So you want to be Rational …

“I think, therefore I am” – Rene Descartes.

If the concept of rationality were as simple as that statement by Descartes, wouldn’t its pursuit and adherence be so easy. Unfortunately that is not the case, illustrated by the fact that there are multiple schools of thought of rationality and they exist across various disciplines from philosophy to sociology.

The two broad opposing ideas of rationality, that probably are at the top of the schools of thought chain, are Rationalism and Empiricism. The central distinguishing feature of both these ideologies is the concept of innate knowledge. Innate knowledge is the information that is common to all of humanity and that we are all born with. Rationalism embraces the existence of innate knowledge whereas Empiricism denies it’s existence.

Rationalists, like Plato, Leibnitz, believed that all humans are born with certain knowledge, it could be the knowledge of basic mathematics, moral concepts, logical principles. They further theorize that we should use this knowledge to arrive at rational ideas and decisions, and the tools to do this are logic and intuition. They (by they I mean all rationalists) believe that by using the faculties of logic and intuition together with the innate knowledge we possess, rational thought is inevitable. Albert Einstein was a big advocate of Rationalism and he famously said “Intuition makes us look at unrelated facts and then think about them until they can all be brought under one law”. Einstein arrived at his theories of relativity by pure intuition and deduction, using the tools of physics and mathematics, there was very little, if not any at all, physical experimentation or observations that helped him arrive at his conclusions.

Empiricists, like Locke, Hume, believed that there is no innate knowledge that humans are born with, and all of our knowledge comes from observations of and experience in the physical world. They argue that rationality and reason arrive from evidence gathered from observations and experimentation and that intuition alone cannot guide us to rational decisions. So, in this case, logic would mean interpreting the evidence the way it is meant to be and not as a biased observer.

Rationalism – Wikipedia
Empiricism – Wikipedia

From reading about these two extreme philosophies one can draw the obvious conclusion that the real truth lies somewhere in between. After all no scientific theory or discovery can be known for certain unless it goes through both, an intuitive theorizing and an experimental process. So how do we apply these principles to achieve rational thought? How do we discern towards which side of the scale or spectrum we need to move to seem rational? Can a pure rationalist  or a pure empiricist be rational?

In my opinion, the one process of thought that would help answer all these questions is Skepticism, which along with it brings two very important faculties, reason and critical thinking. Skepticism drives us to question intuition and knowledge, it begs us to double check and investigate empirical data and then use reason and critical thinking to arrive at a rational decision.

Critical thinking is an integral part of being a skeptic and, as defined by Edward M Glaser, it involves,
1. an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences
2. knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning
3. some skill in applying those methods

(Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941)

An attitude, the right knowledge and a skill to apply are important to be a successful critical thinker and consequently a good skeptic.
– The attitude implies an open mindedness to question the status quo of any social, political and/or scientific platitudes, having a predisposition to always question helps but it is not something that cannot be developed consciously over time.
– The knowledge does not only include “book knowledge” but also the knowledge of human behavior and social practices
– The skill involves knowing how to question using your attitude and knowledge and the ability to correctly arrive at a rational conclusion. This means being able to understand, navigate and avoid using fallacious arguments in your reasoning. Fallacies are very common (I will write a separate article talking only about fallacies) and extremely easy to fall into, unless we are aware of what they are and what they mean.

I hope by now you have a fair answer to the question How can i be Rational?
Rationality as a philosophy in the social, metaphysical and scientific realms is a vastly studied and theorized topic, all the way from Socrates, Pluto and Aristotle to modern day philosophers like Chomsky, Gould et al. What i have tried to do here, and pardon my brevity, is to offer a concise and practical view on how to be rational, something we can begin to practice before delving deeper into the philosophical implications of rationality.

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counter-intuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
― Carl Sagan


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