“Well, pray if you like, only you’d do better to use your judgment”Leo Tolstoy (War & Peace)
Today I am going to do a quick rundown on rationality. The following is a slightly altered and expanded version of something I posted on my Instagram story a few months ago, so I apologise to those who have seen this before. Regardless, learning takes repetition, and rationality is not inherently intuitive; so viewed in that light, maybe I am doing you a favour by showing you this multiple times.
First, I will start with a discussion about two ideas that occupy substantial space in the current zeitgeist, and as such, I believe are somewhat responsible for how lacking rationality can be at times in our collective consciousness and societal discussion. Following on from that I will discuss the archetype of what is known as the Straw Vulcan and I will then introduce the two broad categories that rationality can be separated into. After that will be brief discussions on both bounded as well as collective rationality.
The Opposing Forces
Rationality can be a dirty word.
In relation to our current cultural climate, I see this being the result of two prominent doctrines. These doctrines play a significant role in how we think and are therefore altering, and most likely reducing, how much and how effectively we think about rationality. I am not even suggesting that this is entirely conscious. In fact, I think it is mostly the opposite. To a substantial extent, ideas end up in the ether, and we continue to breathe them in, which allows them to invisibly impact our thoughts in an unconscious and unexamined manner.
Hopefully, today’s discussion will provide you with a lens to see these ideas with just a fraction more clarity — or put them on your radar at least. If I can help you achieve this, then you can more consciously select how much of them you actually believe to be true. That is, in my opinion, far more preferable than blindly consuming the intellectual atmosphere without any cognition directed towards the impact it is having.
The two broad ideologies are as follows:
The first is the various forms of postmodernism that have gained popularity in the last 30-40 years. Postmodernism, generally speaking, suggests that “truth” is not something you know, or even can know. Instead, the truth is something that is created. This truth — or whatever it should actually be called — is then used as a form of power and results in oppression.
This idea stems from the humble recognition that no matter what we do, we cannot separate ourselves from our own subjectivity and the biases inherent within it. Things that result in biases will be readily recognized by all readers and includes things such as your gender, ethnicity, educational background, or just anything else that essentially makes you who you are. Though one must admit, a much larger focus is always placed on the politically-hot category of the moment…
“Gender is important, but that was very 2019… It’s about race, again. Keep up or remain a bigot!”
This form of thinking has become incredibly popular in universities, in particular, the more elite ones. This is very interesting, as the philosopher Nicholas Shackel has proposed that “adherence to postmodernism is more a matter of taste than anything else, a matter of the rejection of the rude, the unsophisticated, in short, a rejection of the peasant.” This may very well explain why it has become so popular where it has. Regardless, many others have also begun trying to explain why postmodernism has taken flight on college campuses, and as I am not a sociologist, I not qualified to tell you much more than that. With that said, though, that isn’t going to stop me and I’m going take a wild guess and suggest what a contemporary sociologist (especially if they are employed by a prestigious institution) has every chance of saying:
“Students are being instructed on the use of tools for critical analysis and the questioning of grand-narratives that are instrumental in maintaining the power-hierarchy of the ruling class. These students are learning about diverse and informed fields such as cultural studies and feminist history. This allows students to see through the biases of the wealthy, privileged and otherwise immoral, helping them to weed out the mistruths and untruths that are being employed by oppressors so that they can then liberate the oppressed.”
(Sort of, but also not really a joke.)
The final thing I will mention about postmodernism is that it is central to components of the current social justice movement. This is because a tenet that is core to the postmodern philosophy is that whatever is or has been constructed, could be constructed differently — in their eyes; better. Generally speaking, the idea is that society has been constructed, it currently has many flaws and therefore we should re-construct it in a much more socially-just manner. And, very importantly, any pushback on that idea is evident of you trying to maintain a position of privilege and power.
And with that said, I am sympathetic to some of what they say.
