Is it irrational to believe that human beings are rational beings ?

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I want to believe that the entire human population is capable of rational thinking, reasoning as well as acting- and I do to some extent. However,looking at our history and the present situation the world finds itself in, it is not difficult to notice that surely humans are not rational beings- as much as we would like to be. Every individual is capable of rational thinking: studying information in an unbiased fashion, and acting according to evidence, and not personal beliefs or predispositions.  If that’s so then the question is why humans, after tens of thousands of years of cultural experiences (bad, as well as good), still fail at a peaceful coexistence- even though every rational thinker will come to the conclusion that acting selflessly, and generally not being a dick, is a better way to exist than living by yourself, for yourself (I really hope I don’t have to explain why that is better).

 

First off, the way I have defined rationality above links it very closely to science. Since science is the unbiased study of nature and reality according to, and having considered all available evidence.  This means that our practice of science (and mathematical models) completely relies on rational thinking, and in fact was born from rational thinking.

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking, a way of sceptically interrogating the universe - Carl Sagan.

We have become good enough at understanding our world in a rational manner to make all these great discoveries and technological breakthroughs. Therefore it seems to me like humans are not only capable but indeed very successful at rational thinking- but most governments, corporations, and individuals seem to be unable to implement that rationality, selflessness, and benevolence on a daily basis.

 

Could this have to do with the fact that by studying the world around us (nature) we are studying an objective issue? This means that a person’s personal opinion will not change the outcome of the result. There is a right and wrong, since one thing that everyone can agree on is that we experience the same reality and you don’t have to ‘believe’ in the scientific method in order for it to successfully model natural phenomena. So scientific debates are never about facts – what we debate is how these facts have been collected, and what their implications are (which is a debate in itself caused by the absence of even more facts on the issue). The point is, scientists don’t argue about the data only about how the data is to be interpreted.

 

Social issues are drastically different. Since human beings have developed significant cognitive abilities and found ourselves in a situation where our conscious mind allows us to do more than just ‘survive’, we have been contemplating the purpose of life and how to organise ourselves as a species. This is because we have the ability to react emotionally to things. Emotions are a very powerful survival mechanism, developed by nature to allow us to react to potential danger or benefit in a quick enough manner. Fear, for example, allows us to flee when there’s a potential threat- instead of standing around thinking ‘what was that? Should I run?’. Charles Darwin was the one who started the study of the evolution of emotions in his book ‘The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ published in 1872 [1]. Survival pressures acting on humanities’ distant ancestors gave rise to prejudice, and an instinctive fear of anything uncommon. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective since a ‘fight, or flight’ response was more likely to lead to an individuals’ survival in a world where larger predators were a constant threat.

A 'Fight or Flight' response to the unknown made sense to early humans - in case they'd end up as someones dinner
A ‘Fight or Flight’ response to the unknown made sense to early humans - in case they’d end up as someones dinner

The problem also lies in the fact that as the human population congregated, expanded, conquered, loved, and hated- history was being written. The human story was no longer one of survival, but one of social organisation, history, and therefore cultural identity. By linking our purpose in life with ideas that are greater than the individual who they were, and where they came became more important than just living since these ideas would continue on even after an individual had died- religion being an obvious example.

 

I believe that humans are intrinsically good natured- which paradoxically adds to our social issues. Our social and cultural background fosters what we believe to be a rational and correct way of politically organising ourselves whilst our well meaning emotional side is what drives us to passionately argue, fight, or even go to war with people of conflicting beliefs. I find it ironic that although we all strive for a peaceful world, it is the different visions of how this peace is to be achieved that fuels our conflicts.

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I think because unlike nature which provides us with an underlying, objective truth that enables rational thinkers to agree, we do not have this objectivity when it comes to defining what makes human beings live a happy life together. Right and wrong are only what we interpret them to be, and these interpretations vary. At the time when natural selection forced us to adopt the principle of loving familiarity and being suspicious of the unknown, selection pressures were vastly different to what they are now.  Although these principles had allowed our species to survive, they have been the cause of virtually all of histories wars, and human inflicted atrocities.

 

Since the start of (documented) human history, and especially in the time of globalisation our environment has vastly changed. By that I mean not only earth’s natural landscape (which we’re also pretty good at changing) but mainly that day to day life is different. In the age of governments, megacities, and the internet, learning to successfully survive with the people around you is a lot more relevant than what kept human beings alive at the dawn of our species’ history- when our hunter- gatherer ancestors lived in small groups. It wouldn’t just be advantageous to set aside our primeval instincts-  with increasing technological capabilities setting these aside will become a necessity, since our weapons are evolving much quicker than we are. Perhaps we have to make a lot more effort to make use of our conscious abilities, and be aware that we have that ‘inner animal’ inside us. Perhaps become less arrogant when we feel our opinion is undoubtedly right, and be willing to look at all evidence as opposed to selected evidence to support your pre-existing views. I know that we all try, but being mindful of this 24/7 extremely difficult, if it is at all attainable. Taking that idea further we’d need to hope that all 7 billion people (and growing) on this planet will all make it happen ‘together’. The same way that prejudice aided our survival in our past, our conscious and rational mind will hopefully fulfil the same purpose in today’s world by ensuing we don’t wipe ourselves out. Every individual on this planet is capable of rational thinking; but this thinking is inevitably clouded by many different kinds of bias.

 

In that sense, hoping that this global change in mind-set will one day happen requires a lot of faith. However, just like any idea requiring belief and faith; trying to make it happen can have an impact in the world. Whether or not god exists- the idea of god has changed a whole lot of things in human history, and there is no reason another powerful idea can do the same. At the same time our emotions and feelings are what make us uniquely human. Without them, there would be little to distinguish us from very intelligent machines. Whether or not a robot could be created capable of having complex human emotions and thoughts, has for many years been a debate between physicists, computer engineers, and philosophers. The general stance is that even if it was conceptually possible, it would not be feasible now, or for many years to come. Some even claim it will never be possible because whilst we have found a way to quantify logic using mathematics, we haven’t found a way to quantify emotional intelligence.

 

There is something beautiful about the fact that we are capable of such complex thoughts, and yet we often act according to this ancient survival mechanism. Thinking about this, and discussing the issues of our own rational mind is the best we can do for now, especially as individuals. All my opinions stated here are a result of who I am, and what I have learned in my time on this planet- which will not apply to the vast majority of people. Wherever humanity is heading, and whatever cultural changes might happen, I try to be optimistic because the alternative seems less fun.
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References:
[1] - C, Darwin (1872) - The Expression of the emotions in man and animal

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1 Comment on “Is it irrational to believe that human beings are rational beings ?

  1. very Interesting perspective to say the least, but I don’t think the article holds well, for the following reason:
    1) it relied too much on western science. It defined rationality within the prism of western practice but failed to realised that they are other forms of science that have existed throughout human civilisation. (I suggest that you reads this: The Hidden Science of Lost Civilisations, by David Wilcock)
    2) The article fails to recognise that the mere existence of rationality does not necessarily entail that human life aught to be lived according to its laws. Sometime doing the irrational thing is the right thing. And other time, it isn’t! There aren’t any necessary entailment between the two.
    3) The article also fails to recognise the duality of human nature; that to be human is to mediate between the good and the bad.
    However, I think the idea was well developed and presented. i enjoyed reading it

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