The Costs of Rationality

The word “ra­tio­nal” is over­loaded with as­so­ci­a­tions, so let me be clear: to me [here], more “ra­tio­nal” means bet­ter be­liev­ing what is true, given one’s limited info and anal­y­sis re­sources.

Ra­tion­al­ity cer­tainly can have in­stru­men­tal ad­van­tages. There are plenty of situ­a­tions where be­ing more ra­tio­nal helps one achieve a wide range of goals. In those situ­ta­tions, “winnners”, i.e., those who bet­ter achieve their goals, should tend to be more ra­tio­nal. In such cases, we might even es­ti­mate some­one’s ra­tio­nal­ity by look­ing at his or her “resi­d­ual” be­lief-me­di­ated suc­cess, i.e., af­ter ex­plain­ing that suc­cess via other ob­serv­able fac­tors.

But note: we hu­mans were de­signed in many ways not to be ra­tio­nal, be­cause be­liev­ing the truth of­ten got in the way of achiev­ing goals evolu­tion had for us. So it is im­por­tant for ev­ery­one who in­tends to seek truth to clearly un­der­stand: ra­tio­nal­ity has costs, not only in time and effort to achieve it, but also in con­flicts with other com­mon goals.

Yes, ra­tio­nal­ity might help you win that game or ar­gu­ment, get pro­moted, or win her heart. Or more ra­tio­nal­ity for you might hin­der those out­comes. If what you re­ally want is love, re­spect, beauty, in­spira­tion, mean­ing, satis­fac­tion, or suc­cess, as com­monly un­der­stood, we just can­not as­sure you that ra­tio­nal­ity is your best ap­proach to­ward those ends. In fact we of­ten know it is not.

The truth may well be messy, ugly, or dis­prit­ing; know­ing it make you less pop­u­lar, loved, or suc­cess­ful. Th­ese are ac­tu­ally pretty likely out­comes in many iden­ti­fi­able situ­a­tions. You may think you want to know the truth no mat­ter what, but how sure can you re­ally be of that? Maybe you just like the heroic image of some­one who wants the truth no mat­ter what; or maybe you only re­ally want to know the truth if it is the bright shin­ing glory you hope for.

Be warned; the truth just is what it is. If just know­ing the truth is not re­ward enough, per­haps you’d be bet­ter off not know­ing. Be­fore you join us in this quix­otic quest, ask your­self: do you re­ally want to be gen­er­ally ra­tio­nal, on all top­ics? Or might you be bet­ter off limit­ing your ra­tio­nal­ity to the usual prac­ti­cal top­ics where ra­tio­nal­ity is re­spected and wel­comed?