Ken’s charge of irrationality can be understood at two levels:
- At the first level, Ken thought I had ignored what decision theory was telling me.
- At the second level, Ken thought my desire to cycle from coast to coast itself was irrational.
To start, we need to distinguish between what decision theory tells us to do and the inputs we apply the theory to. Perhaps an analogy is in order. The distinction is between what a calculator calculates, and what we enter into the calculator. If we want to know what 3 + 2 is, but we enter 3 + 1…we’re going to get the wrong answer. But this is no fault of the calculator; the calculator is doing what it is supposed to do by giving us the answer 4. The problem is with our inputs. We can’t expect the calculator to tell us what the correct answer is if we enter the wrong numbers.
So Ken’s charge was this: if I input the wrong kinds of things (irrational preferences, for instance), I can’t expect decision theory to tell me anything useful. Further, if I had inputed the correct types of things (rational preferences, for instance), decision theory would tell me to do something other than cycle coast to coast.
Although Ken’s charge was aimed at two levels, the issue boils down to what makes preferences rational. Note that the issue isn’t what makes a preference ranking rational. That’s well established in the literature: a preference ordering is rational if it is transitive. (If I prefer grapes to bananas, and bananas to oranges, I prefer grapes to oranges.) Rather, the issue is what makes a preference itself rational.
Perhaps we need to reword the question to this: What makes a desire rational? At first blush, it seems odd to question whether desires are rational. Aren’t they just the types of things that we have? I desire water when I’m thirsty, food when I’m hungry, and sleep when I’m tired. These are natural bodily appetites, and it seems silly to analyze them as rational or otherwise. But maybe this is too quick. If I were to say instead that I desire turpentine when I’m thirsty, wouldn’t you have grounds to say that that is an irrational desire: it won’t get me to my desired goal (to no longer be thirsty), but rather dead. (Of course if I’m dead, I’ll no longer be thirsty…but that’s quite a different point.)
So is a desire rational just when it helps us attain some specified goal?
This is Ken Chung. He lost his 18 month battle with cancer early last fall. He was 39. He was my best friend in the world, and meant the world to me. I miss him deeply.
Ken and I did our PhDs in Philosophy together at the University of Western Ontario. One of the things that I am ever so grateful for is Ken’s insistence on clarity and rigour of thought. He never let me get away with sloppy thinking, and he never hesitated in calling me out when I was being less than intellectually honest. So when I announced my plans to cycle across Canada, Ken made known his thoughts on the matter and took me to task. He thought I was being irrational. Here’s our initial text exchange.
This was the opening salvo of a months long dialogue. I’ll post more later.
My new ride is a MEC National touring bike. This is what is going to take me across Ontario next summer and Canada in 2019. I’ve had it out on the road…it’s a beautiful ride and it likes to climb. A lot of gears to spin up some really steep climbs.
I completed the Ironman race in 2014. It was a 5 year journey to get there, having made the decision to do it in the late fall of 2009. I remember the moment I made the decision. I was just coming off a knee injury from martial arts. My doctor had told me to stay away from any sports that required twisting or torquing if I wanted to grow old with my knees. So I was in search of a new life goal. One, preferably, that was physically demanding.
The need for a new physical life goal was becoming urgent. I had stepped away from martial arts training, I was gaining weight, and I was getting bored with my routine at the gym. I needed something new. And fast.
I was at the gym on a late November evening when I decided to do the Ironman race. I was on the treadmill. The decision was quite easy. I simply said to myself, “I am going to do the Ironman.” That was it. The decision felt right.
The first thing I did when I got home that evening was google, “What is the Ironman race?” I knew it was a triathlon. And I knew that it would be demanding. But I didn’t know much beyond that. When I saw the distances involved I remember thinking to myself, “That’s going to be hard.” Hard indeed. I didn’t know how to swim. I didn’t own a bike. And I hated running. I had my work cut out for me.
Fast forward to my decision to cycle across Canada. One of my colleagues put the bug in my ear during lunch one day in July. I was lamenting that I would never be able to do another Ironman race. His reply was simply, “Why not choose a new goal…like bike touring…all you need is a bike and a credit card.”
I didn’t think much of his suggestion at the moment…but soon after I watched the Barkley Marathons on Netflix. And I was inspired. Not to do the Barkley Marathons…that would be ridiculous. Nope. I decided to cycle across Canada. How did this decision come about? Well I had a dream about it one night and woke up with the idea in my head. And so it had been decided.
The question is, Is my decision to cycle across Canada a rational decision? I teach Probability and Decision Theory, so I have some opinions on the matter (I think my decision is completely rational), but my late friend Ken Chung (he passed away last month) thought my decision was completely irrational.
One of us is wrong.
I participated in the inaugural Hold the Line cycling and folk music festival this weekend (September 16). The weather was spectacular (high 20s), the music was great, and the ride was, in many senses, breath-taking. The route took us around the Waterloo region…through neighbourhoods, industrial parks, and beautiful farm land. The route I did was 120km. Despite buying a new road bike this summer, I haven’t spent many hours with my bum in the seat. The farthest I have cycled this summer is 75km at le Tour de Norfolk in July. In fact, the last time I cycled 120km was in 2014, when I did the Ironman in Mont Tremblant. So this 120km was a challenge, especially the last 45km. But I persevered, ignored my brain screaming at me to quit, and finished the route. And after eating some food and drinking a glass of beer (all the while listening to some awesome folk music) I felt like a million bucks!
Reasonable and Attainable
Since my late 20s, I have always had a life goal. My life goals are rarely SMART goals. It’s questionable whether my goals are attainable and reasonable when I set them. And this has given rise to my close friends questioning my rationality. I have had three life goals so far: to get a Ph.D. in philosophy; to get a black belt in Hapkido; and to compete in an Ironman competition. I have successfully completed all three goals. Three out of three ain’t bad. I now have a fourth life goal: to cycle across Canada. Coast to coast. The plan right now is to do this in the summer of 2019. Among other things, this blog will chronicle my journey.