Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rational or Rationalizing?

If you have been reading my posts for any length of time, you’ll remember that I really enjoy podcasts. Mostly, they are interviews that you can download to an IPod or other MP3 playing device, and they come out as regular episodes. Mostly, I listen to writing podcasts, but one exception is Philosophy Bites. Most episodes are less than twenty minutes, but they really pack a punch, if you have the patience for academic discussion. It can certainly lack pizazz.

The September 25th 2011 episode featured Dan Sperber, and really hit me between the eyes. Beginning with Aristotle, it was believed that it was ability to reason that set us apart from other animals, and since then, philosophy students have celebrated the primacy of reason. However, studies have shown that we make most of our decisions intuitively and/or emotionally, then we use our reasoning faculties to justify our initial responses.

There are cases where this works. For example, if I said that my child was born in September ’11, you intuitively know that she is two years old. You didn’t consciously do the math, but your prior education and practice made it happen below the surface of your awareness, so it saves a lot of time and mental energy. Same with the weather; a quick look at the sky and the temperature of the air will give you a pretty good idea of what kind of day you’re in for.

An instance of this came up for me a few years ago. I had read a Confucian proverb; “The ideal person is not a tool.” Since the word ‘tool’ is used so differently today, I had to share this simply for the amusement factor of it. It did spark discussion though, and someone argued that someone can use themselves as a tool. No, I think that’s a skill. A tool, by definition, is something outside of the self. They were adamant, however, that they had it right. Well, I suppose that if you re-define what words mean, then they could be right, but I wanted to stick with the classical use of the language.

My first response to the rational/emotional argument was “Oh yeah, I see lots of people doing that.” The I turned my gaze inward, and said “Ow.” I have been pretty guilty of this on many occasions. A rather innocent one is Star Wars. I overlook a lot of silliness and bad dialogue because so much of it is great on its own merit, but more relevantly, it’s really sentimental to my childhood.

I have at times dismissed a favored opinion because the evidence was contrary, or just lacking, but on many occasions, I have been swept away. Does this ring true for you? Can you think of instances where rationality turned into rationalization? 


  1. Food for thought here Will. Good read, most enjoyable.


  2. When it comes to Star Wars (and other things we remember from our childhood) we are definitely rationalizing!

  3. I think we all do. I denied myself the fantastic Science Fiction novels of Clifford D. Simak in childhood because I thought his name sounded too funny. As Bugs Bunny would say, "What a maroon!"

    Now, Mr. Simak, long since dead, is one of my favorite authors, and I was truly pleased to get his autograph on a hardcover of CITY. His TIME IS THE SIMPLEST THING is still one of my favorite reads.

    Thanks for the nice words on my blog today. Tomorrow, I will post the "playground" incident that brought the 4 children together in ZOMBIES DON'T PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS.

    Odd thing, Victor's adventures are mostly in haunted New Orleans with nary a zombie in sight ... except for his ghoul friend, Alice Wentworth. If I had your email address I would send you a free Kindle copy of THE LEGEND OF VICTOR STANDISH.

    Amazon offers the FREE application KINDLE FOR PC that makes your computer into a giant Kindle so you could read Victor's adventures. Thanks again. Roland

  4. I think the saying "blood is thicker than water" is a good example of this. We defend kin, even when they don't really deserve it. Same with faith, musical taste, etc. We come up with pretty irrational reasons for why we believe something.
    I heard someone the other day say, "if I have to tell you why Nickelback is no good, you likely won't get it." While I might agree with their talent level, I think the argument is a copout. We do that all the time. Check that, I do that all the time!

  5. Wow, this is really deep. Yes, it's easy to rationalize based on things like childhood memories and movies. Or perhaps Confucian meant tool like we now know it...