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Ronald de Sousa: Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind.

Ronald de Sousa

Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind.

New York: Oxford University Press 2007.

Pp. 196.

US$25.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-19-518985-8).

An attractive, naked woman looks back at us from the cover of de Sousa's book. Just like the title, her presence challenges us to consider a question: Why is she on the cover of a book about rationality? The issue that focuses de Sousa's efforts is the relation between the natural world, as understood in evolutionary terms, and rationality. Traditionally, the differences between the two were played up to justify a dualist view that placed people outside the natural order. The naturalist reaction has been to downplay the differences and to attempt to show humans are just like other animals. While wholeheartedly sharing the naturalist view of humanity, de Sousa is concerned that what is special about human reason is not being properly considered; Plantinga's theist objection that evolved minds would not have the capacity to understand their own nature is the flip side of this worry. So, the question de Sousa deals with is, Why do humans, the result of evolutionary processes, reason? This goes in two directions: What do humans gain from reasoning that natural selection does not offer? and, What were the evolutionary processes that led to us being able to reason?

The picture of human reason de Sousa presents is essentially a double-aspect account: evolution has provided us with mental modules which underpin our ability to make rapid intuitive judgements, while our ability to think analytically is dependent on the invention of language allowing us to represent information independently of specific modules. Furthermore, according to de Sousa, language makes possible human values that, at times, run counter to evolutionary considerations. In effect, the apparent difference between humans and animals is explained in naturalistic terms. The view is similar to those put forward recently by Epstein, Evans, Sloman and Stanovich, among others. As such, it is surprising that de Sousa does not make use of their work in the area. It is particularly surprising considering that in his small book de Sousa manages to bring up an overwhelming amount of work from a number of disciplines.

Starting with Aristotle's definition of humans as rational animals, de Sousa makes the very useful distinction between 'rational' as opposed to 'irrational' on the one hand, and 'rational' as opposed to 'arational' on the other, where the most irrational human is still rational in the second sense. The remainder of the introduction is used to explain some of the basic concepts, laying out the course de Sousa follows in the book's remaining four short chapters. The first of these is concerned with various aspects of normativity, which de Sousa thinks central to rationality. His aim is to show how things such as functions and values can be explained in purely naturalistic terms: biological function is to be explained in etiological terms, as suggested by Millikan, but human values require something more, namely thought and language. The relationship between values, thought, and language is the topic of his second chapter. At the bottom of de Sousa's account lies the last major transition in evolution--the transition to language--that Maynard Smith and Szathmary discuss in their highly influential book. This transition ties de Sousa's picture back to evolution. Language (in a view taken from Carruthers) is then seen to make possible thought and, in turn, the 'multiplicity of values' humans exhibit, the opposite of which is a strict adherence to seeking evolutionary advantage. With language and a multiplicity of values comes the need to consider the conflict between what is rational for an individual and what is rational for the community, and this is de Sousa's focus in the next chapter. This allows him to examine the naturalist underpinnings of human morality and the way that culture fits into this picture, and de Sousa bases his suggestions on the work of Boyd and Richerson. Finally, in the last chapter de Sousa turns to truth as the main intellectual value, and to the question of how to reconcile it with the natural history and fallibility of human reason. Here, de Sousa's answer appears to be fairly traditional: judgments of irrationality assume the normativity of rationality, and '[t]he norm of rationality ... is analytically tied to the criterion of success for belief, which is truth' (124)--the point being that the elements of this picture can be spelled out in naturalist terms.

For whom is de Sousa's book intended, however? Given that he begins it by explaining basic concepts, it may seem to be an introduction to the area of biologically informed cognitive theory. Yet, the emphasis he puts on his argument belies the merely expository aim. Is it then a book for fellow philosophers, presenting his view of rationality? Probably not; the way de Sousa presents his argument is too terse, so that he ignores countless philosophical 'niceties' along the way. Indeed, at times his style is so telegraphic as to make it difficult to follow his line of reasoning even when you know the material. What he has done, in fact, is to assemble out of contemporary research an impressionist sketch of rationality. Which brings us back to the woman on the cover. The work is Olympia in which Manet depicts a self-assured prostitute in a pose traditionally used in paintings of the goddess Venus. To Manet's contemporaries the painting was shocking, particularly since the woman stares at the viewer, forcing them to consider their own role. Perhaps, then, this is de Sousa's aim: to confront the traditionalists (including Plantinga) with a frank depiction of his Olympia, a thoroughly naturalised but non-reductionist notion of rationality. Where others sought to deify reason, de Sousa shows it to be made of flesh and bone. And all the more alluring for it.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research and Marie Curie Sklodowska University
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Author:Talmont-Kaminski, Konrad
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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