Unconscious Rationalization, or: How (Not) to Think about Awfulness and Death


Many contemporary epistemologists take rational inference to be a conscious action performed by the thinker (Boghossian 2014; 2018; Valaris 2014; Malmgren 2018). It is tempting to think that rational evaluability requires responsibility, which in turn requires conscious action. In that case, unconscious cognition involves merely associative or otherwise arational processing. This paper argues instead for deep rationalism: unconscious inference often exhibits the same rational status and richly structured logical character as conscious inference. The central case study is rationalization, in which people shift their attitudes in logically structured, reason-responsive ways in response to evidence of their own incompetence or immorality. These attitude shifts are irrational in a way that reflects on the thinker. Thus rationally evaluable inference extends downward into the unconscious. Many take the sole aim of belief to be truth (Velleman 2000) or knowledge (Williamson 2000), but the prevalence of rationalization suggests that belief updating often aims instead at preserving our positive conceptions of ourselves—that is, belief updating is part of a psychological immune system (Gilbert 2006; Mandelbaum 2019). This paper argues that the psychological immune system comprises a suite of distinct cognitive mechanisms, some (ir)rational and some arational, which are united by a common function of avoiding the maladaptive predomination of negative affect and maintaining stable motivation. Other aspects of the psychological immune system include (i) a domain-general positive bias in evaluative attitudes and (ii) “terror management,” i.e., the systematic strengthening of meaning-conferring beliefs to avoid death anxiety. The multiplicity of processes underlying the psychological immune system point toward an irrational but adaptive function of cognition to keep us motivated in a world rife with negativity and death.

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Jake Quilty-Dunn
Rutgers - New Brunswick


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