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The True Isn't the Rational
A Core Epistemic Distinction
“To be rational” is to follow the logic of given premises to their “coherent” end, but not all premises are true. “To be true” is to believe in true and “corresponding” premises, whether rational or not. It is, of course, best to be rational and true, but just because a person is one doesn’t necessarily mean the person is the other (and vice-versa). Which premises are true cannot always be determined (though note that something can be true even if it cannot be verified), and it is unlikely that people who aren’t rational could meaningfully explain why their premises are true. But truth is not true because it can be explained: it is true because it is true, even if the lack of explanation means the truth is meaningless to us and/or cannot be known as true. All that aside, the main point is that “being true” and “being rational” are not similes: when someone is rational about what is true, it seems like “rational” and “true” are similes, but this is not the case.
“True” and “rational” are not identical, though they often cross like rivers that join and become indistinguishable before parting and going their own separate ways again. When the rivers are joined, there is no distinguishable difference between “being rational” and “being true,” but when they are apart, we can tell there is a difference. Funny enough, that means it is most clear that “rational” and “true” are not similes when there is a mistake, say when a person is rational about what is false or cannot reason about what is true, and yet this is precisely when it seems most unfitting to use words like “true” and “rational.” And yet this is when we should use them, for this when we could realize the critical distinction between “being true” and “being rational.” Error is where we can “glimpse” that though we are always experiencing the world as if “the true is the rational,” that might just be because we “lack” the capacity to experience how “the true isn’t the rational” (to allude to Hegel and “The Absolute Choice”).
People tend to say, “You’re being irrational” when someone holds a false premise, not, “You’re being rational relative to a falsity.” We tend to use language which suggests that we lose both truth and rationality at the same time, as opposed to losing one and not the other. In fact, if we did lose both when we were in error, the world would easily be a much better place, seeing as we couldn’t think we were “being rational” except when we were “being true”: the moment we slipped into error, our rational justifications would vanish.¹
We must experience “the true as the rational” and “the rational as true,” for if we think x is true, then it is rational to believe x is true and act accordingly, and if we think y is rational, then we think that y reflects truth. And yet “the truth” and “the rational” are not identical, but language and experience would have us “rationally” conclude they are — a great and dire problem, seeing as confusing these concepts has hurt our ability to communicate, critically think, and empathize.
What is rational is relative to the framework through which a person views the world; in other words, what is rational is relative to what a person believes is true. If a girl believes the world is going to end tomorrow, it would be rational for her to spend all her money; if a boy believes a stock is going to triple in value, it becomes rational to invest a large sum of money into it; if a person believes that he is in danger, it becomes rational to do whatever needs to be done to get out of danger; and so on. What we believe is the case determines which responses are rational.
What is rational is relative to what a person thinks is true, and, relative to what a person believes is rational, so a person comes to define what is irrational. If a person believes his wife is going to yell at him if he speaks to her, it becomes irrational to say anything; if a girl believes the boy she likes will ask her out if she sits next to him during lunch, it becomes irrational not to go to lunch; and so on. The rational and the irrational are relative to what we believe is true and false. And when what a person believes is indeed actually false, acting irrationally could be “more truth” than acting rationally (not to say “the truth” always comes out). As we’ll explore though, it might be best to drop the term “irrational” all together.
People aren’t always rational relative to their frameworks, for people make mistakes and might even intentionally act irrationally (say in Dostoevsky), but what is rational is always relative to their frameworks. We cannot believe “x is true” and at the same time believe “x is irrational” and/or “y is rational”: yes, we could believe “x is true” and yet do y, but that’s not the same as believing “y is rational.” If we believe “x is true,” then we must believe “x is rational,” but all the same we are still free to do y.² Though we cannot keep “the true” and “the rational” from organizing one another, please do not mistake me as saying that therefore we must do something deterministically, for that is not the case. “The true” must define “the rational,” but that does not mean we must act rationally. Perhaps we should, but actually it can be good that we are free as such, because if our notion of the “the truth” is wrong, it’s possible for what seems to be “irrational” to be best.³
We must define rationality relative to our frameworks, but not all frameworks are ultimately true. Furthermore, most people are “rational and true” about most issues and things in their lives (“This cup, which is a cup, will hold my coffee,” etc.), but regarding some matters, a person is “only rational” or “only true.” However, all the things a person is “rational and true” relative to “conceals” the individual from the times when his or her “being rational” and “being true” do not align, easily persuading the person (through daily experience and phenomenology) that the two “beings” are the same “being.” Arguably, for 99% of our days, “the true” is practically “the rational,” and yet even though the categories might overlap incredibly often, the categories are still not identical, even though we can most of the time safely get away with living as if they are “practically” identical. Unfortunately, so habituated, when the categories don’t overlap, we’re likely to miss “the break” — contributing to tribalism, ideology, and the like.
In a discussion with Johannes A. Niederhauser titled “On Human Flourishing and Ecstatic Time-Being,” on the topic of Heidegger’s Being, Nathan McCullough asked us to imagine that we were walking down a street and, just for a second, we saw 1s and 0s scrolling vertically through the air. Mr. McCullough asks us to imagine that this unveiled to us that we were in The Matrix, but then tells us to believe we never saw the numbers again. Would that matter? Not at all: the “glimpse” would be enough to entirely transform the nature of the world and our lives forever. One “glimpse,” one second, and nothing would be the same again. Mr. McCullough’s incredible point is extremely relevant here, for even if 99% of our lives we “practically experienced” “the rational” and “the true” as identical, one single instance of experiencing them apart would prove the categories are not the same. This logic permeates A Philosophy of Glimpses and much of O.G. Rose, where the emphasis is on “fleeting moments” and “evanescent experiences” that forever change the possible nature and meaning of life, moments that we might have to “condition ourselves” to experience, as stressed in “Conditionalism” by O.G. Rose. All the same, moments compose life.
Errors, mistakes, ironies — these are the moments in which we can “glimpse” that “the true isn’t the rational,” but the moment we do it becomes “rational” to think “irrationality” occurred, and thus “the glimpse” is gone. To use Heidegger’s famous example, the hundreds of times we use a doorknob and it works sets us up to be caught off guard the one time it doesn’t work. Since doorknobs usually work, redefining a doorknob as “that which doesn’t open doors” because of this one instance seems silly, and indeed, regarding doorknobs, it would be silly. But epistemology is different from things, for while the experience of a broken doorknob would unveil that doorknobs “can break,” this experience would not redefine the entire “horizon of possibilities” which can be applied to doorknobs. We all know doorknobs can break: that’s just a part of a thing being a doorknob. However, many of us live our entire lives believing “the true is the rational,” for indeed that is what we “readily” experience. It is not an “at hand”-thought that “the true isn’t the rational,” but if we can “glimpse” that distinction, then everything can change. If we see the color green for once in our life, then the color green exists and must be included in our understanding of the world.
