What is rationality?

Since I was a young kid, I always thought that I was a reasonable person. Later, I realized, most people think that way.


Sometimes, we meet someone and describe him as rational. Most  people seem to be  irrational to us. I mentioned in the beginning that everyone has a desire to be or atleast appear to be rational. Why then, do people differ so much in their opinion? Why do some people end up appearing stupid while others are respected for their rational and common sense soaked minds?

“Two roads diverged in the woods.  I took the one less traveled, and had to eat bugs until Park rangers rescued me.”
— Jim Rosenberg

Why is it that we humans who call ourselves the most rational beings mindlessly destroy the only place that can sustain us in this overwhelmingly vast emptiness? Why do Homeopathic professors exist? How can Reiki practitioners be raking in guilt-free money? What is the definition of rationality? Why do Republicans win elections? How does the Sena convince people to organise riots? What is the driving force behind violent Jihad?

All these were questions that interested me. Actually everyone has probably wondered about it at some point or the other. But, we just dismiss of these questions by saying that people are crazy. But, we never wonder why people want to be crazy. Or what qualifies a physiologically normal person to be crazy and thus by definition irrational.

After reading a few books and observing a statistically irrelevant number of people I somehow get the feeling that I am rational enough to write about rationality.

Why make such a fuss about rationality?

Humanity is a pretty intriguing phenomenon. We have by far, been responsible for the largest amount of change on this planet. Whether this change is for good or bad is obviously another question altogether. Which among our qualities is most responsible for the kind of dominance that we have achieved over nature? Scientists say it is the opposable thumb. People with more holistic approaches suggest that it could be a combination of our intuition and other neurological faculties combined with a weak physique and fear that is responsible for our current state. Some people like the Pope think that God made Man in his image and obviously He did not want his image look weak. The reason for the last thought being that it somehow seems more “mysterious” and “transcendent”!

Whatever people say about the reasons for humanity’s supposed superiority over the rest of all creation, everyone seems to agree on the point that humans are rational. This is one statement that is rarely challenged. This makes it very important to try and understand what rationality is. “What is the use?”, one might ask. I believe that an  understanding of  the limits and possibilities of this very colourful phenomenon can make all of us better decision makers and more capable of  contributing to our societies.

A closer look!

Humans are a very curious race and most probably, someone might have tried to understand the nature of rationality before. The ancient Indian civilizations, Greeks, etc. are possible candidates. What is certain is that people have definitely learned how to exploit the phenomenon. Religion is a great example of this.

The systematic and objective study of the human psyche received a big boost with the works of Freud whose theories are considered mostly obsolete nowadays. Since then scientists have tried to understand the workings of the mind and whenever the mind is under study, insights into the mystery of rationality are inevitable.

How is it that we go about the process of making a  simple decision, like for example, what to wear or which course to pick? This is a well studied question and Management students actually study different models that can predict the above decisions. Generally. it is supposed that, we first pick one choice based upon some undefinable feeling. Then, we try and rationalize the choice by coming up with reasons for it. We make a weak attempt to challenge the choice. Then, if it passes the test, we go with the choice. This is the favourite method of most of us humans. There isn’t anything extremely rational about the whole process. But, this is the only way our brains can process the decisions fast enough. Otherwise, we would be stuck at a shoe shop for hours, trying to pick “THE BEST” choice.

Now, leaving the mundane stuff behind, let us move onto the “higher” stuff. Like religion, belief in a God, trust in others, friendship etc.. What are the mechanisms that power rationality in these fields? Some say that we don’t depend on rationality for certain things. But, that is just a bag of hot air. If I ask someone why he believes in God or why someone prays to get better, they will come up with perfectly reasonable explanantions for it. No one does anything without a reason! Sometimes  they just don’t know it, or are unable to put it into words.

So, what again is rationality? The most likely answer is that it is the ability to defend our belief systems.

This explanation has been put forward by several people including Freud himself. Now, the above explanation can seem very strange at first. Atleast to me, it did. What  then is the meaning of the creed called Rationalism? How does the above explanation elucidate the idea of a rational person?

Once we answer these questions the questions posed in the beginning become clear. A rational person is one who can explain his viewpoint most convincingly to another person, or to use the more correct way, appeal to the other guy’s rationality. Now, it is clear that the underlying ideas themselves have little to do with rationality.

