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How Rational Do You Think You Are?

Our Most Peculiar Gift

We have come a long way. Let’s take a moment to contemplate the accomplishments of those who came before us, a retrospect that can bewilder and amaze us.

We have begun to be masters and stewards of Nature. For instance, we have: 

  • Transformed minerals, fauna, and flora into tools, clothing and many other useful items.
  • Mastered fire and used it to transform materials such as foods, ceramics, and metals.
  • Converted earth into a source of nourishment through agriculture and construction materials such as bricks.
  • Diverted water in canals for watering crops or using its flowing power to move contraptions.
  • Harnessed the wind to sail across bodies of water and drive mechanisms. 

While we altered Nature in the outside world, we have also been transforming our inner Nature. Thus, the human mind became capable of dealing with more challenges than ever before.

Humans benefiting from a more stable food source provided by agriculture freed the mind to conceive of and tackle new challenges. For instance, many specializations emerged that brought more resilience, convenience, and variety to civilized communities. We have also linked particular utterances with things found in the world, followed by actions, and then with cogitations of our minds (like thoughts and emotions)—Language was born.

Suddenly the human mind was resolving disputes through more peaceful means instead of defaulting to the application of violence or solving resource allocation among larger groups of people through commerce. As a result, we suddenly needed to keep track of what was happening in our civilized lives and minds—Writing emerged.

However, when, if at all, can we say that our human minds have truly become civilized?

If you feel you want to tackle great new challenges, please check my previous article: Phoenix Rises.

Are We Fooling Ourselves?

Keep in mind that, at birth, our bodies and minds are pretty much the same as those from the beginning of human civilization, which happened about ten to twelve millennia ago.

So, if we aren’t born civilized nor ready to participate in our civilized communities, we must alter ourselves, right? Indeed, we must transform ourselves from birth to adulthood to benefit from our most significant attribute, which differentiates us from other animals—our Reason.

For some stroke of cosmic luck, we have this gift or reason. With it, we can forge our path to mastering both the outer and inner worlds through thought, practice, and training. First, however, we must recognize that we have limitations. Several factors can still easily fool us if we haven’t fully transformed our minds into strongly reasoning ones.

Here are some examples of the defects in our capacity for reason, which we call irrationality:

  • We are born ignorant about ourselves. We start from scratch regarding self-knowledge, so we might too readily accept vague ideas about ourselves that apply to humans in general. 
  • By default, we are ignorant about our ignorance. We might too easily overvalue the improvement we made from our position of initial ignorance. At the same time, remaining unaware of the (usually larger) required path ahead to become an “expert.”
  • We are born with a narcissistic tendency. An untrained mind tends to judge itself too lightly while judging others too harshly. This egocentrism might skew our idea of what others perceive of us (that they pay more attention than they really do), whether others agree with us (that they agree with us more than they really do), and of others’ intentions (that they are more egocentric than really are), and reject commands from others that seem to put our freedom into question (the temptation to do the opposite of the order/request we receive).
  • We come with an innate naïve predisposition for virtue. Although we generally have a natural inclination for goodness, we do not come with a fully-fledged ethical system. So we can fall into trappings of injustice such as thinking “might makes right” or that the “world is just by nature” and has a purpose to inherently dispense justice.
  • Our senses tempt us to rely too much on them. We tend to let our first sensory impression of things, ideas, or others’ superficial traits influence our judgment of them. Moreover, we might reject sound ideas or accept poor ones due to how they present to us.
  • We might identify with the ideas we adopt. We can become disproportionately attached to ideas, people we have helped, or things in which we invested effort in the past. And this may happen to the point in which we identify with them. Engulfed in such a way, we tend to cherry-pick information that supports them and reject or distort new info that contradicts them. We also tend to romanticize the past, invest disproportionately in arbitrary ideas and become averse to change.
  • Our creativity takes time and varied stimuli to nurture. Without creativity, our minds have lower chances of creating novel thoughts and successfully tackling challenges.
  • We cannot read each other’s minds. Since language takes effort to master and patience to apply, our minds cannot easily access what others think. Therefore, we might incorrectly judge others’ knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
  • We yearn for acceptance in a group. This longing can make us eagerly accept a group’s ideas without verifying them, embrace ideas due to repetition, or disproportionately favor others who share characteristics with us. Moreover, we might become so attached to our group that we stereotype or downplay the diversity of characteristics found in outsiders.
  • We are innately lazy. Suppose we find something that makes our life easier. In that case, we might become over-reliant on it, lose some faculties that our lifestyle no longer challenges, and then be fooled or outright incapacitated when that something fails. We might also be tempted to ignore important matters that are complex and take effort to resolve and shift our focus on more trivial matters (an underappreciated source of procrastination). Further, suppose we indulge our mental laziness. In that case, we might simplify the world in a negative (pessimism) or positive light (optimism) and lose our grasp on reality.
  • We are usually not good at math without training. People who have never carefully studied statistics and calculus might fail miserably to perceive odds in random events or be entirely surprised by processes that don’t change linearly (e.g., quantities that grow exponentially).
  • We are eager to avoid pain. We are so keen to reduce risk to a minimum that we might even waste our resources disproportionally to that end.
  • We might be born free, but we usually become unfree during childhood. Although we were all born boss babies, our education generally fosters us to view our parents, teachers, bosses, political leaders, etc., as authorities. And we might be tempted to accept their ideas without putting them properly to the shrift.
  • Our memories are faulty. Our memories degrade over time, are vulnerable to change by suggestion, and can be mistaken for our dreams or imagination and vice versa.
  • Our mind tries to find patterns. Our minds naturally try to pick on the slightest hints of a pattern in the real world to simplify, attribute purpose, or personify things around us. This attribute is often beneficial, but it can fail when we find faces where there are none or interpret random data as having a trend.

