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Nonhuman rationality: a predictive coding perspective

Abstract

How can we rethink ‘rationality’ in the wake of animal and artificial intelligence studies? Can nonhuman systems be rational in any nontrivial sense? In this paper, we propose that all organisms, under certain circumstances, exhibit rationality to a diverse degree and aspect in the sense of the standard picture (SP): Their inferential processes conform to logic and probability rules. We first show that according to Calvo and Friston (J R Soc Interface 14(131):20170096, 2017) and Orlandi (2018), all biological systems must embody a top-down process (active inference) to minimize free energy. Next, based on Maddy’s (Second philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007; The logical must: Wittgenstein on logic, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014) analysis, we argue that this inferential process conforms to logic and probability rules; thus, it satisfies the SP, which explains the rudimentary logic and arithmetic (e.g., categorizing and numbering) found among pigeons and mice. We also hold that the mammalian brain is only one among many ways of implementing rationality. Finally, we discuss data from microorganisms to support this view.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Stein (1996, p. 4) first coined the term and defined that “to be rational is to reason in accordance with principles of reasoning that are based on rules of logic, probability, and so forth.” However, he proposed the pragmatic picture of rationality to replace the SP. Stein’s (1996) proposal, albeit insightful, is not the focus of this paper for two reasons. First, while the SP has its limits, it remains the received view (Nichols and Samuels 2016). Stein himself (1996, p.4) also pointed out that both rationality thesis and anti-rationality thesis “are typically based on what I call the standard picture.” Second, Stein holds that logic and probability “are normative principles of reasoning” (p.4), but the SP can have a descriptive reading too (Please see footnote 3 and the example of Kepler’s laws in Sect. 3). Since we only deal with the descriptive rationality in this paper, Stein’s valuable criticism of the normative SP is not discussed here.

  2. In his De Anima, Aristotle states that everything is made out of form and matter, and the form of organisms, called the soul, can consist of a rational soul (e.g., human), an animal soul (e.g., animal), and a nutritive soul (e.g., plant). Humans have different souls from animals and plants, and rationality is partly what characterizes the essence of humans—or more precisely, humans that are not women, children, slaves, or barbarians. Aristotle believed that rationality could not be reduced to elements that are more basic and is not a capacity but a distinctive manner of having power (Boyle 2012, 2016).

  3. This Enlightenment notion of rationality has at least two readings: normative and descriptive. The former holds that the SP is what rationality should be and often has a rigid explanation of SP. In contrast, the latter holds that the SP is what rationality actually is and often has a weaker explanation of SP, e.g., Nichols and Samuels’ (2016) interpretation of the term ‘accord’ in their expression of SP.

  4. As regards the boundaries of the SP rationality, a nonhuman organism can easily fail to exhibit rationality due to insufficient resources (energy, time, etc.) or confusing environmental stimuli (see footnote 11). For example, Temnothorax ants can behave irrationality (violate optimal probability) when a third relatively unattractive option is presented (Edwards and Pratt 2009). Besides, one may wonder what is the point to argue that all organisms can exhibit rationality. A quick reply is that just as the claim that all life on earth is carbon-based, it helps us to better characterize the commonality of all life and lifts the limits of the anthropomorphist perspective on the nature of rationality and intelligence.

  5. Boghossian (2014) clearly states that his account is not about Kahneman’s (2011) System 1 reasoning (i.e., automatic, fast, subpersonal, and not-control).

  6. A simplified version is P(H|E) = P(E|H)P(H)/P(E), where P(E) > 0. P(H|E) is the post probability of hypothesis H, given evidence E. P(H|E) is the likelihood that H is true and E occurs.

  7. Two points should be clarified about plant movement. First, movement presupposes time, and time is relative. For humans, cypresses with thousands of years of longevity seem to be still, but cypresses are not. This relativity makes it easier to overlook the movement of trees. Second, if movement includes releasing chemical signals for cross-species and within-species communication, then plants are quite successful as well (Baldwin and Schultz 1983; González-Teuber et al. 2014; Mancuso and Viola 2015).

  8. Please see the final section for this further issue.

  9. For example, to some reducible physicalists, because brain = mind > intelligence (incl. perception and action) > cognition (excl. perception and action) > rationality (higher criterion), rationality requires the brain. To some advocates of the embodied-embedded-extended mind, because mind (incl. part of the world) > intelligence (incl. body, perception, and action) > cognition (interaction between perception and action) > rationality (finest intelligence) > brain (inside the skull), rationality requires mind. Since the brain is indispensable to the mind, rationality cannot exist without the brain.

  10. For someone who insists that the brain is necessary to intelligence, the claim of plant neurobiology (e.g., Brenner et al. 2006; Calvo 2016) is the only way of supporting plant intelligence.

  11. An E. coli makes mistakes as well. If it keeps swimming toward the toxin instead, then its generalization is incorrect rather than invalid. In such a case, the bacterium does not conform to the rules and fails to satisfy the SP rationality; thus, it cannot be regarded as rational.

  12. Examples include motor control, sensory integration, decision-making, and social behavior such as cell-to-cell communication and cooperation (Allman 2000; Bayliss et al. 2012; Hellingwerf 2005; Koraimann and Wagner 2014; Perkins and Peter 2009; Shapiro 2007; Ben-Jacob 2004; Refardt et al. 2013).

  13. They can live freely as single cells, but they can also aggregate to form multicellular reproductive structures. They also exhibit intelligent characteristics similar to those seen in eusocial insects.

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This research is sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan, under grant no. 107-2410-H-001-101-MY3.

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Hung, TW. Nonhuman rationality: a predictive coding perspective. Cogn Process 22, 353–362 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-020-01009-y

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Keywords

  • Rationality
  • Predictive coding
  • Active inference
  • Microorganism
  • Adaptation
  • Rudimentary logic and probability