Friday, May 6, 2011

Rationality is not merely of instrumental value

Here's a thought experiment based on an idea of John Spano, one of our grad students (I modified it in the first version below by adding that the decisions are "somewhat better"). Imagine you could get a microchip implanted in your brain. Whenever you needed to make a decision, it would tell you what decision you should make, and it would be guaranteed to make decisions somewhat better than you would. Likewise, when you needed to figure out something theoretical, it would figure it out for you, and again it would be guaranteed to be somewhat better than you at this. Would you do this?

If the value of rationality is purely instrumental, this is worthwhile. But a life based on the dictates of the microchip just doesn't seem to be a flourishing life. This is clearly true if the decisions the chip comes to are only somewhat better than the ones you would come to yourself. But I suspect that it is also true if the decisions are much better.

At the same time, maybe you should go for the microchip in the case of decisions that significantly affect the flourishing of others. If you are a doctor and a microchip would make better diagnoses and recommendations that you could, then it might be your duty to sacrifice your own intellectual flourishing to the medical good of others.


Heath White said...

For "microchip" you can substitute "advisor."

Some of this turns on what one means by "rationality", but basically I agree with you--you've identified a value that goes with understanding why something is true (or good) rather than just knowing that it's true or good. This is the motive for "seeking understanding" after one already has "faith."

Closely related is the so-called value problem in knowledge; what makes knowledge more valuable than mere true belief.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The suggestion that understanding is what you miss is really helpful.

But I still think you miss more than understanding--the effort matters, too. Suppose the chip/advisor also explains it all to you. You gain understanding, but you don't figure it out for yourself. I don't know the degree to which this is possible--maybe you need to do some thinking for yourself to count as understanding, but suppose the minimum needed here.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't buy a car without test-driving it, so for something I'm supposed to stick in my brain, I ought to get at least a trial question.

My question would be, "Is it a good idea to put this chip in my head?"

(I like Heath's substitution. Anything you can look up or get help with seems in the same position, but unless (a) I were somehow prevented from being able to think the thing through after knowing the answer, or (b) there weren't an infinite number of other things to go on to think about, I'd probably get the chip.)

Andrew said...

For "microchip/advisor" can you substitute "books"? I am worried (but not too worried) that the line between you one's own effort and that of others will be hard to draw and start to detract from the thrust of the thought experiment (which I do like though).

Alexander R Pruss said...

So, here is an interesting variant. One option is that once the chip is implanted, you lose the ability to think these things through yourself, though you still get to choose whether to go with what the chip says or act at random.

Books aren't going to make particular decisions in particular circumstances. Moreover, we typically evaluate the quality of a book's advice--except in the case of divinely protected or inspired texts, we do not have a guarantee that the book's ideas will be better than ours.

Back to the original story where you don't lose any abilities. Once you have the chip, why bother figuring something out yourself? You're going to get a better quality answer from the chip, after all. If you think it would still be worth figuring something out once you have the chip, then you must be agreeing with the thesis that rationality is not merely of instrumental value. (Not that the thesis is all that controversial.)

James Bejon said...

That it remains worthwhile to think things through post-implant might also illustrate why it's import, not merely to embrace and obey the text of scripture (though this is a pretty good start), but to understand why God has commanded those things he's commanded. I guess part of the value associated with such figuring out involves the development of the skill to do so.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right. This is all part of the paradox that our virtue needs to be both ours and Christ's. And figuring out moral questions is a virtue.

Interestingly, this provides a beginning of a theodicy for a class of evils that a bipolar friend has pointed out to me: evils that could be averted if some human simply knew something. In his case, it was his bipolarity--if he knew about the condition as such, he thinks his life would have gone much better, since he could have been medicated earlier. For there is a value to individuals learning and figuring things out without being told. And by analogy, there is a value to the human race so doing.

Heath White said...

On my view, understanding is "knowledge how" rather than "knowledge that" and so cannot be gotten through testimony. Testimony can, however, put you in the way of acquiring this skill for yourself. (Cf. the relation between ostensive definition and concept-possession.) E.g. this is how I have formed most of my theological understanding--vanishingly little (probably none) of it is genuine original discovery.

And yes I think developing and exercising this skill or knowledge-how is a significant part of human flourishing and has non-instrumental value.