Ruth Chang – Subject-Created Reason

Hat tip to Maria Ana of The Thinking Hotel on LinkedIn for the link to this 15minute TED Talk from philosopher Ruth Chang.

For reasons of various IT and physical interruptions, I partially listened to this talk 4 or 5 times before finally listening right through this morning. The presentation of example life-choices seemed so simplistic and presented so simply, that I was convinced there could be nothing of value here. [In fact I posted some pre-emptive thoughts based on the topic before I’d even listened at all.]

Well I’m glad I eventually listened right through. Full transcript also available, but here my paraphrase summary:

As post-enlightenment creatures we tend to assume assume objective science holds the key to everything of importance in the world. When we compare objective evidence and predicted outcomes, without any clear best option, then we tend to take the least risky option. But often in tough choices, reasons are  “on a par”. Options in tough choices are in the same league but of different kinds (*), not necessarily quantifiable in real numbers. There is in fact no best alternative out there.

The choice we make is supported by reasons created by us. Think about it. This is preferable to a world where objective reasons are all out there, where facts in the objective world determine our choices.

We choose which options we put our agency behind, what we want to be, what we want the world to be. Hard choices are in fact a god-send, opportunities to change the world. Not just opportunity, but a precious normative power we hold. To create reason.

Excellent stuff. Very much on my agenda, avoiding the scientistic neurosis, that objective reason is the only valid form of rationality in decision-making. I completely agree, it’s not. Worth a listen.

And it perfectly illustrates the (Wordsworth) “murder to dissect” point I made in the comment thread on LinkedIn. If we assume reason is out there in an objective sense to be analysed (sliced-and-diced with Aristotelian knives) and presented (re-assembled) in matrices and decision-trees, we kill the very thing we value most – our agency in the world.

[(*) Not recognising things as being of different qualitative kinds is known formally in philosophy as a “category error”. And, when they are on a par – in the same league but different kinds – it’s often because they’re not actually a real binary choice either – it’s a false dichotomy to see all “what should I/we do” decisions that way.]

[PS – wonder if I could join up Ruth Chang to Larry Krauss on the limits to scientific thinking, without Larry getting all “religious” on us – as he did when Angie and Mary tried to set him right in Philosophy Bites Back.]

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