A possibility we glimpse for the quickest of moments is enough to prove that what we glimpse exists and should be incorporated into our understanding of life. If we notice for a second that “the true” isn’t “the rational,” then we cannot conflate them in our epistemology. Even if 99% of the time they overlap, we must still maintain distinctions. Indeed, the hundreds of times “being rational” and “being true” align successfully seem to make it unnecessary to define them as distinct, yet, unlike with doorknobs, this redefinition is necessary, and failure to do it sooner has resulted in misunderstandings about the market, ourselves, and each other. Furthermore, the failure to take seriously “glimpses” has contributed to us failing to establish a philosophy of Conditionalism, as discussed throughout O.G. Rose, which focuses on rare moments and occasions to ground and consider new ontological and epistemological possibilities — but that is another topic for another time.
The hundreds of times “the true is the rational” gives us reason to live “as if” such is the case, and this indeed “practically works” even if it is not “technically accurate.” It’s hard to imagine us living otherwise, for what would it mean to live as if “the true wasn’t the rational?” We’d be psychologically overwhelmed and constantly uncertain — it would be difficult if not impossible to function. For the sake of functioning, we are naturally orientated to assume “the true is the rational,” and indeed this is “practically” the case, for the categories overlap 99% of the time. But they are not the same categories, and the 1% of times they don’t overlap, if we don’t even realize it’s possible for them to divide, we will not be ready, and we will lack the hermeneutical tools necessary to understand what is happening.
Furthermore, the experience of a break between “the true” and “the rational” is instantly consumed into and interpreted by rationality as “irrational,” which means not even experience will “readily” give us reason to believe “the true isn’t the rational.” To achieve this revelation, we have to remember that we genuinely believed “x was true” and thus necessarily had reason to believe acting like “x was true” was rational. This is critical: if we believe “x is true,” we must believe rationality is defined according to x, which is to say we simply cannot believe acting like “x isn’t true” is rational. Rationality must be shaped according to what we believe is true, and yet what we believe is true may nevertheless be false. We’re stuck living as if “the true is the rational” when “the true isn’t the rational.” We’re “naturally” stuck, which means realizing “the true isn’t the rational” requires us to think outside of what we are stuck in, and that is the critical role of memory, imagination, and abstract reasoning.⁴ A society lacking in these facilities will be unable to escape being “toward” the world as if “the true is the rational,” which will be fine 99% of the time.
“What is rational” is often also “what is true,” but not because they are always identical.⁵ Rivers that cross merge and become indistinguishable until they part again, but the rivers are still distinct. And most of the time “what is rational” and “what is true” overlay, so if we look for examples when they part, we may not see them. Making these instances more “invisible,” the times they do part are the times when we, ironically, think it is unfitting to use the terms “rational” and “true” — these are the times when we think the proper terms are “irrational” and “wrong” (versus say “rational and wrong” and/or “irrational and right”). Again, most of the time, “the rational” and “the true” merge and work together and become “invisible” to us like a working doorknob (Heidegger), and the times they don’t merge are the times when we don’t think the categories apply. Because of our preconceptions, we make the times “invisible” when the difference between “being true” and “being rational” becomes “visible.” Knowing the truth entails knowing what is “invisible,” but that means truth requires memory and abstraction, two acts of the mind which can be associated with “being impractical,” further worsening “the invisibility.”
The rational presents itself to us “as true” by virtue of being rational: it has a structure and “likeness” to truth, for reasoning is through which we come to know the truth (though that isn’t to say the validity of the truth is contingent upon reasoning). Reason, in a way, is the “language” through which we hear and learn about the truth, which is to say rationality is the words through which the truth is understood (into meaning), and as the word “cat” is easy to (“thoughtlessly”) confuse with the object-cat, so it becomes easy to confuse “the rational” with “the truth.” Furthermore, without (this “language” of) reason, “the true” that we know and experience wouldn’t really be experienced as “the true,” for the very idea of “true and false” dawns upon us when “reason” dawns upon us — which, ironically, is precisely what can “conceal” it, a dynamic similar to how the word “cat” is through which we can better understand the object-cat while simultaneously “hiding” the object-as-it-is-to-itself behind the word.
Until a person reasons, that person cannot consider the idea, “It is true a cup is a cup,” though the person, many times, could experience (the truth of) a cup (to some degree). Without reason, a person can experience “true things” (even if not entirely), but not really experience them “as true.” And it is precisely because reasoning gives us the “language” by which to understand things in the world “as true” that “the reasonable” can so easily be confused with “the true.” Our rationality from our premises can conceal us from our premises.
What is rational is relative to our premises, and it is our reasoning from our premises which can conceal our premises from us. It is our reasoning from what we believe is true that can conceal from us the question of whether what we believe is in fact true, which is to say that thinking is the act in which the validity of rationality must be assumed (and could be correct), and so it is the act in which “the truth of assumption” paradoxically manifests and hides, a “double action” which threatens critical thinking and yet necessitates it (as defined in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose). As it is the very “working” operation of the doorknob that makes it “invisible,” it is the very reasoning about truth which “hides” truth as distinct. But unlike a doorknob, which becomes “visible” when it breaks, when “the true” and “the rational” break apart, “rationality” instantly hides the break. Doorknobs cannot conceal their brokenness (they stop working, after all), which is to say that doorknobs can break in themselves, while rationality only “breaks against.” Doorknobs “in themselves” cannot deny their shortcomings, while rationality always can: any “hole” that opens in rationality can instantly be covered. But, all the same, there was a “hole,” a “hole” we could glimpse and glimpse through, changing our understanding of what’s possible in the world.
Rationality must “appear” true (otherwise, it wouldn’t strike us as rational), and thus it must always “appear” to be the case that “the true is the rational.” By extension, the “true appearance” of rationality is projected back onto our premises, making them “appear” rational, and thus that it is the case that “the true is the rational”: we experience both our reasoning and our axioms as evidence that “the true is the rational.” Of course, our “true premises” might reflect actuality, hence why there is always reason to believe “the true is the rational,” even if such is not the case. Anyway, the point is that the act of reasoning from premises is the same act that makes our premises appear true to us and yet “invisible,” for the premises “appear” to us “in” the rationality as if there is only the rationality (which makes us confuse “the rational” with “the true”). Our reasoning doesn’t “appear” to us “as true” because our premises “are true” (because the soil from out of which the planet grows is healthy), but because reasoning, by definition, is “clothed in true-ness,” regardless the validity of the premises (the plant makes the soil look healthy, though it might be unhealthy; additionally we don’t tend to think about the soil, only say, “The flower is healthy” or “The flower is sick”). And yet without reasoning, the premises we hold that are true would be meaningless to us; to make those premises meaningful, we must reason (flowers die without soil and yet are not reducible to soil). But if we reason, we must hide our premises from us “in” our rationality, “invisible,” and yet there is a sense in which the whole point of reasoning is to make the truth visible. Our efforts to make the truth visible costs the truth its distinction: to know the truth is to know what is “invisible.”
