Thoughts about the Thinking Process

From Perception to Rational Action

By Leon Felkins

Written September 15, 2000)

Last Revision on 1/8/10)

Hard at Work! Note: This essay is still in the draft mode! Watch for changes.

[This essay is written to provide further support to my essays on "common sense" and "rationality". While it is about a subject for which I do not claim to have a formal background, the discussion will serve to help you and I to understand better what I think the "rational mind" is about. The basis for the claims here are mostly personal observations of both animals and humans and much conjecturing. Additional supportive material comes from the references which I have identified so that you may pursue the subject further.]


It is of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.
-- Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

In my online essay on Social Behavior, I start with the following statement:

Maxim #1: Individuals tend to do the things they are rewarded for doing and tend to avoid the things they are punished for doing.

Further elaboration on that simple maxim is what this essay is about.

Unlike computers, animals -- especially humans -- are not controlled directly by specific commands resulting from stimuli. Computers and other "intelligent" control systems take a specific action based on the inputs received. Consider a thermostat that turns on the air conditioner. When the temperature reaches the value set in the thermostat, the A/C system comes on. It does not "cogitate" whatsoever on what to do.

While thermostats and amoebae are directly controlled by stimuli, higher order animals may not respond directly to external stimuli, but instead, will take the stimuli into consideration along with other inputs, mental states, and memorized data, and then make a decision as to what action to take, if any.

Let us go through an example before we jump into the details. Let's say you are having a cookout featuring some nice thick grilled steaks. But just after you put the steaks on the patio picnic table and before the others have joined you, you are called inside to answer the phone. Your dog promptly drags one of the steaks off the table and starts to eat it. You discover the dog devouring the steak and let him know by strong words and a threat of possibly action that grabbing food off the table is a very big "no-no".

If this happens again and the dog is again reprimanded, it will likely store in its conscience that, as much fun as stealing food off the table is, it has punishment associated with it that makes the action not good on balance. Particularly if someone is looking.

So, what goes on in the mind of the dog if these circumstances happen again and the smell of a juicy steak is in the air. Well, he doesn't automatically grab the steak like the thermostat automatically turns on the air conditioner. Instead the stimuli goes into the dog's "processor" -- his brain -- where it is combined with other stored data and other immediate external stimuli (like is there anyone watching right now?). The process results in a decision to steal or not to steal the steak.

We humans process external stimuli the same way, only more so. Most external stimuli we receive are processed heavily and with great complexity before we make a final decision (see the online paper by Tooby and Cosmide, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer"). And that is quite different from the way computers and automatic devices work as I will try to make clear in this essay.

The Mental Process

The most merciful thing in the world ... is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
-- H. P. Lovecraft

Now let us go into detail on the mental process of living things and how it responds to external stimuli.

And Now we are in Trouble

I have no idea what the mind of a low-life scoundrel is like, but I know what the mind of an honest man is like; it is terrifying.
-- Abel Hermant, Le Bourgeois, 1906

The "buffered" system of response to stimuli that I have described for HOA has many advantages over the simple system used by LOA. Instead of a mindless response to stimuli, like a thermostat would make, the "Cognitive Processor" of the HOA is not told what to do but is only sent a signal of pleasure or pain and it is up to the "Cognitive Processor" to decide what to do about it. This additional flexibility is essential to survival in a changing environment.

And that was always a great advantage until recently (on the evolutionary time scale). Now, there may be serious and disastrous consequences for the highest level of the HOAs, i.e., humans. This possible disastrous situation has come about because we no longer do what nature intended for us to do when it sends us the pleasure/pain signals and our cognitive based response may be too far afield based on the memes in our memory.

Let us look as some examples of where nature's way is failing.

So, what is Rational?

So, what has all of this to do with rationality? To answer that, we should first try to figure out what the meaning of "rationality" is. There are just about as many definitions of "rationality" as there are philosophers and political economists! The most prevalent definition seems to be that a rational action is an action that is expected to maximize the actor's utility.[Note 3]

But then we have to understand what maximizing her utility means. We have to assume that this means to maximize the person's pleasure and minimize her pain, in the long run. And that brings us to the heart of this paper, that

people do what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful.

Another popular definition is that rational acts are acts that are good, make sense, and are logical.

One dilemma that raises its head in the definition of rationality is the issue of a person acting "rationally", as defined above, but he or she is acting on bad information (that is the person's on memory of observations may be in error). I discuss this intriguing problem further in my essay, "An Introduction to the Theory of Social Dilemmas".

Basically then, what I believe most of us mean in ordinary conversation when we use the word rational is this:

A rational act is an act that the actor believes will in some way maximize her pleasure or minimize her pain, for the immediate term or the long term, based on her own psychological makeup and what that person knows about the world at that moment in time.

Several terms are used in that definition that need some elaboration. First off, I am using "maximize her pleasure or minimize her pain" instead of maximizing utility, but it means about the same thing. That is, I see no other meaning to "maximizing a persons utility " other than that it means to maximize the persons pleasure and minimize her pain, in the long run. And that brings us to the claim made at the beginning of this paper, that people do what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful. And I am claiming that is rational.

If then, a rational act is one that tends to increase pleasure and reduce pain, then we are both the benefited recipient and the victim of the "pleasure/pain" buffer discussed in some detail above. That means that we may rationally proceed to take such acts that would have increased pleasure when we were still chasing rabbits on the plain but may cause serious harm today.

