[FoRK] Lion, rationality, reason, and seriousness

Stephen D. Williams <sdw at lig.net> on Sat May 5 07:26:05 PDT 2007

I agree with you Jeff, although I don't think that rationality, as a 
concept, is all that slippery. I'd like to attempt to suggest some 
usable and precise working definitions. Or rather I'm going to suggest 
some definitions that attempt to be precise. As is often the case, I'm 
externalizing various subtle working definitions that I seem to be 
using, which, often, I haven't named until I write about them, so 
apologies for half-baked coinage.

 From Wikipedia, the first three paragraphs ring true as a basic 
definition rationality:
> *Rationality* as a term is related to the idea of reason, a word which 
> following Webster's <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webster%27s> may be 
> derived as much from older terms referring to thinking 
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking> itself as from giving an 
> account or an explanation. This lends the term a dual aspect. One 
> aspect associates it with comprehension, intelligence, or inference, 
> particularly when an inference is drawn in ordered ways (thus a 
> syllogism <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllogism> is a rational 
> argument in this sense). The other part associates rationality with 
> explanation, understanding or justification, particularly if it 
> provides a ground or a motive. What is irrational, therefore, is 
> defined as that which is not endowed with reason or understanding.
> is sometimes described as "rational" if it is logically valid 
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Validity>. However, rationality is a 
> much broader term than logic, as it includes "uncertain but sensible" 
> arguments based on probability, expectation, personal experience and 
> the like, whereas logic deals principally with provable facts and 
> demonstrably valid relations between them. For example, ad hominem 
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem> arguments are /logically/ 
> unsound, but in many cases they may be /rational/. A simple 
> philosophical definition of rationality refers to one's use of a 
> "practical syllogism". For example,
>     I am cold
>     If I close the window I will not be cold
>         Therefore, I closed the window
> We should note that standard form practical syllogisms follow a very 
> specific format and are always valid if constructed correctly though 
> they are not necessarily sound. There are several notable implications 
> of such a definition. First, rationality is objective - it exists only 
> when a valid practical syllogism is used. Second, a choice is either 
> rational or it is not - there is no gradation since there is no 
> gradation between valid and invalid arguments. Third, rationality only 
> applies to actions - i.e., shutting the window is a rational thing to 
> do if you are cold (assuming it is cold outside). Evidence bears on 
> belief but not on rationality. All that is required for an action to 
> be rational is that you believe that X and that that if X then Y so 
> you do Y. Arguments about belief are couched in the terms valid and 
> sound - logically you must believe something if the argument 
> supporting it is sound. In some cases, such as religious belief, the 
> argument may be valid but its soundness cannot be known for the truth 
> of its premises cannot be known.
On the other hand, I do not agree with one of the "Theories on 
rationality" mentioned later:

> The German sociologist Max Weber 
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Weber> proposed an interpretation of 
> social action that distinguished between four different types of 
> rationality. The first, which he called /Zweckrational/ or 
> purposive/instrumental rationality, is related to the expectations 
> about the behavior of other human beings or objects in the 
> environment. These expectations serve as means for a particular actor 
> to attain ends, ends which Weber noted were "rationally pursued and 
> calculated." The second type, Weber called /Wertrational/ or 
> value/belief-oriented. Here the action is undertaken for what one 
> might call reasons intrinsic to the actor: some ethical, aesthetic, 
> religious or other motive, independent of whether it will lead to 
> success. The third type was affectual, determined by an actor's 
> specific affect, feeling, or emotion - to which Weber himself said 
> that this was a kind of rationality that was on the borderline of what 
> he considered "meaningfully oriented." The fourth was traditional, 
> determined by ingrained habituation. Weber emphasized that it was very 
> unusual to find only one of these orientations: combinations were the 
> norm. His usage also makes clear that he considered the first two as 
> more significant than the others, and it is arguable that the third 
> and fourth are subtypes of the first two. These kinds of *rationality* 
> were *ideal types*.
> The advantage in this interpretation is that it avoids a value-laden 
> assessment, say, that certain kinds of beliefs are irrational. 
> Instead, Weber suggests that a ground or motive can be given – for 
> religious or affect reasons, for example — that may meet the criterion 
> of explanation or justification even if it is not an explanation that 
> fits the /Zweckrational/ orientation of means and ends. The opposite 
> is therefore also true: some means-ends explanations will not satisfy 
> those whose grounds for action are '*Wertrational'*.
This gives all kinds of excuses to call things rational that, in my 
opinion, are not. Doing something because it is habitual is only 
rational if you gained the habit for rational reasons and those reasons 
still hold. The whole theory seems to be a quagmire of muddled thinking. 
Expectations of others is just another set of variables, not a special 
class. You could just as easily reason about the future actions of yourself.

