Are Human Beings Rational?

File:Aristoteles Louvre.jpg

There is a long tradition to regard the human being as a rational creature. For example, Aristotle defined the human being as the “animal rationale“ or “zoon logon echon”. However, if we look at what humans think, say and write and how they behave, we will find a lot of behavior and thinking that we would call irrational.

So it seems to me that idea of the human mind as something intrinsically rational is just a myth. Moreover, not all of us would probably agree on what to regard as rationality. Looking into the history of ideas and philosophy would also show that concepts of rationality have changed over time.

It seems to me that rationality – of the kind normally nowadays understood by this term – is not a built-in feature of the human mind and the type of rationality that has led to the development of logic and science is obviously not shared by all people and by all cultures and has also not always been present in the history of our own culture, or the cultures it developed from.

I suggest instead defining the human being as the “creative animal”. I suppose that creativity is at the core of our mental functions. With creativity I mean the ability to change one’s thinking processes. If humans are creative in this sense then there are no fixed structures of cognition, there are no laws of thinking that cannot be changed by thinking itself. If this idea is correct, human cognition is capable of reprogramming itself. If we think of our thinking processes as some kind of software running in our brains, we may think of creativity as the ability of these programs to change themselves.

But if we are indeed creative in this sense, then there cannot be any fixed rationality of the human mind. Logical, rational thinking can then only be the result of a historical process of development. It would not be preprogrammed in the structure of our minds. It would be cultural and something that has to be learned.

According to this view, any logical or semantic device of thinking and language we are using – be it rules of inference, structures of representing information (e.g. as propositions), the use of logical conjunctions or of quantifiers, like universal quantification, grammatical devices of our language, mathematical “tools” like numbers or operations on them, and so on – had to be invented at some point in our history. There must have been a time when humans did not have them, e.g. when humans had not yet invented numbers.

There might be some innate structures that we are starting with, structures that are genetically preprogramed (and that might show some individual variability, e.g. in personality types). However, if the mind is creative, these structures can be changed. They would not be a fixed structure beyond which we cannot go at all, but instead any initial structures would just be the starting point of individual developments. In learning, we would be modifying them and we could completely stop using them and replace them with something else. These initial structures would then be merely a scaffold on which our cognitive structures develop.

If rationality is not the starting point of our development, as individuals, as cultures and as a species, but is instead a possible but not necessary achievement of culture and if we value it as something good, we should assign a very high importance to education, criticism and free public discourse. Rationality cannot be taken for granted, we must strive for it.

On the other hand, the concept of rationality itself should undergo our critical reflection. The possibilities of the creative mind go beyond the limited scope of what we normally regard as rationality. If rational thinking is a possible outcome of thinking processes that are not yet rational in this limited sense, these thinking processes cannot be regarded as entirely irrational. On the other hand, this means that some kinds of thinking processes that are not rational in the narrower sense normally ascribed to this term might nonetheless be valuable. You might think here of art and poetry, for example. The words “rational” and “irrational” should be used carefully and should be defined in each context. We should be careful with any depreciative use of such terms.

Restricting ourselves to any limited concept of rationality may lead to irrational results. Keeping our creativity open but adding critical reflection to it may be the most rational thing to do.

(The picture, showing Aristotle is from



  1. Reblogged this on The Asifoscope and commented:

    A new article on my philosophy blog.

  2. My mind boggles and is puzzled in a reassuring sort of way… because I have always felt that, for all its uses, rationality is over rated.

    I always enjiy the meanderings of your mind.

    1. Thank you. Stay tuned, more in this direction is going to come. Unfortunately,I don’t have much time at the moment, so it will stretch over a cople of weeks.

  3. That would be enjoy. My fingers have a mind of their own when it comes to android keyboards!

  4. Interesting speculation but we need to look at the evidence of the nature of man.
    The world in history and at the present is the product of mans activities.
    Obviously he is not rational.
    Man is a competitive intelligent animal whose main concern is making himself comfortable. He will do this even at the expense of killing his own kind.

