Are we Rational?

This post was inspired by another post that one of my friends made recently. My friend referenced this article as evidence that humans are rational (even under extenuating circumstances such as poverty), and that they therefore should not have restrictions imposed on their financial aid. When I read his post, my initial response was vague dissatisfaction, but it took me a little while to decide what exactly I wanted to respond to. I decided that the part of the claim I wanted to address or examine was the proposed idea that we are rational. This is not a direct response or rebuttal to my friend’s post, since his ultimate claim was that people know how to make the best decisions in their own lives. The relation between good decisions and rationality, however, is an important part of what I want to examine in this post.

So, the question under examination: are humans rational? Or, to explicate it properly, what does it mean to be rational, and, if we can articulate the concept meaningfully, are we humans that? So, first, what does it mean to be rational? I will first explicate what I believe to be the colloquial definition of rationality, and then I will probe into more sophisticated philosophical territory.Rationality pertains to both belief and action, though the two are so inexorably intertwined that it is not clear to my mind that a true distinction can be drawn. Colloquial rationality entails believing and acting in ways that align with common wisdom: you are rational when you believe in and pursue the things that society believes you should. Colloquial rationality is therefore a form of endorsement: a rational person is someone who is operating properly.

What is the deeper philosophical substance of our ideas of rationality? I think that first a distinction must be drawn between economic rationality and more holistic rationality. Economic rationality is probably the most clearly defined account of rationality. Economic rationality (or rational choice theory) may be best understood as a model for predicting human behavior. The fundamental assumptions of rational choice theory are that people can rank their preferences and that these rankings are transitive (if I prefer A over B, and B over C, I will not prefer C over A).

There are many problems with this model. First, there has been much research done that suggests our preferences are not transitive (Wikipedia backs me up). There are also thought experiments that argue for the reasonableness of intransitive preferences. One experiment, developed by Quinn, has us imagine that someone has been implanted with a medical device with 1001 settings. Each increase of 1 represents a negligible increase in pain. Every week the implanted person has the option to increase the setting by 1 in order to receive $10000. The argument goes that the person will prefer 1 to 0, 2 to 1, and so on, because the increase in pain is so negligible that it is worth $10000. As the dial moves higher, however, the pain builds up so that the individual eventually would prefer to be at 0 again with no money rather than to be in their current state. Though I won’t be exploring this issue further, it is possible this kind of problem could yield some kind of argument that people can be better off if they have their options restricted. To learn more about issues of transitivity I recommend this Stanford article.

Two more fundamental problem for economic modeling is that informational poverty and no-optimal-strategy scenarios can often undermine the meaningfulness of the model. Making rational choices, by the economic model, entails choosing the best option. In the real world, part of choosing the best option entails gathering information on the options available. Gathering information, however, has a cost. An agent is therefore stuck in the difficult situation of making a trade off between the cost and benefits of gathering information, a problem which, by definition, they have insufficient information to make an economic rational decision. There are also some problems for which there is not an optimal strategy, even when all the relevant preference data is known. The classic example is a game of chicken with cars (you race your car towards someone else in a car, and whoever swerves loses). This is a game with no optimal strategy, because your strategy depends on what the other person does and vice versa (some may say that the optimal strategy is not to play, but that is beyond the scope of economic rationality).

As may have become apparent, I find the economic interpretation of rationality unsatisfying. But what about if we consider a more holistic interpretation of rationality? Such rationality, I think, is an extension or exploration of the colloquial conception. It is much easier to give an account of rational belief and action in relation to physical properties of the world then in relation to more conceptual beliefs and actions. Rationality and science traditionally go hand in hand: when it comes to understanding and moving in the physical world we say the rational person more or less uses the scientific method. When we try to move beyond such basic epistemic competency, however, it becomes much more difficult to say what it actually means for someone to behave rationally. I will open this can of worms in my next post.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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