Rationality, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic account, involves three basic capacities: to grasp abstract concepts (such as the concept of being a man or the concept of being mortal); to put concepts together into complete thoughts or propositions (such as the proposition that all men are mortal); and to reason logically from one proposition to another (as when we reason from the premises that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal). Logic studies the ways concepts can be combined into propositions and the ways propositions can be combined into inferences. Deductive logic studies, specifically, inferences in which the conclusion is said to follow from the premises of necessity; and inductive logic studies inferences in which it is said to follow with probability.
Any adequate philosophical or psychological theory of the human mind has to be consistent with our possession of these capacities. Many such theories fail this test, but might accurately describe some non-human creatures. For example, Skinnerian behaviorism is hopeless as a theory of human nature, and isn’t even plausible as a description of many of the higher animals. But , it might be true of simple invertebrates like sea slugs. (It is also possible for a theory to do justice to our rational capacities, but still fail in some other respect accurately to describe human nature. For example, Cartesian dualism does so insofar as it wrongly takes the human intellect to be a complete substance in its own right stocked with innate ideas. But this is at least an approximation of what angelic minds are like.)
Then there are theories which get the human mind wrong, but nevertheless afford an approximate description of what a certain kind of disordered thinking is like. Consider the dispute between voluntarism and intellectualism. For the intellectualist, the intellect is prior to the will in the sense that the will is of its nature always directed at what the intellect judges to be good. Voluntarism, which comes in different forms, seriously modifies or denies this claim. Like other Thomists, I take intellectualism to be the correct view. But , with a certain kind of irrationality it is as if the person’s will floated free of his intellect. (I’ve labeled this “the voluntarist personality.”)
Another example, I want to suggest here, is afforded by associationism. Associationist theories attempt to account for all transitions from one mental state to another by reference to causal connections established via experience. For example, David Hume famously posited three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause and effect. Resemblance has to do with how one idea might trigger another because of some similarity between the things represented by the ideas. For instance, seeing an orange might cause you to think of a basketball because they are similar in shape and color; smelling the marijuana smoke wafting from a nearby apartment might call to mind a skunk because the odor is similar; and so on. Examples involving contiguity in time or space would be the way that thinking about World War II might bring to mind the sound of swing music (since it was popular at the time of the war), or the way that seeing the White House might generate an image of the Washington Monument, since they are in the same city. Examples involving cause and effect would be the sight of a puddle on the ground triggering the thought of rain (since that is often a puddle’s cause) and the thought of a gun generating a mental image of a dead man (since that is often a gun’s effect).
Notice that all of these relations are sub-rational. Suppose that, by way of the operation of Hume’s three principles, some particular person somehow developed a strong tendency to have the thought that it’s raining in Cleveland every time it occurred to him that it is now five o’clock just as he remembered that Charles is the current king of England. Obviously, that would not entail the validity of the following argument:
It is now five o’clock
Charles is the current king of England
Therefore, it’s raining in Cleveland
That is to say, the causal relations by which one thought might come to generate another are not the same thing as the logical relations by which one proposition might entail another. As a result, associationist theories, even if they might provide plausible accounts of the mental processes of some non-human animals, simply cannot account for the rational powers that set human beings apart from other animals. For the causal relations they posit do not suffice to guarantee that the right logical relations will hold between the thoughts governed by those causal relations.
This is a longstanding problem for associationist theories. In contemporary philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence research, the most influential variation on associationism is known as connectionism or the “neural network” approach. It has been vigorously criticized by thinkers like Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn for its inability to account for the rationality of thought. What connectionist models (and the AI built on them) are good at is pattern recognition. But sensitivity to patterns is not the same thing as a grasp of the logical relationships between concepts and propositions. If all we did was pattern recognition, we would not be capable of the valid inferences that we carry out all the time.
Like voluntarism, though, associationism is not a bad approximate description of certain disordered habits of thinking. For many people’s minds seem to operate as if they were governed by purely associationist principles. In particular, those chronically prone to fallacious reasoning are like this. For many logical fallacies involve a kind of jumping to conclusions on the basis of an association between ideas that seems tight but is in fact too weak to ground a deductively valid or even inductively strong inference.
The most obvious example involves a fallacy that happens to go by the name of “guilt by association.” Suppose someone reasons as follows: “Chesterton criticized capitalism, and communists criticize capitalism, so Chesterton must have been a communist.” The premises are true but the conclusion is false. The speaker is assuming that because communism is associated with criticism of capitalism and Chesterton is associated with criticism of capitalism, it is reasonable to associate Chesterton with communism. The reason this is fallacious, of course, is that though all communists are critics of capitalism, the converse is not true – not all critics of capitalism are communists.
Sometimes when people commit this fallacy, they give it up immediately once it is pointed out to them. That is a good indication that the psychological source of the error is simply that they made the inference too quickly or inattentively, nothing more. But sometimes people are very reluctant to give up such an argument even after the error is explained to them. For example, suppose someone argues: “Racists are opposed to illegal immigration and you are opposed to it, so you must be a racist.” The fallacy here is exactly the same. Even if all racists are opposed to illegal immigration, the converse is not true, so the conclusion does not follow. But people can be very reluctant to give up this argument even though it is a straightforward case of the fallacy of guilt by association. That is an indication that there is more going on here than merely too hasty an inference.
