Rethinking Rationality

Progress? From a beast to a number

In previous analyses, I have demonstrated that while the Enlightenment-era axioms which undergird contemporary liberalism (and its relatives) have long been presumed as facts about “the way the world works,” they are easily demonstrable as mere sociocultural artifacts of a particular phase of history of particular peoples. Accordingly, attempting to instantiate these ideologies and systems in exogenous contexts is likely to foster instability and blowback rather than ushering in a state of universal peace and prosperity.

Instead, people around the world must be given the freedom to derive their own systems of organization, building on their indigenous frames of reference, history, and cultures in order to confront the unique challenges facing their societies.

Of course, there will be overlap and resonance—despite the rhetoric about the “globalized” nature of the “modern world,” as a point of fact the history of virtually any longstanding cultural artifact will be syncretic. Our languages (which frame our communication and conscious thinking) fit things into neat categories like “Western,” “Islamic,” “Shia,” “Sudanese,” “human,” etc.—however, reality is much more complex and messy, and what’s more, it always has been.

Sorry, modernists.


Another major thread of my work has been showing that Game Theory (GT), Rational Choice Theory (RCT), and related methodologies have a horrible predictive track record and virtually non-existent utility in fields such as geopolitics and economics. In fact, relying upon these (and other related) techniques is likely to be extraordinarily harmful.



The reason GT and liberalism fail is the same: people are simply not rational, as conceived by contemporary social theorists and Enlightenment-era intellectuals. No one is. Not one single person is or ever has been. God willing, no person ever will be. It is not the case that we are merely “imperfectly rational,” or occasionally hampered by ignorance, cognitive limitations, biases, misinformation/ disinformation, or other extenuating circumstances: human beings are simply, fundamentally, and irreconcilably not rational. In fact, the entire discourse about rationality is likely ill-formed.

Consider the following interrelated notions of rationality undergirding the Enlightenment and RCT, respectively:

Rationality is a reflective process distinct from (and generally, in competition with) our emotions, physical urges, social influences, etc. insofar as it logically analyzes situations in pursuit of objective truths (non-essential but also commonly believed: rationality is the faculty that distinguishes mankind from the “lower” species).


An agent is rational insofar as his decisions are informed by weighing costs v. benefits and/or projected risks v. payoffs. The rational agent has ready introspective access to his wants and needs, both now and in the future—he concocts logical plans to attain these ends, which are themselves prioritized in order of their feasibility and relative significance to the agent (non-essential but also commonly believed, rational agents are primarily self-interested).


The problem with the first view (and the ideologies which rely thereupon) is that contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest robustly that no such faculty exists (even in dual-process accounts of cognition, our reflective system bears almost nothing in common with the aforementioned descriptions).

Therefore, the problem with the second definition is that no part of it applies to people. One can define a “rational agent” in manner game theorists prefer, so long as it is understood that people are not, in fact, “rational agents” (unsurprisingly, any time theorists run their games with actual human subjects, especially non-economists, they typically behave in completely “irrational” ways). Accordingly, strategies, systems and institutions designed for “rational agents” will probably not work well for human beings and “real-world” contexts.



But we can take it a step further: not only are people non-rational, reality is not rational. Our rules, be they scientific, logical, or inductive generalizations—they are derived from, and modified in accordance with, the way the world seems to operate: the rules must bend to the world as the world will not bend to our rules (which are, in the first place, only valid in to the extent that they seem to reliably reflect “the way the world works”).

Accordingly, these formulas (be they mathematical theorems, natural laws, or even the rules of logic) are provisional and under constant revision–often, they are scrapped (in part or in full) in favor of new analytic frameworks which hold more promise for future research.

However, the profound uncertainty and volatility underlying our epistemic paradigms is kept largely out of the public eye by pseudo-intellects who portray these matters as “settled” and implacable in order to avoid having their claims challenged or dismissed by the uninitiated. Sometimes, they even begin to believe their own nonsense and become secular fundamentalists, parading around all sorts of ideologies and insufficiently-substantiated claims in the name of “science” or “reason,” and regrettably leading many pop-media lotophagi astray.

And so, we often lose sight of the limitations of abstracta, making sweeping generalizations on phenomena, universalized from a rather small set of empirical data—or assuming that future events are in some way bound to proceed in accordance with our projections (derived from the trends of the past or reductionist disanalogies with similar situations). And this problem of induction is compounded by our own non-rationality, rendering “social phenomena” in our constructed niches far less stable or predictable than “natural phenomena.”

When our tidy analytic concepts are superimposed over the complex, messy, and volatile world we actually live in, the results are often explosive (“Black Swans”). Accordingly, attempts to render people, systems, or institutions more “rational” is likely to create more problems than it solves. And more generally, overreliance upon abstract models, theories and concepts will blind us to critical information which is often difficult to fit into models, and sometimes into language altogether.



Insofar as rationality is understood in terms of the aforementioned (falsified) definitions, discourse relating to rationality, while not strictly-speaking meaningless, will be misleading, (ontologically) empty, and often pernicious.

A new understanding of rationality is required. Any such reformulation will have a profound impact on fields as diverse as ethics, political science, economics, sociology, theology, and possibly even biology and related fields–rendering many branches of study virtually irrelevant while opening new vistas for research.

In my humbly titled, “Building on Nietzsche’s Prelude: Reforming Epistemology for the Philosophy of the Future,” I bring the resources of critical theory to bear on contemporary research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology in order to sketch out a more sustainable and useful understanding of “rationality.” We close with an exploration of fundamentalism in relation to rationalism, scientifism, and related ideologies.

Building on Nietzsche's Prelude: Reforming Epistemology for the Philosophy of the Future
Pick up a copy… it just might blow your mind. In any case, it’ll make you a real nuisance to the sophists and ideologues who overpopulate our “ivory towers” and whisper sweet nonsense into the ears of our policymakers.

Published 4/5/2014 on SISMEC.
Syndicated 4/15/2014 on Truthout.