A solution to the dual systems quandary


After completing my previous blog, I did my daily exercises, and suddenly my brain came up with an idea how to resolve the dual systems issue. Indeed, Strack and Deutsch clearly recognize that the two systems closely interact, in both directions. Perhaps my movements made my reflective system become creative? If so, I wonder which specific ones?

Anyhow, my suggested solution is Peircian, based on my previous work in the ‘Foundations’ and in my article on externalism and neuroeconomics (cited below). We only need to deal with the most basic point here, which is familiar to cognitive scientists because it comes close to Marr’s celebrated methodology distinguishing between the levels of computation, algorithm and implementation. The starting point is always to ask for the function that a certain behaviour would need to fulfil, which in turn could be identified by evolutionary reasoning. For example, survival is a basic function, and escaping a predator is a function that contributes to the former, and so we figure out which behaviour would be most useful in enabling and realizing escape.

Now, I suggest that we discard the idea that there are ‘intuitive’ or ‘reflective systems’, but only argue in terms of respective functions: ‘intuition’ is a function, ‘reflection’ is a function. I can explain this even with the simplest duality, ‘fast’ versus ‘slow’. Fastness and slowness are functions, too, not properties of systems, and which tie up with more specific functions relative to a given environment. Thus, escaping a predator needs speed, so fastness is a function. Whether intuitive or reflective processes meet that function, is the question. But we do not assume that intuitive processes are fast by necessity, or reflective processes slow.

In his book ‘The Mess Inside’, Goldie presents a strong case for approaching emotions as processes, and he gives the example of grief. Indeed, I think that many phenomena of ‘intuition’ can be also slow, as in the case of feeling sorrow and grief. There is reflection involved, but the unfolding of the emotion is protracted and messy. To take a less serious example, meeting a person for the first time may trigger an immediate intuitive evaluation, but over time this might also evolve, though still being intuitive in the sense that we continue to perceive just a ‘gut feeling’, perhaps without being able to give a clear reason. On the other hand, reflective judgments can be realized with very high speed, for example, if we just apply certain classifications to subsume a person under a certain category.

Whether fastness or slowness is proper functioning, may depend on the capacity for information processing and the quantity and complexity of information to be processed. But we cannot necessarily say that this always implies that reflective operations need more capacity, because they also enable to compress quantities of information via abstraction and categorization. On the other hand, intuitive evaluations may appear to be very complex for other processes in the brain, as in the previous case of ‘gut feelings’ which might slow down my reflective processes, because I feel doubt and uncertainty, without being able to resolve the issue by rational thought.

Thus, I think one should discard the distinction of systems and ask how the brain realizes the respective functions. As I argued in the previous blog, reflexivity is a function that is very important to coordinate social behaviour. If we do not only include inferential judgments here, but also metaphorical thinking, what appears to be ‘intuition’ can be a special form of how the reflective function is realized, namely via metaphors. A clear case in point is empathy: Empathy research distinguishes between different forms of empathy, cognitive, emotional, and so on, and we can consider empathy as a function that can be implemented via different mechanisms. But we cannot assign empathy to one system exclusively.

So, in summary, I suggest moving from a ‘dual systems’ or a ‘dual process’ approach to a ‘dual function’ approach. This allows us to get rid of the ontological baggage of the former, and move on to a mechanistic explanation of how organisms fulfil the two functions.


Foundations of Economic Evolution: A Treatise on the Natural Philosophy of Economics, Edward Elgar, 2013: Towards an Externalist Neuroeconomics: Dual Selves, Signs, and Choice, Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics 5(1), 2012: 38-61.

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