MIT (3): Rationality

One of the lessons one learns from studying political philosophy is which philosopher to start with, and the answer is anyone. Reading one philosopher leads to another and another so that after a few years, you’ve read enough to actually know something have a feel for the subject. I find the same is true for rationality or human cognition and politics:  considering rationality deeply leads to question after question so that after a few years, one looks at the whole field of politics, government, and political science through the lens of rationality and human cognition.

I came to MIT with a Course 6 background in electrical engineering (EE) and computer science (CS). I had studied artificial intelligence (AI) at the graduate level, so I knew something about rationality and human cognition from a computational perspective, and I thought it would be helpful and important to understand how Course 17 political scientists thought about cognition so I signed up for a course with Professor Charlie, a purported superstar within the department. It was a small course that met in the main building at MIT, not too far from the Infinite Corridor, the 825 foot hallway that is at the heart of the Institute. Every time I walked there, I wondered who was walking by and felt privileged to have the opportunity to study there. However, I read the assigned material, but it just didn’t feel real to me. There was a great deal of emphasis placed on probabilistic reasoning, but I wondered how that translated to actual decision-making. There was a great deal of reasoning placed on microeconomic rational choice theory, but that felt like it made heroic assumptions to achieve closed-form solutions. There was a week when we got to read Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s prospect theory, which I liked because it matched up to what I knew about the real world, or at least what I knew about the real world from an CS/AI perspective.

Part of the reason for my intellectual agitation concerned my experience with my master’s thesis project. I wrote 10,000 of computer code in a summer, which is something I don’t recommend if you want to keep your sanity. However, what’s interesting is how I worked with treated the code. That is, I was very careful with the code because when I changed it, I didn’t really know how it would change the code’s behavior. So I made sure to change only one thing at a time, test it, and go to the next thing only when I was sure the code was working properly. One might ask, what does this have to do with political systems? Good question because, even though this code was 10,000 lines long, I reasoned that political systems were far more complex and irregular than that. Moreover, I was the world’s foremost expert on this code, by far, because I created it — nobody knew more about that complex system than I did. So how could MIT professors propose radical — which is to say large and significant — changes to political systems and have any hope of predicting their outcome when I was making small changes to a far simpler and logical system and often being significantly surprised?  Because this was based on my actual experience, I took it to be, as the philosophers say, “the truth,” or as they say at Harvard, “Veritas.’

I went to Prof. Charlie’s office hours in an old temporary WWII barracks, Building 20, with my concerns and questions, but the discussion didn’t go well. Charlie was an Ivy League educated political scientist, philosopher, and legal scholar who, as far as I could tell, even though he was a tenured MIT professor, had even less background in Course 6 than I had in Course 17, which wasn’t much at all. Moreover, while I had great appreciation and desire to learn Course 17 materials, he appeared not to think much of Course 6. So there were a host of interesting questions that spanned the two fields, such as does computational theory, which is based on logic, apply to political science and philosophy? How was the rationality we were studying different, and why didn’t it match up? Charlie quickly got exasperated with me and told me to, “Just write something” and shooed me out of his office.

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