We have described rationality in this paper as being relative to what we believe is true, but that begs a question: Can we “rationally” ascribe to truths? If rationality is relative to truth, meaning it emerges after truth, how do we select our truths? Certainly, we can be rational relative to truths (and must be), but can we be rational in selecting truths? It would not seem so, because truth is needed before rationality can begin. Sure, there are instances in which the rationality of a previous action contributes to why we select a new truth now, and that rationality as influenced by a previous rationality — a chain linking choice to choice can be formed — but eventually there had to be a “first mover.” Even if not, I personally often find myself having to make choices and decisions which are a result of having to respond to something unexpected (a lawnmow not working, a child asking to play a game out of the blue, etc.), or having to respond to something emotional or aesthetic, or having to “look up” the meaning of words (which requires me to read a physical book, not just think about the possible meaning of the term), and so on — there are numerous occasions where to “carry myself well in the world,” I have to take into consideration occurrences which happen because of my embodiment and because I am a person in the world: if I was just “a head on a stick,” these events would not occur. For me, reason is always “embodied” and “emworlded,” per se, and that suggest.
When I am surprised by a flat tire, it was not reason which brought me to the truth of “a flat tire,” but experience; when I sense I need to speak with someone sitting in the corner, it is not reason which moves me but empathy and/or intuition (for the person is smiling and I cannot readily “observe” that the person is trying to hide pain); when I behold a glorious and beautiful sunset, I say, “That is beautiful,” not because I have a clear and reasonable definition of beauty, but because I am moved by an apprehension; and so on. Now, the moment I experience a flat tire, it is “reasonable” to replace it, as the moment I intuit someone needs attention, it is “reasonable” to speak to that person, etc., all of which is to say that rationality instantly and quickly “consumes” my “nonrational” thoughts, feelings, and intuitions “as if” they were always rational, thus making it easy to think that all I ever did was reason. The role of the other epistemologies vanish just as soon as I think about them, and before I think about them, in what “meaningful” sense can I say they were present? To realize their role, I require memory and “reasoning about my reason,” which in a way suspends it. I have to “meta-reason,” per se, and realize that I couldn’t have used reason alone to determine my tire was flat, for that thought had to come after the experience, which required my senses and perception. I reasoned about the experience, but my reason didn’t cause the experience: my reasoning required something outside of it, such as intuition and aesthetic experience
We require more than reason for reasoning to be possible, but we always reason about what is “more than reason” to understand it, thus making it seem to “be” reason. Reasoning is certainly a tool by which we can approach “the best cliff” from where we might make a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” to something, but reasoning cannot “be” the leap itself. “We” have to leap, every “you.” What constitutes the “you?” A host of experiences, choices, thoughts, processes of reason, etc. — the answer is particular for each person, and “why” a given person chooses the premises that the person chooses can only be known (fully) by that person (not to say everyone knows, for the subconscious is powerful). If a person believes numbers are real entities, reason brought the person to a cliff from where the person could make that “leap” (for reason showed the person that numbers accurately reflect reality, that numbers are useful, etc.), but it is ultimately the person who makes “the leap of faith.” If a person believes a friend is angry because of how the friend looks, how the person speaks, etc., though reason might “gather” the evidence, it is the person who ultimately “leaps” and accepts the premise (“my friend is angry”), whether true or false.
Reason guides each “you,” but it is a risky guide, for reason naturally makes everything “appear” to be a product of reason, and so naturally “misguides” us into thinking rationality is all we need, which is to say that “the true is the rational.” Really, “the true isn’t the rational,” but this is not a realization which rationality will naturally guide us into: it will require memory and “meta-reasoning” about rationality itself. The impossibility of “autonomous rationality” (which is when “the true is the rational”) is not something which rationality will naturally lead us into concluding; in fact, rationality naturally leads us into believing in “autonomous rationality,” which thinkers like Hume and Benjamin Fondane admonish is very consequential. To avoid this, we have to “glimpse” and remember the breaks between “the true” and “the rational,” neither of which will prove easy to do, precisely because rationality will keep consuming and incorporating into itself whatever thoughts we might entertain. Our very phenomenological experience of understanding is part of the problem.
“Buridan’s Donkey” is an excellent thought experiment for showing why rationality cannot provide its own grounding, despite how we necessarily experience such as being the case. In that experiment, a donkey stands between two equally sized piles of grain and starves to death because the donkey cannot make a rational decision. In reality, we know that’s silly, because we can just eat something, but that’s the point. We’re not bound to only reason: we can realize that (“the truth is”) we have to eat, and so we can then eat from a pile of grain even if we cannot give ourself “good reason” to eat one pile versus the other.⁶ The “you” breaks the statement, per se, and the “you” cannot be reduced to rationality, even though rationality is a critical dimension of each “you” (I am certainly not saying that “rationality is bad,” only suggesting that “rationality” outside a dialectic with “truth” can prove incomplete and prone to arise to problematic “autonomous rationality”).
We cannot reason without premises, and it is not the case that every possible premise is purely rational, even if every premise is instantly translated into rational terms once encountered (rightly or wrongly). Ultimately, rationality itself can never “leap” to the true: rationality can only bring “you” to where “you” can “leap.” And each of us “leaps” with our truths about life: “you” can only be “you.”
Everyone is rational, because everyone operates according to what they believe is true, which includes characters in Dostoevsky who believe “it is true” that they should rebel against what they experience as true. Indeed, we could still be Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man” and knowing act irrational, but this would still be an act which showed how “being true” and “being rational” were distinct categories, because Dostoevsky’s protagonist knowingly acts within the gap.
No one is “irrational,” and though I think there is use for the term “irrational,” I sometimes think it would be best to deconstruct it and only use terms like “wrong” or “incorrect.” Yes, if I know I need to be at work by 8AM, it’s “irrational” to plan an elaborate breakfast at 7:50AM, but in some respects its more so “foolish” and “the wrong things to do.” If I indeed plan an elaborate breakfast at 7:50AM, I have for some reason “reasoned” that this is a fine and respectable course of action. Maybe I’ve convinced myself that I can eat fast, that getting fired from my job would be a good thing, or maybe I’ve lost track of my schedule — hard to say. It just simply doesn’t seem possible to act “irrationally,” especially if we isolate this term from “wrong” or “suboptimal.” The term “irrational” seems to be a description of a choice, not a thought process in of itself. No one “irreasons,” per se, but “reasons poorly,” and that means rationality is occurring, just “missing the mark.”
