Natural Rationality

Posted on March 14, 2008

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I’m adding another link to my blogroll. It is to Natural Rationality a blog maintained by Benoit Hardy-Vallee who is a post-doc in Toronto and, apart from sharing a lot of my interests, seems to have a non-human amount of energy given the number of things he has already achieved – a trait that I do not share, unfortunately. Here’s his research interest statement:

I see philosophy as conceptual engineering. Philosophy, like engineering, consists in solving relevant problems efficiently and bringing about feasible solutions. In doing philosophy, I try to build arguments, concepts and other inferential devices that may be reliably used to achieve epistemic goals such as explanation, justification or clarificaiton. Solving a philosophical problem, in this view, suggests a particular approach of philosophical activity, based on constraint satisfaction and interdisciplinarity. Solutions cannot always be perfect, but at least they must be simple, reliable, and empirically accurate. Doing philosophy implies satisfying these constraints as much as possible, and thus argumentation must use any piece of knowledge available. Science, technology, engineering and different philosophical traditions are sources of knowledge integrate in my research. More generally, I consider that philosophers have an expertise that may apply to many domains: seeing identity beyond diversity, managing abstract ideas, detecting conceptual problems, epistemological issues and logical inconsistencies. Our training in logic and argumentation, once complemented by scientific knowledge, allows us to exercise our philosophical skills over a wide range of domains and to be conceptual engineers.

My conception of philosophy is therefore similar to naturalism although I do not claim that norms are not natural or that they should be eliminated: norms are deontic attitudes about certain facts. They derive, on the one hand, from our empirical knowledge of the world and, on the other hand, our epistemic, practical or ethical objectives. A norm is what should be done, think, inferred or believed, given a certain goal (or set of goals). The best way to achieve some goal is partly an empirical question: thus normativity should not be dealt with solely on intuitive or formal bases.

As a philosopher of science interested in cognitive science, economics and biology, my work addresses interdisciplinary, normative and descriptive issues related in many ways to rationality and decision-making. It led me studying what I call “natural rationality”, which is now the main organizing principle of my intellectual work. Natural rationality is the study of the mechanisms by which humans and other animals make decisions. Most approaches of rationality take only the descriptive or the normative side, and hence tend to describe cognitive/neuronal processes without concern for their optimality, or state ideal conditions for rational behavior. Natural rationality is an attempt to bridge the gap between these two projects without the a priori biases commonly found in either side of the debate on normative/descriptive issues. It analyses the biological nature of choice behavior and therefore encompasses cognitive science, economics, biology and neuroscience.

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