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, November 01, 2006

Ah, yes, the limits of rationality

This must be the week when I get feisty about commonly accepted idiocies that pass for profound truths. One of them is the repeated “observation” that there are limits to reason. Philosophers (especially the anti-rationalist and anti-empiricist kinds) sometimes make it; religious people use this so-called “argument” routinely (wait! Isn't an argument by definition an appeal to reason?); and of course self-help gurus of all stripes happily point out what reason can't do. One needs, we are told, to “move beyond” reason.

But what on earth does it mean to move “beyond” reason? Readers of this blog and of my columns know that I'm the first one to point out that reason does, indeed, have limits. There are several kinds of what philosophers call “epistemic limitations,” for example, sometimes we simply don't have enough information available, at a particular moment, to reach reasonable (i.e., based on reason) conclusions; in other cases we cannot, in principle, gather such information, for instance because it has been destroyed, or it isn't accessible by human methods of research; moreover, there are epistemic limitations intrinsic to the fact that our minds are finite instruments shaped by natural selection, and as such incapable of grasping things beyond a certain level.

There are also areas of human experience that are simply outside of the proper scope of reason. For example, I cannot “reasonably” argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, because this is a matter of taste, and there is neither a logical argument nor any kind of empirical evidence that is relevant to a discussion of taste.

So, yes, reason has limits and proper domains of application. But what annoys me is that this admission is immediately greeted, in certain quarters, with glee and a sense of triumph, as if admitting limits to reason (which is in itself reasonable) somehow lends credibility to all sorts of fantasies that go “beyond” reason. In reality, nothing is beyond reason in the sense that it is “better” than reason when the latter is used properly within its own domain. Irrationality hasn't gotten us any scientific discovery or technological advancement, and it is hardly a guide to proper social behavior.

A few days ago I listened to a bizarre appeal for funding on a local national public radio station. Ira Glass, the host of the acclaimed program “This American Life,” told his listeners that not to contribute to public radio funding is perfectly rational, but – you see – sometimes you need to go “past reason,” and just do what feels right. Except, of course, that not to contribute to a public service is anything but rational, and results in the famous problem known as the tragedy of the commons, where if everyone stops doing his part everybody loses, a highly irrational, and undesirable, outcome indeed.

One can be rational or, when it makes sense, a-rational, but to glorify being irrational (i.e., going against, or ”beyond,” reason) seems to me to be a recipe for disaster. Which may be why it is the most irrational individuals on this planet who keep crying out that reason is limited; why else would people listen to their foolish advice?


  1. I have recently been trying to understand process theology ala David Ray Griffin, Whitehead, et al. Process theology make this point on the limits of rationality: mathematics, logic, and morality while part of human experience seem to be excluded by a sensationist, atheist, materialist viewpoint. Process theology thereby claims intuition as a valid form of knowledge as a means of explaining mathematics, logic, and morality. Do you have any comments on this or could you point me in the direction of some useful comments by skeptics?

  2. For example, I cannot “reasonably” argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, because this is a matter of taste, and there is neither a logical argument nor any kind of empirical evidence that is relevant to a discussion of taste.

    You could argue that chocolate is better than vanilla for you and this could be based on criteria that could be measured, at least theoretically (neurotransmitters flooding pleasure centers for example).

    The idea that there is such a thing as 'taste' in the sense you use it seems to me to be more of a consequence of averaging the collective personal tastes of various groups of people. Again, this could be measured somehow & the argument could be rationally made that chocolate is better than vanilla (which it is! Loaded with antioxidants - just stick with the super dark or unsweetened types).

  3. For any given decision that is rationally made - what method is used to determine when enough information has been considered?

    [another way of putting this: if we were to program an AI robot to make decisions, what rules would we include to enable them to stop gathering information and stop analyzing it and actually make the decision?]

    I agree that no 'irrational' method has been shown superior to 'rationality' and thus agree with the major point of your post. But I also wonder if anyone can actually define rationality in such a way that isn't subjective. Some people or decisions or human activities may seem 'irrational' but I'd argue it's a matter of degree and, unfortunately, opinion.

  4. David,

    "process theology" seems like a pretty easy way out. Intuition is an important part of how humans think, but in itself is no source of knowledge. In science, intuition plays a fundamental role, but it is constantly checked by rational thinking and empirical evidence.

  5. AFAIK, "intuition" is the name given to the lightning-fast process of adding up the available data to reach a decision, thereby appearing to bypass the usual laborious process of thinking a problem through to reach a decision. It is possible retroactively to recreate the steps one took to arrive at said decision "in a flash", but there really is a scientific process to it. (Intuition is certainly not "beyond reason" in the sense that self-help gurus use the term.)
    Is that your working definition, Max, or do you have another?

  6. Kimpatsu,

    >> Is that your working definition, Max, or do you have another? <<

    No, that's pretty much it.

  7. What, you mean you don't use psychic powers to help you, Max?

  8. Bravo,
    Yep I have heard it before:
    There is a limit to human reason.
    Unstated conclusion:
    So accept my mystical nonsenses.

  9. Every rationalist, every atheist, every agnostic, every logician, uses faith as a cognitive tool.

    The fact is, there simply isn't enough time in the day, to make every decision in an informed, rational way.

    For example:

    "Should I drive to work today by my usual route?"

    One might consult certain traffic information sources, such as radio or internet. At that point, you're faced with the choice of what source to use, if any. Any choice that you make at that time, without considering your reasons WHY, is a choice you make on faith.

    But let's say you consider it rationally, and go with the radio. You go to the unit on your bedside and turn it on.

    Why do you turn that particular knob? Is it because you're aware, at that moment, that that's the knob to turn it on, or is it because you just implicitly trust that knob to turn on the radio without having to rationally decide on it every time?

    Now, of course, I'm taking this to an absurdly granular degree. Let's step back a moment.

    You, as I do, trust in the scientific method. Observe, Hypothesize, Predict, Experiment, Publish, and then do it all over again.

    Why do you trust it? Have you personally evaluated its performance in every arena in which it is used? Does not the scientific method itself require its own constant re-evaluation?

    As soon as your trust in it ceases to be a conscious choice, and becomes an emotional or habitual cognitive state, then it has become faith.

    This happens all the time in science. Scientific theories that have been thoroughly disproved retain their adherents for a long time, sometimes taking a generation or more to finally get discarded. This is because the adherents are no longer rational about it... they have become faithful.

    And how can you not? How can you possibly be rational about every decision you make every day? There just isn't enough time or mental capacity.

    There isn't even enough time to decide what to be rational about.

    Faith is essential to human nature. The fact that some people put their faith in men rather than gods, in ideals rather than documents, is the only distinction.

    And it's not much of a distinction.

    Now I'll go over to a Fundamentalist website and post how they couldn't get along without rationality.


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