The Rationality of Man

I hate that I have to say this.  But no, the title of this post does not exclude women.  Anyone who claims it does is hunting for semantic ambiguities they can themselves fill to satisfy their political/socio-psychological agenda. It’s rather like a child asking its parents “can’t I have a candy?” and when they say “no” the child happily munches away.

Now, I’ve had an interesting email conversation about whether or not man is actually rational.  It’s actually an extremely difficult proposition to prove either way, because you can cite evidence on either side in the form of anecdotes about people who acted rationally or irrationally, or create hypothetical situations in which the default response for someone is similarly obfuscated.  You can hem and haw all day and still not get anywhere decisively about the true nature of man.  The biggest obstacle to the argument that humans are rational is basically that sometimes humans act irrationally.  Conversely, the argument that humans are irrational is sunk because there are rational human decisions.  According to the popular relativist mode of thinking, we now reach an impasse, a compromise, a non-answer such as “humans are neither rational nor irrational” or “some humans are, and some aren’t” or worse “we can’t prove it, therefore it cannot be determined.”

Such a situation seems to indicate that we’re missing something, as I have often repeated.  To resolve this issue, let’s instead look at what exactly we mean by rationality in this context.  Do we mean that humans are like calculators with mouths, capable of maximizing every last erg of their efficiency and output in order to acquire the most material prosperity?  Obviously not- life is so much richer than cold monetarism.  I use the term ‘personal economics’ which includes subjective value relative to each person.  Family, psychological needs, preferences, etc. all sum together into a complex mass which we use to make choices, different for each person.  Now, I would argue that someone’s choices are always, always going to be rational relative to this standard that they’re carrying around in their heads.  Otherwise they would have done something else, or if they deviate from this model for a reason they consider rational, the act of contradicting that model would have changed the model to accommodate the behavior.  This is called cognitive dissonance.  The issue we’re really after, then, is whether or not this model we have is rational, and not whether the decision-making process used upon this model is rational.  My argument thus runs that the actual data operated upon is not a prerequisite for being a rational being.  If you punch into your calculator “what is the opposite of a hippo?” it’s going to go “ERROR” but that’s not because the calculator isn’t rational (bad example; calculators aren’t sentient… yet!)- it obeys perfectly objective, rational laws, and does so perfectly every time.  In human terms, if your brain were plugged into a computer that simulated reality exactly, with the small exception that you were in the body of a hippo, your rationality will not be affected by the irrational data being given to it.  In all probability you’ll figure out how to do your hippo thing and live life as a hippo with a very large IQ, at least until you’re unplugged.

The opposite argument basically claims that the information contained within your thought entity- i.e. mind, is actually an inseparable and fundamental building block of rationality.  Claiming rationality is dependent upon your actual thoughts/sense data/ideas is not that strange, considering that you have to learn how to be rational.  Otherwise you would be born just as rational as any scholar, and education is just claptrap.  We know for a fact that teaching, or specific sensory data designed to produce specific (usually useful) thought patterns makes people more rational, so rationality is learned and is therefore dependent upon what memories and information are actually in your head.  If a human mind was utterly deprived of sensory input, it would hardly become a rational entity.  I actually agree with this analysis, believe it or not.  However I will make the assertion that by teaching, you aren’t modifying the fundamental operations used to determine choices or actions, you’re actually modifying the model in the person’s head so that the same intrinsic operations will produce a more desirable result relative to objective reality.

