Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
Through this fascinating session that was a part of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, Mihir S Sharma, Director and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and Dr Steven Pinker, a Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, debunk certain myths around human rationality and explore its defining tenets.
If you often find yourself asking questions about how the human mind works, digging through the deep recesses of the internet trying to make sense of psychological complexities, then engaging with Dr Steven Pinker’s work might help you in your search for answers. In Pinker’s own words, his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, is all about “what makes humans tick.”
By nature, humans are said to possess the capacity to reason, but do they really? Pinker contended that it is a bit of both- as humans, we still possess “some of the nasty, primitive instincts like revenge and dominance” but on the other hand, we possess “the capacity for empathy, self-control, and cognitive problem-solving.” This is why Pinker remains optimistic about human progress, and he quipped that the data sets help to show how far we have come by making use of rationality.
Pinker dismissed the popular claim that there is “some magical force in the universe to make life better.” To him, it is rationality that has helped us work against the laws of nature and reduces challenges like famine and disease, on the precondition that “it is deployed to increase human well-being”.
Sharma then remarked that while reading the book, he was particularly intrigued by Pinker’s line of questioning that probed, “if you know you’re right, why you should persuade others to reason?” To that, Pinker answered that it is pertinent to do so. “In the era of governmental censorship as well as institutional censorship” the only way to approach the truth is through debate and dialogue.
Pinker feels that it is important to engage with such questions because of their deep political and moral implications. Often bias, rather than rationality ends up dictating our choices. The way to circumvent that, Pinker opined, is to have institutions in place- “like science with its open testing or democracy with its checks and balances.”
“Why does the world appear so irrational to us?” Sharma then posed this poignant question. In his response, Pinker noted how “rationality is always in pursuit of a goal” but the catch is, “if the goal is not to be correct, but just to have your side win, then you can apply an awful lot of rationality toward a belief or a position that is inherently incorrect. Because you are not striving for correctness, you are striving to win.” In a nutshell, what Pinker powerfully hints at is that rationality can very easily be programmed to echo our biases.
Pinker picked a historical example to explain how many successful social movements began with a well-reasoned, well-discussed argumentation in different spaces, be it coffee houses, salons, or pubs. “And this how it should be,” Pinker declared, to avoid the perils of terrorism, autocracy, and dictatorship. He is not alone in thinking that way, as, throughout the ages, thinkers such as Hannah Arendt have underscored the potential of transformative conversations for making moral progress.
Towards the end of the session, Pinker offered his prescription to help cultivate the tools of rationality until it becomes second nature. To put it simply, Pinker suggested- “When the facts change, change your mind." He described how often, many mistakenly feel “there is virtue in holding on to their belief no matter what,” but he feels one should instead “cultivate a mindset of active open-mindedness, namely, being willing to change your mind based on the evidence.”
Through this masterpiece, Pinker offers a compelling reimagination of the world that lies within.