This article is based on several conversations I’ve had recently on rationality, and it is supposed to be an overview-type post that explores different areas of the subject. In fact, since this is a pretty heated topic that comes with misunderstandings by the handful, I will be going very slowly and throwing out as many caveats as possible to make sure I’m not misunderstood, though of course this is bound to happen. Because of this, the tone for this article will be rather informal.
Rationality vs Irrationality
It is obvious (to anyone who follows this blog or knows me in real life) that I stand on the side of rationality (though I often intentionally do things that would be considered irrational). Heck, even the blog name is “A Reasoner‘s Miscellany.” Note that the title is not “A Reasoner’s Manifesto” or “A Reasoner’s Main Ideas.” Rather, it is a “miscellany” of various ideas in various subjects and of various degrees of significance. The main purpose of this blog is to jot down random ideas, serve as a diary of thoughts, and also just to satisfy my urge to write. It is not to try to start a revolution or to promote any particular ideology.
Answering this question obviously depends on having precise definitions of what rationality and irrationality are, but as soon as I lay down definitions, some of you will start arguing the definitions rather than the actual concepts. And without this disclaimer, some of you will be arguing “Well it depends on the definitions” as if that refutes my overall argument. It turns out you’re in luck, because in this post, I’m not trying to make any grand overarching arguments, but instead just laying down a bunch of thoughts, which might be followed up on in later blog posts with more fully fleshed out arguments.
Now that many of the meta-caveats are out of the way, I suppose I can finally begin talking about rationality. Of course, even without giving detailed definitions, I feel as if I must give some overall definition to anchor the discussion. Basically, when I refer to rational thinking, I refer to thinking involving logic, facts, evidence, and reason. This is opposed to irrational thinking, which I consider to be thinking involving emotion, faith, or just not thinking (or even the refusal to think). These characterizations don’t exactly match the conventional philosophical terms (which are themselves sometimes disagreed upon), but I think this captures what is generally meant when someone says “That thought process is rational” or “That thought process is irrational.”
Biases are one of the primary obstructions to reason. Two perfectly rational agents using perfect logic and starting with the same information should theoretically arrive at the same conclusion. However, the “perfect logic” assumption is ruined if one of the agents is biased towards one side from the beginning and uses that bias in their “logic,” at which point it is no longer logic. Of course, one of the most important biases is that you are less biased than other people. Thus I must try my best to account for major personal impacts in my life that would push me towards rationality.
The main event influencing my choice towards reason is when I started learning about astronomy when I was in first grade, in South Carolina of all places. We visited an observatory and I quickly became interested in space. Even then, I realized that knowing all these things about space must have occurred through some systematic method of observation, experimentation, and reasoning (though not in terms of these words). We knew there were nine planets (back then, Pluto was a planet) because we saw them through our telescopes and reasoned their existence through their movements and gravitational effects, not because we wished there were nine, or because it would be totally awesome if there were nine, or because it was divinely revealed to us that there were nine.
Religion and Tradition Both Oppose Rationality
Because of my early interest in space I learned by 1st grade about the Galileo incident with the Church (and also about Copernicus to a lesser degree). It didn’t just bother me that the vast majority of people were so ludicrously wrong about something like whether Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth, but rather, that the Church refused to believe the truth and instead demonized the bringer of truth, doing so because they so adamantly believed that the Sun orbits the Earth because their holy book said so. From the moment I learned about this, I could never take “religious logic” seriously (i.e., X is true because it says so in the Bible/Quran/etc).
My views on religion have changed a lot since 1st grade. For instance, my main objection to religion now is not so much that it is fictional, but rather because of the vast social harm it causes due to its irrationality. In fact, throughout most of my life I subscribed to multiculturalism (regarding religion, you have to respect religious ideas no matter how insane they are), and so I wasn’t an antitheist. It was only a year ago that I went from (agnostic) atheist to (agnostic) atheist antitheist.
Another great opponent to rationality is tradition. Similarly to religion, tradition in principle stifles new ideas and is very bad a providing reasonable justification for doing something, i.e. “Because it says so in the Bible” or “Because that’s how it has always been done.” Again along the lines of biases, I have to warn that I am probably personally vested in this topic of tradition vs rationality as I extremely resented how I was treated in my childhood from my Asian parents, and also due to my view of Chinese culture in general. For an explanation, see this post and this one. In context of this post, even at a young age I was capable of making logical arguments and it always frustrated me that whenever I argued with my parents, they could never actually refute what I said, only justifying their actions through tradition, superstition, and authority. I’ve never mentioned it on this blog before, and only to a few people in real life, but in my childhood I was driven by my parents to near suicide. These anti-tradition, anti-superstition, and anti-authority sentiments have persisted.
Intentional vs Unintentional Irrationality
This summer I probably thought about rationality more than I ever have in the past, as my work had to do with making rational decisions. The book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner), made an significant impact. The primary reason I wrote the post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control” was that it was something that I found deeply irrational even though it was being expressed by a number of highly rational people. The fact that it was on July 4th given the subject was pure coincidence.
