Rationality, Science & the Human Mind

tionality, Science & the Human Mind

by Garry Jacobs, Vice President, The Mother’s Service Society, Pondicherry

Presented to World Academy of Art & Science General Assembly

at the Workshop on Limits to Rationality, Hyderabad, October 19, 2008


In pursuit of knowledge, the sciences depend on a wide variety of instruments suited for study of different fields, but there is one instrument of supreme importance to all science – the instrument of rationality. Given its the central importance, it is remarkable that greater attention is not focused on defining the criteria that distinguish rational thought from other forms of cognition which attempt to mimic it as well as on the inherent limitations in reliance on the faculty of rationality as an instrument of knowledge. It is also surprising the more the scientific community and public-at-large have not given greater attention to the various ways in which the claim or appearance of rationality is applied to promote personal convictions or present postulates and suppositions as though they were scientifically validated facts. The World Academy is pre-eminently qualified to examine this issue in its broadest and most profound terms and to evolve guidelines that may be relevant to all fields of science.

Is rationality born on earth? If so, where is it clearly evidenced? Certainly not in politics where democracy is based on competition and compromise between different interest groups for power and benefit, rather than on any rational principle of what is best for all. The UN, which was founded to establish democracy in the world, has been used as a means to preserve the privileges of the victorious powers in World War II. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has been used by the nuclear weapon states to preserve a position of nuclear apartheid rather than to fulfill the goal of a nuclear-weapons free world.

The current international financial crisis is evidence enough that rationality is not prevalent in the field of economics and finance. Had rationality prevailed, this crisis never would have occurred. Rather it is the result of the persistent argument of bankers, economists and other experts that deregulated national financial markets and unregulated international markets is optimal. In the 1980s, two Nobel Prizes were awarded for work supporting the Efficient Market Theory, which seeks to anticipate price changes based on the assumption that fluctuations in the market are random and unpredictable. The crash of 1987 completely discredited the theory, yet it remained in vogue among academics. Over the past few decades, investment practitioners of EMT have fared no better than they would have by selecting a random assortment of 20 stocks. Warren Buffet, a practitioner of an alternative theory known as value-based investing, multiplied his capital 137-fold during the same period, while the DOW only doubled. EMT theorists attribute Buffet’s success to chance. Current thinking regarding inflation, employment, money and world currencies fare no better.

In reality it is power that governs human affairs in all fields, not rationality. What we sometimes mistake for rationality is the limits to power which compel people to behave with a semblance of rational consideration. Yet, all work is based on the assumption that people will behave rationally. Great accomplishments, such as Prime Minister Churchill’s defense of Britain in World War II and President Roosevelt’s successful halt of the banking panic in 1932, are the result of idealism and determination, force of personality and commitment. Being rational, most of the problems humanity faces today will simply disappear.

The world’s great intellectuals are commonly considered the last bastion of rationality. But a careful study of their lives, like the one by British historian Paul Johnson, casts myriad aspersions on that illusion. Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, and their like were great indeed, but rational they were not. Bertrand Russell was a confirmed pacifist who went to jail during WWI for his convictions. Yet after WWII, he actively campaigned for a preventative attack against USSR to stop communism and end all wars. Five years later he denied that he had ever advocated a preventative war, until a BBC correspondent confronted him with his published statements, prompting him to respond that he had forgotten what he said and never really meant it.

Is Science Scientific

If not intellectuality, than surely science deserves recognition as a bastion of rationality, for science prides itself on the power of reason as opposed to the claims to knowledge of faith-based religion. Yet public confidence in science is largely based on faith in the experts who proclaim scientific truths, even in cases where other scientists know better than to accept their statements at face value. Regardless of whether scientists are rational or not, there is no doubt that public acceptance of the truths of science is largely based on superstition. In fact, science has simply replaced religion as the basis for faith. No doubt it is true that science has remarkable accomplishments to its credit, most especially the technological wonders of the modern age that have been generated as a product of scientific endeavor. But capacity to accomplish does not necessarily signify truth of knowledge. That is to confuse practical utility with theoretical validity. Ptolemy proposed that heavenly bodies moved on circles that moved on circles. His theory of epicycles enabled him to predict the eclipses and motions of the planets to within an accuracy of 1 part in 1000, yet the underlying premise was entirely wrong. Kepler’s first theory of the solar system based on platonic solids was also remarkably accurate but based on entirely false premises. In the social sciences, even a semblance to accuracy is often taken for proven fact.

In his writings, philosopher of science Karl Popper enumerated many common logical inconsistencies that are still prevalent in scientific practice today. He argues that the inference of theoretic truth from empirical facts by induction is logically inadmissible, yet the practice is widely accepted in most scientific disciplines. His insistence on falsifiability and not merely verifiability is relevant to scientific practice. But beyond these logical inconsistencies, science is prone to more mundane human errors emphasized by the social constructionists. Former WAAS President Carl-Goren Heden expressed this fact succinctly when he said, “Scientists will not accept a new idea unless it is pronounced by one who has already been highly recognized for his accomplishments.” Then it is the person that is being accepted, not the theoretical conception.

As Popper argues, rationality requires above all an impartial, disinterested, objective assessment undistorted by personal motives, past conceptions or preconceived ways of thinking. Can science be rational as long as scientists

  • Want to convince others of their views?
  • Want to be recognized for their discoveries?
  • Selectively search for data that confirms their theories?
  • Hesitate to express views that are contrary to current belief or the views of their peers?
  • Accept a statement as true simply on the strength of the person who speaks it or the journal that publishes it?
  • Accept a statement as true because spoken by a distinguished scientist, even when he is speaking outside his own field of proven expertise and accomplishment?

The term limits to rationality can be approached at two levels:

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