Rationality | Steven Pinker

Summary of: Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
By: Steven Pinker


Welcome to the world of Rationality! In the book ‘Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters’ by Steven Pinker, we journey through the intricacies of rational thinking and how it plays a role in our lives. The book breaks down the definition of rationality, explores the concept of goals derived from passion, and delves into the importance of both ignorance and self-constraint in making rational choices. We also uncover the significance of science in applying rationality to the real world and the role institutions play in fostering rational behavior. The author emphasizes the power of rules in overcoming the tragedy of the commons, and even addresses the relationship between morality and rationality.

The Original Meaning of Rationality

The concept of rationality has been defined as “having reason.” Philosophers, however, have defined it as the ability to use knowledge to achieve our goals. Knowledge is described as justified true beliefs. But, as we learn from the example of William James and Romeo and Juliet, rationality is not just about getting the facts right. Instead, it’s about being flexible and creative in finding a path towards our desired outcomes. Rational beings can overcome hurdles by adjusting their actions, whereas nonrational entities will remain fixed on their initial path. Ultimately, rationality is a tool that helps us get to where we want to be.

Goals and Rationality

The eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume, believed that goals are driven by passions, while reason helps us prioritize between them. Our goals may sometimes clash, leading us to choose between them, and that’s where rationality comes in. It helps us decide what goals to pursue and which ones to abandon by giving us a yardstick to compare their relative worth over time. For example, prioritizing health over hedonism may lead to a more satisfactory life in the long run. Rationality helps us make wise choices today for a better tomorrow.

The Rationality of Ignorance and Self-Control

The key takeaway from this excerpt is that ignorance and self-control are rational choices when it comes to resisting temptation or protecting oneself from harm or bias. The example of Odysseus tying himself to the mast to resist the enchanting songs of sirens demonstrates the power of self-restraint. Similarly, choosing ignorance can protect us from the burden of unwanted knowledge and mitigate bias. This excerpt emphasizes that willpower isn’t always enough, and sometimes we need to take proactive steps to prevent ourselves from acting on temptation.

Science: The Importance of Empirical Evidence

The relationship between logic and science, and the significance of empirical evidence in differentiating between the two, is discussed in this passage. The author presents the example of a debate among English monks about the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth as a contrast between the school of thought regarding logical models derived from texts and that which holds the importance of observing the real world. The significance of falsifiable statements is highlighted, emphasizing the importance of seeking evidence that disproves a hypothesis. The passage stresses the need to distinguish between science and pseudoscience through the presence or absence of unfalsifiable theories.

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