Monday, January 21, 2008

On knowing that One is Irrational

Can one know that one is irrational? It seems contradictory; but suppose I believe that I'm the product of billennia of natural selections—that my most basic concepts, and ways of reasoning (and of judging, and so forth), were probably just the normal ways in which human brains happen to make sense of sensory information, having been selected (from random variants) for not being ways that led more primitive brains (of apes, rats, fish and so forth) into inviability; and also that knowledge was one such concept, one fuzzily orientated towards experts (social authorities) and what they tell us, rather than infallibility. I might then believe that I knew that I was irrational.

3 comments:

Jeff said...

If "rational" is defined narrowly, I quite knowingly engage in activities which I recognize as illogical all the time. (For example, I do many things which can't be defined as rational in terms of propositional logic)
Many of us know it is irrational to waste money on restautants or to eat unhealthily... So I think my answer is "yes, one can know that s/he is irrational."

Enigman said...

As a rationalist I find the idea that any one could think of themselves as fundamentally irrational a bit, well, sad really; but I think your examples are a bit different... You know you are being irrational when you eat unhealthily, but if you see that as a problem (e.g. as a waste) then that is because you identify with your rationality. Maybe there is a conflict of desires (your desire to be healthy vs. your desire for yummy food or for cheap food or whatever), and if you regard one of the desires as better for various reasons, if you value such reasoning, then you regard yourself as rational, but imperfectly so.

Rich said...

Interesting question...

People with, for instance, phobias can certainly know that their fear's irrational but be powerless to do anything about it. Yet it would seem wrong to hive off that fear into a separate compartment and claim they were still rational nonetheless.

People with certain kinds of religious belief often characterise their belief as irrational, since it's based on faith rather than reason. I don't see anything incoherent in that either.

But I think you could also turn the question around and ask how on Earth anyone could ever know (rather than just hope) that they were rational...