10 September, 2013

Existential, Logical and Epistemological thinking

It is quite well known that cognition or "thinking" happens in several layers. One of the most popular theories today is by the works of Kahnemann and Tversky about Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is our intuitive brain. It performs fast, subconscious computations and jumps to conclusions. It also embodies our emotional state, intentions, desires and dispositions in its computations. It can compare across dimensions and is innately "rational" -- that is, it is driven by self-interest and biased by who we are.

For most of our lives, we live by System 1. However, System 1 occasionally requires the services of "System 2" -- which is our conscious and deliberate reasoning process.

System 1 includes all activities of a perceptive nature. This includes, for example, reading a word written in a language we understand. System 2 on the other hand, is semantic in nature. It tries to understand the meaning of what is being asked for and does justice to it.

Consider the following example that shows dissonance within System 1 requiring the services of System 2. In the following set of words, say out loud whether they are written in upper case or lower case:


We see that our System 1, first tries to just "read" what is written, rather than answer the question. System 2 then kicks in to make deliberate judgements based on what the question requires us to do. Answering this question requires a degree of "self-control" on ourselves to refrain from just reading out what we see, and to address what is being asked of us.

System 2 requires much more energy to run and is far more slower and inefficient than System 1. Also, System 2 is "lazy" (I'd like to use the term "rational") in the sense that, if System 1 already has computed an answer, System 2 would rather ratify the answer with an explanation, instead of invest resources in recomputing the solution.

The post-facto rationalizations we make to justify an impulse buying of say, a car or a camera, is an example of System 2 in action, ratifying the decisions taken by System 1, rather than computing the merits of the decision on its own.

Basically, System 2 is an "imperative engine" -- it performs logical inferences and derives conclusions from premises.

But -- and this is important -- it does its work within the confines of a mental model. The mental model comprises of the underlying premises on which inferences are made. System 1 often implicitly provides the "box" or the mental model within which System 2 performs. The post-facto ratification is an example.

This brings me to the point of this post, where I would like to propose the existence of a third layer of cognition. Rather than just calling it System 3, let me give specific names to each of these layers.

System 1 is the "existential" layer of cognition. It is an embodiment of our Person. Its thinking is driven by who we are, what we like, what we are afraid of, and such. It is oriented towards making quick, intuitive "blink"-type decisions.

System 2 is the "logical" layer. It can perform deliberate, systematic logical entailments from premises. It innately knows the rules of logic and can build an argument towards a conclusion. However, System 2 works within the confines of a mental model -- the axiomatic framework within which inferences are made. The mental model within which System 2 performs its computation, is often influenced by System 1. In that sense, System 2 is more of a "rationalizer" of the decisions of System 1 and System 1 can often "manipulate" System 2 to rationalize its leaps of intuition.

Sometimes however, we need to think beyond the confines of a mental model, and question the premises within which our System 2 is doing its thinking. This is where System 3, or the "epistemological" layer kicks in.

Consider the following question: What is 423 x 7? Answer this without using any pen or paper.

This is a typical problem that involves the operations of System 2, where we mentally calculate how to add 423 to itself 7 times.

But then, System 2 does not ask what is meant by 423, 7 and what is meant by 'x' in the question? We just assumed that their interpretations are known. Suppose I were to say that "423" and "7" are strings and 'x' is the concatenation operator, and the answer is 4237.. this constitutes a re-interpretation of the problem in a different model.

Consider the following problem:

Let's say, it is your birthday today and your friends have planned a surprise party for you. You come home in the evening after work, and your friends are all in there and yell, "Surprise!" And, you show surprise on your face. 

But suppose, you come to know of the surprise party that your friends have planned for you. When you come home and they yell "Surprise!" can you still show surprise?

The answer is yes! Because, your friends don't know that you know about their surprise.

Suppose your friends know that you know about their surprise? Can you still show surprise? 

The answer is still yes! Because, you don't know that your friends know that you know about their surprise!

This kind of a problem is characteristically different from that of "What is 423 x 7?" It requires deliberate thinking -- but deliberate thinking of a totally different kind than that used in System 2.

Epistemological thinking requires us to question our premises and perform multiple interpretations as part of its thinking.

The epistemological layer is required in many strategic situations where we need to think across different mental models. We not only have to question the basis of our own premises, but also have an understanding of what other interpretations can exist for the question at hand.

Most questions requiring us to reason about ethics and morality have this characteristic. Consider the following question:

A 10-year old argues in court that he should be allowed to be adopted by the rich childless couple in the next neighbourhood as requested by them, as they can provide him with a better life, and they also want him as their son. Besides, he argues, he cannot be held responsible for his "accident of birth" -- he did not choose his parents while being born. How should the court rule? 

This problem is complex simply because there are several models within which it can be interpreted, each giving different answers about what is the "right" thing to do. We can keep adding several additional points to this problem, making the decision sway in different directions. Suppose, we added a dimension to this problem that the current parents of the boy were living in penury and had problems of abusive behaviour. Or, perhaps that the current parents of they boy were middle class, hard working couple, who just couldn't match the wealth that the rich couple could afford. Now what?

Most strategic thinking, requires us to invoke the services of System 3, while rational thinking requires the use of System 2.

System 1 coupled with System 2 is "rational" -- in that they can both work towards fulfilling self-interest (managed by System 1) in a way that results in utility maximization (managed by System 2).

However, the activities of System 3 are synergistic and is about "enlightened self-interest."  Its aim is not to maximize utility for oneself, but to find a harmonious interpretation across several mental models to result in overall net gains in utility.

In other words: strategizing for a win is System 2, while strategizing for a win-win is System 3.


Chakravarthy said...

Exemplary. :)

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Thanks :)