We often talk as if we can “be rational or irrational,” as if both rationality and irrationality are thought processes, but there is no thought process of irrationality. If we think we can either “think rationality” or “think irrationality,” then it becomes easy to blur “rationality with truth,” because rationality becomes “the thought process which gets us to truth” while irrationality is “the thought process which gets into falsity.” This is a terrible mistake resulting from a problematic dichotomy that we need Derrida to deconstruct: rationality gets us both into truth and falsity. We cannot separate “rationality and truth” over here and “irrationality and falsity” over there: we experience “rationality and truth” and “rationality and falsity.” The term “irrationality” confuses us; worse yet, it tempts us with self-righteousness, for we easily see rationalization and irrationality in others, which trains us to think we would see it in ourselves (if it was there), when we only ever experience rationality.
Perhaps people are “irrational,” but nobody thinks “irrationally.” If we get from x to y in our thoughts, we somehow think this transition is rational; otherwise, we wouldn’t make the jump. Now, image x could flash in my head followed by image y, so I’m not saying that every transition of thoughts expresses rationality, but I am saying that we can only reason about our thoughts, that it not possible for us “irreason” about them. Though I realize many philosophical texts make distinctions between the terms, arguably, the verb form of “rationality” is “reason,” while there is no verb form of “irrationality,” a point which linguistically suggests my argument. I must invent terms to discuss “irreasoning,” as I should, because “irrationalism” cannot be an action in of itself, only a description: “irrationality” and “irrationalism” are terms which mean “bad reasoning,” identical in kind to rationality, differing only in quality and degree. No one escapes being rational to their self, not even Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man,” and yet no one is always right.
When we believe “irrationality” is possible as a thought process, trouble can follow. Suddenly, we can be surrounded by people who are capable of “thinking irrationally,” which means they are not using “the right thought process” to experience and understand the world. We, of course, must see ourselves as using “a rational thought process,” and naturally people who think like us will also use that same and beneficial “thought process.” But the people who don’t think like us are “using an irrational thought process,” and not only are they responsible for that, but they’re also stupid. If everyone is rational though and reasoning relative to different truths, then we can’t so easily dismiss the other or treat the other as stupid (what Jürgen Habermas calls “communicative rationality” becomes more tenable). If we frame others as “using an irrational thought process,” then even if we want to reason with them and give them a chance, it would all be for not, because they are using the wrong “thought process.” And how can we get them to change? After all, they’d need to be rational to see the error of their ways. But if reasoning is relative to truth, then suddenly we can be responsible for failing to successfully present them with “truth” that would reorganize their rationality: the burden of responsibility can quickly shift from them to us. And we naturally don’t like responsibility, hence why we seem to have existential incentive to believe that “irrationality” can be a thought process.
I will not claim that we should never use the term “irrational,” for indeed the term can mean “wrong” or “illogical,” but I would stress that we cannot tell if a person is “irrational” except retrospectively or from a place of knowing “the actual truth,” which is a vantage point we don’t always have (and perhaps rarely do), yet the use of the term “irrational” can create the impression we do often have that perspective. This is a problematic impression, contributing to overconfidence and believing “the true is the rational,” a line of thought that is already hard enough to escape. Thus, if we are to use the term “irrational,” we must use it carefully.
The logic used in the last section regarding “irrationality” applies just as well to “rationalization,” and it should be noted that someone reading this paper may argue that “false rationality” is “rationalization.” Fair, and certainly “rationalization” occurs, but “rationalization” is not a thought process either, but a description. Rationalization can entail brainwashing, and religion, nationalism, and ideology can be sources of it. Great evils have resulted from people using the capacity of people to rationalize against them and others. “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “The Milgram Experiment,” Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Ardent, Compliance, directed by Craig Zoebl — all of these show the terror and power of rationalization. But I would argue that these works only increase the importance and necessity of understanding that “the true isn’t the rational,” for it’s precisely language like “rationalization” (which presents it as a thought process versus a description), which can contribute to us falling into these terrors. This is because we must see ourselves as rational, and if this is a distinct thought process to us from “rationalization,” then we will not see it as possible for us to be engaged in the same thought process which can lead us into a Milgram Experiment or “banality of evil.” As a result, we will be incredibly vulnerable to the very mistakes which we will see ourselves as safe from committing.
“Rationality,” “truth,” “rationalization” — do we really need all these technical distinctions? Well, the lack of them has been costly: for example, let us consider Capitalism. It is often said, “The market is rational,” and this statement implies something progressive, like “the market marches through history toward what is best.” Almost deterministically, the statement has become a simile for “the market is right,” but this does not follow if “rational” and “best’ are not similes, as we have grounds to posit where “the true isn’t the rational.” Perhaps it is the case that, when “the market is rational,” more often than not, “the market is correct,” and perhaps “overall” the market is the best system available to us for making decisions. All the same, it cannot be claimed that “the market is rational” necessarily means “the market is right.” Sure, “the market is rational,” but is the market rational in what premises it accepts “as true” and “as best?” By definition, the market cannot be, for rationality comes after truth: the market must organize its rationality some other way. Now, this doesn’t mean “the market is always wrong,” but rather my point is that the phrase “the market is rational” doesn’t tell us much at all. All we can say is “the market thinks it is rational,” and indeed it must.⁷
Conflating “being rational” and “being true,” people easily determine the truth of a system of beliefs by its logic and rationality, when a person can have an incredibly complex and intricate rational system and still be wrong. Conspiracies are rational, as is the logic which leads to cults and ideologies: decoupling “rationality” from “truth” and considering “rationalization” an independent thought process, we basically tell ourselves a fairy tail that we are safe from these threats. Experiencing ourselves as rational (as we necessarily must), we thus gain evidence for ourselves that we are safe from conspiracies and brainwashing, precisely in the act of using what generates conspiracies and brainwashing. Phenomenology deceives.
Lastly, as already noted, the failure to define “being rational” from “being true” has contributed to tribalism and hurt empathy, to the dramatic detriment of civil discourse and rapid increase of partisanship. Being Wrong by Kathy Schulz makes this argument thoroughly and well: if “rational” and “true” are similes, then when we encounter someone we disagree with, we must conclude the person is “irrational” and someone with whom we cannot reason. By extension, the only people we can reason with are those who think like us, and so, everywhere, bubbles and tribes form. It’s only rational.
Democracy requires something akin to “communicate rationality,” as Habermas puts it, and I see little possibility for that where “the true is the rational,” in line with what we naturally experience and yet need to avoid exclusively believing. Where democracy dies, power and force will likely take its place, for what choice is there? The other side is irrational, incapable of thinking: only force and discipline can steer them in the right direction.
Error, brainwashing, radicalization, tribalization — all of these are things which believing “the true is the rational” makes us more vulnerable to precisely because experiencing “the true is the rational” makes us think we are less vulnerable to them: our experience of our own reasoning motives us to put our guards down. Tricked by how rationality “appears” true, we will not focus on determining the standard by which we define “the rational” from “the wrong,” as we won’t think we need to develop epistemological skills to improve our capacities for detecting and exercising the distinction. We will be more likely to unintentionally “rationalize the false,” all while we think we reason and ponder deeply, having no reason to think we don’t (after all, we reason). But if we realize we are imperfect and “fallen,” then we will accept our vulnerability, and that paradoxically will make us less vulnerable. Nobody checks for errors who fancies themselves inerrant.
