Please find below a pastiche of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that illustrates what it means to choose rationally:
‘Sit down, dear’, said the White Queen.
Alice perched delicately on the edge of a chair fashioned from oyster-shells.
‘Coffee, or tea, or chocolate?’, enquired the Queen.
‘I’ll have chocolate, please.’
The Queen turned to the Unicorn, standing, as ever, behind the throne: ‘Trot along to the kitchen and bring us a pot of chocolate if you would. There’s a good Uni.’
Off he trots. And before you can say ‘jabberwocky’ is back: ‘I’m sorry, Your Majesty, and Miss Alice, but we’ve run out of coffee.’
‘But I said chocolate, not coffee’, said a puzzled Alice.
The Unicorn was unmoved: ‘I am well aware of that, Miss. As well as a horn I have two good ears, and I’m not deaf’.
Alice thought again: ‘In that case’, she said, ‘I’ll have tea, if I may?’
‘Of course you may,’ replied the Queen. ‘But if you do, you’ll be violating a funny little thing that in the so-called Real World is known as the contraction axiom; in Wonderland we never bother about such annoyances. In the Real World they claim that they do, but they don’t.’
‘Don’t they?’ asked Alice.
‘No. I’ve heard it said, though I can scarce believe it, that their politicians ordain that a poor girl like you when faced with the choice between starving or taking out a payday loan is better off if she has only the one option, that of starving. No pedantic worries about contraction there (though I suppose your waist would contract, now I come to think of it). But this doesn’t bother me: like their politicians, I am rich, a Queen in fact, as my name suggests’.
‘On reflection, I will revert to chocolate, please. And do they have any other axes there?’
‘Axioms, child, not axes. And yes, they do. They’re rather keen on what they call their expansion axiom – the opposite, in a sense, of their contraction axiom. What if Uni had returned from the kitchen saying that they also had frumenty – a disgusting concoction, I know – and you had again insisted on tea? Then as well making your teeth go brown you’d have violated that axiom.’
‘I know I’m only a little girl, Your Majesty, but who cares?’
‘Not I, not one whit. But people in the Real World seem to. If they satisfy both of these axiom things they consider their choice to be rational, which is something they seem to value. It means, for example, that if they prefer coffee to tea, and tea to chocolate, then they prefer coffee to chocolate.’
‘Well, I prefer coffee to tea, tea to chocolate, and chocolate to tea. And why shouldn’t I?’
‘Because, poor child, you’ll be even poorer than you are now. You’ll happily pay a groat to that greedy little oyster over there to change from tea to coffee, pay him another groat to change from coffee to chocolate, and pay him yet another groat to change from chocolate to tea. And then where will you be? Back where you started from, but three groats the poorer. That’s why if you’re not going to be rational you should remain in Wonderland, or be a politician.’
This little fable illustrates three points. The first is that rationality is a property of patterns of choice rather than of individual choices. As Hume famously noted in 1738, ‘it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger; it is not contrary to reason for me to chuse [sic] my total ruin to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian’. However, it seems irrational to choose chocolate when the menu comprises coffee, tea, and chocolate; and to choose tea when it comprises just tea and chocolate. It also seems irrational to choose chocolate from a menu that includes tea; and to choose tea from a larger menu. The second point is that making consistent choices (satisfying the two axioms) and having transitive preferences (not cycling, as does Alice) are, essentially, the same thing: each is a characterisation of rationality. And the third point is that people are, on the whole, rational, for natural selection weeds out the irrational: Alice would not lose her three groats just once, but endlessly.
These three points are equally relevant to the trivia of our daily lives (coffee, tea, or chocolate) and to major questions of government policy (for example, the regulation of the loan market).
Featured image credit: ‘Drink me Alice’, by John Tenniel. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The post Why be rational (or payday in Wonderland)? appeared first on OUPblog.
World Philosophy Day was created by UNESCO in 2005 in order to “win recognition for and give strong impetus to philosophy and, in particular, to the teaching of philosophy in the world”. To celebrate World Philosophy Day, we have compiled a list of what we consider to be the most essential philosophy titles. We are also providing free access to several key journal articles and online products in philosophy so that you can explore this discipline in more depth. Happy reading!
Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will by Alfred R. Mele
Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren’t free, we’re off the hook.
Philosophy Bites Again by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This is really a conversation, and conversations are the best way to see philosophy in action. It offers engaging and thought-provoking conversations with leading philosophers on a selection of major philosophical issues that affect our lives. Their subjects include pleasure, pain, and humor; consciousness and the self; free will, responsibility, and punishment; the meaning of life and the afterlife.
Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn
Here at last is a coherent, unintimidating introduction to the challenging and fascinating landscape of Western philosophy. Written expressly for “anyone who believes there are big questions out there, but does not know how to approach them.”
What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
In this cogent and accessible introduction to philosophy, the distinguished author of Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere brings the central problems of philosophical inquiry to life, demonstrating why they have continued to fascinate and baffle thinkers across the centuries.
Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider
Two leading philosophers explore the most fundamental questions there are, about what is, what is not, what must be, and what might be. It has an informal style that brings metaphysical questions to life and shows how stimulating it can be to think about them.
Killing in War by Jeff McMahan
This is a highly controversial challenge to the consensus about responsibility in war. Jeff McMahan argues compellingly that if the leaders are in the wrong, then the soldiers are in the wrong.
Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson
In this book, philosopher Dale Jamieson explains what climate change is, why we have failed to stop it, and why it still matters what we do. Centered in philosophy, the volume also treats the scientific, historical, economic, and political dimensions of climate change.
Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers
Collects thirteen new essays that analyze how human agency relates to poverty and human rights respectively as well as how agency mediates issues concerning poverty and social and economic human rights. No other collection of philosophical papers focuses on the diverse ways poverty impacts the agency of the poor.
Aha! The Moments of Insight That Shape Our World by William B. Irvine
This book incorporates psychology, neurology, and evolutionary psychology to take apart what we can learn from a variety of significant “aha” moments that have had lasting effects. Unlike other books on intellectual breakthroughs that focus on specific areas such as the arts, Irvine’s addresses aha moments in a variety of areas including science and religion.
On What Matters: Volume One by Derek Parfit
Considered one of the most important works in the field since the 19th century, it is written in the uniquely lucid and compelling style for which Parfit is famous. This is an ambitious treatment of the main theories of ethics.
The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation by David Wallace
Quantum physics is the most successful scientific theory we have. But no one knows how to make sense of it. We need to bite the bullet – it’s common sense that must give way. The universe is much stranger than we can think.
The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters by Thomas Hurka
An engaging, accessible survey of the different things that can make life worth living: pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue, love, and more. A book that considers what really matters in one’s life, and making decisions around those values.
What should I do?: Plato’s Crito’ in Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
Plato, born around 427 BC, is not the first important philosopher, with Vedas of India, the Buddha, and Confucius all pre-dating him. However, he is the first philosopher to have left us with a substantial body of complete works that are available to us today, which all take the form of dialogues. This chapter focuses on the dialogue called Crito in which Socrates asks ‘What should I do?’
A biography of John Locke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
A philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke was born on 29th August 1632 in Somerset, England. In the late 1650s he became interested in medicine, which led easily to natural philosophy after being introduced to these new ideas of mechanical philosophy by Robert Boyle. Discover what happened next in Locke’s life with this biography
‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ from Mind, published in 1950.
In this seminal paper, celebrated mathematician and pioneer Alan Turing attempts to answer the question, ‘Can machines think?’, and thus introduces his theory of ‘the imitation game’(now known as the Turing test) to the world. Turing skilfully debunks theological and ethical arguments against computational intelligence: he acknowledges the limitations of a machine’s intellect, while boldly exposing those of man, ultimately laying the groundwork for the study of artificial intelligence – and the philosophy behind it.
‘Phenomenology as a Resource for Patients’ from The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, published in 2012
Patient support tools have drawn on a variety of disciplines, including psychotherapy, social psychology, and social care. One discipline that has not so far been used to support patients is philosophy. This paper proposes that a particular philosophical approach, phenomenology, could prove useful for patients, giving them tools to reflect on and expand their understanding of their illness.
Do you have any philosophy books that you think should be added to this reading list? Let us know in the comments below.
Headline image credit: Rays at Burning Man by foxgrrl. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
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I can’t help but to keep thinking of all the religious strife that covers this planet all in the name of the all mighty.
I wonder how anything in this little place can be of any more significance
to that which is everything.
If one proton of one atom in my body has a billion solar systems in it’s being and one place there less than a speck of sand has beings living on it and they are made up of the same thing as I or I am made up of it because the speck and the me are one thing, inseparable except by my casting it out but I am all things so when I cast it out there is no place but back in to me it must go to be mixed again in an ever-changing, roiling mass of energy as known by me but which is unknowable to the speck. The total is me yet the speck is me.
I do not want to kill myself, I only want to let the speck change to my benefit. My purpose is only to be and the only battle should be against that opposite, not to be.
Perhaps Shakey Spear had it more right than is given credit except to be or not to be is not the question, it is the answer.