On Being Rational.

I was recently asked if I was rational, and I waffled a bit.  In the heat of the moment, I initially answered yes, and then no, and said that nobody is rational, because we all take too many mental short cuts.

Here's a bit if what I mean by that.

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."
- Carl Sagan

Let's begin with the stochastic universe we find ourselves living in.  As we navigate life in the macro world, there is a more or less clear relationship between antecedents and their consequents, such as if it is raining, I'll get wet; if I use an umbrella,  I won't.

This is simple.  The cause is falling water.  The effect is whatever it falls on gets wet.

When we dig deeper, we find much more than simple raindrops.  

In the realm of the empirical, our chemist friends might be concerned with whatever adulterants those raindrops picked up in the atmosphere and their journey towards the earth.

Our ecologist friends may be concerned with whether those adulterants will harm the natural environment, and in what way.

Urban planners may be worried about their cities flooding.

Farmers may be worried about drought.

Now what does this all have to do with apple pie and universes?

When a drop of rain falls, much more information is conveyed than simply whether or not something gets wet, as the ecologists, chemists, farmers, urban planners can attest.   

But the deeper we dig into a particular event, the more information we uncover, and the more questions it will raise.   If we chase these whys down far enough, we'll get to a point where we can no longer rely on our senses, however augmented by our tools, to determine the precise initial conditions that led to a particular outcome.

Werner Heisenberg figured this out,  there's a principle named after him and everything.

When we get down to a certain level our understanding of the universe shifts from the concrete and observable to the probabilistic.   At this point, we can no longer determine the precise antecedents to a raindrop falling on the back of your neck and dripping right down your back, and parking itself at the top of your ass crack as you make a mad dash to your car.

So, the universe is ultimately non-deterministic, even if it appears to be predictable at the macro level.

Sadly, it doesn't have much to do with pie.  There might be a way to use it as a metaphor for human experience or something, but I'm not going to go there.   I'm already far enough out on the better to be silent-limb, and will be happy with whatever doubt I'm able to retain at the end of this, to blow it all on another half-assed metaphor.

Rationality in an Irrational World

We have evolved, imperfectly, over eons in this irrational universe that absolutely bombards us with far more information than we could ever hope to process at once.   In response, though the mechanism of natural selection, our brains have become adept at filtering the influx and presenting what is vital for survival, while ignoring the rest (in a way).   
This is what we know as perception, and because of how it came about, it isn't 100% foolproof.

Many people who know me well would consider me to be a very rational person, most of the time, to the point of being very cold or aloof.  While I would tend to agree, and do strive to be empirical in my approach to most situations, I can't, in good faith, call myself a rational being.

And I don't think anybody else can either. 

The reason for this is the short cuts our brains evolved to take in filtering out the excess information from our perception.   One such short cut is how we respond emotionally to life's challenges.  We may see a clear path, and be able to perform some manner of cost-benefit analysis when choosing between possible courses of action, and in many cases this is enough.  

Other situations challenge us by involving problem domains with which we have very little, or no empirical insight. In these situations we rely more heavily on our emotional state, or gut feeling, to make value judgements when evaluating the possible options.   

Think of this in terms of the classic thought experiment:  You are at a switch that controls the direction of a runaway train.   If you do nothing, the train will careen into a pram, killing the infant inside.   If you switch the track, the train will kill 5 adults.   What do you do?

What thought process goes through your head?  Do you recognize the potential of a single human being, or the contributions the many may have already made? 

What if the infant grows up to be Donald Trump?

Do you believe you even have agency, or do you mentally delegate the responsibility for your own actions to another real, or imagined entity?  Would you choose differently if an authority figure was standing next to you, telling you you have no choice?   Stanley Milgram enlightens us somewhat, as to the role of authority and individual autonomy in stressful situations...

So, after all of this rambling.   Am I rational?  Probably?  Maybe Not?

If one attempts to answer that question rationally, I think the answer has to be 'no.'

I highly recommend the work of David McRaney as they have helped shape my perception of the relationship between objective reality, and my perception thereof.  His books You Are Not so Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb, and his podcast have literally (in the non-ironic sense) changed my life for the better.  He explores common self-delusions, and how they may apply to ordinary life.   I highly recommend the ones on confabulation and narrative, they offer a great deal of insight into how imperfect our memories are, and though I didn't really touch upon that particular phenomenon above, it's integral to concluding, rationally, that I'm not rational.


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