The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson
In my Chirps and Articles have often written about being rational and reasonable. I, therefore, have written two articles on these topics - “Rationality” and "Reasoning", with this article being the former topic. This is a difficult topic to write upon, as rationality can be a nebulous term and have different meanings to different people. This article is to explain my interpretation of Rationality and my utilization of Rationality in my Chirps and Articles. First, the dictionary definitions of:
Rational - Having its source in or being guided by the intellect (as distinguished from experience or emotion).
Rationality - The quality of being consistent with or based on logic; The state of having good sense and sound judgment.
Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe and of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. The Wikipedia article on Rationality (not to be confused with Rationalism) is a good introduction to this topic.
Therefore, being rational is not the same as being reasonable. To properly reason, you need to utilize “A Philosophical Approach” by understanding the Structure of the Reasoning (i.e., premises followed by arguments then conclusions), Formal and Informal Logic, Logical Fallacies, Cognitive Biases, and “Common Sense”. Rationality requires that you think and act upon your reasoning. My definition and utilization of Rationality are setting aside my emotions and biases, dispassionately examining an issue or concern with proper Reasoning, then thinking and acting based upon my proper reasoning. Consequently, my Chirps and Articles are written with rationality based upon my reasoning.
But rationality is so much more and can often be confusing. A person may make a decision that at first glance may appear irrational but, upon closer examination, is actually rational. Conversely, an apparent rational decision can turn out to be irrational upon closer examination. Determining what is rational or irrational is complex and often involves more than proper reasoning.
Encyclopedia.com also has a good overview of Rationality that is well worth the read. I would particularly note the following paragraph about Philosophy and Rationality:
“Philosophy treats rationality because it is the most important normative concept besides morality. Understanding how a person should conduct her or his life requires a thorough understanding of rationality. Being a rational person requires being sufficiently rational in the various aspects of one’s life. Common principles of rationality attend to beliefs and desires and to the decisions they yield. Some principles evaluate character traits and emotions. They judge, for example, that some fears are rational and that others are irrational. Principles of rationality extend from individuals to groups. Committees may pass rational or irrational resolutions. Political philosophy evaluates social contracts for rationality.”
To be fully Rational requires that you have the knowledge and experience of Propositional Calculus, Probability, Statistics, Randomness, and Bayesian Reasoning to adjudge the validity and soundness of your and others' rationality. Rational thinking also requires that you consider Rational Choice Theory and Expected Utility Theory, Detection Theory and Decision Theory, as well as the impact and consequences of Game Theory in reaching a conclusion. For many people, this is not possible, as it requires extensive study and utilization of these complex academic disciplines to effectively utilize these tools in your and others' rational thinking. However, while it may not be possible to grasp and utilize these tools in analyzing your and others' rationality thinking, it is possible to have an understanding of the concepts of these academic disciplines. If you can grasp these concepts, then you may obtain a sense of when your and others' rational thinking may be off-target because of incorrect application of these academic disciplines. I, myself, have a general knowledge of these academic disciplines and find it difficult to utilize these tools, as they are beyond my knowledge and experience. However, my knowledge of their concepts allows me to spot possible inconsistencies within my and others' rationality, thus leading me to do more research on the topic at hand to determine if there is a problem in my or others' rational thinking because of incorrect application of these academic disciplines.
Finally, when researching a topic to come to a rational decision, you must always be aware of the problems of knowing what is important, what is unimportant, and what is misleading when reviewing studies or statistics to discover the truth of the study or statistics, as outlined in my Article, "Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave". Do not depend on ‘Studies Show’ or ‘Statistics Show’, as Studies and Statistics can show anything. For every study or statistic that shows something, there is another's study or statistic that shows the opposite. This is because every study or statistic has an inherent bias of the person or persons conducting the study or the organization that commissioned the study. A very good person or organization conducting the study or statistics recognizes their biases and tries to compensate for them to ensure that the study is as accurate as possible. However, even the best can make mistakes, and sometimes the mistakes are baked into the study or statistics to convince you of the validity and soundness of the conclusions of the Study or Statistics. One of the biggest problems in studies and statistics is that of Correlation vs. Causality. Correlation is when two or more statistics are compared, and they seem to be in sync, especially when they are graphed. A Causality occurs when two or more statistics are related, and a change in one or more of the statistics affects the other(s) statistic. But as statisticians are trained, “Correlation does not imply Causation”. Therefore, while many statistics seem to be correlated, they actually have no relationship to each other. Try to be rational when reviewing the study or the statistics to determine the validity and soundness of the study or statistics, as well as to discover the problems of Correlation vs. Causality within the study or statistics.
Rationality matters. You can be perfectly reasonable and reach a correct conclusion but a wrong decision. Rationality must be applied, along with reasoning, to help you make the best decision. Even when you utilize correct rationality and proper reasoning, you may still not reach the best decision. The complexity of the human condition, in all its permutations and interactions, may make a rational and reasonable decision inappropriate or incorrect. You must apply both moral and ethical considerations, as well as emotional circumspection to bear, before and after you make a decision, or the decisions could have undesirable unintended consequences. But to ignore or to make irrational or unreasonable decisions will always lead to undesirable unintended consequences. There is also some evidence that shows that people who are better at rationality and reasoning have better life outcomes and that better rationality and reasoning protect a person from the misfortunes of life.