    1. Thanks for the remark. Indeed that is the pressing problem at the moment, although not the topic of this article. From the title, one could have expected something into that direction. I have adressed such topics elsewhere on my other blogs.

  5. “Are” and “Can Be” are two very different things 🙂

    1. Exactly. It is something to be aimed at and this should happen, I suppose, in open, critical, constructive and self-reflective debate.

  6. I agree with you and the rest, observation of our behaviour would dissuade anyone from thinking man is a rational animal. Can be is a better description as Robert has said above

  7. I think this a very interesting proposition.
    An intriguing question in evolutionary speculation has to do with “how did we learn to make tools? how did we learn to make fire?” etc.. But such questions are poorly phrased; obviously we didn’t “learn” to these things, we invented them. Indeed, much of the world in which we live is of our own creation – the foods we eat (developed through breeding of certain plants and livestock), the landscapes in which most of us live, the behaviors we engage in which have little now to do with those of our simian ancestors.
    At some point we ceased to simply respond to the world, and began participating in its creation. Rationality has to be involved in this process, but surely there must be spark of intuition/imagination in conceiving of the new, or we would still be huddling in caves in the dark..

  8. I enjoyed reading your ideas about rationality. I believe the origins of “rational thinking” are from ancient Greek philosophers. To be rational was to employ logic, reason, mathematics and arguments: methods to express a truth. You are correct to say that we use the term very differently today. And I would like to add this: the opposite of rational is non-rational. (Maybe we should save “irrational” for the psychologists.)

    Non-rational would be more like human creativity, or intuition. And I wonder if we cannot argue that as well. Is human creativity ever mathematical? Yes! Music, is a prime example. Thank you for bringing this topic to our attention. It is a fascinating one. And I like your call to action: “Keeping our creativity open but adding critical reflection to it may be the most rational thing to do.”

    We need to continue to explore, question, expand our understanding. Every question we ask (once answered) is a beacon of light in the darkness of the unknown, lighting the way for more questions. Thanks again. Loved it!

    1. Thank you for this comment.
      Indeed creativity can be mathematical. In fact, the concept of creativity underlying this blog is a mathematical concept, defined by a mathematician, my friend Kurt Ammon. He defined creativity as the ability to calculate non-turing-computable functions. This is equivalent to saying that a system that is creative in this sense can leave the scope of any formal theory describing it (and he proved that computer programs are possible that can do that, i.e. programs that develop and are thus no fixed algorithms). This kind of creativity is required to do mathematical theorem proving (the area where Kurt developed these ideas) and it is required for computer programming (my own profession).
      But these are just examples, just like music as well.
      Thanks for suggesting the term “non-rational”. “Irrational” has too much of negative connotations. However, once you see it as something that is historically developing, you notice that rationality is not a fixed thing, it can develop and expand, so what was considered rational in Aristoteles’ time might be just a fraction of what we consider rational today. The concept is not fixed, it has to be discussed.

  9. It was not my understanding that Aristotle’s “logikon” is equivalent in meaning to our modern English sense of the word rational. I thought Western rationalism with its shift to understanding reality in terms of number and measure was more the result of Descartes.

    1. Thanks for the remark. I will check the literature and dictionaries on history of concepts to find out exactly, next time I get to the library. I relied here on information from the web that might well be incorrect. One should not do that, especially in matters of philosophy and the humanities. 🙂
      In any case, the concepts or “rational” and “rationality” that we use today are the result of historcal process of changes and developments, including (mis-)understandings and (mis-)translations.
      I am going to check who actually coined the term “animal rationale” (and when, this might indeed be a concept from much later times). Concepts of the human mind and soul underwent drastic changes in the hands of Descartes and later, compared with the concepts of antiquity. I’ll check that out.

  10. WrenchMonkey · · Reply


    (1) Viewing the world in terms of human experience and values.
    (2) The belief that our species is the star that crowns an evolutionary Christmas tree of Life.
    (3) The belief that humans are the pivot upon which our divinely ordained universe turns.

    Human behaviour is widely believed to be essentially rational and therefore fundamentally distinct from the behaviour of all other animals. This leads automatically to a belief system that is best described as ‘anthropocentric’.”

