Irrationality and cognition

In Quentin Smith (ed.), Epistemology: New Essays. Oxford University Press (2008)
Abstract
The strategy of this paper is to throw light on rational cognition and epistemic justification by examining irrationality. Epistemic irrationality is possible because we are reflexive cognizers, able to reason about and redirect some aspects of our own cognition. One consequence of this is that one cannot give a theory of epistemic rationality or epistemic justification without simultaneously giving a theory of practical rationality. A further consequence is that practical irrationality can affect our epistemic cognition. I argue that practical irrationality derives from a general difficulty we have in overriding built-in shortcut modules aimed at making cognition more efficient, and all epistemic irrationality can be traced to this same source. A consequence of this account is that a theory of rationality is a descriptive theory, describing contingent features of a cognitive architecture, and it forms the core of a general theory of “voluntary” cognition — those aspects of cognition that are under voluntary control. It also follows that most of the so-called “rules for rationality” that philosophers have proposed are really just rules describing default (non- reflexive) cognition. It can be perfectly rational for a reflexive cognizer to break these rules. The “normativity” of rationality is a reflection of a built-in feature of reflexive cognition — when we detect violations of rationality, we have a tendency to desire to correct them. This is just another part of the descriptive theory of rationality. Although theories of rationality are descriptive, the structure of reflexive cognition gives philosophers, as human cognizers, privileged access to certain aspects of rational cognition. Philosophical theories of rationality are really scientific theories, based on inference to the best explanation, that take contingent introspective data as the evidence to be explained.
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