In other words a person can be very rational and very wrong! Atleast according to another rational person. Obviously if the ideas are completely indefensible then rationality is going to dump them and come up with a “better” set of ideas. Several scientists especially in the field of neuropsychology have studied whether this explanation holds any water. In a book called Phantoms in the brain by a Dr.Ramachandran, the author describes experiments on people who have suffered damage to those areas of the brain that are responsible for coming up with explanations that reinforce our world view. If the areas suffer from decreased function, then. the subjects become very depressed and emotional. It the opposite happens, then they are strangely oblivious to their own predicament.

The author goes on to suggest that maybe Freud was not entirely wrong. The human mind is like a state machine whose output depends on past inputs, present state, present inputs and the logic function implemented. The present state is held in the unconscious mind. Our minds try to filter the information that comes in through our senses using the world view that it has developed over the years(state).

Scientists have actually confirmed that cognitive differences exist between sensory-wise  identical, but content-wise different information. The ones that affirm our beliefs are amplified and used to strengthen our opinions. The ones that do not make sense entirely are rationalised using our awesome powers of reasoning to conform with what we know. The ones that don’t agree at all are simple discarded or “repressed into our unconscious” according to Freud.  This rationality is thus, among what are called psychological defences that our mind employs to prevent instability and indecisiveness. This last point is worth a little explanation.

“Lying to yourself about specific actions is easier than re-defining the bounds of your imagined identity…  When I see once-ethical men devolve into moral grey, they still identify as upstanding.”
— Ben Casnocha

If a person cannot rationalise his actions well enough, or in other words, if his psychological defences aren’t strong enough, then he just keeps changing his opinions. This will prevent any effective decision making and can make him vulnerable to situations that might temporarily not make much sense. The other psychological defences include Lying, Humour, Projection. Reaction formation, Denial etc..

In other words everyone is a little crazy. That is what prevents each one of us from becoming crazy, big-time! How many times have we said to ourselves that we are smart as the devil himself and that we can “do-it”! These self delusional statements and lying are important to boost up our confidence and is responsible for our ability to outdo ourselves. A perfectly reasonably guy would probably never get anywhere. Whereas a half crazy dude who treats everyone like shit and thinks that he is the only smart guy in the world might end up running it. Whether the crazy dude is happier for that is again worth some debate. When any of the defences get amplified it usually leads to inability to handle certain situations.

If rationality is the power to explain ourselves first to ourselves and then to others, what then is so “right” about it? The thing is that the connection between being right and being rational is not as strong as it is made out to be. But a connection exists nevertheless. The best rationalizations are produces by people with higher IQ who generally tend to seek more information and question themselves more critically, thus shaping their belief systems in more society compatible ways. But, this is only a very theoretical thing.

Very rarely does the above connection actually work out. The reason for that being the fact that the information that we have access to most easily is from our parents, friends and society. In this age of universal psychopathy, disaster and return to the intellectually undemanding world of religion by people unable to make sense of it all, this information tends to be coloured with all sorts of stuff that cannot be verified.


For example, homoeopathy is a recognised medical system in India with Homoeopathic practitioners recognised as doctors. The entire system is based upon the so called principal that diseases can be treated by simulating the symptoms more strongly and thus prodding the body to take action and restore the lost “balance”. This makes “sense”. But, the German who invented the system found out that material doses of drugs which cause the above said symptoms are toxic and cause damage. Therefore the dosages are diluted to concentrations like 10^-20 or lesser. At these conncentrations, chances are that there is not a single molecule of the orginal stuff in a whole bottle of the medicine. Then, this water is taken to cure the disease.

With the discovery that matter is made up  of molecules and that once they are further split up, they loose their properties, the basis of the system is more or less destroyed. But, still something could work without an explanation. But again empirical studies have conclusively proved that Homoeo has no effect beyond the well known placebo phenomenon.

Rationally, then we should reject the system. But, it doesn’t happen. Why? When a thousand people take the medicine, some of them get relief due to some reason or other not related to the medicine. They then tell all their friends and relatives about it and they in turn spread the word.

“Would it be good advice, once copying becomes practical, to make lots of copies when good things happen, and none (or perhaps even killing off your own personal instance) on bad things?  Will this change the subjective probability of good events?”
— Hal Finney

Forget the people. Ever wonder how the  Homoeo doctor manages to push ahead with this meaningless and considering that it is useless, very demanding job? How is it they deal with patients they cannot cure? What happens when a person who is vaccinated against jaundice with a Homoeo vaccine gets Jaundice?

