Saturday, 1 February 2014

Adopting The Rational Stance

As a programmer, it's not unusual to have to justify my position, or to have to think through a problem, as well as listen to others do the same. We argue on logic, on solutions, on frameworks, on practices to code - and all this in an environment where no two people completely agree on anything. Yet despite this, what doesn't happen (at least not in my experience) is seeing one programmer dismiss a proposition by finding some emotional "reason" the proponent might happen to hold it for.

Are computer programmers under the illusion that humans are purely rational beings who have not understood the role of emotion in cognition? Perhaps, though it seems somewhat unlikely that programmers are divorced from the human tendency to see rationality in their own views and emotion in the views of others. What seems more likely, however, is that it's quite irrelevant to the task at hand. That is to say, even if programmers aren't fully rational, it's still right to adopt the rational stance.

Yet this only seems odd in light of online discussions, where experience has taught me the harsh lesson that rationality is at best a front. Unconstrained by a shared goal, folk psychology tends to dominate. It seems quite ironic that in a state of anonymity we get even more personal.

What I fail to see, however, is much of a distinction between the two activities. To be sure, programming might often benefit from being highly constrained compared to some of the more open questions that people tend to fuss over, yet the aim of the activity is fundamentally the same. It's not whether we can be fully rational, but whether we ought to adopt the ideal of trying to be rational. Failure to do this would be like playing chess for the purpose of flipping over the board.

Any debate over ideas is an invitation to adopt the rational stance - to treat a problem as an object of rational thought, and assess the relative merits as if it were put forward by a rational agent. The goal, normatively-speaking, is not to worry about how an idea is held, but whether holding an idea is warranted. No easy task in practice, but as an aim it's evidentially achievable. Programmers do it everyday, and there's nothing special about programmers.