Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 41 — What is Rationality?(Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
6 min readDec 30, 2022


“Rationality is ultimately an existential issue, not just a theoretical, inferential, logical issue.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 40:

Ep. 41 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — What is Rationality? [56:46]

  • Stanovich and West (2000) respond to Cohen’s arguments like this: if Cohen is right, then all the errors people are making are performance errors (invoking the competence vs. performance distinction). Remember, competence errors are systematic errors, but performance errors are circumstantial — not systematic errors.
  • You can tell if an error is systematic by seeing if it is highly predictive of other errors. The degree to which your performance in one task is predictive of how you will do in other tasks.
  • Stanovich and West used this task predictivity logic and found overwhelming support that, in fact, the errors people are making are actually systematic. So Cohen’s argument is incorrect.
  • This is odd, because there’s something right about Cohen’s argument (and Stanovich acknowledges this): we have to be the source of our standards. And yet, Cohen’s conclusion that all the errors are performance errors is wrong. How do we reconcile these?
  • If we step back and look at Cohen’s argument we find that there is an assumption being made about competence. He assumes that the competence for rationality is a single, static competence. (and that it’s completely individualistic)
  • Re: the assumption that competence being a single thing: think of the Platonic idea. Imagine having two competences that both are working toward getting you closer to your goals, but these competencies actually conflict with each other. “Uncritically assuming that you could reduce rationality and identify it with the single competence of syllogistic reasoning is just fundamentally wrong.”
  • Re: the assumption that competence is completely done & static: we see in children that their competence over, say, speaking English changes and improves over time. But as long as that competence is immature and not fully developed the child can be a source of error from her competence.
  • So Stanovich and West identify this idea of a dual processing model. Different ways of processing information that are good for different kinds of problem solving.
  • Cherniak has a much different approach to the rationality debate. He invokes the finitary predicament. (his term) We can’t be algorithmic and use standards that work in terms of certainty and completeness, because you quickly fall into combinatorial explosiveness, which would undermine any attempt to satisfy any of our goals. But we also don’t just arbitrarily choose whatever inference or representation or contradiction you want. The answer, of course, is we use relevance. We choose the relevant implications and check the relevant contradictions etc. We do relevance realization.
  • Cherniak points out that the scientists in the experiments are using logic and probability and all these formal theories (examples of algorithmic standards) that can only be applied in very limited contexts. If you try to apply them comprehensively to your life you are doomed to fail. It’s an ‘ought’ that one can’t possibly meet. This is the finitary predicament.
  • This doesn’t mean we can just be arbitrary and ignore logic of course. And this is where it starts to overlap with wisdom: “It’s the much more difficult issue of knowing when, where, and to what degree I should use logic and probability in a formal manner.”
  • Stanovich and West reply by saying that everything Cherniak laid out about computational limitations is right, but that it’s not about rationality. It’s actually about intelligence. We will see that there is a deep difference between being intelligent and being rational. Stanovich will argue that what makes you foolish is that you’re highly intelligent and highly irrational.
  • Their argument is that if Cherniak’s argument is about rationality, then intelligence and rationality should approach parity. They should be identical (i.e. a correlation of 1) We have decades of reliable, robust, well-replicated studies measuring the correlation between intelligence and rationality and the correlation is actually 0.3. “Intelligence is necessary but nowhere near sufficient for being rational.” So we now know neither using logic nor being intelligent are sufficient for being rational, which calls into question a lot of the ways our culture has tried to understand rationality. So what is rationality?
  • Smedslund pointed out something that Stanovich and West do take seriously, which is now a third response. He says there’s a difficulty with interpreting the experiments. (And you can’t experiment your way out of interpretation — it’s always going to be needed, and therefore theoretical debate will always be needed.) Interpreting these experiments relies on a distinction between a fallacy and a misunderstanding.
  • A fallacy is when the problem is interpreted correctly but reasoned incorrectly. A misunderstanding is when the problem is reasoned correctly but the problem was understood incorrectly. This distinction is crucial because if we want to conclude that people are being irrational we have to attribute to them fallacious cognition and not some kind of distortion in the communication and that they’ve misunderstood us.
  • Smedslund then says that when we want to see if people understand x we ask them to find things identical to x, things that contradict x, things that x implies, and things that are relevant to x. Note that last one! But this is where Smedslund actually puts that last one aside in his argument and says to look at the first three instead, and points out that these three things are what it means to reason. And if people are coming up with the wrong answer scientists are assuming that the participants in the experiment understood the problem correctly and then reason incorrectly. But this isn’t necessarily true. Maybe participants just misunderstood the problem (maybe the scientists framed it vaguely, etc.). We can’t know if it’s fallacy or misunderstanding. This is the problem.
  • Stanovich and West were not aware of Smedslund’s work, but come to the same conclusion that we need a normativity on construal to break this impasse. A normativity on how people forumulate the problem, independent of inferential norms. (Which points back to relevance, the 4th strategy for understanding that Smedslund never addressed. “Relevance is pre-inferential.”)
  • Vervaeke’s proposal is that we do have a normativity on construal. We have standards of what a good vs. bad problem formulation is. Psychologists study this in ‘insight problem-solving.’ We know that a bad problem formulation puts you into a combinatorially explosive search space, or that doesn’t turn an ill defined problem into a well-defined problem, or when you’re not paying attention to how salience is misleading you. So this means that in addition to inference being crucial to being rational, insight is crucial as well. Now rationality and wisdom are starting to overlap.
  • So what is the missing piece according to Stanovich and West re: why intelligence and rationality are not correlated? What accounts for that .3 variance? Possibly cognitive styles or inappropriate psychotech (mind-ware).
  • A cognitive style is something you can learn — a set of sensitivities and skills. The style that is most predictive of doing well on the reasoning test is active open-mindedness (a concept/term he got from Jonathan Baron). This is the ability to look for and notice patterns of self-deception and biases. Being sensitive to these in your day to day cognition and then actively counteracting them, but (and Baron notes this specifically) not overdoing it. Doing it to the right degree. This is now getting a bit more nebulous and we’re starting to shade over into wisdom.
  • So, if intelligence predicted rationality then being intelligent would predict how well you’ve cultivated active open-mindedness, but of course it doesn’t. What predicts this is not intelligence but the degree to which people have a need for cognition. People who look for problems and go out on their own and try to learn. Vervaeke adds that inherent to this is curiosity, but also wonder — putting into question your entire worldview and your sense of identity. “Rationality is ultimately an existential issue, not just a theoretical, inferential, logical issue.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 42 — Intelligence, Rationality, and Wisdom (Summary & Notes)

List of Books in the Video:

  • Herbert A. Simon — Models of Bounded Rationality
  • Henry Priest — Biased: 50 Powerful Cognitive Biases That Impair Our Judgment
  • Kai Musashi — The 25 Cognitive Biases
  • Aryan Pillai — Cognitive Biases: A Pocket Reference Book



Mark Mulvey

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