Reasonableness is routine

Cracking an egg
Image courtesy star5112

Reasonable activity is mainly routine: familiar, practiced, ordinary, unproblematic. It goes pretty much as expected, so the details are not worth recalling or recounting.

Reasonable activity is responsive to unpredictable details of circumstances and events, but reliable enough that the overall outcome is usually successful and unremarkable. No guarantees, of course! Failures, breakdowns, and serendipity are possible.

Routine is too obvious to notice

Routine activity is ordinary, everyday, seemingly obvious; and so it is taken for granted, and as not worth mentioning, noticing, or investigating.

Immediately forgotten as uninteresting, routine is mainly unstudied and not theorized, and so taken to be trivial. This reinforces the notion that reasonableness is a weak sauce that should aspire to rationality.

Routineness does not imply that activity is mindless, mechanical, automatic, unconscious, pre-programmed, merely responding to stimuli, or lacking in thought.

No two eggs crack exactly the same way. The finger motions you make to open them have to be slightly different every time, guided by sight and touch. About one in three gets a bit of the white on your fingers or the stovetop or on the side of the pan, and you have to improvise a clean-up. Or a stray bit of eggshell gets in the scramble. Exactly how you scooped the eggshell out of the frying pan was perfectly clear and conscious as you did it, but you forget the details of the improvisation moments later. It’s not worth remembering, because the details were unique, a one-off pattern for that particular shell fragment; and because you are confident you can easily deal with similar but not identical fragments next time.

There is no method—only methods

The holy grail of rationalism is a Master Method, the guaranteed correct algorithm for rational thought and action. There isn’t one. There also isn’t an algorithm for reasonableness, or for routine practical activity.

You have no algorithm for getting eggshell out of a scramble. You do whatever it takes. It’s likely to be a little different each time, but you don’t have to come up with some exciting innovation. It’s easy, because you can just see what to do. Reasonable methods are unenumerable. You could scoop it out with a fork, or a spoon, or tongs, or an eggcup, or your fingers, or another piece of eggshell.1 Such routine “methods” are typically themselves nebulous, not well-defined distinct procedures. You just look and see and do the next thing.

We’ll see in Part Four that this open-ended improvisational quality is ultimately true of rationality as well. Scientific breakthroughs often depend on duct tape.

Improvisation provides efficient generalization

Breakfast is not a problem, and so it doesn’t require difficult, principled thinking such as systematic rationality. That would be overkill and a great waste of effort. Using mathematical modeling to devise a precise procedure for egg cracking, reliable enough to never require improvisation or clean-up, would be absurd and irrational in your kitchen. It might be necessary if you are engineering a high-throughput egg separator for industrial prepared-food processing.

In routine activity, it is usually reasonable to assume that you can work out details as they come up, and that if you get something wrong, you’ll be able to compensate easily enough.

Relying on improvisation provides tacit generalization. Your intention to make an omelet covers an unenumerable space of unanticipated eventualities efficiently, without having to think them through in advance.

In contrast, a rational approach to generalization in the face of uncertainty involves explicit universal quantification. You model all the actions and events you consider possible, with all their possible outcomes, and choose the best ones. This is expensive (although sometimes justified).

Any rational analysis also depends on a closed-world idealization, implicitly ignoring the possibility of your breakfast being interrupted by an unexpected hippopotamus. (And what would you do then? You’d have to improvise.) The analysis can only be as good as the action effect model.

Trouble, repair, breakdown, meaninglessness, and rationality

The basic approach of routine, reasonable activity is to continue in the obvious way until you run into obvious trouble. That may not take long. If you watch videos of people doing routine work, it’s normal for there to be some glitch once every few seconds.

It’s also normal for the trouble to be immediately, easily, and routinely repaired. Usually you can see what went wrong, and how to fix it, so you suspend the task for a moment to make the repair, and then you go on. If “every few seconds” sounds like more trouble than you’d expect, it’s because these minor repairs are insignificant and unmemorable.

While making breakfast, you are likely to:

Most trouble is trivial, but occasionally it constitutes breakdown. Breakdown is trouble that you can’t see how to repair with routine methods. Some non-routine, non-obvious tack will be required, and you’ll have to figure that out somehow.

Occasional breakdown is inevitable, due to nebulosity, and also due to the “cross the river when you get there” approach. Your actions may have unanticipated bad effects; or factors entirely out of your control, such as hippopotami or irate housemates, may intervene. You may paint yourself into a corner. You may lose track of what you are doing and forget an important step.

It’s only when routine activity breaks down that it becomes noticeable and worthy of recall and report. Egg white gets on the pan handle, so when you pick it up the whole meal slips through your fingers and lands egg-side-down on the floor… Now you have a real problem! There’s a big mess, the kids are hungry, there isn’t time to start over, what are you going to do? You stare at it, paralyzed in blank dismay.

What becomes memorable, then, is routine’s atypical defects, not its typical smooth flow. This too can reinforce the misimpression that reasonableness is a defective approximation to rationality. “If only I had thought that through a bit better, before trying to pick the pan up by the slippery handle!”

Because the normally successful operation of routine reasonableness seems insignificant, rationalist theories of action are mainly theories of problem solving. They are about dealing with the atypical but significant condition of breakdown; of activity halting and your not knowing what to do. Rationalist theories take this not-knowing condition as being typical in the absence of systematic rationality. They understand the overall task of intelligent activity as devising proofs in advance that your actions will be correct or optimal, in order that breakdown can be avoided. These fantasies of control are usually unrealistic, unfortunately.2

Often systematic rationality is triggered by a breakdown in routine reasonableness, however. You’ll have to come up with some non-obvious fix, which will probably involve some new thinking. Routine activity is often mainly “knowing how” without “knowing that”; breakdowns can force explicit reflection that draws on theoretical knowledge. Rationality can be good for that.

Besides that, the “paralyzed blank stare” in the face of breakdown is interestingly similar to rationality’s attitude of disinterested objectivity. The former eggs have lost their meaning; they are no longer nearly breakfast; they have no purpose or inherent significance; they fit no category; they are a decontextualized mass of random atoms.3

However, rationality can also be routine, when you apply familiar systematic methods in familiar ways and they unproblematically yield the expected sorts of results.

Foreshadowing Part Four, meta-rationality is often triggered by a breakdown in routine rationality. When systematic methods fail, and you can see no rational way forward, it’s time to get meta-rational.

The other half of the analogy works, too. Just as the paralyzed blank stare of reasonableness breaking down resembles the disinterested objectivity of rationality, so too the floundering vertigo of rationality breaking down resembles the groundless open-ended curiosity of meta-rationality.

  1. 1.Pro tip: I find using a large piece of eggshell as a scoop works best. They attract each other. I don’t know why.
  2. 2.“A system that operates by constructing and executing plans lives, to speak metaphorically, in a sort of fantasy world, the one it projects when it reasons about its future actions. In this way, the system believes that it has a kind of control over its world that, at least in many domains, is not realistic. When things do not work out as projected, the system is surprised. An improvising agent, by contrast, does not live its life through an alternation between fantasy and surprise. It does not believe that it has complete control over its world. Instead, through a continual give-and-take with its environment, creatively making use of opportunities and contingencies, it participates in the forms of activity that its world affords.” Philip E. Agre and David Chapman, “What are plans for?,” Robotics and Autonomous Systems 6:1–2 (1990), pp. 17–34.
  3. 3.This connection between breakdown and objectivity was first noted by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Its relevance for cognitive science was developed by Hubert Dreyfus in several works, including Being-in-the-World.