Steven Pinker’s Harvard Course on Rationality

I like to think that I am a reasonably rational person. Given enough evidence (information) and time to ponder the facts, I believe that I generally reach correct conclusions. I also believe that the average person is capable of rational thought but it requires determined, effortful practice and lots of time. It really is hard work. Unfortunately, most people are not inclined to do that because they irrationally and wrongly believe the cost of doing so exceeds the benefits.

The Wikipedia introduces rationality thus: “Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, and of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. “Rationality” has different specialized meanings in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, game theory and political science.”

In economics, there is a rationality assumption or axiom. It says that humans act purposefully to attain their chosen ends, employing means that they have and which they believe (perhaps incorrectly) will result in success.  It implies that people don’t do things without what they believe are good reasons for doing so. No claims are made about the ends people choose or the means they employ. The ends could be silly and the means could be wrong.

Then there’s the additional bit about “bounded rationality” — our rationality is bounded because we don’t have perfect information and infinite amount of time to decide what ends to choose and how to attain them with limited means.

I think we can gain from a college-level general education course on rationality. Fortunately, there’s one available for free. It’s by the brilliant Steven Pinker. He tweeted

Rationality: All 25 lectures from my Harvard Gen Ed course here. What is rationality? Why does it seem so scarce? Why are humans smart enough to figure out the Big Bang & DNA but stupid enough to burn witches & own slaves? How can we become more rational?

Here are the lecture videos. I am looking forward to spending around 40 hours over the next few weeks on Steven Pinker’s course on rationality. If you’d like to follow along and discuss the lectures, leave me a note in the comments section. If there’s some interest, I will post a schedule (say, Mon-Wed-Thur) so we can all be in synch. 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

3 thoughts on “Steven Pinker’s Harvard Course on Rationality”

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