A recent post over at Scientific American brings up an interesting question, especially to those who pursue critical thinking: what does rational actually mean? We use this word all of the time, perhaps without realizing how subjective it is; few people ever think they’re being irrational themselves, while others would be quick to disagree with their self-assessment. But unlike some subjective terms, like happy, rational is often used in a sense that requires some agreement on the definition and/or functionality, so it bears examination.
We’ll start, of course, with Merriam Webster:
1 a : having reason or understanding
b : relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : reasonable <a rational explanation> <rational behavior>
… which ends up sending us to find out about reason, where if we skip the circular references back to rational we have:
c : a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense; especially : something (as a principle or law) that supports a conclusion or explains a fact <the reasons behind her client’s action>
So the bit about the logical defense is what brings us the closest to what we typically mean when we say rational. A rational argument should be logical – but, there are problems with that. In the article, the writer indicates that economists use a version of rational that requires only logical coherence, and not reason – if we were attempting to understand what this word actually means we’ve just collapsed in a circle of contradictory and illogical definitions. What has been missed so far is that rational often implies, if not outright requiring, the minimizing of adverse effect. As I mentioned in another post, one solution to food shortages is to kill off excess population; this is logical, but not rational. And we start to get an idea of the things that bear a significant influence on our decisions, and the very definition of rational.
The emotional reaction to any given situation or decision determines most of what we consider rational. As Spock repeatedly observed (sepulchrally,) we emotional humans keep doing illogical things. And yet, this all depends on how one defines logical as well (don’t get discouraged – this rabbit-hole does have an end, but the descent displays all the interesting bits.) Logical does not simply mean that the line of reasoning follows a demonstrable consequential path, A leads to B leads to C, but often that there is a particular purpose in mind. The solution to the food shortage above is unacceptable because it has the same consequence of the food shortage – death of a number of people – so it defeats the purpose, which is to avoid death as much as possible; the food shortage is just a factor which is denying this purpose. And the purpose is defined by our desires; empathy and survival as a species and such like that.
Then there’s another stumbling block: our logic is limited by our experience. In fact, it is formed solely by the patterns we have observed, the matrix of cause-and-effect that we build from birth. If we were to use the word in its usual sense, logically there is only one outcome possible to any situation regardless: that which will happen. But without omniscience, what we can ‘logically’ deduce is only what we think will happen based on past experience, which works pretty well but occasionally is wrong (leading to a new experience and new expectations.) So our logic is only as good as our data – and filtered through what we want to accomplish.
This is significant. What do we want to accomplish, and why? Remember that we, as a species, developed the vast majority of the traits we have because they contributed to our survival – they simply worked better in the game of probabilities that is genetic variation. Using the same food shortage example, we are concerned with the deaths of others because of our social tendencies, the drive that keeps us working in a cooperative tribe which produces more benefits than individualism does. So our logic is perpetually affected by what we might feel are important goals or outlooks – it cannot be the functional, mathematical process we often imagine it to be because we ourselves do not function in that manner. This means reason, outside of abstract philosophy, revolves around fulfilling an evolutionary ‘goal.’
Now the tricky bit. There are often multiple ways to fulfill these goals – some not so functional. The article actually has a comparison between heroin addiction and bowling, claiming that they both fulfill the concept of “self-interested utility maximization.” This misses a couple of points, the most glaring being that this can describe every last thing that we do, so they’ve done more for defining “life” than dealing with the concept of rational. Since virtually nobody finds drug addiction and mildly competitive past-times to be even vaguely analogous, and in fact often have very strong views on addictions, obviously something more is at work – especially when addiction frequently fits the definition of irrational. Without attempting to delve too deeply into the functions of addiction, the biggest difference might be the comparative weights of immediate gratification (the euphoria of psychoactive drugs) versus the consequences of negative physical, social, and economic impact. Any individual that rates the gratification higher in importance than the consequences will seem irrational to everyone who weighs these exactly the opposite. On the other hand, bowling produces far less of any negative consequences, so gratification is weighed against practically nothing and can win the decision easily.