“The rational” and “the rationalized” are located on the same scale of logic, which is critical to realize, for it suggests that we can end up rationalizing precisely because we are rational (perhaps we could say “rationalization” is “explanation devoid of experience”). In fact, the better we are at reasoning, the better we might be at rationalizing. When we consider the thought processes as distinct, we don’t have to worry about this mistake, which perhaps suggests that we separate “rationality” and “rationalism” to avoid existential anxiety. Once we start realizing “reasoning” and “rationalization” are both expressions of rationality, everything changes, and the world becomes much more complex.
Vulnerable as reasoners to rationalization, how do we keep the scale from sliding toward “rationalization?” It seems very difficult, requires “critical thinking,” a willingness to stand against authority (who will likely have much of the “rational” public on their side), empathy, self-skepticism — all of which seem especially difficult to possess in a world where “being rational” and “being true” are conflated. Still, danger is unavoidable: to use reasoning is to be at risk. Where there is reasoning, there must be the possibility of irrationality and rationalization, for these are part of the same thought process. If we avoid rationalization entirely, then “meaning” and logic are lost to us, which is to say we will be safe but perhaps less human. If this is best, we will not be able to think about it being best. Meanings requires risk. To think is to play with fire. To reason is to summon the force behind both Nazism and the modern world. To advance, as Hegel warned, we must use what could hurl us downward.⁸
“The rational” and “the true” are not always identical, but since everyone is “one of the rational” to themselves, everyone also experiences themselves as “one of the true,” contributing to tribalism and social fragmentation. If rationality always appears to us as true and if truth always appears rational, how can we tell the difference? “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose argues for a posture that asks questions about the very way thinking structures reality “toward” us, and I believe this understanding of “critical thinking” inherently trains us to understand that there is a distinction between “the true” and “the rational.” The same applies to us grasping the distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” as argued in “On Thinking and Perceiving,” which also suggests a divide between “the true” and “the rational.” Generally, we can view the epistemological project of O.G. Rose as an argument for why we need to be dialectical, which indeed aligns the project with Hegel. Where there must be a dialectic, we must be skeptical of ourselves, and that skepticism itself can help us “glimpse” the break between “the true” and “the rational.” “Ideas are not experiences” though, and so what we “glimpse” will be, a second later, an idea to us which our rationality can incorporate into itself as evidence that “the true is the rational.” Avoiding this trick will require memory in an age where memory has been replaced by memorization.
Rational people can be wrong, and idiots can be right. Geniuses are capable of brilliant foolishness, and fools are capable of foolish genius. Life would be easier if “being rational” and “being true” were truly the same thing versus us only have to experience such, but life is not so simple. Perhaps a desire for control has contributed to us allowing the conflation of “being rational” and “being true,” for then all we have to do is “be rational” to rightly organize our world, and we all have the capacity to reason available to us. But if “the true isn’t the rational,” then we have to look outward and take the world seriously, and who knows what the world might do? No one, which is why we need to keep our eyes open and minds active, even when it seems like there is no need. Most of the time, “the rational” and “the true” “practically align,” like crossing rivers, so often in fact that society can get by well enough without the epistemological distinction. When things are good, indeed, we get by, but things don’t always go so smoothly. If we aren’t ready, when things fall apart, we’ll likely defeat ourselves.
In conclusion, we naturally experience “the true as the rational,” which is to say realizing that “the true isn’t the rational” requires us thinking in ways which will seem unnatural and wrong. We will have to fight that impression, and we can do that by remembering “glimpses” of when “the true” and “the rational” broke apart, “glimpses” which transform the entire horizon of what’s possible in the world and what the world is like, but only for as long as we remember what we “glimpsed” and keep that memory close. If we do, we can realize that “irrationality” and “rationalization” cannot be thought processes, only descriptions, and suddenly we will stop having to be “captured” by the impression that others “rationalize” while we are only ever “rational,” which is to say we can suddenly start to realize why it is we only ever see “rationalization” in others (for when we catch it in ourselves, we experience “rationality correcting us”), and so we can make ourselves less vulnerable to brainwashing, manipulations, “black swans,” and overconfidence. In this way, we can do our part to help make possible a diverse and Pluralistic world that doesn’t end up in endless conflict and misunderstanding, seeing as a world without a distinction between “the true” and “the rational” must logically turn “the other” into a fool and/or threat. Our constant experience of “the true as the rational” naturally makes our experience of “others” difficult and tense, but if we can remember what we “glimpsed” and bring that idea and memory to what we experience, we can transform what we see, even though the man’s face we stare at doesn’t change at all — until, perhaps, we smile.
¹Sure, relative to a “collective rationality,” we can claim the “Underground Man” is actually irrational and that thus there isn’t a gap between “the true” and “the rational,” but the “gap” still exists on the individual level, and who are we as a society to be so sure that our “collective rationality” reflects “actuality?” Because we choose to believe it? Because this is the nature of our “Absolute Choice” (as discussed in the paper named accordingly)? So be it, but we’re still making a choice.
²As Dostoevsky understood, please note that the very possibility of knowing “x is true” and still doing y would suggest we have “free will” precisely in an act of “not doing the rational” (which we tend to associate with “losing freedom”). Error unveils.
³This kind of choice might describe radical moments of faith and martyrdom in religion, as it might also define the worst choices of totalitarian regimes.
⁴We’re stuck within “coherence/correspondence,” which, following Kurt Gödel, means we can never confirm “correspondence” precisely because we have the “coherence” that would give us reason to believe there is “correspondence.”
⁵This is a very similar dynamic to “thinking” and “perceiving” (see “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose), for indeed the break between “the true” and “the rational” often occurs because of that break. I am personally extremely interested in “glimpses of breaks” which radically transform our ontological and epistemological horizons.
⁶It is “you” which breaks the “stalemate” between “humanity” and “humanity,” as described in “Sleeping with Humanity” by O.G. Rose.
⁷From “the market is rational,” it does not follow that the market is orientated, innately, toward “the optimal,” “the best,” “the true,” etc. As argued in “The Creative Concord” by O.G. Rose, without creativity, the free market will self-destruct just as Marx warned (though Marx was wrong to say Capitalism necessarily self-destructed). Without creativity, even if “the market is rational,” the market self-destructs. By conflating “being rational” with “being true,” I’m afraid Capitalism has come to be seen in a deterministic light (perhaps contributing to Capitalists being lazy and engaging in lazy thinking), when ultimately Capitalism’s functionality is contingent upon the presence of creativity. Without that, “a rational market” still self-destructs.
