Is rationality a good idea?

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The many millions of readers of this blog (insert derisive laughter made famous by the robot from Lost in Space) will guess that I would answer firmly in the affirmative on this question.

However, if one is rational, then one will be open to hearing the case for the negative.

Which I did, over lunch with my friend and sometime contributor, Pizza. So, after mulling over the conversation for a couple of days, here is my synopsis (with apologies to Pizza for any re-interpretation).

The argument is essentially that rationality (defined at making optimal decisions in a given situation) is an emergent property of a society, and not necessarily an attribute of its constituent parts – in fact, it is desirable that some of the constituent parts are not rational, in order for the society to behave rationally.

Or, to put it bluntly, in order for society to survive and do well, some of us need to be a bit nuts. Well, at least that explains the existence of religion, the Tea Party, Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Fox News, Ken Ham, Mark Latham, Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and so on. The latter in particular is a huge contributor to the rationality of society, if you get my drift.

The reasoning put forward was along the lines that without a few nutters, no risks are taken by the society, and hence no discoveries are made. The absence of these discoveries in turn, contributes to the decline of the society, leading to its eventual demise. It turns out we need those hare-brained schemes which at first seemed crazy, but proved to be instrumental in our societies’ development and survival. I’m sure we can all think of many examples of things which seemed ‘out there’, but now seem pedestrian and we couldn’t do without them (although whether society would be worse off is arguable). After all, where would our society be without the iPad2, non-stick fry pans and those little plastic things on the ends of shoelaces, right?

But I trivialise. I actually think the argument has merit. I visualise this effect as a giant amoeba (that would be the society), with little bits probing and sensing the environment for nutrients (that would be the nutters) and then advancing and growing in the direction which proved to contain beneficial nutrients. The effort expended by the amoeba in probing fruitless directions is of course lost to it for no gain, but overall, the nett effect will be positive, or else it will die.

On a more serious note, this effect also explains war between societies, and in particular, the way in which individuals are sacrificed for the ‘good’ of the society. As a slight digression, Pizza also contends that warfare is currently the primary mechanism of human evolution, supplanting the influence of the environment, and has been so for the last 50,000 years. His thesis is essentially that  humans spontaneously form groups with a common set of beliefs, with the collective purpose of fighting other groups with other beliefs, to, well, kill them, and dissolve the belief system. The more knowledgeable the group (defined as a belief system which is closer to objective reality), the generally more successful the group.

So, drawing the threads together here, if Pizza’s conjecture is correct, then the existence of nutters in society is evolutionarily beneficial to societies. In fact, their influence is accelerating human evolution, outstripping plain old environmental factors. Well done Barnaby. Society salutes you.

At first this whole notion appeared contrary to my views on rational thinking, but after some pondering it seems that Pizza has provided an advance in the development of my GUR – Grand Unified Rationalism, by explaining the existence of those irrational types. It seems that they are necessary, albeit  more than a little annoying.

It also seems that I’m one of the boring, unadventurous types, which I’m comfortable with.

I think.


One thought on “Is rationality a good idea?

    Pizza said:
    May 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    It seems to me that overwhelmingly those who would understand humanity start with a false assumption. Similar to pre-Copernican cosmologists’ assumption that the earth lies at the centre of the universe, their assumption is that the human individual is the best point from which to start a study of humanity. One is reminded of the Irish joke whose punch line is “If I were going to Killarney I wouldn’t be starting from here.” This is a serious error and produces the same sort of bewildering apparent complexity as did earth-centred cosmology.

    I think humanity is best seen as a species composed of groups which are composed in turn of individuals. This is a hierarchy. Evolution operates in the interest of the species. While it is true that if there are no groups there is no species, the species does not require all its groups. Each is individually expendable in the interest of the species. The species interest lies in the promotion of groups more able to assist its survival and the elimination of those less able so to do. This sorting is done by competition between groups. Again, in this competition, a group does not need all its members, each of whom is again individually expendable in the interest of the group.

    This purposeful activity requires a directing agent. Paradoxically the only physical entity capable of this role is carried by the individual, the low man on the totem pole. The mind is carried by the individual but is built to serve the interest of the species, the group and the individual in that order of priority.

    I think this view of humanity makes it possible to understand many aspects of human behaviour which approaches centred on examination of the individual have difficulty with. If anyone is interested I am happy to bang on further about this view and some its implications.

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