Monday, June 29, 2009

On Rationality

To be rational is to be sensible and reasonable, instead of being silly and emotional. To expect rational behavior is to expect that a person will behave in an optimal manner.

Irrationality should not be confused with being illogical. Something is illogical if and only if it is a contradiction in itself. A state of affairs in the world can never be inherently contradictory or illogical. Two separate events can be mutually conflicting, for example someone wanting quick money but being afraid of investing in the stock market, that is not a logical contradiction, only a circumstantial one.

However, since the "mind" is perceived as a single entity, contradictions, instead of being realized as conflicting impulses in the brain, are wrongly perceived as a brain in contradiction.


Emotions and passions are powerful but highly sub-optimal reactions to a situation. If a man or an animal threatens you, to shout at him with a great deal of anger and fear can deter him off. This kind of behavior, which obviously has a survival value, can be easily observed in higher mammals, including humans.

Affective punches are very potent because of their strong receptivity in other beings. A child can simply bitterly cry and have his unreasonable demands fulfilled. An adult can simply sulk or appear distressed and arouse sympathy and redressal.

Very strong affective reactions are usually non-conflicting, in that they overwhelm the brain and extinguish any conflicting impulses or thoughts. A surge of anger can feel very "right", a surge of affection can feel very "true" and so on.

Rationality is not the absence of conflict, for strong affective reactions are non-conflicting as well. Rationality is the optimal and non-affective response to a challenge. A conflicting set of thoughts can be properly weighed to evolve a optimal, and hence, rational response.

Suppose a 7-day vacation to a particularly preferred destination is too expensive to be affordable, a rational response might be to have a short vacation there, or to have a 7-day vacation at some other less preferred place.

A rational person can choose to act rationally (i.e. sensibly), but how practical is it to depend on other human beings being rational? It is not very hard to conclude that in a crisis most humans will behave irrationally rather than rationally (due to the very structure of the human brain and brain stem). Affective responses start operating prior to a rational response in the human brain.

In the modern world, in face of a passionate and socially reprehensible act by another human being, when appeal to reason fails, one takes recourse to the law enforcement authorities. It is assumed that the law enforcement will curb the passion and re-establish sensible behavior.

But it is also true that law enforcement apparatus in most countries is biased, convoluted, requires formal expertise and is therefore non-optimal. And in a country like India, archaic laws are still in operation (for example laws which forbid homosexuality).

In such a scenario, when appeal to the aggressor's reason and recourse to law both fail for a rational person, what is the sensible response? It has been said that shouting (as if in anger) at an unreasonable person can be resorted to without getting affectively charged, but such shouting can be curiously ineffectual. The affective punch is missing from the act. If an angry shout is resorted to as a deterring gesture, then pretending to be angry is obviously less authentic and punchy than actually being angry.

The question is: can a rational person survive and thrive in a pre-modern society where institutional support for controlling passionate behavior is lacking?

As another example, suppose a man attempts to rape a woman in a secluded Indian village. If a woman cries, or otherwise gets extremely distressed, the man can possibly let her go, out of guilt or remorse. But if she only pretends to be distressed, or cannot bring tears in her eyes, the man will assume that the woman is not too unwilling and will have less of guilt in his raping attempt.

Hence, rationality requires institutional support. Intellectual growth and human evolution can happen only with the confidence that it is safe to act rationally rather than passionately.

And that confidence can be developed only there are enough precedents of reprehensible or harmful passionate behavior being suitably deterred. Till then, perhaps exceptional human beings can develop their intellects, but the vast multitudes will continue to wallow in irrational but effective responses to aggravations.


I also find it curious that in Indian cities (unlike in Indian villages), when a human being is in a situation of crisis, people observe rather than help. Obviously the risk of legal entanglement is there, but then why the urge to watch?

I think it is easily explained if one considers that an Indian city (in the absence of institutional support) is a den of uncertainty and unexpected stress, whereas a village is more traditional and expectation-driven. In a city, therefore, people have a greater drive to learn about the various potential crises and of what works and what doesn't. The curiously dispassionate observation of a fight or of the plight of an accident victim is therefore an instinctual attempt to constantly educate oneself about the various dangers of city life in India. Such observation and learning is understandably done mostly by males, who are most in need of honing their city survival instincts.

It is simplistic to decry a human being living in a pre-modern society for behaving like an animal. He/she cannot afford the luxury of acting rationally. For him/her, behaving emotionally and passionately is optimal, and hence ... almost rational.


Anonymous said...

Blaise Pascal:"The heart has its reasons which the mind does not understand". I'm sure you know of Pascal's intellectual stature.His mystic hexagram has never ceased to astonish me.

Anonymous said...

"Be the master of your mind and not let the mind be your mater."

A balance of intellect and emotion--emotion governed by reason,not vice versa.

Obliteration of feelings, emotion, desires is a primitive hinayanist approach---not to say impossible short of the funeral pyre. To remain a human in the human world, to relish the bitter with the sweet, to enact a vivid drama of human existence....