About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Podcast Teaser: Why rationality?

Dear readers, Rationally Speaking is soon going to be (also) a podcast, produced by New York City Skeptics, and co-hosted by Julia Galef and yours truly. Before each episode (initially biweekly, starting at the end of January), we will publish a “teaser” like the one below, introducing the topic of that episode and inviting comments from our readers. Your comments will provide us with additional food for thought, and the most interesting ones will be read and discussed during the show.

For our inaugural episode, we’re going to kick things off by asking: Why is “speaking rationally” a worthwhile goal, anyway? It’s not self-evident, at least not to many people. Human beings certainly don’t seem made for it. Aristotle may have famously dubbed us “the rational animal,” but cognitive science tells a different story, with plenty of evidence that our brains blithely flout logic all the time and are excellent at rationalizing our irrational decisions after the fact.

So why fight our irrational natures? After all, some people argue that irrationality can make us happier, at least in certain situations. There’s also a widespread attitude that even if irrationality has some negative consequences, it’s nevertheless inextricably linked to the best parts of our humanity: love, passion, and creativity. From this standpoint, “rational” is synonymous with “cold, soulless, dispassionate” — in other words, Vulcan.

What do you think — are reason and emotion at odds? Is there a downside to being rational, and if so, is it necessarily outweighed by the upside? And even if you personally choose to strive for rationality, should you try to make other people more rational as well? What if their irrationality makes them happy?

Leave your thoughts below, and we’ll pick the most interesting comments to discuss in Episode #1 of Rationally Speaking: The Podcast!


  1. I suggest you start by defining "rationality".

  2. We left that open on purpose so as not to fix the discussion right away on a single meaning of the word. (I definitely agree with your implication that people mean different things by it).

  3. I think people equate rationality with 'coldness' partly because they recognize the irrationality of some of their emotions. So emotions=irrationality, therefore unemotional=rational.

    But that equation is not necessarily bi-directional. You can certainly have emotional experiences that are not irrational. Love isn't based on quid-pro-quo or some other arrangement, so it isn't a product of 'reason', but there's nothing necessarily irrational about it either. Much like aesthetic choices, emotions can be orthogonal to reason.

    When you actually examine the behavior of someone who tries to avoid irrationality I think you will find they are no more cold than anyone, on average. I know I'm not.

  4. From this standpoint, “rational” is synonymous with “cold, soulless, dispassionate” — in other words, Vulcan.


    Vulcans have feelings, too. They are just supremely good at suppressing them in order to let rationality rule.

  5. More directly: Why be rational?

    People can live wonderful lives filled with woo. The deeply religious can still be highly productive. Fuzzy thinkers can still be fun.

    But I think the future of mankind is in the hands of the rational. Challenges to our safety, our resources, our planet, and ourselves are not going to be solved by irrational people.

  6. Perhaps the reason some people see rationality as cold is tied into fears of relativity. Take romantic love or the modern concept of "soul mates" as an example. If you think about it rational, you could examine the specific cultural an historic genesis of these concepts. Or equally rationally you could examine it scientifically and find evolutionary explanations for that feeling of love. An individual (even a educated one) might ask does this not cheapen my feelings for my loved ones. Does to know something kill it. I find this idea pernicious, but it is something you might want to address in your podcast.

  7. Excellent topic !

    I ve often wondered about that myself and i i think i ve managed quite well to rationalize my irrational need to think rationally

    As you point out humans are basically irrational beings as is exemplified by their tendency to do stuff which is irrational because ultimately theres no completely rational reason to take any action whatsoever.


    Given that we all have those needs and impulses (which may not be justifiable by pure reason alone)The most "reasonable" thing to do is to try and satisfy them because when we do we feel pleasure and thats basically why we do things.If someone doesnt agree with that i could argue that he/she is being inconsistent because the whole purpose of his/her actions is to satisfy his/her needs and impulses and thus disagreeing with me would just be another example of what i am saying.(This is obviously very superficial and simplistic but maybe you ll get the picture)

    So if we can agree on the above then it would be simpler to accept that rational thinking is better than irrational thinking because it has to do with terms and rules that correspond to elements of nature and logic (which seems to be one of natures qualities)So that it empowers us to handle and manipulate the elements of nature and the environment which are directly linked to our needs and impulses and our need to satisfy them.(Not to mention our own bodies which are the originators of those needs)

    Plainly put , the more rationally you think the more in control you are of nature and of yourself so that you can use that power to satisfy your irrational needs !

    Basically i am referring to science and its potential to improve the human condition.I am not saying that on a personal level you ll necessarily be happy being rational but in that too you can find happiness (by pursuing science such as myself and drawing pleasure for the process and the findings or by socializing with other scientists or skeptics)

    Being rational in the long term makes humanity better at what it does best , being irrational !What good is art if you cant pursue it because you just have to work too hard to make ends meet ?Wouldnt it be better if society was so efficient so that it could ensure you can make a living and paint all the impressionistic post modern crap your heart desires ? Why should you battle with depression (which is irrational) which doesnt let you do all the other irrational stuff you want to do that make you happy ? Wouldnt it be better if there was a pill that can magically make it go away ? Did irrational people ever help to make those things come true ?


