thinking and rationality


Are we rational beings?

I think the answer to this question depends on what you consider rationality to be.  If you take “rational” to mean logical reasons, purposes and explanations, then I would say that we are emotional beings who rationalize what we do with our explanations, our plans, our intentions; even our “values”.  If you consider rationality to refer to the processes by which a living system maintains an adequate connection with its niche, however complex that niche may be, then I would say that yes, we like most animals are rational - though not necessarily in a manner that an observer can see. 

... most of the time.  Perhaps humans make “irrational” choices when they limit themselves to “rational logics”
... but then what I claim has become a word game; namely is that “irrational” action rational if I take into account the odd human niche of living in language.  

Much more on this when we come to discussing language and distinctions, and how we are autonomous beings growing and living in the context of a human culture.

I wanted to find out how long it would take a monkey (Macacus rhesus) to learn to distinguish between a square and circle. Thus I prepared an experiment with two equal bowls. I put some food in one of the bowls, and then cover them both with lids that differed only in that one had a painted square and the other a circle. The experiment was set up so the monkey could see the bowls and reach a hand out between the bars of its cage to open the lid of one bowl and get the food. I interchanged the lids randomly for each trial, but I always put the food under the cover with the same drawing.

I counted how many trials the monkey required in order to not make any mistakes in choosing the bowl whose lid had the figure that I had chosen as positive. At first it looked for where food might be recklessly, but eventually it only reached for the drawing that I treated as positive. It took the monkey 29 trials sessions in order to regularly make the proper choice. I said to myself “Fantastic, it takes the monkey 29 trials to distinguish between a square and a circle.” And then I wondered whether distinguishing between a cross and two parallel lines would be more difficult than a square and a circle. However, it took the monkey only one trial.

I found this wonderful. Maybe the monkey never had had any difficulty distinguishing between the square and the circle, even though it appeared that it required 29 trials. I thought, after all monkeys have visual systems similar to ours and must see as well as we do, so they should not have any difficulty with visual distinctions of forms. Maybe what the monkey was learning was not to distinguish between a square and a circle, but something entirely different. Maybe, I thought, he was learning instead that I am always consistent. So I said to myself, “that is what the monkey was learning, it was learning a general law of the universe: namely what I thought of as the ‘universal inertia,’ the universe is consistent with itself in its continuous change.

“Fundamentally Different: My History with Francisco Varela”

Maturana, 2012.  in press Constructivist Foundations

systemic thinking

Without language, without any formal logic, living systems do the appropriate things in various circumstances.
They are not being “irrational”.   Rather what they are acting in is what we like to name “systemic thinking.”
Systemic thinking is an analogic process, it is dynamic, configurational,  and relational -- and it works!

snippet recorded
with pocket camera
and handheld zoom, apologies for

poor quality!

we all have the ability

Humans, even though we live in language are also living beings that have the capacity for systemic rationality.  As we relate with each other and our world in conversations that entail both emotioning and  languaging, our systemic rationality enters into and modulates this more explicit and more structured process.   We modify what we see and what we do through what we “grasp” without having logically derived it, or without being able to fully articulate in words how that “knowing what to do” happened.

Furthermore, our complex language/emotion/culture world becomes a new ground for our systemic processes. The nervous system inherently works in a systemic manner.  We just have “more stuff” to include and a bigger brain to work with.

We do culturally acknowledge the existence of systemic rationality.  We may call it “gut feelings” if we’re a top executive.  We may call it “intuition” as we deal with complex relational problems.  And we know we can always “sleep on it” to give ourselves the space and time to come to a better understanding.  It is in this non-demand time that the nervous system has the opportunity to recursively operate in multiple cascades, or waves of activity that serve to integrate among our various concerns and ideas. 

We appreciate people who are able to bring in this kind of thinking to how they act; though we sometimes ask for a rational explanation to be provided after the fact.  Yet, we know that this kind of thinking is not a programmable, and it cannot be demanded.  

what kind of thinking goes into solving this puzzle?

we grasp configurations as the ground for details

There has been different schools of thought: do we add up instances, specifics, and then generalize?  Or do we start with a generality and then distinguish specifics?  When we begin to teach a child “colours” we naturally begin with instances... red, blue, green etc.  However, what we don’t realize is that they have already learned that we are asking them to pay attention to something, and second that we are asking them to realize that what we are asking them to focus on is a hue.  Once this is grasped, other colors are easily added to their repertoire.   Consider this experiment that Maturana reports:

lazlo-photo, flickr commons

systemic thinking provides a poetic look

Systemic thinking is generative. It is harmonizing; it creates coherences among multiple dimensions. Systemic thinking is creative; it enables the serendipitous unexpected to arise. Systemic thinking is insightful.  It is not “irrational”.

local linear thinking

In a systemic network of anything, one can always select, focus, on something locally relevant.  We can look at a sequence, and describe it as  “this then that” or “this leads to that” or “this causes that.”  Such observations are appropriate and useful where the circumstances retain adequate regularity. 

We are not the sole beings that do this; all living beings have the capacity to focus on local relevancies.  A bee can deposit the nectar it has gathered in an appropriate place in the honeycomb.  A fox can find its den.  A baby quickly learns to see how one action leads to another. 

It is through our observing of such sequences that we can begin to say that some being “does this in order to achieve that.”  And of course, we can be explicit about our own regularities.  We can say “two and two equals four” as we can reflect on that particular regularity and of course; refer to in language. (more on languaging in the next unit!)

one more comment

Even what we distinguish as local linear thinking, or logic, happens in the context of a systemic world with a systemic manner of living and understanding.  Our biology is systemic.  Our relationships are systemic, and our medium is systemic.  

Maturana and Davila emphasize that the biocultural matrix of human existence is “systemic-systemic-systemic.”

I think that seeing this and living it is inherently an acceptance of a dimensionality or richness of our being and of the cosmos, an acceptance of more than what we can explicitly say.

linear thinking provides an engineering look

Linear thinking works in one domain of actions, or one domain of logic; and it works very, very well in this context.   With linear thinking we have been able to build pyramids, bridges and ships. We would not be happy with an engineer who only operated on “gut feelings” and did not take into account all the known calculations on material strength and structural relationships! 

Linear thinking does not have to be restricted to a single relationship, or even a sequence of them.  We can concatenate multiple influences logically.  We have developed many methodologies to do this.

No wonder we, in our modern built environment, have come to appreciate logic and linear thinking!

NASA public domain image

integrated in living

The poetic and the engineering look complement and support each other.  We value the doctor, the teacher, the CEO who is able to appropriately focus on the local when needed, and to do so in a “holistic” or “integral” fashion that takes the whole “context” into account. 

You may have noticed that we can only allude to, we cannot specify the systemic whole.  The types of rationality I have referred to here are nothing more than distinctions that enable us to see breadth, to open a space between.  Yet we can make these distinctions because they do correspond to some regularities in our lives.

Gaia’s gift

story about Pavlov’s dogs