A Generative View of Rationality and Growing Awareness†

Frontiers in Psychology 13 (2022)
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In this paper we contrast bounded and ecological rationality with a proposed alternative, generative rationality. Ecological approaches to rationality build on the idea of humans as “intuitive statisticians” while we argue for a more generative conception of humans as “probing organisms.” We first highlight how ecological rationality’s focus on cues and statistics is problematic for two reasons: the problem of cue salience, and the problem of cue uncertainty. We highlight these problems by revisiting the statistical and cue-based logic that underlies ecological rationality, which originate from the misapplication of concepts in psychophysics. We then work through the most popular experimental task in the ecological rationality literature—the city size task—to illustrate how psychophysical assumptions have informally been linked to ecological rationality. After highlighting these problems, we contrast ecological rationality with a proposed alternative, generative rationality. Generative rationality builds on biology—in contrast to ecological rationality’s focus on statistics. We argue that in uncertain environments cues are rarely given or available for statistical processing. Therefore we focus on the psychogenesis of awareness rather than psychophysics of cues. For any agent or organism, environments “teem” with indefinite cues, meanings and potential objects, the salience or relevance of which is scarcely obvious based on their statistical or physical properties. We focus on organism-specificity and the organism-directed probing that shapes awareness and perception. Cues in teeming environments are noticed when they serve as cues-for-something, requiring what might be called a “cue-to-clue” transformation. In this sense, awareness toward a cue or cues is actively “grown.” We thus argue that perception might more productively be seen as the presentation of cues and objects rather than their representation. This generative approach not only applies to relatively mundane organism interactions with their environments—as well as organism-object relationships and their embodied nature—but also has significant implications for understanding the emergence of novelty in economic settings. We conclude with a discussion of how our arguments link with—but modify—Herbert Simon’s popular “scissors” metaphor, as it applies to bounded rationality and its implications for decision making in uncertain, teeming environments.



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Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The sciences of the artificial.Herbert Alexander Simon - 1969 - [Cambridge,: M.I.T. Press.
Personal knowledge.Michael Polanyi - 1958 - Chicago,: University of Chicago Press.

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