As popular as it has become to talk about the vacuity of neo-Marxist postmodernists (yeah we get it, you watched some Jordan Peterson videos), I believe that anyone who has some semblance of a level-head should be able to see that there is some merit to postmodern ideas. Hell, even Peterson himself actually exemplifies some postmodernism in his thinking. The world is complex and you cannot categorise anything as totally good or bad.
The notion that various narratives are employed to maintain position amongst the elite class through political or economic power seems evident to me — so that I agree with. Additionally, it also seems inarguable to me that there are some detestable inequalities present in modern society — again, on board with that component of social justice style thinking. However, granting these points does not validate a vast majority of propositions made by postmodernists. As Thomas Sowell points out, “all justice is inherently social” and what most who support social justice are actually looking for justice of the cosmic kind.
However, we are beginning to track further way from our initial course, so I will leave that discussion there.
2. Religion & Romanticism
The second idea that has, in my conception, led to pushback against the general category of rationality is one that has both romantic and religious flavours. I would roughly categorize it as the importance placed upon “the soul,” or anything else that seems in contrast to what is precisely calculated or analyzed. In essence, anything that makes us human.
To take the romantic first, there does appear to be a concern that with increasing rationality, things such as feelings and emotions, intuition and creativity will inherently be pushed out and this will inevitably lead to a world full of soulless robots.
The concern from a more religious standpoint, appears to be that rationality — which is essentially atheism, when expressed in the domain of theology — does not contain sufficient soul-nourishing qualities on its own. While non-fundamentalist theologians are willing to accept that the Bible should not be interpreted literally, they tend to push back on the advances of atheism due to religion’s ability to generate bonding and feelings of community, a sense of something greater (roughly considered ‘spirituality’) as well as its ethical framework — areas in which atheism is yet to be convincing.
As with elements of the postmodern argument, I am sympathetic to some of the claims contained within the broader romantic and religious ideologies. Everything that is considered important and beneficial about these movements should still be valued. Community, spirituality and creativity, among other things, will still remain incredibly valuable to the human experience, even if they do become understood from a scientifically-rational perspective.
(Potentially, I should start my own
cult religion, and we can call ourselves the Narratheists. We will be dis-believers in God, but believers in the power and necessity of narratives and stories. I will, of course, however, be the purveyor of our non-existent God’s wisdom — so yeah, what I say goes. Ok?)
As I see it, these are the two predominant sources of scepticism about rationality, and the distrust that society should become increasingly rational. With a proper understanding of rationality, however, I think that one should be able to see that it will not encroach on as much of this territory as possibly feared.
Before we move onto what the ideas of rationality actually purport, we will name and describe the incorrect archetype of rationality that promoters of postmodernist and romantic/religious ideologies seem to believe they are fighting against. And it is understandable why they do if this is what they believe rationality is actually about.
The Straw Vulcan
The common misportrayal of rationality has a name. It is known as the Straw Vulcan, and was wonderfully presented here by the tremendous Julia Galef.
If you are familiar with logical fallacies, then you have likely heard of the straw man fallacy or “straw-manning” someone. This is a (sometimes unintentional) debate tactic that takes the form of refuting a weak and easily defeated argument — one that an opponent didn’t actually make. It creates the illusion that a strong and persuasive argument has been made, but really the case is that a weak/absurd version of the opponent’s argument was refuted, not the actual position that they hold.
The straw man fallacy is a fallacy of misrepresentation, and the Straw Vulcan is named after that. The Vulcan component stems from Spock, one of the characters in Star Trek. This is because Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan (an alien species who attempts to live as much by logic and reason as possible, eschewing emotion) and is regarded as the epitome of rational. This is a mischaracterization, though, and the ideals demonstrated by Spock and the Vulcan’s are not in-line with genuine attempts at rationality. Instead, they are cartoonish caricatures.
The idea of Spock as the epitome of a rationalist is a straw-manning of rationalism. This is the concept of the Straw Vulcan.
The major traits exemplified by a Straw Vulcan are:
– Having little-to-no reliance on intuition or emotion
– Only valuing quantifiable, objective things
– Expecting everyone else to be rational and being consistently surprised or disappointed when they aren’t
– Not making a decision until you have ALL the information
I will address each of these briefly before we move on.
