The Myth of Human Rationality

Rationality isn’t wholly missing from the human thinking process; it’s just that rationality isn’t always the driving factor

Ed Atkinson was recently interviewed with Austin Fischer by Justin Brierly on his podcast, Unbelievable, on the issue of doubt. (A Tale of Two Doubters) The personal story of both men involves their public dealings with doubt. One ended up on the unbelieving side of the faith divide, and the other on the believing side.

The point that intrigued me most about the discussion was when Ed Atkinson brought up Jonathan Haidt, who wrote a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and ReligionOne of the topics Haidt addresses is what he calls “the rationalist delusion”, which Atkinson summarizes as a “wild overestimation of our rationality that was … birthed to us in the Enlightenment”.

Atkinson says, “We like to think of ourselves as very rational beings [who] very rationally work and think our way through the world sorting through the syllogisms and … coming to what is the correct answer.” The work that Haidt and others have done on the subject have debunked that view of ourselves. Atkinson says, “Our decision-making process really isn’t very rational.”

I have often thought about this very thing. When I look back on my own journey, I recall that I went off to college with a passionate desire to discover meaning and truth, believing it was attainable, and having a naïve confidence in the rationality of the human mind. What I found in college was a very mixed bag. Though my quest for meaning and truth never waned, my confidence in the rationality of the human mind was disappointed.

I came to distrust that confidence in myself and in others, especially in others whose confidence in their own rationality seemed unwavering. Elevated self-confidence often seems more like brute will than rationality.

Since that time I have been continually disappointed in the rationality (or lack thereof) of the human mind, especially in those who seem to have no doubt about their own rationality. That I am sometimes guilty of the same over-confidence only adds to my disappointment and angst.

As a lawyer whose vocation is getting at the truth through the presentation of the evidence on both sides of a matter to a neutral judge, I have had generous opportunity to test human rationality. What I have found (over and over again) is that human rationality is often affected by things that have little or nothing to do with reason.

As proof that I am not simply guilty of the same charge in my assessment, I note that lawyers routinely (as a matter of course) consider what judge is hearing a particular case, and that factor plays a role in how a lawyer goes about preparing the case. Why? Because we generally lack confidence in the ability of judges to “get it right”.

Why would that be if human rationality is something in which we can have confidence? The fact is that judges all have their “bents”. Some are more objective than others, and that objectivity (or the lack thereof) is recognizable by others. In many cases, I have walked away completely confused by a judge’s decision, wondering if he or she even considered the evidence and testimony that was presented.

Of course, I may be wrong in my own assessment of the facts. That is an inescapable possibility. I would rather believe that the judge was simply wrong. Most people might say that the judge is more likely right, rather than me, because the judge doesn’t have a horse in the fight…. And this is the point that Atkinson makes.

Atkinson says that our decision-making process often isn’t very rational. We may support our decisions with reason, but reason isn’t the primary influence. We make decisions from our gut and intuitions more often than we are willing to concede. We assess situations by the outcomes we desire to achieve. We filter our view of reality (often unconsciously) through our own biases, desires, preferences and leanings. “Our rationality is really just a post hoc justification” for the things we want to be right, says Atkinson.

Going back to my example, lawyers are charged with the responsibility of being “zealous advocates” for our clients’ positions. It’s easier to represent a client well when we believe our client is telling the truth and deserves to “win” (whatever winning might mean). I chalk up my incredulity in many of the judges’ decisions that didn’t go my clients’ way to this human tendency to convince ourselves of what we want to be true.

But, I don’t give the judges a pass in this example either. I still maintain that judges are often influenced by things that have nothing to do with the cases in front of them, and most lawyers will agree with me. (I would say all of them, but then I may be over-estimating my own rationality on the matter). As evidence of for the truth of the assertion, though, I note that the topic is a matter of continual discussion among lawyers.

This is why we care so much about which judge is going to hear our cases. We know the human frailties of the various judges, and we act accordingly. In the end, all we want is a fair hearing for our clients. In the end, we know that even judges who usually provide a fair hearing have their own leanings. When we doubt a judge’s ability (or desire) to provide a fair hearing, we “take a change” from that judge.  (Taking a change means that we ask for the case to be reassigned to another judge.)

Some judges actually have lighter court dockets because of their actual (or perceived) inability to be fair and unbiased. So many attorneys take changes from them that their courtrooms are not as full as the other judges.

