Reasoning in epochs

The term ‘reason‘ derives from the term ‘consider’. It can be applied to any situation where a person or other ‘chooser’ has options and selects one based on some consideration of their characteristics. Always choosing at random does not display any reason, but (as in game theory) choosing at random might be reasonable if one does so after considering the situation. One can rarely tell if a given action of another was the result of reason.

Often the term ‘reasonable’ is confined to occasions where we think the reasoned actions ‘make sense’, but this usage can be problematic except in very dull situations.

Epochs (q.v.) as defined by Whitehead are (roughly) zones of subject-space-time-scale that have stable rules. They are separated by transitions or transformations that may be perceived as crises.

The term ‘rational‘ means ‘endowed with reason’, but its derivation from ‘ratio’ (quantitative relation …) suggests more precision  than just considering. If one has a given epoch with known rules that are stable and sufficiently precise, then one can reason rationally and where rationality is practical it would seem to be optimal. But if one is considering a future in which there are multiple possible significantly different epochs then the effective rules are unknown and unstable, so apparent rationality can only be achieved by inventing rules. This may be effective if one is dominant in the sense that one can dictate or strongly affect the rules, but not otherwise. In some situations others may react against your attempts to impose or influence rules, so that this blinkered approach to rationalism may be expected to fail.

Another way to think of this is that if an epoch is stable and adequately understood then it may be ‘mapped’. Although ‘the map is not the territory’ one can use a sufficiently detailed map as if it were the territory. But a map may fail to represent the territory adequately when:

  • We had insufficient data.
  • We missed features that turned out to be vital (e.g., fords).
  • Someone else produced the map, and we don’t understand their conventions.
  • The territory has changed (e.g., after a flood).

Where a situation lacks the inherent stability or you lack the information, one might seek to ‘satisfice’ rather than (as rationality does) to optimize.  When in an epoch, to be reasonable one needs to consider:

  • The vulnerabilities of the current epoch, which actors may benefit (or may think that they may benefit) from its termination.
  • The potential new epochs, and which actors may prefer, or come to prefer, which.
  • The key factors in actors’ preferencs and in which epochs may actualise.
  • Which actors have what preferences for changes to these factors, and what direct or indirect influences they may have (including oneself and one’s collaborators).
  • Which strategies (including collaborations) have what prospects of avoiding the worst outcomes, and what weaknesses and opportunities may arise, and what new factors may need to be considered.

Similarly if one is in turmoil, but with more coping than consideration. A point to note is that a factor may be important just because an influential actor thinks that it is, so the above considerations do not derive from any objective analysis of any objective situation.

Rationality, then, presupposes that we have a good ‘map’. A common practice, lacking a good map, is for a group or organisation to ‘agree’ on a map and then act rationally. Here we argue that one ought at least consider the consequences of one’s actions (in terms of epochs). Keynes (‘Economic Consequences of the Peace’) argued that this could make a critical difference: perhaps even avoiding economic crashes and world-wars. I note that mis-deeds and crises of all kinds seem to have been ’caused’ by the use of the wrong kind of reasoning, but am not clear that effective reform is possible or necessarily even desireable. 

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About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

3 Responses to Reasoning in epochs

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