⁸The distinction between “the true” and “the rational,” and the necessity of us experiencing “the true as the rational,” all have great consequence for Hegelian thought, as I try to explore in “The Absolute Choice.”
1. We can make mistakes, which is to act in a way where our “being rational” doesn’t align with our “being true.” We can fail to be intellectually consistent, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t rational (overall). Making mistakes isn’t the same as “being irrational”: we can be wrong and rational, and in fact the very capacity to recognize that we were wrong suggest the presence of rationality. Acknowledging a mistake is evidence of rationality, though we interpret it as irrationality, which is a problem since we tend to associate “irrationality” with a different thought process.
2. Imagine a world where idiots defended the truth and geniuses defended lies — it’s possible.
3. The market functions not simply according to rationality, but according to what people believe constitutes rationality (relative to their “being true”). And that is rationality, for every rationality entails a belief of what we believe is true.
4. Considering St. Augustin, nobody does anything that they knowingly think is irrational or false, as no one does what they think is bad (to them). Everything humans do is that which they necessarily think is rational, true, and good for them to do (and even “good to see happen,” and so, in a way, “beautiful” too). If a person is trying to do something irrational, then it will be rational for that person to do the irrational: they won’t actually be attempting irrationality.
5. “Being right” and “being wrong” are always situated within spacetime, and hence relative to the information available at the time. Considering this, a person can “be right” now and yet ultimately “be wrong,” say if the data were to shift due to new developments. If this occurred, do note that this doesn’t mean the person was always wrong — an important distinction — only that the person “became wrong,” and only to the degree the person doesn’t change with the data (relative to which what constitutes “being right” and “being wrong” is determined). I believe that thinking a person is “always wrong” if the data shifts contributes to people not shifting with data, and us believing a person is smart who “is” right versus consistently thinking through premises (ergo, someone “who is ‘always becoming’ right”). Note that a person can be right and unintelligent, that a person can be wrong relative to the data “now,” and happen to be right when the data luckily shifts. This will make it seem as if the person was “always right,” when really the person was wrong before and was fortunate to have the situation change around him or her. Intelligence should be gagged relative to premises and data, not so much outcome. Outcomes matter, yes, but they might have more to do with “discernment” than “intelligence” — hard to say.
6. Does thinking help us pick a “being true” or does it only complete and defend a “being rational” (that might or might not be false)? Does thinking help us “be true” or only “be rational” (only defend ideology)?
7. A person experiences a “being true” not so much as a “being true” but as “the way things are,” and this can contribute to ideology preservation. We don’t experience what we think as “what we think,” but as “what is.”
8. Those who believe rationality is bad must use logic to make this claim, though it is not wrong that rationality is incomplete, unable to ground itself.
9. Every truth is “a self-evident truth” (“evidently true to the selves to which the truths are evident”) and ‘inform reason but are not its product’ but necessarily feel like it’s product.A
AArendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York, NY: Viking Compass Edition, 1969: 193.
10. As we conflate “true” and “rational,” so too we conflate “true” and “logical,” “true” and “best” — all perhaps Cartesian hangovers. People often realize these aren’t the same when asked directly, but often in conversation we find ourselves using the word “rational” to mean “best” one moment and then “objectively the case” the next, contributing to great confusion.
11. It is hard to imagine a need to invent the field of “behavioral economics” in a world where “the true really was the rational.”
12. A rationality that isn’t constrained by a truth is a thought, and yet truths are not rationally grounded, only rationally understood. Rationality is made meaningful by un-truths like faith, feelings, and other threats to rationality that make rationality possible.
13. We must think of what we disagree with as “irrational,” for we wouldn’t think like we did if we thought it was “rational’. And yet other people, according to different premises, are in fact rational relative to their premises. Hence, the experience of “other views” hides us from the rationality of those views, by how we necessarily experience them as irrational (according to ourselves). “The Phenomenology of Argument,” we could call it, contributes to the difficultly of “living together” and ideology.
14. An individual “being true” can emerge within a collective “being true,” and that “being true” can be situated in a national “being true,” and so on. And the larger “being true” will influence the formation of the individual “being true,” all orientated and justified by (a) “being rational(s)” along the way.
15. Is it really the case that people make decisions based on rationality? This is an important question and commonly asked in economics, where understanding how people make decisions proves essential for determining the right “incentive structure” to create. Economically speaking, what is “rational” is what maximizes utility, profit, and so on, but I believe this understanding of rationality, though holding some truth, gives us a very incomplete understanding of rationality. If I want to fire someone but doing so will decrease the profit of my company, I very well may still fire the person, because relative to what I want, it is rational to do so, even if it isn’t financially rational. If I have a preference for a fancy ice-cream brand but it is much more expensive than another brand, I very well may still choose the fancier brand, because relative to my preference, that is the rational course of action, (though relative to my bank account, I may act foolishly). I act rationally and irrationally at the same time relative to different premises: I am “(ir)rational” (as I am ‘(im)moral’, to use a term from “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose).
Considering this, it is true that humans are “rational creatures,” but not “rational” in a manner that is a simile for “best” or “most profitable.” Certainly, people don’t always act rationally relative to what maximizes utility, but people do in fact mostly act rational relative to what they want, what they define as true, what they define as good, and so on. This may render the word “rational” almost useless for the economist, but I do think it’s important to understand that humans are in fact “rational creatures” — just not in the way we’ve mostly come to understand that notion.
16. To make humans “more true” (and “more rational” relative to truth), we must, one by one, go through each topic — worry, ignorance, perception, etc. — and work through each, increasing awareness and understanding. There is no easy road to “more true rationality,” though in humans being naturally rational, the road can seem much shorter to them than it is in actuality, for the “rationality” humans naturally “are” is not the same as the rationality humans need to practice.
17. What is rational is never rational relative to “rationality itself” (though is arguably no such thing), but relative to finances, family, love, objectives, individuals, particularities, circumstances, etc. In other words, there is no such thing as “rational” only “rational to,” and yet rationality seems to always strike us as non-relative, tricking us to overestimate how wide our rationality stretches. We consider rationality an umbrella, not a point.
18. If we conflate “true” and “rational,” it makes sense for us to believe the person who disagrees with us is incapable of reasoning, and hence incapable of discussion.
19. We can be correct relative to premises that are false.
20. If we want to jump off a cliff, is it rational for us to do so? Relative to our “will to do what we want,” yes, but perhaps not relative to our “will to live.” It seems there is an interesting relationship between “will,” “truth,” and “rationality,” one that will have to be explored elsewhere.
21. To use language from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose, human thought is “low order” and “high order” to the degree it “dies to itself,” which it is never “thought-full” to do.
22. All rationality is relative to a worldview (truth) that is “nonrationally” (not irrationally) selected before rationality.
