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The Rationale of Rationalization
Walter Veit, Joe Dewhurst, Krzysztof Dolega, Max Jones, Shaun Stanley, Keith Frankish, and
Daniel C. Dennett
Fiery Cushman argues that “[r]ationalization is designed not to accurately infer
unconscious mental states, but to construct new ones; it is not a discovery, but a
fiction”. While we agree in broad strokes with the characterization of
rationalization as a ‘useful fiction’, we think that Cushman’s claim remains
ambiguous in two crucial respects: (i) the reality of beliefs and desires, i.e. the
fictional status of folk psychological entities, and (ii) the degree to which they
should be understood as useful and representative. Our aim here is to clarify both
points and illuminate how rationalization could be understood as a useful fiction.
In doing so, we aim to explicate the Rationale of Rationalization.
KEYWORDS: rationalization, intentional stance, folk psychology, representation
This is an unedited preprint draft for Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Cushman, F. (n.d.). Rationalization is rational. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-69.
Post-hoc rationalisation, i.e., retrospectively attributing or constructing ‘hidden’ beliefs and
desires inferred from how one has behaved in the past, has traditionally been seen to threaten
the idea that humans are ‘rational’, since it happens subsequent to the process under
consideration. If the relevant mental states that are supposed to rationalize an action only come
into existence after the action has occurred, then they cannot be treated as the cause of that
action. However, Cushman argues that a post-hoc process of this kind can still be seen as
‘rational’ in the sense that it constructs new beliefs and desires that both serve a useful function
and track some underlying adaptive rationales that have shaped the behaviour being
rationalized. Rationalization, according to Cushman, is supposed to be a ‘useful fiction’. We
think that this proposal invites two serious ambiguities, firstly to do with the ontological status
of the mental states that are the outputs of rationalisation (i.e., folk psychological states like
beliefs and desires), and secondly to do with the degree to which they should be understood as
useful and representative. We will address each ambiguity in turn, using our resolution of the
latter to help resolve the former.
Throughout his article, Cushman seems to assume a fairly robust understanding of what
beliefs and desires are, framing them as functionally discrete internal states with determinate
contents. He is committed to the idea that there is a crucial distinction between ‘real’ reasoning
processes, which involve operations on beliefs and desires, and the fictional ones produced by
rationalization, which don't involve any such operations. Rationalization, on his account, seems
to play the role of a process of self-interpretation in which one authors fictions about the causes
of one’s own behavior. Drawing these distinctions might not be as easy as Cushman suggests,
if there is no principled “dividing line between genuine belief-talk or agent-talk and mere as if
belief-talk and agent-talk” (Dennett 2011, 481). Indeed, the lack of such a dividing line
similarly arises for agential descriptions or ‘rationalizations’ in evolutionary biology (see
Dennett forthcoming, Veit 2019, Okasha 2018, Tarnita 2017). Without such a dividing line,
however, it is unclear what the ontological status of beliefs and desires is supposed to be. If
Cushman were to deny that there are anything at all like beliefs and desires prior to the
rationalisation process, making the folk psychological states produced by this process entirely
fictional, he would fall close to eliminative materialists such as Paul (1981) and Patricia (1986)
Churchland. We do not think that Cushman would like to endorse this option, as he seems quite
committed to the existence of beliefs and desires. The other option, then, and this is a move we
recommend for Cushman, is to commit to the existence of some sort of proto-mental states
prior to the rationalisation process, in which case we think it is unclear in what sense the output
of the rationalisation process also constitute fictional entities. Of course, the rationalisation
process might influence or replace these proto-mental states via a narrative process that we
could call ‘fictional’, but it is no longer the mental states themselves that are fictions, rather the
process that produces them.
This brings us to the second ambiguity: in what sense can ‘fictional’ mental states (or
processes) be understood as useful? Cushman clarifies that these fictions can be useful even
when they are not “perfectly accurate representations” by appealing to Dennett’s (1987)
‘intentional stance’, according to which the attribution of beliefs and desires are understood as
nothing more than a way of tracking observable patterns in behavior (or the categorical bases
of those patterns), and have no further ontological status ‘inside’ the system. However, this
comparison reveals a tension in his dual conception of folk-psychological states. Dennett’s
intentional stance assumes that habit, instinct, norms etc. may all support rational patterns of
behavior, and that this is all that is needed for a system to manifest ‘genuine’ beliefs and desires.
It is the fact that these processes support rational responses that makes it worth extracting
information from them via rationalization (i.e., by adopting the intentional stance), and then re-
presenting this information in a rich belief/desire format. Reformatted in this way, beliefs and
desires take the form of the linguistic utterances that Dennett originally called “opinions”
(1987) and Frankish has more recently called “superbeliefs” (2004). For us, richness is a matter
of having a discrete representational vehicle, such as that provided by natural language, but it
is not clear that this is what Cushman has in mind when he talks about beliefs and desires.
As we see it there are two broad ways to achieve such a rich conception of belief, either
internal or external. On the internal conception, i.e. traditional computationalism, this vehicle
is a neural one, and beliefs are formed and processed at a subpersonal level. On the external
conception, the vehicle is natural language, and beliefs are formed and manipulated at a
personal level by agents themselves, as a way of describing and regulating their own and others’
behavior. Forming a rich belief, i.e. an opinion or superbelief, is like adopting a policy or
making a bet on truth – we commit to taking a sentence as an expression of truth, and regulate
our other utterances and commitments accordingly. Cushman seems to espouse a version of
the former interpretation, but we think that the latter interpretation is to be preferred, as it can
help to resolve the two ambiguities outlined above.
Once this external approach is adopted, the sense in which rationalisation is ‘fictional’
becomes clear: it involves the construction of a narrative that is strictly false with regard to the
underlying mechanisms, but nonetheless captures real patterns in the behavior generated by
those mechanisms. We propose to interpret rationalisation as the process of taking the austere
‘proto-beliefs' manifested in behaviour, and transforming them into superbeliefs or opinions,
(i.e., rich, linguistically formatted beliefs and desires), via the application of the intentional
stance to one’s own behavior. Taking this can help to resolve the ambiguities described above,
provided that Cushman is willing to adopt this distinction between the austere beliefs that are
implicit in all (seemingly) intelligent behavior, and the explicit, linguistically mediated beliefs
that are the outcome of the rationalization process. The latter could be seen as ‘fictional’, in the
sense that they only came about as the result of a story that we tell about our own behavior,
and yet they are also ‘real’, in the sense that they do accurately capture (and help to track) our
behavior (even if they do not accurately describe the processes underlying that behavior). By
coming to be explicitly represented in natural language, expressing normative commitments,
they can also indirectly influence our future behaviour. In short, we think rationalisation should
be treated as the reverse engineering of what Dennett (2017) has called “free-floating
rationales”, i.e. instinctive behavioral patterns, like avoiding snakes or heights, that are not
explicitly encoded but nonetheless ‘make rational sense’. Similarly, the underlying ‘reasons’
that are implicit in our behavior can be inferred (or rather uncovered) via rationalization, which
can then lead to further behavioural improvements by engaging in explicit rational deliberation.
This is the Rationale of Rationalization.
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Cushman, F. (n.d.). „Rationalization is rational“, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-69.
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