Does Irrationality Undermine Rationalism?

Greta Christina writes about one of the vexxing issues for those of us who advocate reason and rationality, the fact that the human brain is only partly capable of those things. We are more prone to rationalization than we are to rationality. So what does this mean for the fight for a more rational society?

Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.

On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for…

I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

I would agree with this. I think we should strive to be as rational as possible at all times and this takes effort. Cognitive shortcuts exist precisely because they are so much easier than critical thinking. We have to develop habits of thought to counteract those natural tendencies. Some of those habits will be in our own minds, constantly questioning our reasoning and our conclusions. And we need to especially do that when we’re most comfortable with our conclusions, when we casually and easily interpret reality to fit a narrative we prefer to be true.

And I think it’s also important to surround ourselves with people who will question us, people we respect enough that when they say they think we’re wrong, we respond with genuine consideration rather than defensiveness. It’s an informal version of peer review in science, which was developed precisely because we are so capable of fooling ourselves. I’m lucky to have many such people around me and I hope you do too.

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  • Cuttlefish

    With our brains being so bodged together from a long series of happy accidents, we are fortunate to have stumbled upon an external scaffolding that mimics natural selection, keeping what has utility, selecting against what does not, building upon past successes (sometimes, as a result, taking a far more convoluted pathway than in hindsight we might have) to slowly, steadily, progress. A scientific community with rules for interaction that take our self-serving biases and channel them into a process by which we, as a community, critically examine even our most cherished notions (even when we, as individuals, defend those notions, sometimes to the point of irrationality).

    Just think, if we had a different sort of external scaffolding, one that actively protects ideas, making a virtue of believing things with no evidence (or with copious evidence against–certum est, quia impossibile). Why, we might by now have tens of thousands of insulated “truths” that wouldn’t stand up against a gentle breeze, were it not for the protection we give them. Each belief, hermetically sealed, protected from all harm, like the boy in the bubble.

  • Sastra

    Steve Novella introduced me to the term “neuropsychological humility” to describe this disciplined caution regarding human reliability — and I think it’s a phrase which deserves to spread. It’s particularly useful when used against the common but bizarre idea that “believing in your own experience” (meaning that you’re the only one allowed to interpret your experience) is some sort of self-denying skill which is the opposite of arrogance..

  • And of course, thinking rationally doesn’t always mean that you act rationally. I know I eat way too much candy and chocolate for my health, and that I could easily improve my diet and overall health with a few minor lifestyle changes, but do I? Hell no.

  • eric

    I would agree with this. I think we should strive to be as rational as possible at all times and this takes effort. Cognitive shortcuts exist precisely because they are so much easier than critical thinking.

    If they were easy but typically deadly wrong, I doubt very much that those shortcuts would still be with us. Evolution would have weeded them out. They aren’t just easy, they are easy and often good enough bases for decision-making. Moreover, time often has its own value, so fast and accurate can be tradeoffs when trying to achieve some overarching goal (like ‘avoid getting killed,’ or ‘identify the guilty’). The more rational and meticulous the approach, the slower and more resource-intensive it tends to be.

    The world could certainly do with more rationality. But ‘as rational as possible at all times’ is a goal that is itself irrationally arrived at because you are ignoring the opportunity cost of using rational decision-making processes. We should be rational when rationality is worth it (which is more often than most people are generally). We should not necessarily use rational decision-making when the cost of going through that relatively laborious process is higher than the benefit of just choosing. If I spend $20 of my time rationallly assessing the best decision for a $10 issue, I have behaved rationally yet stupidly – I would’ve been better off irrationally just picking a side ($0 time cost), even if I picked wrong. Likewise, I imagine most people would say that courts and juries should not take decades to reach guilt or innocence decisions; a few years is about as much rationality as we are willing to pay time for; anything more, and ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ While perfect accuracy is the ideal, we do not think it just to keep accused people in jail any longer than that while evidence is being collected; in reality we think it’s worth it to trade some certainty (in guilt) away for timeliness of trial.

  • I sometimes think that people are often more rational than we take them for. I remember laughing at some young woman’s excuse for not traveling to Washington to take part in last year’s version of the recent Operation American Spring rally that was supposed to turn into the next Arab Spring-like revolution to topple Obama from power — she apologetically admitted that she couldn’t get the day off from work.

    But really, it shows that as much as she might sympathize with the irrational motives of the organizers of the rally, she wasn’t irrational enough to throw away her job and spend hundreds of dollars on the air fare to take part herself. There might be millions of Americans who really believe that Obama is a dictator on the verge of turning America into a police state, but when push comes to shove, only a handful of them believe it enough to risk doing something that would put their family’s wealth and well-being at risk — even something as easy as taking a long weekend and traveling to Washington for a rally.

    So for all the quirks, kluges, and biases our brains might have, there’s still something in there, even in the brains of some of the least rational people out there, that stops us from acting on many of our more irrational impulses. Most of us are still rational enough to weigh the costs of taking action and make the right decision most of the time. Of those who do attend those rallies, well, they tend to have less to lose, or they have a vested interest in being there.

