Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Limits of Rationality

When you're faced with a choice, what guides your decision?  When you assess the value of a new idea, what do you look for?  What can compel you to examine your closely held beliefs and change your mind?

When I answer these sorts of questions, my answers involve things like logic and evidence,  I think most people would respond similarly.

Endless volumes on psychology, sociology, political science, behavioral economics, and market research inform us that people rarely act rationally.  People think and act irrationally with such frequency and regularity that the patterns are easily predictable (eg. see the Wikipedia entry on cognitive bias).  Generally speaking, beliefs and behaviors are not directly influenced by little things like facts, logic, or even self-interest.

So if we have this pathetic lack of motivation and/or ability to think and behave rationally, why do we need to appear to be rational, both to ourselves and to others?  Why do we delude ourselves with the notion that we arrive at our beliefs by some logical process?  Maybe it's innate.  It's natural to infer broad lessons from subjective, anecdotal experiences.  But I think part of the issue is modern and postmodern culture.  Modernism celebrates the triumph of logic, science, and engineering over the natural world.  And postmodernism celebrates self-awareness, which is the result of a rational process.

We've all been told that making decisions based on impulse is reckless.  Making decisions based on emotion is weak.  Making decisions based on spiritual guidance is kooky or primitive.  And doing things according to tradition signifies a lack of insight, independence, and creativity.

These critiques are all completely valid, at least in certain cases.  And even people who don't endorse those critiques usually insist that their own intuition, and their emotions, and their traditions are rooted in some underlying structure which itself is rational.

I've been fortunate to be close friends with some rare individuals who do not think this way.  They've taught me that logic cannot define or inform what is important or valuable.  I've been thinking recently about my future.  Do I want to continue with my current vocation, with good income and job stability?  Or do I want to pursue a career based on passion, with no guaranteed income?  Logic can be useful in helping me make that decision, but only insofar as it is informed by my values and desires.  Rationality cannot tell me what I value, nor what I should.

Different people value different things.   Evaluating anything as good or bad is inherently subjective - good or bad for whom?  What is good for me may not be good for you. Even the values we consider universal are just as subjective as any other.  For example, practically all ethical and moral frameworks assume that human life is valuable.  Millions of human lives have been improved or prolonged by modern medicine.  But in the development of medicine, how many animals were intentionally harmed or killed?  From a human perspective, maybe it's worth the price.  But I don't think we would convince the lab rats, even if they could comprehend our arguments.

Sometimes the moral thing to do is better than the rational thing.  Maybe a reckless, impulsive act can initiate a great romance.  A high-risk, long-shot gamble is never logical.  But the point is lost on anyone who ever took the gamble and won.

So I no longer try to justify my values with some rationalization.  If I do something based on empathy, or morality, or emotion, or impulse, or intuition, or tradition, or social grace, that's okay.  I own it!  I don't need to defend it with false logic - not to anyone - not to myself.

Of course, none of this is meant as an attack on rationality.  On the contrary, rational self-awareness is necessary for contemplating the implications of our values.  We devalue logic and facts when we falsely claim our opinions and values are derived from some objective truth.  And we even devalue our humanity, because what it means to be human and have human values has never been defined by rationality.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.


  1. Andy I love the personal conclusion you came to for yourself. It is quite extraordinary to me because at first glance, you would appear so very rational or logical. Seeing you dig deeper and then seeing the resultant softening and opening affect it seems to be having on you, I am won over by your arguments. The proof is in the pudding. :) So well-written.

  2. It’s beautiful to see you find balance. Love this piece!

  3. It's been over a year since you last posted! Are you abandoning this blog or have you moved onto something else?