Nov 15, 2014 | By

Conclusion: Meta-Principles for Becoming Rational

The exploration of rationality (see: Journal) has led us into a number of difficulties. Our logic is flawed, our biases inescapable, and the foundations for our evidence have crumbled.  Even the world we live in is not rational.  So, it’s time to extract ourselves from the quagmire by elevating our focus to a few “meta” principles. Rationality is an ideal that can never be fully realized.  Yet the goal of being rational is integral to who we are as human beings and to the notion of consciousness itself. Rather than drifting in the sea of experience, it is rationality that provides both anchor and sail. 

The discussions over the past eight weeks provide clues for a metaphysic for rationality. I have identified four overarching principles, which we can refer to as Rational Meta Principles (RMPs), that we should use to ensure forward progress towards the unattainable goal of becoming rational.










RMP 1: Humility : To be rational, one must recognize the possibility of being wrong.

One of the key findings of the prior posts is that “proof” is impossible. While we may reach a decision that is well-reasoned, with clear values and reliable evidence, the decision may still be wrong. The evidence may be incomplete or in error, our reasoning flawed, or our valuation biased by factors we are not aware of.

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RMP 2: Self-doubt: To be rational, one must evaluate one’s biases.

As we have noted, bias cannot be purged entirely and emotions are integral to our motivations and intentions. Yet, the potentially negative consequences on rational decisions can be mitigated by attempting to raise them to the level of conscious awareness, and by being willing to doubt oneself. In that way, bias and emotion become information and factors that are (or should be) included in the reasoning process, and our conclusions are always conditional – consistent with MP1, we admit that we could have missed something, or have misled ourselves – we could be wrong.

At a deeper level, we also maintain what could be called a world-view. Are we secular or religious; Do we tend to see agency and free will or are we more fatalistic/deterministic; Are we practical or theoretical? These are significant differences that can alter the meanings of words being used and have dramatic effects on our very notions of rationality. World-views do not necessarily validate or invalidate rationality – but those differences can make rational discourse more difficult. To the extent these “biases” can be identified and articulated, the more fruitful the discourse is likely to be.

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RMP 3: Openness: To be rational, one must remain open: do not take the lack of falsification as a proof that evidence is true, nor assume that evidence is false simply because the validation is weak.

If you observe something directly, it seems that you would have a good reason to believe that it is true – it is a strong piece of evidence on which to base a rational decision. However, it is well known that you may be mistaken, for any number of reasons. Therefore, it is appropriate to consider the testimony of others – have they made the same observation as well? Corroboration from others strengthens evidentiary value. Repeated observation also strengthens evidentiary value. Moreover, if there are no contrary observations, but a consistent pattern of confirming observations, then we have achieved what many would characterize as the optimal validation for evidence: a consistent, verified and non-falsified set of observations.   This is, indeed the basis of science – observations that have been made, validated, repeated and not falsified. This falls into the category of strong evidence.

This does not, however, mean that such evidence will NEVER be falsified – just that it has not been, at least so far. There may one falsifying instance that has never been observed (like the existence of black swans).

Moreover, there may be some evidence, such as a single observation, or the testimony of a single individual or document, that is difficult or impossible to verify but that might be true. That evidence should not be summarily rejected – we should remain open to the possibility that it could be correct.

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RMP 4: Purpose: To be rational, one needs to understand and affirm one’s motivations.

Being rational is a goal-directed phenomenon, and the selection and evaluation of goals is driven by our motivations. It is critically important to distinguish between rational decision-making intended to reach an optimal decision, and rational arguments designed to support a decision that has been made for other reasons – the proper word for that would be “rationalization.”

Rationalization is, of course, something we do all the time, and our motivations are often pre-conscious and subliminal. Thinking, in contrast, is quite visible and conscious. It is therefore critically important to illuminate the hidden motivations in our thinking process if one is committed to being rational.

The additional step, however, is to affirm one’s motivations. Rather than simply letting our motivations play themselves out, we need to take responsibility for them and commit rationally to follow where they lead.

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As human beings, we are compelled to apply reason to experience – to exercise our capacity for being rational. This is the means by which we gain mastery of our circumstances. It is also the means by which we create understanding and meaning for our experiences in life. Rather than drifting in the sea of our experiences, it is our rationality that provides both anchor and sail.

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2 Responses to “Conclusion: Meta-Principles for Becoming Rational”

  1. jg collins says:

    It could take me some time to invent something to disagree with, here. Perhaps to say that obviously what you call my biases are merely my perfectly logical premises? No, too transparent. So instead of quibbling, I shall wander off into the semantic underbrush: I’m reminded, possibly for no good reason, of Bertrand Russell’s relativist conjugations:

    “I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool.

    “I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

    “I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word;”

    as well as:

    “I am a free-thinker, you are eccentric, he is barmy in the crumpet.”

    “I am outspoken; you are verbose; he shoots his mouth off.”

    I’m also curious as to what part the unconscious plays in these matters. Are we responsible for our unconscious mind? Can we ever be conscious of what is in our unconscious? Is the unconscious rational? Or completely irrational? Is it resident in some sort of “lizard brain?” Or in a cleverly-evolved, human structure that permits a sane, bicameral mind? Could we be sane without an unconscious?

    And surely most academics, if challenged to accept the meta-principles, would say that they already had: that their humility was without peer, their self-doubt once profound, their openness proven by admission that their self-doubt had been erroneous, their motivation to accomplish noble goals pure, and their commitment to attain those goals by whatever means necessary, maximal.

    Outstanding post, deserving of more attention.

    • George Gantz says:

      jg –
      The Bertrand Russell quotes are incredible, thank you. I think the “pre-conscious” plays a large role in our motivations. That said, we all still have an obligation to understand and affirm what we are actually doing (behaviors, choices) with our motivations. Even if we were not aware of what “made us do it” – we are responsible for “it”. By the way, the focus on internal motivations – what drives “the will” – is entirely consistent with Swedenborgian theology. He would also say that it is what drives us (e.g. we drive ourselves) into Heaven or Hell.

      The academics are a tough crowd – not being one it is easy for me to say! If you have not seen the post, you would enjoy some studies that were done on the ethics of ethics professors: here.

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