23. The phrase “perspective preservation” seems similar to what I mean by “ideology preservation.”
24. Is it reason we use before we reason about it?
25. It is unreasonable to expect those who don’t ascribe to our worldview to act morally/rationally according to us, and yet this doesn’t mean our morality/rationality is necessarily false, only that we are “caught” expecting people to be rational relative to what we consider rational in a world where we can do nothing else.
26. Perhaps imagination plays a significant role in a person’s selection of a “being true?” If so, it is tragic that imagination can be ignored in schools, and ironic seeing as imagination could have a large role in organizing rationality, for it contributes to the picking of the truth against which rationality is defined. The removal of creativity for the sake of increasing rationality may in fact retard rationality.
Perhaps there cannot even be rationality without imagination, nor vice-versa. Perhaps imagination leads us to truth, relative to which rationality is then organized. Rationality then helps justify the truth as reliable, giving us reason to trust our imagination and our “being true’.” If this is all the case, then it could be said that imagination determines the “toward-ness” of reason. If this is so, then perhaps The Fate of Beauty should be considered part of The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy.
26.1 Music is both the notes that compose it and the story it portrays: perhaps it could be said that reason helps determine what a thing “is” (helps us determine which notes compose the song), while imagination helps us determine what a thing “means” (helps us determine the story of the music). Everything is like music.
26.2 It should be noted that a distinction could perhaps be made between “negative imagination” and “positive imagination”: imagination that takes us “out of the world” (to avoid seeing it) versus “deeper into the world” (to see it in a new way).
26.3 It should also be noted that without imagination, it is hard to see how a person could leap from “truth-fact set A” to “truth-fact set B” (from one ideology, worldview, etc. to another), especially if we accept the premises that empathy requires imagination and that “empathy is critical thinking” (as argued in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose). It seems that imagination might be the only hope we have to escape “a map,” if indeed “the map is indestructible,” seeing as we cannot move beyond (what we are in) “what is” to (what we aren’t in) “what isn’t” without imagination, for “what isn’t” is beyond the horizon of “what is.”
27. It seems rational to overestimate the effectiveness of thought, for it seems to make rationality more rational. On this point, society seems almost designed to make us overestimate the effectiveness of thought, for society is designed by thought, and what is designed by thought is that which will make thought more rational (and keep in mind that thought is what makes rationality possible, versus simply luck that isn’t even thought of as “luck”). We might be socially primed into the mistake of “autonomous rationality.”
28. Considering “The Heart/Mind Dialectic and the Phenomenology of View(s)” by O.G. Rose, since we don’t select our worldview through the mind alone (if we select it at all versus be “thrown” into it), it is very possible that art has more power to change worldviews and/or “truths” than does philosophy, but that said, art might prove less capable than philosophy of making us more rational. The same could be said about apologetics versus aesthetics, and considering all that has been said, a college that doesn’t focus on the arts is a college that might be, at best, only capable of making students “brilliantly rational.” But if students prove wrong in their thinking, then college enables students to preserve a false worldview with erroneous ideology.
28.1 We cannot put experiences into words, and so we never actually talk about what we experience, only relay ideas inspired by experience (we only ever “point,” symbol-like). Hence, though perhaps we can make people more rational with language, it is questionable we can do much to make others “more true” (“the map is indestructible,” after all). At best, it seems we can rationally and philosophically explain why rationality and philosophy can only impact us rationally, and so “point” a person in a direction down which the person can have truth-imparting experiences — stuck being like theologians as philosophers.
29. Misunderstanding is a “rational event,” for there could be no (mis)understanding without rationality, and it occurs between necessarily “rational individual,” both of whom could be wrong, and both of whom must necessarily think of the other as irrational. Where rationality was totally absent, there would be no misunderstanding, and yet problematically we necessarily think of a misunderstanding as resulting from a lack of rationality versus a lack of similar premises.
30. Art changes minds more so than does arguments, for art influences people toward new truths relative to which rationality is defined, while arguments often only influence how people reason.
31. To determine how rational a person is, we’d have to compare them relative to their truth, not ours, and yet it might be impossible for anyone to truly understand the truth of another.
32. The limits of rationality are itself, and hence problematically strike itself as limitless, always translating what it “bumps against” into “rational terms” (rightly or wrongly).
33. We must think those who don’t think like us either mustn’t listen, think, be good, and/or ascribe to our fundamental axioms. Or we must think we’re wrong, which if we do, we must at least think we’re right about thinking we’re wrong.
34. There is no guarantee that “(the) truth” and “being rational” will necessarily align, seeing as “being true” and “being rational” aren’t necessarily identical.
35. If rationalities are relative to truths, and everyone potentially has different truths, how do groups that even think like one another talk and debate? First, everyone lives according to many truths (their ideas about God, about their work life, about their country, about the economy, about how to spend a nice afternoon), and just because two people don’t share every truth, it doesn’t follow that they cannot reason together over the topics relative to which they do share a truth. Arguably, two people who think exactly alike are extremely rare, but people who generally think very similar are not uncommon, and as long as people share general truths, it will be possible for them to reason together even if they disagree on the details. If a group of people are all Christian, even if they disagree about the role of Baptism, they can understand each other, but not as well as perhaps people who are all Baptists but perhaps not all Southern Baptists, people who are all Southern Baptists but perhaps not all from Georgia, people who are all Southern Baptists from Georgia but not from the same town — and so on.
However, precisely because it is extremely rare for two people to share all truths exactly, the role of empathy and critical thinking is paramount for human flourishing, not just between different groups, but also for people within similar groups. Without empathy, we cannot move between various truths, hindering our capacity to reason like different people and to understand different rationalities we ourselves don’t’ share. Without this capacity, democratic debate seems destined to fail and for participants in democracy to become frustrated and turn to power to enact the change they want to see.
36. Seeing as the rational is relative to the true, and seeing as “the true” is influenced by a person’s background, location, preferences, and so on, it is likely that similar people will ascribe to similar rationalities, and hence come to “emergently” be like one another, without any direct coordination, brainwashing, etc. Who a person is and how a person thinks will probably reflect one another.
37. If people fail to understand that rationality is relative to truths and people hold different truths, people will fail to see “compromise” as a necessarily tragedy and instead view it as a lamentable evil that should always be avoided (as discussed in “The Conflict of Mind” by O.G. Rose). Political compromise is the necessarily reality that emerges in the space between internally consistent ideologies that sprout from different axioms, but often we think of compromise as resulting from someone not being rational enough or we failing to be convincing. We tend to think that “if only we were more convincing” or “if only the other side was more rational,” compromise wouldn’t be needed: everyone would reach the same conclusions. This is appealing on the surface, but it fails to appreciate that when people live according to different axioms, it can be practically difficult for them to reach the same conclusions. Additionally, if we think x, we must think x is rational, and if we don’t make room for the possibility of different ideologies and internally consistent systems, people who don’t think x must thus be irrational to us and arguably shouldn’t be included in the democratic discussion. To compromise with such people would be, in a way, immoral and a disservice to our country.
