Rationality Isn’t Rational

Chimpanzee - Leipzig zoo
“Hey, who’re you calling irrational?”

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

Vulcan CosPlayer
Logic does not transcend cultures.
(CosPlay is another matter.)

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.

Die Chemiker
Understanding the whole of the world is too much for any one person.

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.


11 thoughts on “Rationality Isn’t Rational”

  1. You seem to be talking about one definition of rationality that is, indeed, culturally determined — but that doesn’t mean that all concepts of rationality are culturally determined. Certain basics seem to be (to me, at least) to be universal truths independent of culture. For a single example, contradiction is not rational: “Socrates is a man AND Socrates is a woman.” These two statements cannot both evaluate as true at the same time; they contain an implicit OR. S=m > S!=w, so (S=m) OR (S=w). Now, the definitions of these terms — “man,” “woman,” “Socrates,” even “is” — are culturally determined. But the rational possibilities inherent in their relationship is absolute. A OR !A is a universal truth: a thing cannot be what it is not. If aliens on the planet Zoltar told me “Grelthek is the absence of yulblech. This borvark is both grelthek and yulblech at the same time,” I would suspect something was very wrong in my understanding or their rationality.

    On the foundation of a few such statements, we can build a system for manipulating culturally determined ideas to see if they are “rational.” We call this invented system “logic,” and there are several systems that work to determine if ideas are rational. If a person tells me, for example, that he values human life more than anything, but is in favor of the death penalty, I know that he has not thought about it rationally. One of those two premises is not an accurate description of his beliefs. (My guess it would be the first one, which through questioning we might end up amending to “I regard human life as very important.”)

    1. I see your point. What I’m arguing is that even if rationality crosses cultures, the way we use the idea of rationality in everyday settings — to judge others — often has little to do with that “higher” form of rationality.

      Instead, people tend to look at the “other” and declare that their actions don’t make sense.

      From an outside perspective, people can look at something like (for example) people eating insects and say “that’s totally rational given the culture and environment.” But when they see someone eating bugs on the street, their gut conclusion is “they’re nuts!”

  2. Coming from economics background myself, I’d like to point out that we follow a lot more than just what investors do. It is more so a study of human behavior than of money. In fact, one of the basic models in the Western discipline of economics is based on rationality, as defined that an individual will weigh the perceived costs and benefits of an action, and if the perceived benefits exceed the perceived cost, they will perform that action.

    This can be applied to monetary purchases (the convenience I derive from owning a car exceeds the cost of purchasing and operating it and the damage driving it does to the environment), or to any other individual action (the comfort that I derive from hitting the snooze button exceeds the value of the time I lose to get ready). It does NOT seek to answer why individuals have wants, goals, or preferences, nor to answer how they weigh costs and benefits, nor even to answer if their decisions are good or bad for themselves or the world at large. In this sense, economics attempts to eliminate culture when explaining human behavior. Like other social disciplines based on trying to explain humans, economics merely chooses a certain scope–how humans meet wants and manage resources. That’s not to say economics is more correct (hardly the case!) or that its definition of rationality is applicable in all disciplines, but that it is worth noting.

    1. “In this sense, economics attempts to eliminate culture when explaining human behavior.”

      Thanks for commenting and adding your perspective. In my discipline, we’d say that “eliminating” culture isn’t really an effective or even possible goal. It would be like trying to study economics and take the money out.

      1. Perhaps I should have phrased it as that economics accepts cultural differences as a given and makes no attempt to explain why it affects people and makes them think in certain ways–rather, it is more interested in possible results of those ways of thought. Of course, every joke about how economists erroneously oversimplifly the world is funny because they are all fairly true.

        Economic thought itself is also culturally bound–you cannot study communism the same way in American as you could in China, and likewise developing countries and developed countries will come up with very different conclusions even if using the same data and models. In your experience, do you find that general approaches to or focuses in the discipline of anthropology are similar around the world, or that it varies widely between Western and non-Western cultures? I’d be interested in a post about that.

      2. Buri-chan,

        Recent anthropology uses very different models in different parts of the world. My own specialization of Southeast Asia has an entire history of theory that is widely different from other cultural (and, by concatenation, geographical) areas.

        Even within Southeast Asia there’s mainland and insular theory, since they actually come from different cultural traditions. Mainland SEA is much more influenced by Chinese culture, and has Buddhist ties. Insular SEA (Indonesia, pre-colonial Malaysia, the Philippines) is culturally much more tied to the Austronesian complex, which extends from Madagascar to Hawaii and Easter Island.

