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The Point of Reason and Rationality

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Saturday Aug 29, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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What are some advantages of being a rational/more rational person?

Before I get to the heart of the question, I want to make the distinction between rationality and reason in the domain of argumentation (these terms have specialized meanings when referring to different topics). The two terms are often used interchangeably, and one could argue that the current usage of the terms have, for all practical purposes, made them synonymous. However, when exploring this area in detail, the distinction is an important one. Reason is defined as the "capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information." (Kompridis, 2000). Rationality implies conformity of one's beliefs and action to one's applied reason. For example, if a terrorist was holding people hostage and demanded a piloted helicopter with enough fuel to cross the border, the deactivation of all tracking satellites in a 200 mile radius, and two-million dollars cash, these demands (not necessarily the master plan) could be described as rational, as the demands would facilitate the terrorist's goals of escaping. If the terrorist, however, demanded a video of a squirrel and a hedgehog playing the game "Rock'em Sock'em," a pair of Betty White's underwear sealed in a jar of formaldehyde, and a getaway unicorn, the demands would be irrational.

One's ability to reason properly is the underlying cognitive ability that generally remains stable while one's rationality is greatly affected by temporary conditions such as heightened emotions, lack of sleep, or any cognitive impairment. One could usually be a very reasonable person but act irrationally when angered, for example. Being more rational can be a result of working on controlling your emotions, avoiding activities and habits that lead to cognitive impairment such as drugs and alcohol or not getting enough sleep, or just recognizing when you are not in the ideal state of mind to make reasonable decisions or arguments. The benefits of rationality (acting in accordance with your reason) should be clear. But what may not be clear at this point, are the benefits of being reasonable.

There is an evolutionary argument for using reason. There is still some debate among cognitive scientists as to why exactly humans appear to have what we call superior intelligence compared to other species. We know the differences reside in the brain, we just can pinpoint what those differences are at this time. It is possible, even likely, that our level of intelligence emerges from several differences in our brain anatomy. Regardless of where those differences are, we know that our intelligence and thus, reasoning ability, has evolved to what it is today. Evolved abilities make us better suited for our current environment and by extension, reason makes us better suited for our environment. "Current environment" is a misnomer, however, since evolution works over thousands of years and does not respond to the rapidly changing social environment of today. It is possible that better human reasoning is still adaptive, but as the movie Idiocracy warns, it could also be maladaptive.

Idiocracy: The Future of Humanity

Virtually all behavioral scientists today agree that while there are both pros and cons to rationality and reason, in today's social environment, the personal and societal benefits of reason far exceed its problems. A leader in this field is Dan Ariely who wrote the books, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic and Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions which focus on many of the benefits of irrationality and many of its problems, respectively. There are many benefits to reasoning as well as just as many problems associated with poor reasoning that can be found in personal, professional, and academic domains. While reasoning ability has been directly linked to many academic outcomes, scientifically, it is challenging to link reasoning ability directly to any specific life outcome such as wealth, happiness, or well-being. Ironically, however, it is through the reasoning process itself that we can infer that better reasoning is more likely to lead to better life outcomes.

An important distinction must be made between rationality on a personal level and a societal level. Virtually all of the benefits of irrationality such as the peace of mind that comes with believing in supernatural entities who are looking out for your best interests, eternal life in paradise, or the idea of Karma, are personal benefits that would have a potentially disastrous effect if implemented on a societal level. For example, societies that took the idea of Karma seriously would have no need for their own systems of justice since the gods, the universe, or whatever would see to it that perfect justice prevailed. World leaders who believe that the destruction of civilization is a necessary step for Jesus to return and bring about world peace, have little incentive to avoid such conflicts that are likely to lead to the destruction of civilization. This scenario is even more terrifying if others in power share the same belief. Personal irrationality that only affects an individual or a small number of people within an irrational person's circle of influence, may be beneficial to those people, but as more people are affected by the irrationality, the net result eventually becomes negative.

Reason is certainly something that can be learned, although research confirms that some people are more predisposed to irrational thinking than others (“The Science of Superstition - Bruce M. Hood - Paperback,” 2010). For those who suffer psychosis stemming from irrationality, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a psychotherapeutic solution for addressing irrationality. For the rest of us, improving our reasoning abilities is a result of multidisciplinary education and practice. Studying both formal and informal logic, fallacious reasoning, cognitive biases, probability, and other areas will provide the tools needed to reason more effectively. Engaging others in debate is perhaps the best way to practice reasoning skills, as long as the debate doesn't devolve into one personal attack after another, which is unfortunately all too common with online debates. Another effective way to improve reasoning ability is by questioning your feelings, values, and beliefs. Before I explain this one, a little myth-busting is required.

A common but incorrect assumption is that we are creatures of reason when, in fact, we are creatures of both reason and emotion. We cannot get by on reason alone since any reason always eventually leads to a feeling. Should I get Grape Nuts or Lucky Charms? I can list all the reasons I want, but the reasons have to be based on something. For example, if my goal is to eat healthy, I can choose the Grape Nuts, but what is my reason for wanting to be healthy? I can list more and more reasons such as wanting to live longer, spending more quality time with loved ones, etc., but what are the reasons for those reasons? You should be able to see by now that reasons are ultimately based on non-reason such as values, feelings, or emotions. These deep-seeded values, feelings, and emotions we have are rarely a result of reasoning, but can certainly be influenced by reasoning. We have values, feelings, and emotions before we begin to reason and long before we begin to reason effectively. This is why questioning our feelings as reasoning adults is so important.

We all think we are reasonable and rational most of the time, and if you are reading this, you probably are. But reason isn't something people have or don't have; it is something we all have to a certain degree. Some of us are better at it than others. As we get better at it, we start to experience the benefits of better reasoning and are capable of doing away with more and more irrational beliefs that once brought us comfort, but we recognize as irrational because they contradict our reason. These benefits can be seen in our personal and professional lives, and the benefits can be extended to entire societies when its leaders and members value reason and rationality.

Podcast Episode: The Point of Reason and Rationality

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