For starters, just because a belief arose quickly, rather than slow and deliberatively may be an indication it isn’t as thought-out as what it could be, but that does not make it incorrect. Touching a hot-stove and quickly recoiling your hand doesn’t even require conscious processing, but that does not make it irrational. The same can be said of emotion. Just because a belief or action is motivated by emotion rather than a cold-blooded analysis is not sufficient to classify it as irrational, and often the most rational behaviour can be a product of emotion.
Secondly, only valuing that which can be counted is by no means a rational way to behave. For starters, not only do you need to consider for the unquantifiable (randomness or uncertainty) when making plans to achieve almost anything — and it would be completely irrational to do anything else — but also, some of the very best things in life are completely subjective. The love and admiration you may feel from friends, family or a partner are by-no-means easily quantifiable, but they are still overwhelming valuable and desirable, nonetheless. Just because you cannot measure something doesn’t make it irrational to value it. To simplify to the point of absurdity for sake of illustration, this would be like saying your incredibly high cholesterol levels don’t matter as long as you only check your blood pressure.
Next we come to the frequently demonstrated trait of Spock — as well as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory — that being rational requires you to expect everyone else to be rational, too. In fact, this is a persistently irrational component of both their behaviour. One of the core tenets of rationality is updating one’s beliefs based on evidence. After experiencing the perceived irrationality of others, both Spock and Sheldon should immediately reconfigure their models for how others will act. Being consistently surprised about the illogical action of others says more about our pseudo-rationalists than it does about anyone else.
Finally, I will touch on the concept of prolonging a decision until you have all the information in the latter section on Bounded Rationality, so for now, we can move on.
As mentioned, this conception of rationalism gives rationalism a bad reputation — it is nothing but a weak, watered down and, at times, downright incorrect version of it. Each of the above characteristics of the Straw Vulcan are discordant with thinking and acting rationally, in one way or another, as I tried to illustrate.
So, if rationality isn’t about ignoring emotions or always needing more information then, what is it actually about?
At last, we have made our way through the what-is-not, to finally reach the what-is. From here on out, we will be dealing with the proper, not TV, version of rationality.
Rationality, as the term is used in cognitive science comprises two sub-categories:
1. Epistemic Rationality
2. Instrumental Rationality
Epistemic rationality is the systematic process of obtaining the most accurate beliefs/thoughts/ideas about the world. Given that there is a lot we don’t know about the world, and in any given instance certainty is unlikely, what we must strive for, then, is to hold beliefs that have the highest probability of being correct. Generally speaking, epistemic rationality is about updating your “map” so that it better and better reflects the “territory” of reality over time (as more evidence comes to light).
Instrumental rationality is grounded in decision theory and is concerned with acting in the way that most effectively achieves what one wants — but it does not tell you what you should want. It is the idea of how to best get to from A to B, provided you determine where B is. This is important, as there are assuredly better and worse ways to get where you want to go. In essence, instrumental rationality is about the most effective way to navigate the territory of reality — which as you can imagine, is highly dependent on how well we epistemically “mapped” it in the first place.
The simplest and most concise way to summarize these terms is as follows:
Rationality is about what is true, and what to do.
Which is epistemic and instrumental rationality, respectively.
In order try and drum home these points, I will use two examples from one of the greatest feats of human genius and creativity, the tv show Rick & Morty (except the first half of Season 4, what was that all about?):
First up, epistemic rationality…
In this scene, Rick is teaching Morty about the way the world is. He is “helping” Morty update his beliefs about the world (in this case the topic is love) so that they more appropriately match the observations of scientific fields of study, such as biology and evolutionary psychology.
Now, instrumental rationality…
In this scene, Rick is explaining his distaste for therapy/counselling. Rather than changing himself and merely accepting the way the world is and how it treats him, he believes he should (and can) change the world around him instead. Rick takes an active, rather than passive participation in the events of cause-and-effect, and his actions are guided by what is most likely to help him get what he wants.