Another issue that needs clarification is the vague "for the immediate term or the long term".[Note 4] What I am referring to here is the actor's own view of the time in which her utility is to be maximized. That is a complex issue and is probably not very well thought out by the actor. In any case, consistent with my view that rationality should be defined in terms of what the actor's state of mind, knowledge, memory, etc. is, the time of interest here is what the actor sees. It could be short or it could be long, depending on the individual. More than likely, it is weighted, with the immediate future receiving the most weight, at least for most people.

Now to the last clause, "her own psychological makeup and what that person knows about the world at that moment in time". It is my contention that the definition of rationality has to be based on what the actor knows about the world, what her internal make up is, including all or her genetic and memetic influences, her memory of all like things in the past, and etc. You may think that it is irrational for the young man to spend his money on booze and drugs and to consume them, but you know nothing about the demons in his mind that he may be trying to quite (and may have had some success).

But no matter how you define it there will still be questions as to whether we humans are always rational, or even most of the time. See my essay, "Humans are Rational, aren't they?".


A study of the conflicts between the individual and other members of the group that she may belong to reveals that often the individual's self interest and the other member's self interest are at odds with each other. This phenomenon is commonly called a "social dilemma". The claim is made that an individual acting rationally will act in a way that is not in the best interest of that individual or the group, in the long run. The famous "Prisoner's Dilemma" construct illustrates this phenomenon very well.

Some scholars claim that the problem is confusion over what is meant by "rational". This essay makes no attempt to resolve these social dilemmas, instead an attempt is made to further understand what is rational. To do that it is necessary to examine the psychological makeup of higher order animals (HOA), of which humans are a member of -- at least some of us think so.

An extremely important observation is that HOA, unlike primitive animals, plants, and automatons, do not respond directly to stimuli with a fixed response, but instead have a mental process in which the stimuli simply create a feeling, a pressure, a motivation. The cognitive processor, which I call the "High Level Processor", is then fed that "feeling/pressure/motivation" where it is considered along with other factors. The "High Level Processor" then determines what response will be taken, if any.

While this capability is very beneficial in that it allows us to survive in a changing environment, it is nevertheless sometimes detrimental in that it creates emotional difficulties in trying to deal with a mental structure designed for primitive hunter/gatherers on the African plain. Further it is very subject to the sometimes disastrous impact of "memes".

Finally, the claim is made that what is rational to the individual is what that individual thinks will maximize her pleasure and minimize her pain over the short and/or long haul. The point is made that what others may think is rational for an individualis not the issue, but instead what is rational for that individual is based on that individual's world view. If nothing else, this definition points out that when philosophers discuss rationality, they ought to make clear whether they mean rationality from the individual's perspective or from a normative perspective.

I am told that to base rationality on each individual's "world view" opens a "can of worms" that most philosophers would want to avoid, but I see no alternative. For it makes no sense to base my rationality on your "world view" and vice versa.



Note 1. I'm using the term, "freewill", here in a very limited sense. For the purposes of this essay, the term simply represents the process of cognitive decision making.

Note 2. It is beyond the scope of this essay to get into the age old controversy of freewill vs.. determinism. But a few words are in order.

If the world is truly deterministic, wherein every event is a result of "cause and effect", then the discussion in this paper is basically pointless mutterings. If our brain and mind are physical and are bound by the laws of physics as everything else appears to be, then for any situation, the outcome is fixed no matter how complicated the process may appear.

On the other hand, if there is freewill, then we are faced with the issue of believing in "magic", for there is no physical explanation for it. If we admit to magic, then we might as well go all the way and blame the gods for everything and quit wasting time studying science!

Note 3. Some references that elaborate on this issue are: "Rationality and Moral/Political Decision" by Nancy Holmstrom in the book, Rationality in Thought and Action; "Individual Rationality as a Useful Approximation: Comments on Tversky's 'Rational Theory and Constructive Choice'", by Alvin E. Roth at; "Rationality and the Emotions" by Jon Elster.

Note 4. I must admit that this is almost as bad as the textbook definitions of "utility" in which they say, "maximize the pleasure for the most people". Now, mathematicians are quick to tell you that you cannot maximize two dependent variables at once, which makes sense to me, but does not seem to register with many social scholars.

References and Further Reading:

Chalmers, David: David Chalmers home page at Several advanced essays online on the philosophy of mind -- somewhat readable by the lay person.

Diesing, Paul: Reason in Society. University of Illinois Press. 1962.

Einstein, Albert: "Morals and Emotions"

Elster, Jon: "Rationality and the Emotions"

An online PhD dissertation on emotions is available at "The Basic Emotions of Daily Life".

Faris, Ellsworth: The Nature of Human Nature. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1937.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett: The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. Basic Books, New York. 1981.

Houston, John P.: Motivation. Macmillan, New York. 1985

McFadden, Daniel: "Rationality for Economists?" online at

Parfit, Derek: Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1984

Plutowski, Mark E.P., Ph.D.: Emotional Computing: from Reaction to Reason, an online book.

Sztab, Allen: Philosophy for Free. Online book at with considerable material on the workings of the mind.

Wright, Robert: The Moral Animal. Pantheon Books, New York. 1994.

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