    So to conclude rationality is ultimately allowing people to be as irrational and happy and that makes it a virtue (which is an extremely irrational concept in itself !)

  8. I saw Sam Harris (whatever you think of him) make a distinction between the irrational (the opposite of rationality) and the none-rational (things that cannot be rational). I suppose there is something in that.

    For my own thoughts one cannot be truly 100% rational as our moral axioms and instincts give us our "aim" and rationality grants us a path to that aim. (I'm sure you have the right terminology for this).

    I imagine a 100% rational being waking up and being unable to decide if they should even bother to feed themselves to keep themselves alive, let alone choose a carrier path.

    Emotions can often be at odds with rationality and other times they direct it.

  9. Something about some of the "big" irrational beliefs we find in our daily lives: Terror management theory more or less says that we made some of that stuff up to overcome our fear of death.

    We are programmed to avoid dying, but our unique long-term planning computers (brains) realize such thing is unavoidable and that makes it "crash"(existential crisis) . A "patch" that could sold the problem is adding some fake information that would make the brain believe think it wont really die so it wont panic over that issue and continues doing what it does best: keeping ourself alive.
    Examples of this are religion (My body will die but I will still live on because my god will resurrect me) and patriotism ( I die for my country, or culture or whatever because it will remain after I am gone). Good ways to add a "meaning" to the absurd that is struggling to live only to die anyway.


    So I believe, based on this, that we must remember that this silly irrationalities are normally there for a reason, before we try to remove "patches" and bring people to the side of "logic and reason". You cant expect a kid to give you his candy without something as good in return, after all, this what prevents them of killing themselves, or at least, of becoming one of those Nietzsche wannabes.
    And saying as Camus did that we must be "happy Sisyphus" we might just draw them away even further, by the way.

  10. Good stuff. I hope it will be available via iTunes too.

  11. That's great news. I'm looking forward to listen to this new podcast!

    Keep up the good work,

  12. Recently I wrote about irrationality on my blog.

    Here's an exerpt:

    ... purchasing and selling decisions are sometimes called irrational simply because the commenter doesn't understand or agree with them. Why doesn't Grandma sell her home to make way for the skyscraper? She's been offered a very generous price! Why's she being so irrational? But Grandma has lived in that neighborhood for years and simply doesn't want a fancy new home with new neighbours.

    People whose political views differ from ours are often slurred as being irrational. But what we really mean is that taken within our political framework their arguments make no sense. What really doesn't make sense is the idea that someone else's argument has to fit with our premises.

    ... Thinking is only part of what human existence entails. Feeling and emotions are perhaps more fundamental. And much of what purports to be reasoning may in fact be post hoc rationalizations.

  13. I find the way the science/rational vs. faith/emotional dichotomy is depicted in film and television interesting. Although I've heard many skeptics be critical of the ultra-rational characters like Spock/Data/Dr. Manhattan, I don't really object to it for a number of reasons. First, the characters are never as unemotional as we're initially supposed to believe. Second, these particular types of characters tend to inhabit science fiction stories where they seem to be intended more as allegorical characters representing a particular broad philosophy. And third, as alien as these characters often appear on the surface, they tend to be the most identifiable...at least to the types of people who enjoy philosophical and rational discourse. I think Captain Kirk said it best in Star Trek II when he called Spock the most human of all the life they've encountered.

    The rational/science vs. faith/emotional dichotomy is also often addressed as a common theme in medical shows. Major story lines in medical shows typically revolve around the doctor struggling to maintain their clinical detachment despite having to operate on someone they know personally or whatever other forces might prevent them from remaining cold and detached. The show Six Feet Under would also often play with the idea of clinical detachment. For instance, they'd frequently set scenes featuring very casual conversations where a dead body is laying right there in the room.

  14. It seems quite an odd question, akin to why one should eat healthy. Maybe it is better to say one should promote eating healthy.

  15. Rationality -however you define it, and I don't think you solve puzzles simply by thowing definitions- has to be an ultimate moral option, an attitude to life. It is obviously impossible to rationally justify rationality.

    Reason, according to Hume and modern neurobiology, is the slave of the passions. And you'd think the natural conclusion that follows would be a defeatist resignation. But, paradoxically this very realization together with an increasing understanding of our biological makup, make us more the drivers of our destiny as a species.

    Why is reason worth the effort? Perhaps it is in our nature to find the hard way more rewarding in the long run than the dull and easy way, despite being constantly tempted by it. Once we've tasted reason we find any kind of superstitious and mythological explanations a bit like mountains of viscuous caramel.

    This is not to say that reason has no shortcomings: reason alone and without the passions (I know, the term sound out of date) would make us indifferent to everything*, ultimately to reason itself. But, this is why it makes sense to be passionate about rationallity.

    * See third paragraph of Nov 19 2009 post, The incoherence of free will

  16. "Vulcans" are figments of our imagination, impossible characterizations of single human traits. Are you really going to use fiction to debate religion?

