Philosophy, science and bounded rationality

Posted on June 29, 2007

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I have been thinking recently about a difference between philosophy and science that is striking. Philosophy has, for centuries, aimed at the greatest possible level of conceptual consistency. Analytical philosophy in which I have been trained has raised this goal even higher, pursuing it with the latest logical tools. The worst thing you can tell a philosopher isn’t that they are wrong – all philosophers accept that possibility – but that what they are saying is self-contradictory. And what has been produced by philosophy thanks to this focus on consistency? In the best cases, intellectual construct that ended up undermining themselves by revealing their own false premisses implicit in how we used to think about the particular topic.

On the other hand, I have recently been reading a lot of science and been somewhat taken aback at the amount of what, coming from my analytical background, I see as sheer intellectual sloppiness – bad definition, contradictions, etc. etc. And yet, it flies! By keeping its nose close to empirical resuls science has been able to achieve things that philosophers have only ever dreamt of. All while making all manner of argumentative errors.

The reason why I mention this is that I have just been re-reading Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox edited by Gigerenzer and Selten and been struck by how the situation between science and philosophy mirrors that between bounded and unbounded rationality. Gigerenzer writes:

To summarize, the reasonableness of models of bounded rationality derives from their ecological rationality, not from coherence or an internal consistency of choices. A strategy is ecologically rational to the degree that it is adapted to the information in an environment, whether the environment is physical or social.

 No wonder that philosophers find the idea of rationality being essentially bounded so hard to take.

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