Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Explain Irrational Minds!

Such remarks probably won’t satisfy those who are after a psychological theory of creative thinking […]. Because what they’re after is a theory of successful research and thinking.
I believe that the demand for a theory of successful thinking cannot be satisfied. And it is not the same as a theory of creative thinking. […]

– Karl Popper1

Those who wish to understand how the mind works often try to understand successful thinking, which they believe is rationality.2 In other words, they mistake a theory of successful thinking for a theory of how the mind works. That may be tempting, but, as Popper says, it’s impossible to find a theory of successful thinking, so they’re wasting their time.

There’s more to the mind. Irrational minds are minds, too. If you focus only on understanding rational ones – or on how to avoid irrationality – you end up understanding, at most, how the mind can work, not how it must work. Rationality and irrationality are emergent properties of the mind – they’re not at the core of how it works.

The reason we should instead try to explain how minds must work is that the project of building a mind – an artificial general intelligence – is the quest for the right computer program,3 and programs cannot deviate from their own instructions. The same set of instructions leads to both rational and irrational minds.4

Here’s a different approach to protect yourself from the mistake I’ve described. First, explain how an irrational mind must work, in detail. Then, show how that same explanation also explains how a rational mind must work. Of course, if you’re right, it will also explain qualia, consciousness, memories, and all other attributes of minds.

  1. Translated freely from: Popper, Karl. 2018. Ausgangspunkte: Meine intellektuelle Entwicklung. Munich: Piper. Translator Friedrich Griese, p. 62 f. As quoted (albeit without the subtitle) in Deutsch, David. 2021. Der Anfang der Unendlichkeit: Erklärungen, die die Welt verwandeln. Oxford: self-published. Translator Dennis Hackethal, p. x. 

  2. I don’t think that there’s such a thing as ‘Rationality’, or that there are fully irrational minds. Rationality certainly does not have to do with finding the ‘right’ way of thinking, only producing correct results, reliably solving problems, always favoring facts over emotions, or always favoring the explicit over the inexplicit or the conscious over the unconscious (which David Deutsch has warned against). But it does seem to have to do with a mind’s attitude: does it seek the truth? Is it critical? Does it wish to solve problems, even though it may fail? 

  3. According to David Deutsch, “[c]reativity is a property of software”. Deutsch, David. 2012. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Penguin Press. Ch. 16. 

  4. It follows that other approaches focusing on how minds can work must fail, too. That includes the study of perception, a favorite among neuroscientists and philosophers, which they believe to be at the core of how minds work – but different people perceive things differently. Perception can work a certain way, but it need not. (That’s not to mention Popper’s devastating criticism of empiricism.) 


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