        Theory thus becomes localized, and making overarching generalizations becomes near-impossible.

        Each culture we study is, in and of itself, capable of forming a multitude of complete worldviews. Often, at best, we are capable of distinguishing trends. We’ve realized that the ability to say “Indonesian culture” (the country as a whole) or North Sulawesi’s culture (the province) or Kota Manado (the city) culture and talk about any of these groups as a whole requires cutting out more than you leave in. Tough work, indeed!

        Still, by narrowing our focus to specific topics, we can manage to say something. That’s why anthropology research titles are so insanely specific. No longer do we write a book titled, “The Indonesians.” My thesis was titled “The Effects of the Protestant Church on Identity Formation among the Minahasa of North Sulawesi, Indonesia.”

        Sure, it seems overly specific, but we have to bound our research that much in order to not say things that are simple generalizations. Instead of oversimplifying, we narrow the field of study.

  3. P. Dunn brought up the point that there are universal aspects of the universe that are rational—-mathematics is one such a priori, or given. If you have one of one thing and find another of that thing, you will always have two of those things now. But that does not take away from Bonesofculture’s message of rationality being culturally determined.

    We as humans are always limited to our existential existence, and by this I mean we are limited to our experience of life solely from the context of existing as a human being. Therefore regardless of how rational (or irrational) the universe is structured we are limited to understanding it from the cultural context we exist within. An anthropologist did a series of experiments with members of an aboriginal tribe in Australia. It was based on mathematical examples. He found that these people had an entirely different mathematical understanding of reality. I forget the exact details, but as an example, when shown 4 matches and one of them was taken away, they still insisted there are 4 matches—because the one that was taken away still exists.

    William Barrett in his book, Irrational Man, stated that rationalism did not exist until the Ancient Greeks came along and developed that mode of thought. He did not mean this in as simplistic of a term as the Greeks merely invented logic—it was much deeper than that.

    I thought about this, and wondered if it was yet another example of modern men downplaying the knowledge and abilities of the so-called primitive. But then I realized that he wasn’t saying that all people before the Greeks only thought in irrational terms. That is obviously wrong. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, clearly had a very rational understanding of mathematics. But the Greeks were the first to culturally develop rational thinking as a cultural characteristic, and thereby shaped Western cultural from that point forward.

    Another way to look at this is from the standpoint of the conscious mind vs the subconscious mind. Rationalism is associated with physical reality, and the objectivistic conscious mind. The irrational is associated with non-physical reality, and the more subjectivistic subconscious mind. We experience physical reality (in our Modern Western cultural terms) in a very linear fashion that seems logically sound. Cause and effect happens in a rational way. But when we dream, we often lose that linear progression and things happen in a non-rational manner.

    As Western Man strove to be rational, he lost a large part of himself—-he became disconnected from his irrational subconscious. Much of what we do every day is based on subconscious influences and cues. And yet as a culture we have lost our inherent understanding of the subconscious. An Australian aborigine has a very logical and rational understanding of his environment. Yet we find his understanding of math to be irrational and strange. But in the same way, he would probably find our ignorance over our own subconscious as completely strange, and what we would call, irrational.

    1. A thoughtful post, but one particular thing struck me. You assert that “Rationalism is associated with physical reality, and the objectivistic conscious mind. The irrational is associated with non-physical reality, and the more subjectivistic subconscious mind. ” But if we experience mathematics as rational, then the rational is, in fact, very nonphysical. Mathematical ideas and relationships don’t exist in the world of matter, but as concepts (or, maybe, Forms, if I can be Platonic).

      1. Yes, that is a very good point. Perhaps the answer is that without a physical basis we are unable to begin to understand the nonphysical rational of mathematics. Or, Plato would probably hope that we would conclude that physical reality is dependent upon forms or archetypes, and while mathematics may represent a nonphysical form, or a priori, because the physical world is based upon it, we understand it in rational terms from our conscious mind grounded in the physical. I would argue that from an irrational subconscious perspective, our understanding of math might naturally be more like that of the Australian aborigines I wrote of.

        FInally, mathematics may simply be a rational figment of the conscious mind. In other words, that it is simply created and understood by man using his conscious mind.

        This problem almost touches upon that age old philosophical question of whether being is emergent from existence, or being is emergent from essence. Is there truly a way that mathematics exists in a non-physical manner? If so, then it is perhaps essence that is the basis of all being…

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