Wednesday 10 July 2024

Inquiry Under Bounds

Today's post is by David Thorstad on his new book Inquiry Under Bounds (2024 OUP). 

Herbert Simon held that human cognition is shaped by a pair of scissors. The blades of the scissors are our internal and external bounds.

Internally, we are bounded by our limited cognitive abilities and the costs of exercising them. We cannot execute arbitrarily complex cognitive operations, and the operations we do execute compete with others for scarce resources. 

Externally, we are bounded by our environment. The environment determines the cognitive problems we are likely to face and the results that cognitive strategies will have when applied to those problems. 

The study of bounded rationality asks what rationality requires of agents who are both internally and externally bounded.  

Simon also held that the fundamental turn in the study of bounded rationality is the turn from substantive to procedural rationality. Many of our most important cognitive bounds are felt most strongly as bounds on cognitive processes, rather than the attitudes that they produce. As a result, theories of bounded rationality should spend less time asking normative questions about attitudes such as belief and preference, and more time asking normative questions about the processes of theoretical and practical inquiry that produce them.

If that is right, then the fundamental task for a theory of bounded rationality is to develop a theory of rational inquiry for bounded agents. We need, that is, a theory of inquiry under bounds.

Inquiry under bounds sets out to motivate, develop, defend and apply a theory of rational inquiry for bounded agents. The book proceeds in four parts.

Part 1, Rationality at the crossroads, situates bounded rationality against a competing Standard Picture on which rationality is a matter of consistency or coherence.  Part 1 develops five characteristic claims of the bounded approach: that bounds matter normatively; that rationality is heuristic, procedural, and environment-relative; and that the right theory of bounded rationality should vindicate many seeming irrationalities as the results of boundedly rational cognition.

Part 2, Norms of inquiry, develops a theory of rational inquiry to clarify, defend and apply these and other claims made by the bounded tradition. This theory, the reason-responsive consequentialist view, combines three elements: a consequentialist theory of rightness, a reason-responsiveness theory of rationality, and an information-sensitive reading of deontic modals.

Part 3, Justifying the account, gives three arguments for the reason-responsive consequentialist view. The argument from minimal criteria holds that the view is our best hope for meeting three minimal criteria on an account of bounded rationality. The explanatory argument shows how the view recovers plausible explanations of normative data that have troubled other theories. The argument from vindicatory epistemology holds that the view is our best hope for recovering a range of compelling vindicatory explanations for the rationality of seemingly irrational thoughts and actions.

Part 4, Applying the account, uses the reason-responsive consequentialist view to clarify and defend the characteristic claims about bounded rationality made in Part 1. It also explores a concessive reconciliation between bounded rationality and the Standard Picture.  The book concludes by considering applications to the epistemology of inquiry, as well as generalizations to practical philosophy.

The book is available open access from Oxford University Press here (LINK).