Friday, April 27, 2007


The notion of arationality I’m advancing reconciles these two statements:

You should never be irrational.

Rationality, by itself, cannot get you through life.

Rationality is basing your beliefs on evidence and reasoning from sound premises, while irrationality is the inverse. In debates, (small “r”*) rationalists are told by Fideists that some things are “beyond reason”, and must be taken upon “faith” (believing based on personal prejudices or feelings without justification). Fideists say that we cannot get off the ground based only on reason, sighting ultra-rationalists like Spock.

In response to the Fideists, I’d say no beliefs should be irrational (contrary to the evidence or based on personal prejudice), but human motives and wants are based on non-rational (henceforth arational) desires or emotions.

A desire like “I want to eat” or “I want to continue living” cannot have justification in the same sense a belief like “the sun is the centre of the solar system” can. In this sense, desires are arational but not irrational.

Now, you may be thinking that actions themselves cannot be rational or irrational because they involve arational desires.This isn’t so. If you desired to help the poor and, to accomplish this, decided to flip a coin, you’d be acting irrationally. This is because your intention (to help the poor) and intentional action (flipping the coin to help the poor) has no causal connection.

This concept, arationality, is nothing new. I’ve heard it mentioned many times, from people such as Massimo Pigliucci to Alonzo Fyfe. But this concept is ignored and has gained little notice, so its reiteration is needed.


I say “small r-rationalist” to distinguish between the “Continental Rationalists” of renaissance Europe, like Rene Descartes, or “Platonic Rationalists” of Ancient Greece. These Rationalists thought that, through “pure reason” one could gain certain knowledge of the world.

This is something a probabilist and fallibilist such as I could never agree with. I see reason as justification and justification as tentative.

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