So now let’s look at a topic that dances on either side of the rational/irrational line, depending entirely on who is asked: psychic predictions or clairvoyance. Those convinced of the existence of psychic abilities cite the numerous examples where it has been demonstrated, while those convinced of the non-existence cite the number of examples where it has failed, and the ability for the positive evidence to be caused by more than one source. Neither one can be called irrational/illogical/unreasoning by themselves; instead, views favoring one side or another place different values upon, for instance, anecdotal accounts or rigorous laboratory tests. Those values are not necessarily obtained logically; they can just as easily (probably more so) be determined by desire, and past experience, and even indulgence. A person whose parents had a negative view of scientists may possess a distinctive distrust of scientific evidence, solely because they respect their parents. This can contribute to the values assigned to the evidence of The Amazing Schmendrake’s clairvoyance.
[A small aside for a bit of perspective (I would have said logic but I’ve already thrown the definition into question, which is one of the many traps of too much philosophy): evidence is, and can only be, for one thing, which is whatever caused it. The same parlor tricks Schmendrake uses cannot be evidence for and against clairvoyance – they must be one or the other. The question is, are we interpreting the evidence correctly? This question underlies the entirety of the observation-to-conclusion process.]
Returning to the personal valuation of evidence, it is worth noting that few people ever recognize these influences, instead convinced that the whole process demonstrates rationality. While this does indicate that rational is almost certainly a misleading term, if not totally corrupt, that does not mean that a logical (ahem) argument in rebuttal cannot have an effect; people are still able to compare stronger and weaker arguments, and recognize flaws if they are presented in an effective manner. We can’t even talk about whether they’re willing to see such flaws, because they are, provided the counterargument addresses their internal valuations adequately (finding these is, naturally, the challenge.) Rational is an abstract superlative that cannot be demonstrated, like good or bad – no argument will ever be shown to be perfectly rational. But we can use benefit and detriment in place of good and bad, or simply demonstrate that one choice is better than another, and we can do the same for every place we might be inclined to use rational; that argument may be good, but this argument is better. And in doing so, we avoid trying to assign negative labels to an argument (or the person promoting it) to concentrate only on being more convincing.
* * * * *
There’s a small consideration that it probably wouldn’t hurt to bear in mind, on top of all this. For decisions of importance, how might one go about determining what goals are rational or, taking our cue from all that above, simply better? While our feelings about cooperation and empathy are evolved towards a particular benefit and underlie much of what we consider reason, we also have feelings about competition, the individualistic desire to appear better than others when it comes to sexual selection and leadership. This often translates over in many other areas, sports and career among the most prominent (sports probably wouldn’t even exist without this influence.) And while these evolved drives have their beneficial functions, they cannot be applied to every situation; sometimes they’re badly misplaced. The person who is too involved in cooperative, social interactions can place themselves at risk, especially when dealing with someone who views the interaction as competitive – I know it’s a hackneyed example, but think of trusting everything an auto dealer tells us. Alternately, competition has only specific areas where it provides benefit – elsewhere it manifests as pure ego, making us believe individual accomplishments are important. Such drives lie within much of our career actions, many corporate attitudes, and virtually everything regarding marketing. There is extremely limited benefit to the individual from pursuing ever higher income, and absolutely none to the species as a whole – it’s quite easy to demonstrate that this is remarkably detrimental instead. The corrupt concept of Social Darwinism implies that the individual demonstrates their ‘fitness’ in competition, but to what end? Evolution is a function of survival and reproduction, but it takes place in populations, not individuals – individual selection is only successful when it benefits the species as a whole. And let’s not forget that the process leads to extinction as well – what doesn’t work gets weeded out. When the trait of misplaced ego results in both overcompetitiveness and vast resource exploitation, it’s hard to see how this is a structure to survive the long run.
The message that seems to come forth is that many of our decisions, far from being rational, are colored by simple desires – and that these sometimes (perhaps quite often) can be mistaken or misplaced. The nice part about our species is how well we can recognize such influences with our fancy brains – when we put them to work being objective, rather than with efforts to justify indulgences.