Let’s look at an example.  You have to learn that 2 + 2 = 4.  If you haven’t been taught addition, you don’t know that.  I would argue that, rather, you did already know that, but you didn’t actually know the significance of the symbols 2, +, =, and 4 until you had been taught addition.  If you only understand numbers, you can certainly understand you have two, and if they add two, you can just count again and reach the result of 4.  Indeed, you don’t even have to understand counting to recognize the concept of numbers, that three of something is different from four of something in a specific, definite capacity, and that capacity of difference semantically formalized and transmitted through teaching is how we arrive at counting.  In fact, just by understanding numbers on the level of a 4 year old, you fundamentally understand mathematics up to basic algebra.  If you count two, and you count four, what operation will transform this into that?  We have just divined 2 + x = 4.  Furthermore, if you’re really that much smarter than the average bear, you might even develop a formulaic system of mathematics such as u%4/u.  I just made this notation up, and don’t claim it’s as flexible or useful as standard, but in order for someone else to understand, I would have to teach it to them.  Of course, this same reasoning applies to words and concepts as well.  An actual apple is completely different from the semantic identity of the word representing it, in just the same way that a pre-verbal child can understand quantities without knowing how to manipulate or communicate them as concepts.  This seems a trivial point, but the fact that multiple languages exist proves that semantic identity is not equivalent to reality, because if there was an equivalence, there could exist only one “true” language.  And let’s not even get into the idea of sensory data transmission of the nature of language, not just a language itself.

Back to the topic, we can all agree that at some point there existed a time when humans did not understand basic principles in rational terms.  Even if that requires we go back to before there was life on earth, we can do it.  So at some point, beginning with nothing, we developed every last one of those principles which we now teach.  The fact that they were discerned from out of the fabric of objective reality proves that the faculty needed to conceptualize those principles is separate from them.  Because we needed something to start with, some tool we used to derive all our other tools.  Now it is possible that we have a wide variety of tools genetically ingrained in us, such as an understanding of Newtonian physics derived from our monkey days of jumping between trees, and an implicit grasp of inductive reasoning ingrained in our behaviorist psychologies.  My only assertion is that the basic, universal, master decision-making system is one of those tools.  All the other tools, including inductive reasoning and others, are servile to your decision-making algorithm, whether in a sensory or in an enabling capacity.  They either provide you with (presumably accurate) information, or give you the power to act on your environment, or some other form of utility.  The faculty of memory is a very significant, but still servile, form of information storage for recall when useful.

This is a huge topic, actually, and I’ve only touched on it a little bit.  I’ll almost certainly do another post on this.  At least one.

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2 Responses to “The Rationality of Man”

  1. chthenos Says:

    Interesting. I agree with your model of people’s decision-making. I think it’s an accurate description of what people do. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that people’s decisions will always be rational relative to the set of values and stuff that they’re carrying around in their heads, as you say. It would be better to say that their decisions are rational relative to the subset of values that they consider at the time of the decision. This is why people can make some decision, and then later (without any change in their belief system or values) come to regret the decision. Upon further thought, or the gathering of new information, they realize that their recent decision didn’t actually match well with their value system, and they hadn’t recognized it at the time because they were too hasty or whatever.

    Here’s a very simple example of what I mean: I’m a mathematician. Today, I was asked to write an algorithm that would perform well in repeated iterations of an auction, where you value the item being auctioned at some value between 0 and 1. I was rushed to provide an answer, so I said you should bid the square root of 1 + the value. This is always greater than 1, and therefore always a bad bid. But I wasn’t given sufficient time to consider my decision, so I did it anyway. It’s blatantly irrational, given my knowledge of mathematics and understanding of the situation. But I was forced to make the decision in a very short period of time, so I didn’t consider the problem carefully and I did something that I would later come to recognize as (what might appear to be) an irrational action.

    But I don’t think it was really irrational. As many people say to explain a bad decision, “it made sense at the time”.

    I really have no idea about the origins of this, though. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make decisions this way, but of course a lot of the fundamental aspects of how we think are learned in the first few years of our lives…

  2. Evan Jensen Says:

    I disagree. I think that human error is not a product of irrationality. In your case, you were rushed to provide an answer and so instead of utilizing a thought algorithm to guarantee and check a correct answer, you chose to use a heuristic with some chance of error because, relative to the time pressure and consequences of exceeding time limits, it made sense. It didn’t work- so? It’s like playing poker. Proper play will lose you some hands due to limited knowledge, limited resources, whatever, where improper play would have succeeded. But, on the whole, proper play will win you more games. Your rational choice to employ a heuristic is similar.


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