    Having so many people living on the edge of crazy is still not great, but it’s far better than having them going all the way over it.

  • Abby Normal

    I try to keep in mind rationality is something we do, not something we are. I would never say I am being algebra or I am being construction. Those are things I do. So it is with rationality. If I’m actively searching for fallacies, questioning assumptions, countering bias, etc. then I’m constructing a rational analysis. But at no time do I cease to be an irrational animal.

  • newenlightenment

    Posted this in relation to Greta’s original blog, but slightly more relevant to your argument:

    I’d draw a distinction between the irrational, the anti-rational and the merely non-rational. Here’s an example of what I mean: imagine I’m watching a sunset. If I think to myself ‘the reason why I’m seeing the red, pink and orange colours is due to increased Raleigh scattering of sunlight caused by the sun’s rays passing through the atmosphere at an angle’ the I’m being rational. If I’m awe-inspired by the staggering beauty of the sunset, then I’m not being rational, but I’m merely being non-rational; there’s nothing incompatible between what I’m feeling and my understanding of Raleigh scattering. I start being irrational if I conclude that the stunning beauty of the sunset must be the work of a benevolent creator, and I’d be positively anti-rational if I thought that those who failed to believe that a benevolent creator made the sunset and tried to understand it in terms of physical laws were spiritually impoverished, incapable of appreciating beauty and morally defective.

    Reason is the tool by which we understand the world and make informed decisions, non-reason is the basis of our experience – emotions, physical sensations and so forth. Far from being in opposition, reason can be the perfect compliment to non-reason. To go back to the sunset, I can use a rudimentary knowledge of Raleigh scattering to work out when the best time to go out and enjoy the sunset is, and try to balance my desire to see the sunset with my other needs (finishing work, getting an early night etc) to asses what the best way to spend my evening will be. The fruits of my reasoning though, will be entirely non-rational experiences (enjoying an beautiful sunset, having peace-of-mind from getting all my work done, being refreshed after a good night’s sleep) Reason delivers the goods, non-reason enjoys them!

    Irrationality is basically a breakdown or flaw in our reasoning process, drawing an erroneous conclusion, or making a flawed decision. Humans aren’t perfect, so we’re all going to do this sometimes. Anti-rationality by contrast, can be described as a philosophical stance which juxtaposes reason and non-reason, falsely concluding that reason somehow limits our ability to enjoy non-rational experiences.

  • Craig Smith

    I do, however, think it’s important to understand cognitive biases to such an extent that we can exploit them in order to solve problems (and hopefully get more people to understand their biases.) Climate change conspiracy theorists are never, ever, going to accept the reality of it. It does not matter how much evidence you have, it does not matter how reasonable your arguments are, it does not matter how much your data matches the reality. You could take a time machine and bring them to some version of the future in which we burned all the oil in the most climate-harming way and they’d find an excuse to ensure that their version of reality trumps the actual reality.

    We need to find ways to use those biases for good, and we need to do it fast.

  • anubisprime

    It could be said that as a species with cognitive decision making processes there are a significant proportion that tend to ‘choose’ certain ‘rationalities’…errr…’irrationally’

  • Here is some modest rationalization.

    Violence is irrational. I hope we can agree on that. So how should the rational counter it? Respond with violence? We have to, and we do, since we do have the police act on our behalf.

    But suppose there was another option. What form could such take? Running away? Trying to reason with irrationality?

    If we only resorted to the latter, surely the violent and therefore irrationality will triumph.

    So we can see that violence must always remain an option as long as the irrational are prepared to invoke it. The moment you accept that, rationality becomes impossible. If you reject that, you must explain how rationality can counter someone hellbent on being irrational by using violence.

  • If they were easy but typically deadly wrong, I doubt very much that those shortcuts would still be with us. Evolution would have weeded them out. They aren’t just easy, they are easy and often good enough bases for decision-making.

    Good enough that they don’t render extinct an entire species. Which isn’t saying very much.

  • Good enough that they don’t render extinct an entire species. Which isn’t saying very much.

    It’s a lot more than that. For all the bad things that have happened throughout human history, it’s hard to claim that the human species hasn’t been wildly successful over the last 100,000 years in evolutionary terms. It could still all go wrong, but the chances of our long term survival as a species have never been better, given that we now have the technical ability and know-how to survive all but the worst calamities, and rebuild in the aftermath, if necessary.

  • abb3w

    @10, shripathikamath

    Violence is irrational. I hope we can agree on that.

    Nope. That’s a sloppy use of the word “irrational”. Violence can be entirely rational, in so far as it may be the best available means to a preferred end. As a general rule, it tends not to be; but that’s not a universal generalization.

    However, I suspect an in-depth discussion would first need to sort out exactly what is meant by “rational” versus “irrational”, and would probably lead back to Hume’s is-ought problem — implicit in my earlier use of “best” and “preferred”.