As I’ve discussed before in this blog, our Western image of humans as rational is very much culturally bound. It’s strange, really, that calling someone “irrational” is such a slur. Logic itself, held so widely as a source of strength, shudders under the weight of our everyday lives. Despite our assumptions, values, and best intentions, we act irrationally (without reason) much of the time in daily life.
Why do we say, “Bless you” when someone sneezes? Is the devil really going to fly up their nose? Why do we shake hands? Are we really making certain they’re unarmed?
Are these really “rational” behaviors? No, they’re social rituals, cultural artifacts that don’t make “rational” sense, but have meaning nonetheless. Linguistically, they have pragmatic meaning. Culturally, they have ritual meaning.
When we’re doing what we think are rational things, it’s not usually rationality or logic that is informing our actions. It’s culture. Culture is filled with little rituals that make all the difference in terms of social interaction.
Don’t get me wrong; just because something’s “ritual” that doesn’t make it “untrue.” Rituals — in an anthropological sense — are social conventions, and they allow us to interact by giving us patterns of action that are not only predictable, but allow us to routinize behaviors. Imagine driving on the road if we didn’t all agree that we should drive on the right (or left!). It would work, but it would be inefficient and dangerous.
When we say that someone’s acting “irrationally,” it doesn’t usually mean “illogically” so much as “not in a way that we expect.” That doesn’t make it any less strange, but we might as well call it what it is. “Irrationality” isn’t a logical judgement — it’s a social judgement. We’re placing someone’s behavior against a matrix of cultural expectations and finding it wanting.
In other words, we’re not using “logic” as a process of thinking. We’re using it as a social value. Can logic and rationality really be a dispassionate process and a cultural value at the same time? That’s a tough question, and the answer is probably “no.”
Logic — What It Is, and What It Isn’t
If logic were truly a purely rational way of thinking, then it would be spectacularly powerful, and people would study philosophy as avidly and pragmatically as they study computer science or accounting.
Don’t laugh! There was a day, not too long ago, when this was true. When we lived our lives (mostly) in one culture, the ability to think “logically” was much more useful. When our everyday world was less “messy” and overarching values were hierarchically determined, “logic” had more meaning.
The problem with logic is the same problem that exists for all modes of thought. Logic is subject to the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) principle. Even if we think logically about things, many of our basic perceptions of the world are based on irrational assumptions and basic drives.
- I might be rational about buying a car, but that doesn’t mean I’ve rationally examined my need for one.
- And even if I do, that doesn’t mean I’ve rationally examined all aspects of its impact.
- And if I decide I don’t need one, then I’ve decided that the environment is more important than any benefit I might derive.
Logic, by itself, doesn’t get us much of anywhere. What’s worse, anthropology — which allows us to look at the world cross-culturally — tells us that pretty much everything we think about is culturally bound.
Contrary to popular belief, logic and rationality don’t transcend culture. Because our assumptions about the world are culturally bound, anything we apply logic to is necessarily bound by these same constraints.
That doesn’t make us helpless, and it doesn’t make logic useless. We can work against our constraints and try to get beyond them. Logic is incredibly useful for making certain that our thoughts all agree with one another. Logic and rationality are powerful tools.
Rationality Isn’t Rational (But It’s Still Pragmatic)
If our cultural beliefs about logic and rationality aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be, then what’s the point of studying? Just about every discipline is about learning to think clearly about certain matters.
Mathematicians learn to think clearly about numbers and data. Chemists learn how atoms, molecules, and compounds act and interact. Lawyers learn to think about law and precedence. Anthropologists learn to think clearly about culture.
Every field of study trains the mind to think in new ways. Being a chemist isn’t a matter of memorizing the periodic table and then going on to learn more and more details of the chemical world through rote memorization. It’s about learning whole new ways of thinking — of forcing neurons to line up and march together to get certain results.
These areas of study are called “disciplines” for a reason. That’s what they are: disciplined ways of thinking about certain aspects of the world.
We might think marketing is crazy, but marketers think far more rationally about the buying and selling habits of people than mathematicians ever will — or they’d be very bad at their jobs. The behaviors that marketers study and try to modify aren’t rational, but that’s a different matter.
People in general aren’t rational about buying and selling. But the people who do are called “investors.” Investing is a discipline with its own rules and assumptions about the world, with its own rationality. Those who study what investors do are called “economists.”
What we can learn from this is that there is no one “rationality” — rationality isn’t just one thing. The world is far too large and diverse for any one of us to know things with perfect rationality, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study it.
It does, however, mean that we should be wary of making purely “rational” decisions. And doubly wary when we’re convinced that we’ve managed to nail down even a piece of the truth.