Compromise is a necessary tragedy because of the nature of thought itself, and if this tragedy is not accepted, democracy will often seem like it only rewards the worst acting people. This will motivate people against democracy and likely in favor of totalitarian forces that will never have to compromise again.
Failure to understand “the problem of internally consistent systems” and that rationality is relative to truth sets us up to understand “compromise” as unnecessary and a result of shortcomings versus a necessary tragedy. Compromise cannot have a legitimate role in our political process unless we understand the nature of rationality and its relationship to truth.
38. If people are unable to correctly identify what they are feeling, is it possible for them to be rational? If I don’t know what I am feeling is fear, how can I know I should do the (arguably) rational course of action and face that fear? If I don’t know that I am feeling satisfaction with life as opposed to indifference, how can I know if I should change my life or keep it the same? The ability to correctly identify emotions seems to be a prerequisite to a dimension of rational life, and this ability seems to be emotional intelligence. Rationality cannot fully be itself in isolation.
39. A mistake of the Enlightenment may have been conflating “the true” and “the rational,” and perhaps that is the mistake of the Enlightenment.
40. Few people see quality in arguments with which they disagree, for it is rare to find someone who can move between “worldviews” and “truths,” relative to which rationality is orientated and organized, to determine quality. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible for a person to say a person is “rational” who holds a different worldview, for relative to the first person’s truth, the other is in fact “not rational.” This poises a grave challenge for Pluralism, for if we can only appreciate the quality of our worldviews, “appreciating others” will become impossible. And who wants to be around people who don’t appreciate them?
41. Reason can only find that a system is “consistent” and convince those in and outside the system of such, but it’s very weak to “move” a person into its system and grounding truth. Reason seems helpless where beauty is needed.
42. The true is against which the rational is organized and achieves definition as itself.
43. Rationality is more of a means than an end, and its end is truth, but what constitutes the truth depends — all while if anything seems like it shouldn’t be contingent or pluralistic, it’s truth.
44. Perhaps history repeats because it is rational?
45. In “How to Be Rational About Rationality” (taken from his book Skin in the Game), Nassim Taleb suggests that we cannot meaningful discuss “the rational” except by discussing “what increases survival.” He argues that rationality is the management of risk, and that the likelihood of rationality being indeed rational is dramatically impacted by the degree the person making decisions is exposed to risk: in other words, the more a person has “skin in the game,” the more likely a person will do that which history judges was indeed “rational.” Risk increases discernment, though correctness is never guaranteed.
Taleb is not impressed by beliefs, only action, bringing to mind the work of James K.A. Smith and others fighting “the Cartesian specter.” Taleb laments people thinking that science can provide all the answers (when science itself claims it cannot) and doesn’t believe we can claim the person who washes his hands for superstitious reasons is any less rational than the person who does it aware of germs (especially considering how much of our thinking is based on perceptive errors, cognitive limits, and so on). Taleb believes discussions about the rationality or irrationality of beliefs misses the point: what counts is actions and practical outcomes. If believing a superstition helps me survive, I have acted rationally.
I believe it is easier to understand Taleb’s argument once we have separated “the true” and “the rational” into different categories. Yes, the person who believes washing hands is important to frighten off ghosts acts rationally, but not truly (and considering this I can act rationally thanks to a lie, as I can act irrationally thanks to the truth). However, I would point out that Taleb’s understanding of rationality may help us understand what acts in the past were rational based on who survived, but “survival” doesn’t help us determine how we can be rational moving into the future. Moving forward, I think we must define rationality according to what we believe is true (based on probability, risk management, and so on), even if ultimately history will show that we didn’t act rationally because we failed to “make it.” It is hard to know if x or y will help us survive — we have to guess based on what we think is true — and if we guess wrong, we still acted rationally relative to what we guessed was true.
I don’t think these points suggest Taleb is wrong so much as perhaps point out that though “survival” might be the ultimate standard by which we can judge if x or y is rational, it may not be enough to help us decide if we should do x or y now (even though I agree with him that “survival” might be the most rigorous and empirical definition possible for rationality). If I were to guess, I think Taleb would argue that though it might be the case we don’t know if x or y will increase survival, if x involves risk but y does not, then it is more likely that x is rational than y if the person chooses x over y — Taleb argues that rationality and risk are joined at the hip (a point with which I think Thomas Sowell would agree).
What is rational is not necessarily what can be explained, and what is rational can be what’s false and yet, if it increases survival, it can be still thought of as rational. Perhaps I would differ from Taleb in that I would want to say, “What increases survival was the right choice,” and reserve the word “rational” to refer to activity that follows from a given truth, but in no way whatsoever would I argue that this lexiconic preference discounts Taleb’s argument. Further, Taleb may rightly point out that when it comes to making decisions now, thinking of “rational activity” as a matter of survival versus truth will help us make better decisions.
46. It could be said that every truth and its corresponding rationality composes “a rational set,” of which there are potentially many. In one set (say Set A), “wants” might be a valid variable by which to orientate rationality (“I want ice cream; therefore, it is rational to go buy it”); in another, “wants” might be considered a non-variable and too subjective (Set B). In another set, “emotional intelligence” might be considered a variable that rationality should take into account (Set C); in another, “beauty” might be considered valuable but unintelligible (Set D). Which set is the most rational? A, B, C, or D? Why? Keep in mind that there are potentially infinite sets, one in which both “wants” and “beauty” are considered variables of rationality, one in which neither are considered, another in which both variables are present but “beauty” considered more important than “wants” — new sets will arise based on the order in which variables are stressed — and so on.
If I decide to live according to Set A, am I more rational than the person who lives according to Set B? How do I determine this, one way or the other? Whatever way I do so, the process will arguably be a new set itself (say Set Aa). If I use Aa to choose A over B, by what structure of logic did I decide to use Aa and not Ab, Ac, Ad, etc.? It would seem a new set would be created Aaa, then Aaaa, then Aaaaa — ad infinitum.
In other words, it would seem I would need rationality to determine which “set of rationality” to ascribe to, the act itself of which would generate another “set of rationality,” and so on. To avoid this regression, it would seem I would have to use something other than rationality, but what else could I use that itself I wouldn’t decide to use thanks to rationality (which leads to another ad infinitum problem)? Perhaps nonrationality…?
All that said, who sits down one day and “decides” to live according to Set A as opposed to Set B, C, D, etc. (which is impossible unless someone knows all possible sets, which no one does)? It would seem rather we just “find ourselves living” according to Set Q versus Set Y (“thrown” into it, to allude to Heidegger), and only retrospectively do we then convince ourselves that we “chose” A as opposed to B, especially when faced with social pressures to act like we have reasons to live like we do. The problem we face before “sets of rationality” seems to be a problem we all overlook. Rationality is not what we think, and I find of great interest that field of battle where rationality is at war with itself.