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Are We Rational Animals?

Aristotle held the belief that man is a rational animal. A growing body of research suggests otherwise.

Rational: of or based on reasoning (from Webster’s New World Dictionary).  This ambiguous definition is similar to what is given by many people when asked to define rational.  This type of definition is virtually worthless as it becomes open to a plethora of interpretations.  In order to teach and express the importance of rational thinking it is imperative to precisely define the concept.

What is rationality?

Rationality is concerned with two key things: what is true and what to do (Manktelow, 2004).  In order for our beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence.  In order for our actions to be rational they must be conducive to obtaining our goals.

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Are We Rational Animals?

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  1. The implicit view here is Aristotle’s, that we are rational animals. That view is worth questioning. Looking at brain function, for humans and other animals, we see a vast, powerful system of associative networks. These networks can do remarkable things, for example, facial recognition, object constancy, walking on uneven ground, automatic retrieval of relevant memories, and mastery of such complex skills as reading, driving, and transcription typing. None of this relies in the slightest (well, perhaps in the slightest) on rationality. Indeed, on this view, rationality is an emergent property of mental function, superbly suited for some challenges but ill equipped to deal with most of everyday life.

    Oh, and then there are the glandular functions of brain, those that almost instantaneously fine tune the complex emotional and arousal functions of our body. These functions are sometimes coordinated (for good or bad) with intellect, but can also bypass it.

    There was a time in the short history of cognitive science when we thought that reason, or something like it (Newell’s Physical Symbol System) governed just about all of human action. As that history has played out, we have learned how little of human behavior is under control of rationality, and we we have learned to be grateful that that is the case.

  2. Thanks for this post, and thanks for not contrasting rationality with emotional processing. So many people fall back to that old myth! For instance, in Stanovich’s list, all six characteristics rely upon social and intrapersonal skills that require empathy, competent emotional processing, and the ability to question one’s appropriateness. Though it’s not stated outright, it’s really nice to see something about rational thinking that doesn’t demonize emotions. Bravo!



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