But, we don’t take a change from a judge lightly because we know the human tendency to react negatively and hold grudges. If we know we might have to appear in front of a particular judge again in the future, we weigh the decision very carefully, and we only exercise the right to change judges when we feel we have no other good choice for our clients.

This, of course, proves my point. Why do we go through so many thought contortions if human rationality is something we can rely upon?

Being a judge is one of the highest honors that an attorney can seek to achieve. Judges should be the shining stars of the legal profession. But, frankly, they often aren’t.

Again, most attorneys with any experience agree with me. (Again, my evidence for this statement is in the frequency the topic comes up in conversation.) If human rationality were to be relied upon, only the best attorneys would be appointed judges, but that’s not how it works. That is why the proverbial phrase, “old boy network,” came to be. The influences that lead to these kinds of decisions are more self-serving than rational.

Rationality isn’t wholly missing from the human thinking process; it’s just that rationality isn’t always the driving factor. Other influences are prevalent, and rationality enters the picture only in part, often after the other influences have had their sway, to justify the decisions.

This is the human condition. And, frankly, it makes sense. We are finite beings. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t have an omniscient perspective. We can’t step out of ourselves to gain an objective view. We have to muddle through subjective filters that are part and parcel of who we are.

We have a tendency to be unaware of our very selves and motivations and frailties. Psychologists and others have observed the human tendency to project our own weaknesses and faults on others, while denying the power of their influence in ourselves.

The Atkinson/Fischer discussion reminds me of the words of Charles Darwin. Forgive me if I quote myself quoting Darwin:

“In his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrestled with the idea of God[viii] and acknowledged ‘the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons’ of the existence of an intelligent God.[ix] He recognized his own feelings and ‘firm conviction of God, and of immortality of the soul’.[x]

“For Darwin, his rational and intellectual pursuit of scientific truth led him to overcome (or, perhaps, to repress) the awe that triggered the feelings and ‘conviction’ of an intelligent cause, but they also led him to another ground on which he considered himself to be a theist – ‘the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe….[xi]

“By 1870, when he admitted his theological muddle, 11 years after he wrote the Origin of Species, he could no longer call himself a theist.[xii] Ironically Darwin came to lean away from theism on the basis of reason alone, propelled by the conclusion (expressed as a doubt) that ‘the mind of man, which has … been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, [cannot] be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions [as design intuition].[xiii] One might wonder why Darwin decided he could trust any of his own conclusions, theological, philosophical, scientific, intuitive or otherwise!

This doubt (conclusion) that lead him away from the feelings and intuitions of his youth also led him to abandon the intellectual indicators of an intelligent cause. Admitting ‘no practice in abstract reasoning’ and acknowledging (yet again) his ‘inward conviction’ that ‘the Universe is not the result of chance’, Darwin advanced (or retreated) further in the embrace of his ‘doubt’:

“’But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[xiv]

“What of the intellectual conclusions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any intellectual conclusions in such a mind? The question deserves asking: why Darwin was so willing to trust his own intellectual conclusions in light of that ‘horrible doubt’ that caused him to shrink from his convictions? Surely, both his intellectual conclusions and convictions were equally developed from the mind of lower animals (and, therefore, equally tainted).

“One writer calls this willingness to trust his intellect while doubting his intuition Darwin’s Blind Spot.[xv]” (From Universal Design Intuition & Darwin’s Blind Spot)

Darwin was a pretty intellectually honest guy. He slipped off on the side of not believing, but he seemed to try to be genuinely honest about it. He recognized the dilemma. He recognized his human frailties. He chalked them up to the evolution of the human mind from a monkey’s mind. He didn’t trust his own intuitions for that reason, but here’s the rub: inexplicably, he relied on his own rationality.

Darwin relied unquestioningly on his own ability to reason. Even though that ability to reason, in his worldview, evolved from lower life forms – just like his intuition.

But, if human reason evolved from lower life forms, one has to wonder (on that same basis) why we should have any confidence in the rationality that evolved from a monkey’s mind?

We have the ability to reason, but we have a hard time seeing our own “blind spots”. We can’t ultimately trust it completely because there is more going on in the human mind than pure reason. We tend not to have the perspective necessary, on our own, to be able to see those blind spots. Whether our minds evolved from monkey’s minds, or not, human rationality is as much myth as it is reality.

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