I’d propose that an additional factor is a further association in the speaker’s mind. It’s not just that the speaker associates the idea of opposition to illegal immigration with the idea of racism. There are, in addition, strong emotional associations at work. The speaker has a strongly negative emotional reaction to opposition to illegal immigration, and one that is similar to the strongly negative emotional reaction he has to racism. Hence even though there isn’t the needed logical connection to make the inference from premise to conclusion valid, the emotional connection between the ideas makes it hard for the speaker to give up the conclusion that you must be a racist. This association is merely psychological rather than logical, so the inference remains fallacious, but the strength of the association makes it nevertheless difficult for the speaker to see that.
Other fallacies too involve jumping to conclusions on the basis of an association that seems logical but is in fact merely psychological, rendering the inference fallacious but easy to fall into. Consider the “straw man” fallacy, wherein the speaker attacks a caricature of his opponent’s position rather than anything the opponent has actually said. For instance, suppose you express the view that the Covid lockdowns did no net good but caused grave economic and psychological harm, and in response someone accuses you of being a libertarian who puts individual freedom ahead of the lives of others. The speaker is misrepresenting your position, making it sound as if your view is that even though the lockdowns saved lives, your right to do what you want trumps that. But that is not what you said. What you said is that they did not save lives and in addition caused grave harm, and you made no appeal to any libertarian premises.
Here too it is psychological associations rather than logical connections that account for the error. The speaker associates opposition to lockdowns with libertarianism (perhaps on the basis of a further fallacy of guilt by association, or because the lockdown critics he’s dealt with before happen to have been libertarians, or for some other reason). The one idea simply happens to trigger the other one in his mind, and thus he supposes that you must be a libertarian and attacks the straw man. The causal connection between the ideas makes the inference quite natural for him, but it does not make it logical.
Yet other fallacies are plausibly generated by such associationist psychological mechanisms. Take the “circumstantial ad hominem” fallacy, also known as the fallacy of appeal to motive. This involves rejecting a claim or argument merely on the basis of some suspect motive attributed (whether correctly or incorrectly) to the person advocating it. For example, suppose some writer gives an argument to the effect that cutting taxes would promote economic growth, and you dismiss it on the grounds that it reflects mere self-interest on his part, or because the writer works for a think tank which is known for advocating such policies. The problem with this is that whether the argument is sound or not is completely independent of the motives of the person giving it. A person with bad motives can give a good argument and a person with good motives can give a bad argument.
However, motives are not always irrelevant. For example, they are important when evaluating the reliability of testimony or expert advice. If the sole witness in a murder trial is independently known to be hostile to the suspect, then that gives at least some reason to doubt his testimony implicating the suspect. If a salesman assures you that the product he sells is the best on the market, the fact that he has a motive to sell it to you gives you reason to doubt him despite his expertise regarding products of that kind.
In a fallacy of appeal to motive, what no doubt often happens is that, on the basis of examples like these, the person committing the fallacy forms a psychological association between having a suspect motive and being untrustworthy. Then, when he encounters an argument given by someone he suspects of having a bad motive, he goes on to associate being untrustworthy not just with the person in question but with the argument the person gives. But again, the soundness or otherwise of an argument is independent of the character of the person who gives it, so that this transference is fallacious. Once again, the causal connection between the ideas makes an inference seem natural, despite it’s not actually being logical.
There are yet other kinds of irrationality that can plausibly be said to reflect associationist psychological mechanisms. Elsewhere I’ve argued that “wokeness” can be characterized as “a paranoid delusional hyper-egalitarian mindset that tends to see oppression and injustice where they do not exist or greatly to exaggerate them where they do exist.” An example would be the way that mild or even entirely innocuous language in some vague way related to race is frequently shrilly denounced by wokesters as “racist.” For example, the well-known market chain Trader Joe’s sells a Mexican beer labeled “Trader Jose’s,” and Chinese food products labeled “Trader Ming’s.” To any sane mind, there is nothing remotely objectionable about this. In particular, there is nothing in these labels that entails the slightest degree of hostility toward Mexican or Chinese people. But the woke mind is not sane, and, unsurprisingly, there was a call a few years back to drop these labels (which, wisely, the chain decided to ignore).
What seems to be going on is that in the mind of the wokester, labels like these trigger the idea of race, which in turn triggers the idea of racism, and the strongly negative emotional associations of the latter in turn set up a similarly negative emotional association with the labels. There is no logical connection at all, but the strength of the psychological associations makes the fallacious inference seem natural. The woke mind is analogous to an overly sensitive smoke alarm, which blares out its obnoxious warning any time someone merely breathes too hard. (In the article linked to, I discuss some of the disordered psychological tendencies which lead to the formation of such bogus associations.)
Another example of fallaciously associationist thinking would be the construction of fanciful “narratives” that seem to lend plausibility to dubious conspiracy theories of both left-wing and right-wing kinds. I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere and so direct interested readers to that earlier discussion.
Naturally, since they are human beings, even people who exhibit what I am calling “the associationist mindset” do in fact possess rationality, which is why they can come to see their errors. Their minds are not in fact correctly described by associationist psychological theories. But reason is so weak in them and the mechanisms in question so strong that they can often behave as if these theories were true of them. They seem to be disproportionately represented in social media contexts like Twitter. And in fact such social media seem to foster associationist habits of thought, in ways I’ve discussed before.