To be clear, I am not entirely endorsing either of these quotes/views. I am using them for illustrative purposes. Without a doubt they are simplifications, but they are simplifications with a scientific-leaning nonetheless.
Those are just two, simple examples of the rationality process. The first involved Rick instructing Morty to discard a potentially comforting, but nonetheless erroneous (or less probable) conception of what love is — an increase in epistemic rationality. Here, we see a map that better reflects the territory. The second was Rick demonstrating his will to actively construct his life and the trajectory it follows. By placing a larger focus on instrumental rationality, Rick can more systematically achieve what he values — this exemplifies a high degree of instrumental rationality.
Now we come to the theory of bounded rationality, which I think is important to touch on.
Bounded rationality is the idea that humans do not possess logical omniscience (complete knowledge of all implications) and as such, must act in a way that appears to generate satisfactory outcomes — though, almost certainly not perfect — due to limitations on information availability, computation power and time.
The theory of bounded rationality was proposed by the Nobel Laureate economist and political scientist Herbert A. Simon. Related to bounded rationality, is another creation by Simon; the decision-making heuristic of “satisficing,” which is a blend of the terms “satisfy” and “suffice.”
Satisficing denotes searching through alternative options until an acceptability-threshold is breached, at which point the search is terminated and the decision is made. The term is integral to Simon’s theory of bounded rationality, and it describes how sufficiently rational decisions can be made — albeit not perfect ones — amongst uncertainty.
Simon encapsulates his theory and elegantly describes the all-too-human decision-making process as follows:
“Decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Neither approach, in general, dominates the other, and both have continued to co-exist in the world”
To an extent, Simon is discussing a trade-off between epistemic and instrumental rationality. One can perfectly map the territory, but then have reduced time to work out exactly how to traverse it. Or, one could make a satisfactory mapping of the territory, and then determine the most ideal way to travel based on that.
Regardless, Simon’s work highlights to us that our ability to be rational is limited. Fortunately, however, various insights by many men and women of genius have allowed us to make more rational choices, given our limited capacity to be rational. One of the important innovations, in this regard, are systems that promote systemic rationality. These systems, in theory, allow us to get further on our single tank of rational-gas.
And that’s what we shall discuss next.
So far, we have focused entirely at the level of a single individual; but what about a group of them?
This is where we can begin to look at what is often called collective or systemic rationality. These are the ideas that through various incentives, net-rationality can be promoted, even if various individuals are not acting rationally — and they will be punished for not doing so, even if unintentional.
An example of this would be economic markets. Economies of the laissez-faire variety tend to incorporate important market information into prices, and thus reduce the computational power required to make a sufficiently rational decision about whether to buy or sell. The incentives of profit and loss are also methods to reward or punish agents for irrational behaviour within the market. For these (admittedly simplified) reasons, markets tend to promote collective net-rationality, even if various individuals within the market are not acting in a rational manner.
It has been proposed that religion is another form of collective rationality. While the epistemology of religion may appear to be lacking rationality, from a collective and instrumental standpoint, religion might help promote adaptive and rational behaviour amongst its adherents. Various conventions and incentives of eternal reward/punishment, among other things, may make it easier to generate rational behaviour — depending on how you define the term — than a comparable group without a religious framework.
A deeper analysis regarding the rationality of religion is beyond the scope of this article, but it is an interesting idea, nonetheless. It is something I would encourage even — well, actually, especially — the most militant-atheist/rationalists ponder for even just a second.
That brings us the end of this primer on rationality. Without a doubt, I have left a lot unsaid. I do hope to return to this topic in the future, though, as it is one that fascinates me deeply and I orient significant degrees of my life around it.
Regardless, I have achieved the objectives of today’s article, so I will leave it at that.
I hope you now have a slightly improved understanding of rationality.
Remember: rationality isn’t about being completely emotionless, obsessed with data or always needing more information (satisficing must occur). Rationality is the process of trying to understand the world to an increasing extent, and then using that understanding to produce more informed and effective action.
Sounds handy enough, right?
Thanks, as always, for reading.