Rationality deals with what is real, true, factual, useful in predicting 
the future, and understanding the past. Science and the scientific 
process is all about determining what is real and what is illusion or 
otherwise falsely predicts. Science is rationality. Science is a process 
for reaching an ever better basis for rationality. [footnote 1]

I tend to think in terms of being "fully informed rational" ("supremely 
rational"?, "educated rational"?, "superrational"), "rational", 
"partially rational", "irrational", and "non-rational". Most of us here 
are "fully informed rational". We do plenty of self-examination and 
meta-thinking, we track down provenance and success of facts and ideas, 
and we have a well-developed understanding of probability, emotions and 
their meaning, and models for everything including what others are 
thinking. "Rational" is the typical "unexamined life" where someone 
accepts all taught and society-accepted facts and reasons on those 
fairly consistently. "Partially rational" ("scoped" or "bounded" or 
"parrational") people know they have accepted some irrational premise, 
which could be God/religion or it could be some fantasy ("I am Captain 
Kirk", ...), and they operate rationally within that chosen or ingrained 
framework. This can happen because of upbringing, brainwashing, peer 
pressure, apparent random choice of what to believe, or just for fun. 
"Irrational" people make some significant percentage of choices that are 
not appropriate to their known facts, principles, interests, and needs. 
They may make these because of culture, peer pressure, habit, etc., but 
they know that they are making choices they cannot support. 
"Non-rational" decisions are not supported by any valid facts or 
principles. These people are just not thinking beyond the envelope of an 

An observer without prior knowledge of the mental state and capabilities 
of an actor can only speculate inductively about whether a particular 
action or utterance is rational in some way. Only explanation, directly 
or indirectly (by past FoRK posts perhaps) by the actor can indicate to 
others that they are operating with a certain degree of rationality. Two 
people may react the same way in the same situation and each be at 
completely different rationality levels.

Rational people can deal with apparently irrational feelings, impulses, 
or drives in rational ways. Most of these, including the evolutionary 
tweaks that have created our sex drive and how emotion works to a large 
degree, we know quite a bit about and can manage fairly effectively most 
of the time through rational actions and explanations.

To some extent, rational ability is related to intelligence, which 
includes instantaneous intelligence. If you don't understand, or don't 
currently have the capacity to process the facts, principles, etc., you 
may make decisions at a lower rationality level than you otherwise 
would. Most of the time people fall back on simplified logic or frame / 
episode based analogy to make a low complexity choice. Some people 
impair themselves (alcohol or whatever) to increase the likelihood that 
they'll decide to make a decision that is fun or exciting but not 
necessarily a good idea. It might be that such a choice is rational 
overall to some less safe but overriding goal, but that they are held 
captive by localized, usually rational rules. Therefore, some 
self-impairment is a rational strategy of hill-climbing out of a local 
minima of your rational framework. ;-) [2]

A number of discussions here on FoRK have involved people using 
different working definitions, most often superrational / rational vs. 
parrational. Sometimes it has also involved inductive evaluations of 
someone's rationality in a particular viewpoint. Massively abstracted: 
"If you think X, you are irrational." "But I have a fully rational 
framework that supports X and therefore my statement is rational." "But 
your framework must be based on an irrational premise or is just wrong." 
"bla bla bla". [2]

So knowing all of this, you must also keep in mind one of my favorite 
"Logic is a system whereby one may go wrong with confidence."

