of numbers of our species also prompts us to adapt to changing conditions - if the river's level is dropping, do I need to relocate?
Consideration of such questions has led to the idea of "teleology", or "goal-seeking", de Sousa notes. In the pre-Darwin era, it was assumed life had a "goal" - to produce us. Nature leaves the impression that what we see today was "inevitable". As understanding of life grew, teleology was dismissed as a concept. However, he doesn't want to excise the notion completely. Noting that the earlier idea of teleology relied on divine intervention to make life move toward the goals, better understanding shelved that requirement. Evolution could produce without goals. Evolution, however, could also produce a creature that could define, set and pursue goals - by being rational.
While thinking isn't adaptive in its own right, it clearly increased the probability of our success. Thinking, says de Sousa, enlarges our options and allows us to create situations in which we can fit. That improves our chances for survival as well as introducing new options. This situation is enhanced by our social situation, in which cooperation can lead to desired ends. These ends may be considered for their level of success and used as springboards to new actions. It requires a rational, "thinking" brain to assess all the variables involved in this process and weigh their virtues or impediments to the next step. For our species, of course, the reasoning process is enhanced by the invention and use of language. De Sousa further suggests that mathematics, as an extension of language, provides the most significant example of rational expression - the ultimate in problem-solving tools.
In concluding his presentation, de Sousa dedicates a chapter to "irrationality". While this might seem anomalous, it's his way of demonstrating that no definition of rationality can be meaningful without its opposite. We need the offset of non-rational thoughts and actions to help us consider the worth of the goals we set and methods we use to attain them. Here, too, is the distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. We can test - even in our minds - while a failed test for other species is likely to be death. Here, too, the social environment, enhanced by language, provides a means to make and evaluate decisions.
De Sousa's volume is a comparison of the culmination of a primate lineage with that of other creatures. There is little here on the operation of the human brain, which leaves a number of questions unanswered. Even so, de Sousa's insights are a significant contribution to understanding how evolution managed to toss up a species so distinct in its mental processes. It is not a light read, but distinctly thought-provoking. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
If we are rational, it only came as a process through time. De Sousa looks at this in two ways. There are those who think that the human zygote, the first cell of a human, the union of the sperm and egg, is as much a human being as those folks you see walking on the street. But no one will argue that that teensy zygote, full human or not, is rational. Rationality (however it is to be defined) comes sometime later. De Sousa writes, "The evolutionary perspective maintains that life arouse about four billions of years ago from chemical conditions that are still not fully understood, but of which one can safely presume that they included no phenomena that could be labeled either rational or irrational." At some point, a being capable of reasoning arose. De Sousa gives two capacities that were crucial steps toward rationality. One was the capacity to represent objects mentally, not just to detect them with our senses. The other was the capacity not just to give an automatic response toward attractive stimuli or away from aversive ones, but to form desires and intentions and to act upon them. The two combine in the great way we have advantage over other creatures; De Sousa quotes Karl Popper that "rational method consists in letting our hypotheses die in our stead." In other words, we can do thought experiments, modeling what might happen if we decided to run into a theater without paying for our ticket, and being content with the results of the model rather than trying the act in real life. Our capacity for rationality, however, can make us prone to irrationality; De Sousa spends a chapter discussing superstition, and especially our inability to calculate probabilities realistically.
Reason has helped us in certain contexts. Many of the decisions we make now, to be completely rational, have to be made at highly abstract levels of logic and even mathematics. It is not surprising that our brains don't face every problem with full rationality; they were busy solving problems in other ways in the past. De Sousa gives full appreciation to the value of emotion in our reasoning: "The emotional plea, `Don't confuse me with the facts!' is not always wholly absurd." Emotion may allow us to ignore excessive information, and even when trying to predict outcomes, emotion may color the values which we plug into whatever mental equation we are attempting. Human reason is a faculty evolved to help us survive in certain contexts, rather than reach the truth on every occasion, and historically we have rarely been challenged to work things out at such abstract levels. De Sousa joins with those who understand that we rarely perform explicitly the calculations of maximums in economics or game theory. Our wonderful eyesight evolved in ways that can't help making us victims to optical illusions, and our higher minds are a collection of similarly fallible skills. It's a humane approach to the problem of rationality. De Sousa draws upon many examples from wide-ranging disciplines, from John Horton Conway's cellular automata game of Life to the Paper, Scissors, Rock game to the reasoning skills of a nest of foraging ants. There is plenty of depth here for those of a formal philosophical bent, leavened with wit and remarkable insight.
Difficult book to get through since it was written in deadly textbook fashion. Occasionally there is clarity and accessibility before he goes off on a tangent. Both title and photo are misleading.
It appears that it is an academic book written as an exercise of publish or perish.