Again, consider a Pentecostal faith healer. How is it that he finds the strength to jump around and scream all the time and convince himself that his psychotic babbling makes sense according to the language used in heaven to praise God who likes his sycophants screamy and crazy?

How is that despite the fact that there is a 20 million dollar unclaimed reward for any demonstration of paranormale phenomenon, people still believe in psychic powers and other bs like yogic flying and telekinesis?

Crazy people are more rational??

All this is not a failure of rationality. Infact, the people most strongly believing in them and the ones who are willing to actually lay down their lives for their beliefs are the ones who are most capable of rationalizing their ideas. If you ask a crazy sounding Pastor why he is right while he is drawing the organisational structure of Hell and explaining Satan’s family tree, he will give you a bunch of reasons that might make sense to someone prepared to do anything to get cured. The more rational the Pastor the better the explanations are going to be.

The failure therefore lies not with rationality. In fact rationality unconditioned by commensurate information from authoritative sources is at the mercy of intuition. Now, this is a pretty dangerous mix. You believe in something because it “feels right” and the try to come up with reasons for your belief. This is what religion is all about in a nutshell! The ideas are passed along from generation to generation and with passing time people grow less inclined to question them and they become truths.

The failure is thus always with not being exposed to facts. Unless a child is exposed to all kinds of information as he grows up, he is going to develop a world view that is probably unbalanced and based on some 2000 yr old text that doesnt make much sense when actually read in an objective manner. Since the beliefs develop before the child is capable of questioning them or ascertaining their validity them become like thought viruses that infect his mind. Once reasoning powers develop the person tries to validate his beliefs. Again, all contradictory matter is banned by someone or the other.

Thus, rationality ends up defending a belief system that places value on unquestioning belief in a badly written book. Depending upon the strength of conditioning and rational powers of the person, various levels of assault can be successfully withstood by the thought virus.

Now, this can help us understand why people act the way they do. It is never because they are stupid or irrational. It is because they just are conditioned that way. Very rarely do people view the opinion of their parents and relatives with scepticism. This gives rise to believing in word of mouth accounts. The tendency to value intuition, an old book and rumour over experiment, modern science and fact is cultivated as a virtue. Some people manage to delude and compartmentalize their personalities thus eventually becoming a doctor or an engnineer who performs animal sacrifices. This doublespeak is explained more colourfully in George Orwell’s classic 1984. Everyone has a time bomb ticking inside them which is unreasoning belief. Some people are by nature more action oriented and decide to act on whatever they know to be true. Their power of rationalisation providing the necessary conviction.

Thus, we have jihadists, Pastors, yogis and etc etc..

The really bad thing is that instead of trying to clean up the mess by letting atleast the kids get a balanced diet as far is information is concerned the world is trying to rush into the smelly lap of religion hoping that it combined with a “rational”  mind will allow the kids to become kind and gentle. What they fail to see is that the unreasoned belief in an adult combined with books written by old pervs is a dangerous mix. The reason they fail to see it is because they just dont want to look at it that way and see whether it makes sense.

How does one use rationality to seek truth?

Therefore, what one needs to do when confronted with someone who seems to hold an irrational idea is to try and see whether you and the other person have the same set of facts. Instead of blindly trying trying to defend yourself just let your defences break down for a moment and see whether the other guys point of view is capable of being rationalised as well as yours. This is the easiest and as yet the  only way in which the human mind can process comparisions.

This method should be among the most important thing is taught to kids when they reach the right age. Then, we can use this awesome gift called rationality for our own and others benefit.

I dont know whether rationality is an overrated phenomenon, but it sure is worth a very long article.

Sabu Paul


2 thoughts on “What is rationality?

  1. Long but interesting article(Sorry, didn’t read it completely:)). I liked your way of expressing things. I’m also studying in NITC(this being my last month of M Tech here). I have been planning to start writing a blog, but everytime is turns out to someother day… Today I was looking for some help on writing a report in latex and found your blog listed in the search results. I started reading articles on your blog and read many of them one after the other with a thought in my mind that I’m deviating from my predecided task. After reading your blog I got motivated enough to write my first comment ever on a blog. Thanks for that!

  2. Thanks Prabhat! Happy to know that this is your first comment on a blog! I hope that you can find the time to start a blog and post regularly.

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