One of the reasons that some (most?) of us are sticklers about full, 
deep rationality is the observation that the more intelligent and 
capable someone is, the more possible there is for them to partially 
rationalize themselves into extreme, but wrong positions. Someone who 
doesn't think much about things and is mostly reactive may make some 
dumb mistakes, but they are not likely to hatch devastating conspiracies 
or otherwise negatively affect other people to large, bad degrees. An 
intelligent and capable person who is willing to accept an irrational 
core concept might choose something other than a loving god or other 
positive influence and instead decide that technology (and technology 
people) is/are bad, that non-Muslims must die, that the Federal 
government is out to get us, that we must commit suicide so the aliens 
can take us away, etc. Even if they choose a loving god, they may choose 
any number of edicts or interpretations that lead to distinctly unloving 
actions. This misguided, but rationally capable person then constructs 
all of the logical conclusions and, operating on a purely rational basis 
within this erroneous framework, employs the potentially massive human 
capability to act on ideas to screw the rest of us.

When parrational people, and the associated ideas vying to capture more 
converts, are given a pass, especially when it is by the government and 
others who should be superrational, it is scary, annoying, and wrong. 
FoRK, being one hotbed of the overtly superrational, one of hopefully 
many "Mental Galt's Gulch" groups, will call anyone any time on this if 
we are intelligent enough to catch it and in the unlikely case we 
haven't already covered it in the past.

[1] Interestingly, English and other writing related coursework is 
highly logical and rational and, in some sense, scientific. I didn't 
remember this clearly from my spotty education, but noticed more 
recently how good writing is all about logic and critical thinking, and 
is taught that way. Unfortunately, it is taught in a value-free, 
relative-to-the-piece fashion. While that is fine as a capability, 
another practical philosophy class should pick up on those capabilities 
and relate them to reality.

[2] You can rationalize anything if you work hard enough.


Jeff Bone wrote:
> Lion:
> A hopefully succinct, serious, non-flip, and semantically "chewy" 
> response to several issues you seem to be wresting with. (And btw, 
> bravo for wresting with them in the first place.)
> "Rationality" and the related concept of "reason" are both slippery 
> eels. I think you and I will agree on that. The key insight, if any, 
> that I have to offer on this fundamental problem is this: both terms, 
> both concepts, can *only* be understood in (each) one of two contexts: 
> macro and micro. And each concept, in each context, has a different 
> meaning, interpretation, analysis, theory...
> It's unproductive to try to define, much less argue, either concept in 
> a general sense. "Rationality" can be defined precisely, even 
> objectively, in terms of the actual outcome of a single individual's 
> behavior --- if you know the individual's priors, i.e. preferences, 
> beliefs, and assumptions. (Even then it's difficult, as preferences 
> etc. are so slippery and unquantifiable in themselves.) In the larger 
> sense, "rationality" can *provably* never be absolutely quantified --- 
> cf. Arrow. But making a few (individually reasonable) assumptions like 
> Pareto optimality, finiteness (or lack thereof, or uncertainty 
> thereof) of iteration of PD-like games, etc., then one can make macro 
> assessments of the rationality of a group's behavior over time.
> Economics, my man. It's not the dismal science --- indeed, it's the 
> only precise science that indeed admits the reality of human behavior.
> Know it. Live it. Love it!
> Cheers,
> jb
> PS - as for seriousness --- it's overrated. A certain amount of levity 
> is necessary to allow the meatware to contemplate the totally asinine 
> behaviour of human beings on a regular basis, much less try to build 
> models of it!
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