Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Are you rational? (Part I)

Even though I have written copious amounts on this subject some readers stump me with their questions. They want me to concede there is room for irrationality, and when I don’t, they think I am trying to impose my ideas onto them. I am NOT imposing my ideas onto you. I am only asking us to question first, and then accept later, instead of accepting things just because someone told us long ago codified in a book. In short, I am asking you to grow up. Be mature. Use your brain. Be rational.

How do you know if you are rational? Is Rationality another ideology that can be imposed onto others? Which is better? A state run on the basis of blind belief, superstition and irrationality or a state run on the basis of rationality, logic and reason?

What is rationality?

It is the ability of a human to think, ask questions, get answers, debate, discuss, and reason to arrive at a standpoint using a set of generally agreed logical rules. It is the opposite of the ability of human not to think, not to reason, to suppress debate, and then come to an obstinate standpoint by citing a certain idea which is considered unassailable, unchallenged or unquestioned.

According to Wiki:

A simple philosophical definition of rationality refers to one's use of a "practical syllogism". For example,
I am cold.
If I close the window I will not be cold.
Therefore, I closed the window.

The irrational way of looking at it is:

I am cold.
If I close the window I will not be cold.
But I will not close the window because my God Vayu will be offended according to this book written thousands of years before man was born.
Therefore, I will open all the windows including those of other people’s homes, even if it means others will get cold. And if someone stops me, I will bash him up because I am carrying the message of God which is the ultimate truth.

Is Rationality an ideology?

Many people consider rationality to be an ideology. They think it is another set of belief systems, just like religion. The way we say, 'You have Islam, I have Hinduism'. These people want to say, 'You have rationality and I have blind belief'. They think it is a choice we make between different ideologies, like choosing one between CPM and BJP, Republicans and Democrats, Communism and Democracy, Capitalism and Socialism, vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism, Abortionism and Anti-abortionism, etc.

Rationality is not an ideology, but is a method to deal with conflict between different ideologies. We will always have different opinions, different stance, and different positions on various issues of human affairs. And sometimes those positions come into conflict.

Earlier in history, one of the ways to resolve conflicts was to impose one ideology onto others suppressing other’s opinions, voice and freedoms. If one disagreed with the other, they killed the other. If you were different you were tortured, and then incarcerated. Sometimes, like in the times of Inquisition, various innovative ways were developed to torture people, just because these others had a different set of belief systems.

The ideology that reigned over a land was one which the autocrat embraced. If he quickly changed his ideology, the people who earlier enjoyed the privileges were now targeted like their erstwhile enemies. Those were the times when irrationality prevailed. They had different set of tools to end conflicts- by suppression of voice suppression of dissent, suppression of freedoms and that of choice, by curtailing all discussion, debate or questioning, and acting unilaterally based on assumptions coming from blind belief and superstition and on certain illogical set of rules.

(Not very long ago, in Communist Russia, one could be sent to Siberia to be tortured and killed just because you had a different set of beliefs. In the modern days, we still have some regimes which continue to have this practice in place. And now, Indians are doing their best to join the elite club of such irrational regimes.)

Rationality gives man a different set of tools- and those are- reason, debate, discussion, using certain agreed steps called logic. Using these simple tools which almost any thinking person can come up with on his own, a reasonable discussion can be brought about to resolve conflicts between ideologies. Some of the modern nations have been able to guarantee rights to its citizens, resolve issues through discussions and debates through participation of people's representatives accountable to the people, tolerate different kinds of cultures, ethnicities, religions, languages, give equal rights to women and minorities, give equal opportunity and access to fair justice, all because they had embraced tools of rationality.

Rationality is not the truth. It is not a doctrine. It is not an ideology.

It is not about choosing Abortionism as against Anti-Abortionism, but it is the method you employ to resolve that conflict. You have a choice between irrationality and rationality to use as a method to resolve that conflict. Either you can debate the pros and cons of each stance, bring in evidences, results of sociological and medical experiments, and then come to a decision on what suits the best for those who are victimized because of each stance, OR you can decree that a certain book written thousands of years ago is good enough to decide all conflicts for all time and therefore no questioning or debate is allowed since the decision is already made long ago.

Tools for resolving Ram Sethu Controversy

A rational way to deal with Ram Sethu is to debate about it, study what we have as evidences, question what we know as humans, and accept what is known as known and what is unknown as unknown. Discuss the pros and cons of such a project in terms of its effect on environment, the fishing population, the national security implications, etc.

An irrational way to deal with Ram Sethu is to come up with stories, fables, mythology, fantasy and mix it with history, science, archaeology, facts, positing one as the other, and then stopping all debate saying, ‘There’s God, that’s proof enough’.


  1. Dear Commenter:
    You should identify yourself and not hide behind an anonymous id. I am rejecting your comment and giving you another chance to introduce yourself before delving into my personal affairs.

    Also, I don't mind debating for the sake of debating- I used to do that a lot when I was young.

    I don't have much time now and do not get into such debates unless I believe it is a genuine conflict, but not as a pastime.

    But, I wouldn't mind doing it to educate people on how to debate- may be over a coffee! :)

    (and if you want to take so much of my time, the onus to prove that you are sincere is on you)

  2. Dear Commenter:
    Before you turn off your light on 'attempting to become rational' and before you back to the darkness of irrationality, let me say one thing:

    What you suggested could be debated- if such a situation arises. And such situations arise in some people's lives. And they are not welcoming situations and are considered serious conflicts. When they happen, decisions are taken on measures you suggested.