    Yet we share the planet with some 20 to 100 million other species, all of them genetically driven. One would think that only a deranged gambler would be fool enough to bet on the presence of a solitary exception in such a vast biota. In other words, anthropocentrism hinges on an extraordinary proposition, one that demands extraordinary proof. Unfortunately, none exists.
    Not the slightest scrap of hard evidence, either morphological or genetic, suggests that Homo sapiens is not, like all animals, a natural by-product of genetic and Darwinian evolution. We should therefore assume that we, like they, are uncontaminated by any supra-natural influences. We may well be excellent communicator sand tool-makers, and also the most self-aware, mystical and malicious animals on Earth, but overwhelming evidence shows that all these distinctions are of degree, not of kind. And yet the myth lives on

    1. Hello Richard,
      nice to get a sign of life from you and meet you again after such a long time. I hope you are as well as is possible under the circumstances of this world.
      I am going to reply to your comment at a later time, maybe in the form of a separate article. In that case, I will put a reply here with a link.

      1. WrenchMonkey · · Reply

        Thanks Nannus.

        The reason I abandoned my blog and rarely participate in online discussions is that I am the only caregiver for my father who is now 91. He suffers from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which is a nasty and rather uncommon, incurable, untreatable, degenerative neurological disease that slowly destroys the cells in the brainstem, cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia.

        His condition is declining at an increasing rate and his care occupies most of my time. The stress and psychological impact of this situation makes it difficult to focus on scholarly pursuits or engage in philosophical discussion.

        Nonetheless, I do still follow your blog via your RSS feed, as well as a few other WordPress bloggers and other sites I find essential to keeping myself at least somewhat cognisant regarding the ongoing extinction of the human species.

        I’d like to see your response in article form and will make every effort to respond. I always enjoyed our past exchanges and look forward to engaging in them more frequently in the not too distant future.


  11. Thanks for this piece, Nannus. It reminds me of a metaphor used by Jonathan Haidt in one of his book in which he describes the the emotional/irrational/subconscious side of our psyche as an elephant and the analytical/rational/conscious side as the rider. The rider thinks he/she is in control, but in reality isn’t 🙂

    Your last two paragraph on rationality is also quite interesting. I agree that rationality is a product of culture and should never be taken for granted. I also agree that rationality should not be the be all and end all of what we strive for, given that creativity also has deep roots in the irrational mind. I’m working on a short piece looking on the intersection of science and art, so this is perfect timing!

    1. Hi Isaac, thank you for your comment. It gives me an opportunity to clarify some points of the way I view these matters.

      In my view, the elephant-rider-metaphor is a bit problematic for several reasons:

      • The separation of the mind into an analytical/rational/conscious part on one side and an emotional/irrational/subconscious is an abstraction. Theses demarcations are a bit artificial. The mahout can dismount from the elephant but the rational part of the mind cannot dismount from the irrational. So we should maybe rather think of a centaur instead of an elephant. 

      • The metaphor is itself part of the tradition I was talking about. In this tradition, irrationality and emotions or “appetites” are ascribed to the body (represented by the elephant), so if you can manage to dismount that body, you would become completely rational. You see this idea in Plato (who might have received it from Pythagoras who in turn might have received it from Indian thinkers), you see it in Neo-Platonism, in Christianity etc. In Plato’s description of the death of Socrates, Socrates clearly expresses that when he dies and leaves his body behind, he can become perfectly rational and see the ideas untainted by the body. His last words are that a rooster should be sacrificed to Aesculapius (a god of medicine), so the cup of hemlock he had to drink was seen by him as a medicine (at least that is my interpretation of this episode).

      • But I would not view the emotional part of us as something irrational and I would not view the cognitive part as rational. Some emotions are perfectly rational and I believe that certain emotions (for example the feelings of curiosity, boredom, fascination, beauty) play a key role in the organization of learning processes, so they support our cognitive side. On the other hand, I think that our cognitive side, without any interference from emotions, drives, our body etc., can be very irrational. We are able to make mistakes in thinking, be illogical or think utter nonsense. We are able to think in ways that, while not nonsensical, are not “rational” in the normal sense of the word (e.g. when we create poetry).

