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Papineau, David. The Roots of Reason: Philosophical Essays on Rationality, Evolution, and Probability.

PAPINEAU, David. The Roots of Reason: Philosophical Essays on Rationality, Evolution, and Probability. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. viii + 242 pp. Cloth, $29.95--In his The Roots of Reason, a collection of previously published and, in places, slightly modified essays on rationality, David Papineau shows himself to be a "tough-minded" philosopher, to use William James's famous descriptor, but one with a flair for the unconventional; he is a hard-nosed naturalist who eagerly entertains and often embraces unexpected, controversial, and counterintuitive theories.

No single theme or thesis runs through all six essays, though they are united by Papineau's naturalist methodology, which, whenever possible, makes recourse to empirical data and recent scientific theories--namely, evolution and quantum mechanics--and denies the need to go beyond such theories to account for the phenomenon of the human mind. In general, the essays deal with the nature, standards, and evolution of theoretical and practical rationality.

The first and most formal essay is a defense of Papineau's version of naturalism, "reliabilist consequentialism," against the claim that it cannot accommodate norms of judgment. Papineau's response is not to deny the existence of such norms of judgment but rather to deny their sui generis character; "truth-seeking," for example, is a hypothetical imperative founded upon prior moral or personal values. Continuing this theme of truth-seeking, the second essay offers an evolutionary explanation of theoretical rationality as a biological side-effect of two more immediate biological goals--"understanding of mind," the ability to attribute mental states to other beings, and means-end reasoning, a type of practical reasoning in which agents draw new, general conclusions from general information, information that goes beyond the experience or genetic past of the agent. This type of reasoning--its nature, its irreducibility to more primitive cognitive designs, and its evolution--are the subject of the third essay.

The last three essays concern practical rationality in general and Papineau's (and, in the fourth essay, coauthor Helen Beebee's) explication and defense of the notion of "knowledge-relative probability." Faced with situations in which the outcome of a given action is less than certain, an agent, if he is rational, will correctly adjust his degrees of belief to the probability of each possibility. But what it means to adjust correctly one's degrees of belief or to be practically rational is a matter of considerable debate. Many presume that the rationality of an agent should be measured by the degree to which his beliefs coincide with "single-case probabilities" or "the rock-bottom metaphysical probabilities fixed by all probabilistic laws and all particular facts about specific situations" (p. 135). However, Papineau argues that, as counterintuitive as it might be, the rationality of agents should be determined by "knowledge-relative probabilities," probabilities based upon the agent's knowledge of the salient features of the decision situation. Throughout the last three essays, this kind of probability is explained, defended, extended to contexts involving causality--not mere correlation--and found, curiously enough, to be consistent with the "many-minds" interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Papineau's substantial and original contribution to these long-standing debates largely consists in his willingness to interweave divergent strands of thought. Just when he appears to adopt a Humean anthropology, arguing that truth-seeking is not a sui generis norm of judgment but, rather, a "derived prescription orientated to moral and personal values" (p. 9), he defends the thesis that there is a type of practical reasoning, viz., "means-end reasoning," that is irreducible to the cognitive designs of simple animals and is peculiar to human beings. Likewise, after arguing against the adoption of "single-case probabilities" as the standard for practical rationality largely on the grounds of theoretical economy, he offers a tentative endorsement of the many-minds interpretation of quantum mechanics, a metaphysically generous interpretation, to say the least. According to this interpretation, when a chancy situation arises, "all alternatives outcomes with non-zero probability will occur" (p. 229), and "[w]hen an intelligent being interacts with a complex quantum system, its brain acquires a corresponding complexity" (p. 226). For example, in relation to the problem of Schrodinger's cat, Papineau writes, "One aspect of your brain sees a live cat, another a dead car" (p. 226). This is hard-nosed naturalism with a twist; certainly such an eclectic combination of positions and tendencies makes for good reading.

Readers not immersed in British and American analytic philosophy of science over the last thirty years may find Papineau's writings a bit insular. Of course, the evolution of rationality and the philosophy of quantum mechanics are highly specialized fields of interest. But underpinning these technical inquiries are more general conceptual investigations into the nature of belief, intentionality, truth, freedom, language, mind, rational choice, probability, and anthropology--subjects that have a much longer history and broader audience than these essays would seem to indicate. However, the book's limitations in this regard are considerably softened by its clear, richly illustrated, and occasionally witty prose, which invites the nonspecialist into the debate without compromising Papineau's own significant contribution.--Andrew J. Peach, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.
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Author:Peach, Andrew J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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