    I would settle for the masses understanding the cause and effect relationship. As in 'government causing healthcare to be available to everyone, has the effect of someone forcibly extracting money from me, which causes me to spend less money somewhere else which has the effect of a depressed economy'.

    Then perhaps you could expand on how so many people who desire to think rationally support government theft programs which are driven purely by emotion (Oh that poor man can't afford a hernia operation).

    For starters...

  17. The concepts of reason and rationality are often inflated beyond the mere notions of deduction and induction - of figuring things out, of using your brain to understand things more.

    Although their proponents naturally believe that their ideas follow from reasoning, those who advance "reason" as some sort of social project generally have more in mind than just advancing people's overall reasoning abilities. Enhance people's overall reasoning abilities and they'll pay their rent on time more and have more constructive arguments with their spouses. But will they suddenly feel overwhelming compassion for the rest of the world?

    No, no, no, and no.

  18. Angel wrote: 'Good ways to add a "meaning" to the absurd that is struggling to live only to die anyway.'

    So Angel, thanks for mentioning me.

    And Massimo, I'll try to pick up on the podcast but I'm currently months behind on Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skepticality. How am I ever going to fit yours in there too? Sigh... too much good information.

    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway

  19. "What do you think — are reason and emotion at odds?"

    The point I would make (apologies if already stated) is that rationality is emotionally satisfying.

    In being rational, one uses their mental faculties to solve problems, to achieve new insight, and to cleave away falsehoods. These, in turn, bestow a sense of control, of accomplishment, and of validation--all vital to one's emotional health.

    On a personal level, I would say that I value the emotion of reason more than its practicality (although that's a rather nice side-effect).

  20. Mr. Pigliucci,

    What happened to your Gullibility is Bad for You blog? I receive a notice saying, "The blog you were looking for was not found" when I try to access it.


  21. Occam's,

    I apologize, but even I have to deal with the limits of being human ;-)

    In order to concentrate on my new projects (the podcast with Julia, two new books coming out, one book to write, and being the editor of a new open access journal, oh yes and my new job as a philosopher and department chair, and of course my private life...) I had to cut down on something...

  22. As my favorite philosopher wrote: "Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind."

    Good luck with the podcast Massimo, I hope your producer puts up with your liberal views.

  23. are reason and emotion at odds?

    If they are, some kind of retraining would be indicated, if the organism is to live a happy, integrated life.

    It would be important to remember that "rationality", meaning something like linguistic/symbolic behavior, is a new addition to the narrow clade of genus Homo; many animals go on being successful (evolutionary sense) without it. If emotion is what opposes to linguistic-like symbolic reasoning, then evidently emotion is sufficient to live a productive life. Evidently emotion is extra-rational or probably better pre-rational, but not irrational ("doubtful; untrustworthy").

    My thought: Emotion actually runs the show moment to moment (in humans as in generalized mammals). Reason, "awareness as we know it", has a supervisory role over Emotion. Based on my own introspection, is all.

  24. Some relevant thoughts:

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. I apologize if this point has been made in previous comments; I didn't take the time to read them all.

    "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. " - Carl Sagan

    "Why is “speaking rationally” a worthwhile goal, anyway?"

    Our ability to think has played a role in our survival thus far. Speaking rationally helps develop and exercise the ability to think rationally and intelligently. Which hasn't failed our survival as a species thus far, and likely won't in the future.

    So why fight our irrational natures? After all, some people argue that irrationality can make us happier, at least in certain situations. There’s also a widespread attitude that even if irrationality has some negative consequences, it’s nevertheless inextricably linked to the best parts of our humanity: love, passion, and creativity.
    Please correct me if I'm wrong in this following statement, but emotions being linked to irrationality doesn't make them individually unattainable...? For example, I am quite passionate about science and reason, but I don't feel I am irrational. I would argue that emotions can be channeled to motivate reasoning and thinking. I believe Dr. Pigliucci made a comment about first instinct wanting to punch a man, but channeling that emotion to think critically (as a joke, not an actual situation; on a youtube video, CFI Leadership Conf. if memory serves me).

    ... And even if you personally choose to strive for rationality, should you try to make other people more rational as well? What if their irrationality makes them happy?
    There is something of a society vs individual argument forming in this. A person's life is their own, but do they owe something to society for bringing the individual up and providing them with the social environment?... We are, in our modern era, a threat to ourselves by means of modern weaponry, fast use of resources, and this is excluding threats from space (and I don't mean little green men). It takes rational people to find solutions and overcome these obstacles. Life isn't about being happy (although a nice perk), it is about surviving and reproducing. This becomes obvious in all forms of life all the way down to bacteria. In times of hardship it doesn't become about luxury and *ahem* desires (I realize bacteria lack this.), but about survival at all costs. So is it better for the person to remain irrational and happy, or to ensure the survival of the species? Albeit, it will likely be a while before we are eliminated as a species, the more understanding we have of our environment and physical world (which is gained from rational thinking and discussion), the less likely it will happen.

    I realize this begs the question, if we're irrational; it had to be selected for. Why?... Being social creatures, do the rational compensate and offset the irrational?
    This has turned out to be much longer than I intended, sorry about that...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.