Until now, I have not come upon a book that does a good job of explaining rationality to the general public. However, I have recently read the book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker, which I would recommend to understand Rationality. However, this book presents complex ideas in a manner that is understandable to the general public. The inside dust jacket to this book describes the book as:
“Today humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding--and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?
Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply irrational--cavemen out of time saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives, and set out the benchmarks for rationality itself. We actually think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we’ve discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our education, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book--until now.
Rationality also explores its opposite: how the rational pursuit of self-interest, sectarian solidarity, and uplifting mythology can add up to crippling irrationality in a society. Collective rationality depends on norms that are explicitly designed to promote objectivity and truth.
Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress. Brimming with Pinker’s customary insight and humor, Rationality will enlighten, inspire, and empower.”
One of the problems of Rationality that he points out is ‘Myside Bias’:
“Politically motivated numeracy and other forms of biased evaluations show that people reason their way into or out of a conclusion even when it offers them no personal advantage. It’s enough that the conclusion enhances the correctness or nobility of their political, religious, ethnic, or cultural tribe. It’s called, obviously enough, the Myside bias, and it commandeers every kind of reasoning, even logic. Recall that the validity of a syllogism depends on its form, not its content, but that people let their knowledge seep in and judge an argument valid if it ends in a conclusion they know is true or want to be true.”
Myside Bias is one of the most difficult biases to recognize within oneself. So inherent it is in our nature to believe what we believe is true that we often do not recognize our own Myside biases. I, myself, am subject to this problem, which is the reason that after I create the first draft of my Article and Chirps, I proof them with an eye for Myside bias. I often must rewrite or heavily edit the Article or Chirp to remove this Myside bias to achieve a more rational Article or Chirp.
Yet, even the best can get it wrong, including the author of this book. In Chapter 10, ‘What’s Wrong with People?’, he reveals some of his own Myside Bias in several parts of this chapter. In this chapter, there is a longish paragraph and well as several sentences about President Trump, where he incorrectly or mistakenly comments on what President Trump has spoken or done, and he makes several claims against President Trump that are unsupported by the facts. Much of this has been done without proper attribution or, I suspect, without validating the Myside Bias of the attributed author's statements on President Trump (i.e., the Logical Fallacy of an Appeal to Authority). In other paragraphs and sentences in this chapter, he juxtaposes positions and beliefs between conservatives and progressives that are written in a manner that is supportive of the progressives’ positions or beliefs but are confutative of the conservatives’ positions and beliefs. He also downplays the irrationality of the progressive mainstream media and social media words and deeds while stressing the irrationality of conservative outlets' words and deeds, both of which need to be roundly condemned. In his recommendations, he also seems to favor progressive actions that have a dubious impact on assuring rationality, nor make allowances for the Natural or Constitutional Rights of individuals in these solutions. In doing so, he detracts from the content of the chapter and reveals his own Myside Bias on several issues and concerns in our society. As such, in much of this chanter, he has also forgotten the wisdom of Thomas Sowell:
"The most basic question is not what is the truth, but who shall decide what is the truth."
In this chapter, he seems to have decided what the truth is and to make comments and recommendations based on what he believes to be true. In doing so, he has forgotten, or did not know, the wisdom and warning of Benjamin Franklin:
"Doubt a little of your own infallibility."
However, he redeems himself in the next
and last chapter of the book, ‘Why Rationality Matters’. I would
quote the last two paragraphs from this chapter, as when I read
these two paragraphs, I was stunned by the brilliance and wisdom of
“Sound arguments, enforcing a consistency of our practices with our principles and with the goal of human flourishing, cannot improve the world by themselves. But they have guided, and should guide, movements for change. They make the difference between moral force and brute force, between marches for justice and lynch mobs, between human progress and breaking things. And it will be sound arguments, both to reveal moral blights, and to discover feasible remedies, that we will need to ensure that moral progress will continue, that the abominable practices of today will become as incredible to our descendants as heretic burnings and slave auctions are to us.
The power of rationality to guide moral progress is of a piece with its power to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives. Our ability to eke increments off well-being out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends on grasping impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience. We are a species that has been endowed with an elementary facility of reason, and that has discovered formulas and institutions that magnify its scope. They awaken us to ideas and expose us to realities that confound our intuitions but are true for all that.”
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and named one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People and one of Foreign Policy‘s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. His books include The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and Enlightenment Now.
Being rational requires that you put aside your biases and prejudices and dispassionately analyze the facts and reasoning to reach a rational conclusion. When the rational and reasonable conclusions you reach disagree with your preconceived biases or prejudices, you should be prepared to change your opinion. Even when you have reached a rational and reasonable conclusion, you should be cognizant that you could be wrong. Or, as I have previously quoted Benjamin Franklin, “Doubt a little of your own infallibility.” Franklin also advised that when presented with evidence to the contrary of your conclusion that you should consider:
“For having lived
long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better
information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on
important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be
otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I
am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the
judgment of others.”
- Benjamin Franklin
Advice that we should all take to heart and practice - to doubt our own infallibility and to change our mind upon acquiring better information or by giving fuller consideration to the topic at hand. I have found these pearls of wisdom very helpful throughout my life, and we all would be better persons and have a better society if all of us kept these pearls of wisdom in mind throughout our lives. After all, it is also the rational thing to do.