    But people would not ordinarily go and put themselves into situations of serious conflicts just for the sake of debating :)

    I said I am rational, I never said I was a fool! :)

    Nice attempt though!

  3. Please read about how conflicts are resolved. Also, please read about prisoner's dilemma. Good negotiators will tell you that the only way to resolve prisoner's or negotiator's dilemma and to have optimal outcomes from conflicts is to build TRUST .

    This is what wiki (the scripture) says about rationality -

    "rationality is a much broader term than logic, as it includes "uncertain but sensible" arguments based on probability, expectation, personal experience and the like, whereas logic deals principally with provable facts and demonstrably valid relations between them.

    In some cases, such as religious belief, the argument may be valid but its soundness cannot be known for the truth of its premises cannot be known.

    Thus rationality simply refers to the success of goal attainment, whatever those goals may be. Sometimes, in this context, rationality is equated with behavior that is self-interested to the point of being selfish.

    In addition to its ability to explain what morality is (a shared subconscious theory of rationality), Roberts has also demonstrated how his theory can be employed to address a number of rationality paradoxes, including the paradox of rational irrationality, cognitive versus practical rationality conflict, the "rationality debate" (Cohen vs. Kahneman and Tversky) and the paradox of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

    I am glad that not all the conflicts in this world are resolved by robots and machines.

    We humans are different than robots because we go beyond the premise, assumptions and conclusions.

    Please read "The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator" and "Crucial Conversations" to start with.

  4. Good essay, Sujai!

    I had a small anecdote to share. I am young (:p) and quite frequently get into debates about god and science. There is this otherwise intelligent chap who believes this God. He learnt of my atheism and mentioned that he like meeting people like me as he loved changing opinions of atheists.

    So on our way home in the bus we get into a pretty heated (but civil) debate on what God is. What started off as an argument about this human-like good-and-bad deciding god turned into the nature-beauty and soul-feeling God.I still did not concede, and started receiving anecdotal evidence about his friends who experienced near-death accidents and are alive because they had very recently accepted God.

    So we got talking about co-incidences.. and it all culminated with this remark from him "What you call co-incidence, I call God"

    There was nothing I could say to that.

  5. Ajay:
    There are three things:

    1. Causality

    Whenever X happens Y happens. When X does not happen Y does not happen. Whenever Y happens, we realize that X happened earlier. Y never happens before X.

    Therefore, there is a causal relationship between X and Y. X triggers Y.

    2. Correlation

    Whenever X happens, there is great chance that Y happens. And whenever Y happens, there is a great chance that X happens.

    We do not know which one triggers the other. And sometimes, though one of them happens, the other does not happen.

    We say, X and Y are correlated.

    3. Coincidence

    X happens, and we have no way of saying if Y happens. Y happens, and we have no way of saying if X happens.

    Out of many thousand Xs and Ys, we find one X and Y coming together.

    That's coincidence.


    IF someone says, 'Coincidence is my God'. You should ask him what is his value of probability? and ask him if his coincidence answers prayers too?

    He gave you a smart answer, that's all.

    There is an interesting anecdote:

    Catherine of Russia invited Euler (a believer) and Diderot (an atheist) to debate on existence of God.

    Euler (who is more adept at Math) boasted he can prove God mathematically. He said:

    "Sir, ( a + bn )/n = x , hence God exists; reply!"

    Diderot could not reply. Everyone laughed. End of Debate! According to everyone, Euler won!

  6. Sorry, It is NOT Ajay, It is Anil!

    (sorry about that)

  7. Anil:

    There was nothing I could say to that.

    Usually you can't say anything to such things. Some people say, 'My aunt said God who visited her. My aunt never lies. Therefore, God exists'. How can you argue such things?

    We call such things irrational. They are not based in rationality. They are based in blind belief.

    What I like the most is about the Bible:
    How do you know God exists?
    'Because Bible says so'.

    How do you know Bible is telling you the truth?
    'Because it is written in Bible that it is the word of God'.

    It is a self-contained answer. You can't argue such things.

    Another one:
    "This statement is false".
    Is it a true statement or a false statement?


    These are words, just words, clever words, you can spin them the way you want to.

    Hence, we constructed Mathematics, and given it set of rules to make sure we make logical deductions from a set of assumptions.

    You may like Immanuel Kant.

  8. Sujai:

    small nit: I think it was e^i(pi) = -1

    And I do understand the bad logic of his argument. I meant to say that an otherwise rational guy could be cornored into saying things like that, _and_ be satisfied by these answers. Poking him further would've gotten more such nonsence. The argument was becoming a little confrontational, so I passed.

    I've probably heard of all the possible God-Exists statements.. my personal favourite is "You have to have faith!" and "It brings out the good in people, so believing in it is good even if he doesn't exist"

  9. Anil:
    small nit: I think it was e^i(pi) = -1

    Google it up! :)

    Usual answers are:

    "For you it is power, I call it God".
    "For you it is energy, I call it God".
    "For you it is conscience, I call it God".
    "For you it is cleanliness, I call it God".

    Then you should ask,
    How often do you pray to electrical generator and ask for more marks in a exam?
    How often do you pray to a nuclear reactor and ask to get better faster?
    How often do you pray to your conscience and ask it to make rain?
    How often do you pray to cleanliness and ask it make India win the cricket game?

    These are just smart answers! That's all.

  10. Book recommendation for all you probability and rationality lovers :-) - Fooled by randomness - by Naseem Taleb.

    This is Nassim's motto in life :-) - "My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the guts to sometimes say: I don’t know...." (You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race).

    It will be interesting to see Sujai's reaction to this book.


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