The Anatomy of a Decision Part III

Decision theory doesn’t tell us what to desire or value. It just tells us what to do when we have our preferences in order.

So what to make of my desire to cycle from coast to coast? Ken thought this was a patently irrational desire. His reasoning was twofold. First, he thought I was mistaken in my assessment of risk; and second, he thought I was unable to map my desire onto some specified goal.

As for my assessment of risk, I’m just going to throw my hands up and say I have no idea where to start in assessing risk.

First, there are different types of risks involved. There’s the risk that I won’t be able to withstand the physical demands and injure myself. There’s a risk that I will be killed in an accident (Story). There’s a risk that all my stuff will get stolen (Story). And then there’s the risk of running into wildlife…like bears, cougars, and moose (Story). Ugh. Why am I googling this stuff?!

Second, I have no idea how to quantify these different types of risk. I have no idea how many cyclists attempt a coast to coast ride in any given summer. I don’t know how many succeed. And I don’t know how many give up, are killed or injured, or are maimed by wildlife. So I’ll grant Ken that I’m probably irrational in my I’ll be fine assessment.

But what about my inability to map my desire onto some specified goal? To which I ask, Why do I need to do such a thing? Why do I need some larger goal in mind in order for my desire to be rational?

(Note what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that if I have a goal and one of my desires is inconsistent with that goal, that I’m not being irrational if I act on that desire. In other words, if I do have a desire that is inconsistent with a specified goal, and I act on that desire, then I am being irrational. In that instance I am doing something that will impede my achievement of my specified goal. What I am saying, is that it is not necessary to have a specified goal in order for a desire to be rational.)

I’ve been reading Flourish by Martin Seligman. In it he outlines what is needed for living the good life. One aspect is Accomplishment. Consider what he writes:

“So well-being theory requires a fourth element: accomplishment in its momentary form, and the ‘achieving life,’ a life dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment, in its extended form.” (Seligman, 2011, p. 19)

The phrase accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment struck me as very relevant in my case. Why am I cycling coast to coast? What is my end goal? I am doing it for the lived experience. And I will take thousands of awesome pictures. And I will meet amazing people along the way. But these things are just incidental. Deep down I’m doing it for the sake of doing it. I just want to do it.

Accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment.

Am I irrational?

The Anatomy of a Decision Part II

Ken’s charge of irrationality can be understood at two levels:
  1. At the first level, Ken thought I had ignored what decision theory was telling me.
  2. 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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 11.08.00 PMAlthough 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?

(Attribution: Banana)

The Anatomy of a Decision Part I

Ken Chung

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.

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This was the opening salvo of a months long dialogue. I’ll post more later.

The Genesis of A Decision

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.

Hold the line


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!

Reckless Ambition

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.

Mont Tremblant, Quebec