Originally written in May 2012
“Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.” – Bertrand Russell
Rationality is defined as a) the state or quality of being rational or logical, and b) the possession or utilization of reason or logic; and rational is defined as a) having or exercising the ability to reason, and b) of sound mind.
These are general definitions. The terms can be understood in a deeper way.
Man is said to be a rational animal. Does that mean all men are logical and are good at utilizing reason? If not, then why is man still called a rational animal? There are irrational men and there are rational men. What is it to be truly rational?
What Is Rationality?
As the definition above says, rationality is a state or quality of being rational (i.e. exercising the ability of reasoning) or logical. However, this definition doesn’t actually tell us if rationality is a positive or a negative trait. All it says is that rationality is a way, a method. A tool. Without any underlying values and belief system the tool of rationality is useless and means nothing. Our values and belief system help us decide our goals. Then to act in ways that take us towards our goals becomes the rational thing to do. Thus, only in context of our goals can we say that to do and think certain way is rational or irrational. Rationality is a tool to help us achieve the ends. The ends are the goals that we set in life. Rationality tells us how exactly we are supposed to live if we want to meet those goals.
To take a simple example, if your goal is to become a computer engineer then we can say that it is irrational to spend your time reading books about, say, quantum physics, and the rational thing to do is to learn about computers. But does that tell us whether learning about quantum physics or computers is in itself rational or irrational irrespective of one’s goals?
If what is rational depends on one’s goals then isn’t rationality subjective, since everyone has their own different set of goals? This question perplexed me for long time when I was grappling with understanding rationality. I would often think of a jihadi terrorist and try to understand how to prove his acts irrational. No doubt those terrorists are gruesome human beings for killing people the way they do and for the reasons they have for doing so. But think about it in this way: A jihadi terrorist believes that doing what he does is God’s will, and it is the only way for him to get to the heaven. He is brainwashed into believing that his acts serve the greatest purpose of humanity. His knowledge and understanding is limited, and so flawed are his values and belief system, and consequently his goals. But is he aware of it all? Clearly not. Thus, he is actually choosing the most rational path for himself. That means when we say that terrorists are irrational people, mustn’t we mean that they are irrational from our perspective, whereas they may be rational otherwise?
A somewhat startling learning out of it is this: For given knowledge and understanding – also called starting assumptions – if one takes the most logical path to reach one’s goals then one is rational. There are two caveats in this statement. 1) one’s knowledge and understanding about life may be flawed, or not the best, and 2) one’s reasoning/logic in pursuance of the goals based on those starting assumptions may be flawed.
In the terrorist example, therefore, even if the terrorist’s reasoning may be fine, his knowledge and understanding is flawed. There’s no God, no heaven etc., and the man is misled big time. To us having better knowledge and understanding he is irrational. Likewise, there may also be cases where the starting assumptions are right but the reasoning process followed is flawed. (Refer to the list of logical fallacies.)
When it is said that one has rational arguments for one’s position, that in itself does not mean that the position one’s arguing for is good and the person is rational. Because even if one has rational arguments supporting one’s position, as we saw, rationality is merely a tool. Till we don’t know the person’s goals (which are determined by the starting assumptions) and his reasoning process we can’t tell if he is rational.
Theoretical And Practical Reason
Ancient Greeks had concepts of rationality called theoria (theoretical reason) and praxis (practical reason). The latter is also called instrumental rationality. Instrumental rationality is a tool to serve specific ends. Anybody can be instrumentally rational and at the same time be irrational from others’ point of view.
What is theoretical reason? Theoria is that rationality which justifies a position irrespective of any individual’s starting assumptions. The position reached through this type of rationality is “the” rational position. It’s what is truly Rational (with capital R). But I believe since we have epistemic limitations we can’t have complete and absolute knowledge. Meaning, there’s always a possibility that our knowledge and understanding can be improved. Therefore, in true sense, we can never be perfectly Rational. The corollary to that is: rationality is always subjective. Theoria, however and therefore, justifies a position reached through the best of human knowledge and understanding.
Is Man A Rational Animal?
Humans are called rational animals in that they always have some justification for whatever they are doing. I think the appeal here is to praxis or practical reason or instrumental rationality. However, I believe most humans don’t even meet the conditions of instrumental rationality. For example, when pushed by emotions and instincts humans often act in a way that they know in their head is not the best way (defying their own knowledge and understanding) and also the reasoning followed by most people is not always correct. Therefore, I would say humans quite often are irrational on this count.
As for being rational in theoria sense, vast majority of humans are irrational, because the goals most of the humans pursue are not the best ones, i.e. not derived using the best of human knowledge and understanding of life.
It would thus be apt to say that man is an animal capable of rationality at best.