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RS01 - Why Be Rational?

Release date: February 1, 2010

Why is "speaking rationally" a worthwhile goal, anyway? It’s not self-evident, at least not to many people. Human beings certainly don’t seem made for it. Aristotle may have famously dubbed us "the rational animal," but cognitive science tells a different story, with plenty of evidence that our brains blithely flout logic all the time and are excellent at rationalizing our irrational decisions after the fact. Indeed, it is reasonable to ask why fight our irrational natures to begin with? After all, some argue that irrationality can make us happier, at least in certain situations. Then again, perhaps there is a problem with the whole idea of arguing for irrationality...

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick: Wikipedia's List of Paradoxes

Massimos pick: The Fallacy Files

Reader Comments (11)

Interesting discussion indeed. You need to do a podcast on truth. You use "truth" as if it were a clear concept, but it may not be so clear at all. I would welcome a discussion of truth with an attempt to discuss Kierkegaard's distinction between objective and subjective truth.

Suggested opening: "Can one hold a false belief?"

January 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Excellent start for a podcast I hope will run for a long time! Really interesting discussion. I'm already looking forward to the next episode.

February 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJarno

Thanks for the podcast, looking forward to RS02. The website picks are also much appreciated.

:) Frank

Just listened to RS01, enjoyed it very much. You're off to a great start, thanks!

February 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Willworth

This was a great opening episode! Thank you for the great content! I look forward to more! :-)

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua Hunt

Rather than appealing to unmeasurable internal states such as thinking and emotions to explain motivation, I like BF Skinner's demonstration of the role of the environment in the control of behavior. We behave in certain ways to avoid and escape aversive stimuli and to obtain reinforcers in relation to our degree of satiation or deprivation regarding that reinforcer. So we are out on the road, it is lunchtime, we see the McDonald's golden arches, we have been satiated there before, and we stop in for a salad or whatever. The stimulus of the arches has some control over our behavior because we have been reinforced in the past for entering the restaurant and purchasing a meal when we have seen those arches. We purchase high calorie meals because they have quenched our hunger in the past, even though we may describe our behavior as having made an irrational choice. A mind has no role in a scientific demonstration of the observable factors that determine our behavior, especially if we describe a mind as a non-physical entity holding the will to power over our physical actions. Appealing to a mentalistic explanation of behavior prevents us from looking at the physical causes of behavior.

October 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Throughout the history of homo sapiens, there are unspeakable sociopathic acts, and of course the misery that follows them. For instance, the superstition in Europe had caused the witch hunts, persecution of heretics and the torture that went with them. In the Eastern world, we had the callous oppression of ancient Chinese emperors exerted on their fellow men, including unthinkable political persecution and zero freedom of speech.
It is far too simplistic to suggest that such things exists only in ancient world. Indeed, oppression exists in modern world as well. Oppressors have a common feature: the use of political pressures to distort the truth. These people, through manipulating the public with their emotional tactics, acheive their own twisted agenda.

How They Opreate

What gives rise to such obnoxious groups in the first place?

The answer is: Irrationality. When people ask for reasons, it is hard for such groups to exert their influence. This is because almost ALL of them operate as follows:

1. Distort the truth, mostly through political pressures
2. Tell people about the distorted picture
3. Induce appropiate emotions in them
4. Motivate people into doing what they want them to do

If people demand reasons and objectivity, stage 2 and 3 of this model would be VERY unlikely to happen, then it follows that their agenda would be over and of course they are not going to harm our society nor get what they want.

An Ideal World

Therefore, my theory is that one of the main culprits of human misery is the use of emotions and feelings rather than reasons and logics in evaluating truth. It is doubtless that an ideal world should not be so miserable. Then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that the use of logics instead of feelings in evaluating truths among the public is essential for an ideal world.

Please bear in mind that I am NOT saying that emotions and feelings are of no value. I admit that they have their importance to an ideal world, but their value in helping us to determine what to believe is very limited compared to logics and reasons. They may not be overall inferior, but they are definitely undesirable in some aspects.


All in all, one of the greatest culprits of human misery is the lack of "mind" among the general public, that's why cults exist throughout human history. Therefore, the promotion of more "mind" is of essence to creating an ideal world.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Emotions are often the biological reasons which our mind may not agree with. They both make sense for different end results. Attachment builds social bonds. Crying signals to other humans that you are in pain or unhappy and you need help. It would indeed be irrational not to be emotional.

There may be an evolutionary significance to belief in afterlife, god etc.. Several neuroscience experiments have indicated this. For eg: if one pack of cards were labelled lucky, though they were no different to the other pack, to win a game, people would choose that pack.

Regarding imposing rational thought on beliefs that may not be evidence based it is indeed a debatable question. Although we may do this with good intentions, it may interfere with the integrity and natural evolution of different cultures. (Prime Directive in Star Trek)

May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanani
It is interesting to consider value judgments from a rational perspective; I like the idea that reason is a tool in service of emotion; emotion as motivator, and reason as executor of the motivations, but is there any rational way to analyse and value those motivations? For example, the speaker's drive to correct the irrational is intrinsic, but is there a way to determine whether that value is good and should be fostered, or bad and should be stamped out?

How is "good" defined? Better outcomes for humanity? Why does that matter, in the cosmic sense? Is there necessarily any rational reason for a person not to put his own needs and desires entirely ahead of those of society? Isn't placing value on human life and society in itself a bias, given that many other creatures and species would have greatly improved chances of survival without us (though, really, why should we be concerned with those creatures either?) Even if we ate rocks, and sat still in the sun, would we not be stating by our actions that we found the situation of us being alive and sitting in the sun validated the change in the form of the rock? The fundamental problem of caring about things is that it cannot have a fully rational basis completely absent of biases. I would argue that it is impossible to care about anything, at all, without introducing bias into one's thinking. Action, by its nature, reflects value judgement.

So, the choice, I suppose, is which biases we want to accept, which values we want to promote. Which is a hairy question for a later time.
July 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Huffman
Why be Rational?

Excellent question and I would say this. We only get 1 shot at Life. And we can decide which World we want to spend more time in. The Man-Made or thee Natural one. When you're living in the Man-Made World, you're basically just following everyone else but in the Natural World, you lead the way. So if you truly want to experience Life for yourself and nothing else, a Rational mindset must be the tool used to achieve this. Thankz ^^
August 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
I LOVE rational thinking and rational people !

The Barber's Paradox does have a logical explanation.
February 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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