The Upside Of Bounded Rationality

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the battle between head and heart. Thomas Jefferson wrote a celebrated internal dialogue between his head and heart over the matter of pursuing an adulterous relationship with the wife of a British diplomat named Maria Conway. Though he has been celebrated as a rational and an intellectual, his foolish heart won out, to his grief. The same is true of many of us. We all have some tension between the wisdom that we know and the power of what we feel. And if we desire to live lives that are both wise and humane, we cannot simply resolve the tension by going to the extremes, but rather we must find a way to get the heart and mind to work together for the same goals. We can neither be ruled by our passions nor be cold and cerebral in our behavior, but we must show some kind of rationality that is bounded by our humanity.

This is not easy to do in the least. In this day and age, as throughout human history, we are pulled different directions by our mind and heart. Our lives are increasingly driven by technology, and we struggle to maintain the human element in the face of progress in remote communications and trends that tend to isolate us from others. We increasingly seek to justify our decisions on quantitative data, promising that the conclusions of that data are more certain than qualitative case studies and intuitive gut-based conclusions. On the other hand, our reasoning is often based on emotional factors that we seek to justify with data and reason after the fact. There is no shame in admitting this, except that apparently it is not legitimate in the eyes of many these days to do things for reasons of the heart, and so reasons of the mind must be manufactured as post hoc rationalizations to justify their desired conclusions.

The ancients, in contrast, did not think very highly of the brain. They saw the heart and its dynamic pumping of blood as the core of human life and were often unimpressed with the brain, receiving so much blood. The ancients, of course, had no way to determine the importance of the brain given their limitations of understanding. Yet there is plenty of reason for us, since we are better informed, to better understand the relationship between the head and the heart. A great many hundreds of thousands of deaths are caused by heart attacks and strokes each year in the United States alone. Our hearts and minds are deeply connected–if the blood is polluted by too much alcohol or other drugs, the function of the brain will be impaired, and the brain is deeply dependent on its function on receiving a substantial amount of blood from the heart. Even in our body we require the head and the heart to work together if we are to live.

How then do we get the mind and heart to work together? It is not simply a matter of head and heart dictating to the other, nor of simply trying to compromise between the two. Rather, we need to achieve a better balance within ourselves, making our hearts more wise and our minds more loving. Within our divides we must see the other side of the story in our own terms, and moderate our behavior accordingly. And if we can do that within ourselves, we will be better equipped to see the other side of the story in a fair-minded and compassionate way with other people as well. Understanding ourselves better and more completely can then be turned into outgoing concern for others and their well-being also, understanding where others are coming from. This understanding is generally lacking today, but it does not have to remain that way.

The upside of bounded rationality is the fact that the good life is a task of constrained optimization. It requires balancing a variety of concerns both within ourselves as well as outside ourselves. And the better we are able to understand our own constraints and maintain our own internal balance, the better able we are to deal with the severe constraints of the outside world as well as the need to balance a variety of concerns. A lack of attention to our own balance in life appears to be at the base of a lot of the imbalance we see around us. Let us take advantage of the upside of our own bounded rationality, and use that to make ourselves both wiser and more compassionate to others, and so become better people in a world that needs more of both head and heart.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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