Are Our Emotions Getting the Best of Us?

We can feel peak, intense emotions that may temporarily wrest from our faculty of reason for enough time to damage our lives and those of others. Here are some of the emotions I have found that can be so powerful they hinder the employment of reason.

Anger
If we take offense from something done or said to us, we might become inflamed with this deeply conflictual feeling. If this feeling becomes habitual, it will create a bias towards applying violence to solve problems, also known as the “myth of redemptive violence.” 
When we deal with this feeling correctly, we are said to have Justice and Moderation.

“Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”
– Aristotle
Fear
Many situations could be resolved effectively by the use of reasoning, but are not because uncontrolled fear produced a panic attack. 
When we keep fear in check, we are said to have Courage.

“Take Leonidas: how bravely did he address his men! He said: ‘Fellow-soldiers, let us to our breakfast, knowing that we shall sup in Hades’. The food of these men did not grow lumpy in their mouths, or stick in their throats, or slip from their fingers; eagerly did they accept the invitation to breakfast, and to supper also!”
– Seneca
Desire
Easily the driving wheel of our mind slips from our reasoning when feelings of desire take over. However, you can avoid desire’s unintended consequences entirely by keeping this one in check, reserving its outburst for stable monogamous relationships.

When we manage to keep desire under control, we are said to have Moderation.

“Unhappy man, who are the slave even of a girl… Why then do you still call yourself free?”
– Epictetus
Grief
We may be overcome by deep sorrow when we lose someone dear to us. If grief gets the best of us, we may become incapable of performing basic daily tasks.

When we understand that a feeling of grief is justified and deal with it rationally, we are said to have Wisdom.

“Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
– Rumi

What About Long-Term Altered Mental States?

We can feel long-term continuous negative emotions that impair our effectiveness in daily life:

  • Sadness/Melancholy. What we do well is often forgotten, while we let our failures or incomplete tasks haunt our minds. Our minds ravish themselves, inflicting tremendous pain, chastising themselves for underperforming against some expected performance standard. If left unchecked for long, melancholy installs itself in the long-term, and we are said to have Depression.
  • Anxiety. If we become convinced we don’t have a purpose in life or that the way we lead our life is at odds with the life’s purpose we identify with, we might feel anxiety. Anxiety in the short term might prove helpful because it instigates you to act. However, if the mind does not address the cause of stress, this feeling sets in in the long term, producing much wretchedness. Anxiety in the long-term depletes our energy and can induce or worsen Depression.

When we manage to stave off feelings of melancholy and anxiety due to doing our daily actions with a sense of duty and finding a resilient life purpose, we are said to have Wisdom.

Thing Again

What do we get when we have Reason as the effective Commander of these emotions? We get a stable state of mind. It is a tranquility known as Happiness with a capital H, or as Eudaimonia to the Ancient Greeks or Equanimity to the Buddhists.

So, are you living a good life? How rational do you think you are?

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Author: Rogério Marques

Rogerio is Executive Editor of Philosophy at PR. He studies Philosophy daily. If you follow Rogério’s Twitter (@rogeriomarquest), you can get a sense of what he is currently reading.

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