Thursday, August 4, 2011

Self-deception & reasonability

Work on reasoning has traditionally been very rationalistic. Researchers who focus on ways through which actors link beliefs or observations as justifications for further beliefs and actions would like to assume that the consistency that tends to characterize reasoning is universal for human beings. Yet, the real reasoning processes and outcomes are somewhat 'irrational' from the "objective" perspective of the logician.

Davidson on Self-Deception
Irrationality is particularly interesting for analytical philosophers who begin to explain mind and language from assumed logical coherence. I've been recently reading Davidson's essay collection (actually, in four volumes). Donald Davidson is absolutely brilliant and worth reading just for the elegant style of his argumentation (I suppose dummies are mostly not elected presidents of the American philosophical association). His late essay "Who is Fooled?" addresses the question of self-deceit -- how is it that people hold beliefs they know to be contradictory?

The essay begins with the story of Ronald Reagan and George Bush claiming they did not know that the U.S. was offering Iran arms in exchange for hostages. The former Secretary of State Schultz claimed that while G.B. consciously lied to the public, R.R. did not because he had "lied to himself", deceived himself to believe that he did not actually know of the deal (although he had been present in the meetings). What does it mean for R.R. to deceive himself to the effect he was "not aware" of the deal even though he knew the facts? Davidson also brings the example of Columbus claiming he was the first to spot land when reaching America, although he clearly was not (it was the lookout) and most likely knew it. This behavior "has been variously interpreted by some as naked, mean greed, by others as honorable self-deception, born of the arrogance and lust for flame" (D.D. cites F. Fernandez in The London Review of Books). Whatever the initial reason, we know intuitively that some people genuinely begin to believe in propositions they should reasonably reject (ps. D.D. recognizes cognitive dissonance literature as well, something I will not go into here right now).

How to define what is rational and what is irrational?
Davidson takes a humble approach and draws a conclusion on our ability to theorize reasoning (p. 218 in "Problems of Rationality"):
At this point someone is sure to ask who is to be the judge of rationality and consistency. The annoying answer is that this is a bad question, a question without an answer. There is no eternal, absolute standard. At the same time, we are not thrown back on your standards or mine; relativism is not the only alternative to standards independent of all though and judgment. It is clear that in evading the question when a set of attitudes can be recognized as inconsistent, we are quickly driven back to basic logic; there comes a point in which intelligibility is so diminshed by perceived inconsistency that an accusation of inconsistency loses application for lack of identifiable contents about which to be inconsistent.
This insight echos Davidson's truly ingenious resolution of Descarte's problem of scepticism (his essay "Coherence theory of truth"): We are pretty inconsistent in terms of absolute rationality, but we must be quite rational in order for anyone to be able to even point out a logical inconsistency. The fact that we can say someone to be deceiving themselves is only possible if most people most of the time do not deceive themselves: if we stick to conclusions that are warranted in some intersubjectively valid manner by beliefs we endorse as true. WHOAH! Such a logically consistent and clear point, but one that inevitably only gets made by a proper philosopher with a remarkable mind.

The Self-Deception of Madame Bowary
The essay ends in a show of remarkable intellectual breadth, where Davidson elaborates on Flaubert's Madame Bowary.  The protagonist of the story engages in ever-deepening self-deception, going through great deal of effort in order to retain a distinction between the true conditions of her life and the romantic dream image of hers she maintains to motivate herself. Davidson suggests that the key to self-deception is the effortful avoidance of considering the contradictory beliefs at the same time.

I may offer a trivial reading based on modern cognitive psychology. Some research (oh the refs escape me) suggest that all reflective reasoning involves the retrieval of beliefs and memories into working memory (the bit of the mind we are conscious of). Working memory has very limited capacity (you know the popular claim we can only hold "seven things" in our minds at the time), and unless we retrieve our dream-beliefs and the facts that contradict them into our working memory at the same time, we may just be able to deceive ourselves. On the other hand, real self deception might require us to do away with the most basic norms of rationality we have been socialized into. But wouldn't that appear as outright insanity?

And What about Managers?
As you can see, I've been clearly inspired by Davidson. Since this blog is about reasoning in organizations, I might pose the following question: Do managers regularly engage in self-deceit? Do organizations encourage them to do so, or are there perhaps mechanisms in organizations that help prevent or rectify self-deceit?

PS. Fun fact: before turning full-time philosophy superstar, Davidson went to Harvard Business School. His account: "I've always been glad I went to business school because it gave me an insight into how a lot of people think that I would have never known otherwise. And I liked the feelign that I could have done it. But I wouldn't have liked the people. After the war they said come back for a month and you could get the degree. I didn't go back."


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