On rationality

Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.

Anatole France

As a culture, we are unusually fond of rationality. I blame the ancient Greeks. Economists are very keen to stress how rational everyone is, all of the time, and yet this flies in the face of absolutely everybody’s actual experience of being human and being around other humans. If people really were rational, there would be no $647 billion advertising industry, Las Vegas would be a slightly green patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, and nobody would smoke, drink, fall in love, read fiction, or go to the movies. The world would be a very different – and frankly duller – place.

Of course people do act rationally quite a bit of the time. It’s a rare and newsworthy event when someone deliberately drives on the wrong side of the road, for instance. We can all manage simple calculations of short-term self-interest, because people who can’t tend to get weeded out of the gene pool pretty quickly. Where we struggle is taking longer-term decisions and/or in choosing well in complex scenarios.

A simple example. I am a type 2 diabetic, and also rather overweight. Nevertheless I will still eat things that will make those problems worse, because I enjoy eating them. It’s not at all rational to do this. No amount of chocolate mousse is worth having your foot amputated for. And it isn’t that I don’t know this. Very few obese people are obese because they don’t know what foods make you fat. Rational beings would not have this issue. Look in the street and see how many you can spot.

All this would just be a charming eccentricity of our culture, like the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats, except that it gives us some huge individual and collective blind-spots. One of these is the popular belief that so long as we are given the full information about (say) climate change, we will all do the Right Thing™. This in spite of the fact that I already know everything I need to know about doughnuts – you can actually see the sugar, for goodness’ sake – and yet I still eat them sometimes. The recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is largely about this illusion, and I can recommend it as a corrective.

Another popular belief is that the people in charge are rational and well-informed and will therefore do the Right Thing™ when they are making decisions. If you have a sufficiently narrow definition of what is rational, then they are indeed, at least most of the time, rational. The problem is that this leads them to do incredibly stupid things. Given certain assumptions, for example, ghost flights are a rational solution to the problem of airlines losing their slots at airports due to a lack of passengers during the pandemic. At least, they’re a rational solution if you ignore the wasted fuel and the pollution caused by flying aircraft around for no reason other than to satisfy the criteria for keeping a slot. It would have been much better to have suspended the requirement for these flights altogether, but apparently this solution was not on the table.

Again, cutting down the Amazon rain-forest to feed beef cattle is a rational solution if all you care about is feeding (and exporting the meat of) beef cattle. The impact on biodiversity, the climate and indeed atmospheric oxygen is a mere “externality” – economics-speak for “someone else’s problem.” Except, of course, it will be everyone’s problem in due course. This is capitalism doing what it does best: screwing up the planet, one rational decision at a time.

It isn’t really that surprising that people are like this. We can’t hold a comprehensive model of the world in our heads that would allow us to make truly enlightened decisions, for the same reason that snakes can’t tap-dance: from an evolutionary perspective, it isn’t necessary. To a very large extent, we are chimpanzees. We’re quite smart chimpanzees in some ways, but we aren’t that smart. The selection pressures on us have tended to favour individuals who can spot immediate short-term threats and opportunities and act accordingly.

This is not, however, the same thing as being rational. To be truly rational, one would really need to have access to much more information than we actually have, or indeed could cope with if we had it.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Fortunately we don’t have to depend exclusively on our rational capacities to navigate the universe. We have emotional responses, which have a bad press but which can also serve us pretty well sometimes. The fight-or-flight response has been keeping people alive since well before there were modern humans, and no rational calculation is involved in that.

There is also such a thing as intuition. This is not something we like to talk about in Western culture. It’s all a bit woo-woo. You can’t take it seriously. Damn it, it’s not rational! Still, most people on the planet even today openly subscribe to a view of the world that isn’t rational, and so did most people in the past. Notoriously, there are no atheists in foxholes, and the proportion of us in literal or metaphorical foxholes is only going to increase in the coming years and decades.

If you want to read a truly in-depth exploration of how people actually think, I can highly recommend The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. If, having read that book, you still imagine that human beings are rational, I have a bridge you might want to purchase.

Logic is great, as far as it goes. The problem with it is we can’t take it all that far. If we’re going to cope with life as it is, let alone as it’s going to be, we are going to need all the tools in the box. I’d say the time to start getting familiar with those tools is round about now.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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