But that topic was on something that most people probably never think about. Because of this, it’s much harder to call someone with this kind of view “irrational,” as they probably aren’t aware of it. On the other hand, if someone say read that post and thought about pride in randomness, and afterwards still thought it was rational to be proud of one’s race, then it is much easier to consider them irrational. Similarly, I don’t find most religious people irrational since most religious people (at least of the ones I know) never talk about religion, thus they probably aren’t ever in a serious state of questioning religion. On the other hand, some religious people read science books (particularly on evolution) and still believe in creationism, thus it is much easier to consider these people irrational. Just as refusing to accept that Earth orbits the Sun (based on religious texts) is worse than simply not knowing about it, refusing to learn about evolution (based on religious texts) is worse not knowing about evolution. See willful ignorance.
Rationality vs Irrationality in the Media
The distinction between rationality and irrationality is related to many others, like Enlightenment vs Romanticism, future utopia vs past utopia, objective truth vs subjective truth, or science vs religion. If anything, support of irrationality is significantly overrepresented in the media. Does the following movie setting sound (overly) familiar?: The future, advanced technology, but with social inequality, terrible quality of life, what it means to be “human” is gone, nature is destroyed, and evil technologists or even machines rule as the result of the rise of the “rational,” and the day is saved by someone with an old-fashioned, “irrational” mentality often involving some mythical power? Nah, that sounds like a completely original idea. What about the one where nature overcomes technology? Or the religious guy who no one believes who is right the whole time? Or the evil scientist showing that science is bad? Or society claims to know how to treat the “irrational,” using nefarious tactics?
Sure, these are just movies mostly for entertainment purpose, and any societal warnings are a secondary effect. Perhaps I’m way overreacting. I mean, a movie or a novel has to have dramatic conflict, and movie about the future being an awesome place would be really boring to watch. But this does not mean the framing of which side is “good” and which side is “bad” should be so one-sided. One of the only shows that takes the pro-rational side is Star Trek (the [earlier] TV shows, not so much the recent movies). Characters like Spock and Data are as logical as you can possibly get, yet they are on the team of the protagonists. Technology is shown as overall beneficial, and even religion has almost disappeared from humanity (though some of the aliens they encounter have their own religions). In fact, it seems like if some show like Star Trek, The Original Series or The Next Generation, were to be released in modern day, 2013, it would be canned and be deemed far too political and “anti-religious,” as American society is far more anti-science than before (I find it hard to imagine the modern US having a warm reaction to a hypothetical modern-day version of Albert Einstein.)
The only other type of show I can think of that is pro-reason is crime investigation shows, where the protagonists try to rationally deduce facts from clues and from suspects, many of whom committed crimes for highly irrational purposes. But the main theme for these shows are normally concerned with justice, not rationality vs irrationality.
The Rationality of Irrationality
In the second paragraph, I mentioned that I sometimes intentionally act “irrationally.” However, many of these irrationalities are still made from an overall rational decision. In the post “Spontaneous Decision Making,” I talked about how I generally “…don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths.” I will re-quote here an interesting behavior from my Fall 2010 semester:
For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.
But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.
But as I later reasoned in the “Spontaneous Decisions” post, there was a method in the madness. I go against patterns on purpose, but all this increases versatility. I try to be prepared for anything, and if I always do the same pattern or plan everything out ahead of time, then I may not be able to adapt quickly to a new situation.
Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking…
To have a quick response, I try to be accustomed to every scenario, and moreover, practice responding quickly. It is a sort of planned spontaneity. Intentionally making spontaneous decisions is like handicapping yourself during practice. But then when you get to the real thing, you remove the handicap and perform much better. If you can make a good assessment of a situation in 10 seconds, imagine how much better it would be with 10 hours.
In addition, the planned spontaneity is very much like preparing for a later event. Comedians spend a bunch of time preparing content so that it seems spontaneous when they perform it. In speed chess, when you don’t have time to think, the only thing that helps is prior experience. To quote Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
Is Art Irrational?
Anti-rationalists often point to art, implying that to be rational is to see art as pointless. Art is indeed a more subjective experience, but is it totally subjective? Many great artists and novelists created works that expressed the style or discontent of their times. In the same way I see history as useful because it provides us with a context with which to view the modern world and the future, I see art as useful to see not just the time period of the artist, but also the lives of the artists themselves. To say “art is subjective” and end discussion with that is a very naive move that shows either a shallow understanding of art or a participation card in the “all truth is subjective” movement.
I can have rational discussions of art, novels, films, TV shows, video games, etc. When you want another’s opinion on a new painting from a famous artist and you have artist friends, who do you consult? Do you go on the streets and find a hobo or crack dealer and ask him about the art? Do you ask your favorite 6-year old relative? Do you consult a physics professor? No, probably not. Even though “art is subjective” and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you go to the fellow artist or art critic to hear their professional, trained opinion. If the art critic’s opinion is worth more than that of the average person, then there must be some part of art that is objective. If you met someone at a formal event who said, “I hate the Mona Lisa, it’s a terrible piece of art!” you would probably think this person is uncultured and has an inferior art opinion despite your belief that art is subjective.
Ordinary Faith vs Religious Faith
It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.
Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.
This article wasn’t really written in a way that lends to a conclusion, but given the length, I find it nonetheless necessary to include a “Conclusion” section. The post was much longer than I expected (around 2900 words), but I think I gained a more organized view of these ideas. The topic is, of course, open to rational debate.