Monday, May 30, 2016

The ghost in the machine


Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology.” That’s what I wrote last week. Psychology influences not only the way we calculate but – as we have seen already many times in these blogs – many other things we do as well. We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by. Holding a warm cup of coffee in your hands makes you having more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of iced coffee. It’s surprising for it seems so irrational, especially the latter example: What has the temperature of coffee to do with my feelings towards somebody? But, alas, so it works. The mind is an odd instrument.
The consequences of such psychological effects can be far-reaching. They needn’t be limited to our individual behaviour towards others. Moreover, they can be annoying, for it’s weird that how we treat someone else depends on whether we take a café americano or an iced latte. In a job interview it can influence the career of an applicant and whom I’ll get as my new colleague. Our psychology can have wide social effects and affect important aspects of the structure of society.
That’s what I realized when I read in a newspaper about another such a surprising effect: French secondary school students had to draw a complicated figure according to a model. Some students were told that it was a drawing assignment and others that it was a mathematical assignment. In the former case the girls scored better than the boys but in the latter the boys surpassed the girls. However, in either case the assignment was exactly the same. Apparently the reason for this difference is that maths is felt to be for men, and maybe also – but I haven’t heard of this prejudice – that drawing is more for girls. Phenomena like these make that men are on the top in some social fields and women in other domains, even if they have the same relevant qualities. Actually it’s nothing new. It’s said so often, but when confronted again with it, it remains surprising. In this case the drawing assignment illustrates what I would call a combined Beauvoir-Thomas effect. It was Simone de Beauvoir who made clear to us that women are not born as such but that they are made as they are; and once they have been ascribed certain qualities this has consequences for the way they behave and are treated. W.I. Tomas has formulated the latter in his famous theorem saying that if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Voilà the social outcome of a simple psychological phenomenon.
Without psychological characteristics maybe man would be rational, but s/he would not be more than a machine. Our feelings – if we had them – would not be more than a kind of epiphenomena unrelated to the way we behave. Then man as a machine runs as it runs and our alleged psychology would not be more than the smoke that escapes from the locomotive. Maybe it would be an interesting object for study, but it doesn’t influence how the locomotive moves on. If man would be made up that way, s/he would be really rational. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if man would be like this? Some will say “yes”: We would be rid of a lot of misery in this world – human misery like fear, pain, injustice, inequality, etc. Maybe all this would still exist but it functions just as Descartes thought about animals: Animals are a kind of machines; perhaps they have feelings but they don’t give attention it. However, I think that man is not that rational kind of being. Happily, I would say, for if psychology is not a substantial part of what man is, we would also lose a lot. We would have our feelings but yet haven’t them. We would exist without all kinds of misery, but also without everything we value like joy, creativity, relationship, love, wonder, discovery, meaning, ideas ... – just all those things that makes man human and that makes that s/he is not simply a ghostless machine.

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