      • I don’t think that the cognitive part of the mind has a fixed structure. The rider, to return to that
      metaphor, can change his shape, the way he works. Think of a river flowing through a plain. The river has a bed but it can change this bed, split into a delta, form meandering curves etc. There is a feedback process that results in constant change. So the upper part of our centaur is somehow like Proteus. Such metaphors should not be overstretched, but the logical, rational way of thinking is only one mode, and even that mode is changing. For example, it can be shown that any fixed method to proof or disproof mathematical statements must be incomplete. So even in very rational fields like mathematics, we need creativity, i.e. the ability to extend rationality.

      • Assigning the subconscious to the irrational and emotional side appears problematic to me. This connection, I think, goes back to Freud (who is also part of that tradition of the rational mind sitting on top of an irrational elephant). But there are a lot of subconscious processes going on in our minds that are perfectly rational. E.g. when you ride bike or drive a car, you do not have to think about every single movement. A lot of it is happening automatically. When you speak, the machinery of grammar is working automatically, you normally don’t have to think about parts of speech etc. When you read or listen to language, the decoding process is also going on automatically. Likewise, when you see something, e.g. a house or a tree, you don’t have to analyze pixel-level information consciously to finally derive that what you are seeing is a house or tree. All of these things happen automatically and subconsciously.

      The standard theory of the rational mind sitting on top of an irrational foundation of body/drives/appetites/emotions etc. permeates western culture. The elephant/rider metaphor is just its most recent expression.

      The title question of my article was meant as a catch phrase to get attention but maybe it was misleading because readers have this traditional rational/irrational opposition in their mind and use that as the backfrop for trying to understand what I am writing about.

      What I do not mean by it is that human beings are partly irrational in the sense of the standard rational-irrational opposition implied by the western tradition. Instead, I am aiming into another direction here: what we regard as rationality is a construction of our culture, and it is an incomplete description of human cognition. I think that human cognition is basically creative, i.e. there are no fixed laws of thinking. Instead, it can reprogram itself. New information can be integrated and can then influence how further information is processes, thus modifying the program, as it were. As a result, there is no way to come up with a general complete and exact, explicit theory of how cognitive processes work. Our thought processes can develop out of the scope of applicability of any such theory. If that is so, rational thinking must be the result of a historical process, not a given of our “hard-wired” structure. It can change and there are modes of thinking that are outside of it. Concepts of rationality (“logos”, “ratio”, “Vernunft” etc.) as well are subject to historical change. We are not rational by nature. Rationality is part of our culture and it is developing. Viewing the human being as an “animal rationale” is too restrictive. Human thinking is much richer. So my topic here is not rationality vs. irrationality (in the traditional sense) but rationality as a historically developing set of tools of thinking, that only forms part of our ever-changing and expanding mental toolset.

      Compare it to a computer. The same computer may be used to do an astronomical calculation, do the bookkeeping for a business, play music, display paintings, write a poem, play a game etc. It is a programmable, universal machine. In a similar way, our brains are programmable and thus universal, flexible, showing plasticity. Reducing them to a certain type of thought process is a mistake. We have more than one app running on that device and we can always create or get additional ones, in a manner of speaking.

      In the traditional model of irrational-emotional versus rational-cognitive, art and poetry are viewed as belonging to the elephant side. I disagree. If it makes sense to separate these sides at all, art is on both sides. There are thinking processes belonging to the side of the rider that deal with shapes, melodies, movements, grammatical structures or the braking of them, sense data, the crafts-side of the artistic creative process, meaning assigned to the work etc., and there are also emotional components involved.

  12. I am going to turn my last comment into an article so more people would see it and can take part in this discussion.

  13. very interesting discussions here, thank you. but can we really separate thought into different areas? what I can put into words is just a fraction of the impulse that sparked my impressions, and so much is lost in between… rationality is comforting, perhaps because we feel we might have some control over it or at least find a logic there. but aren’t those ideas illusions? It seems difficult to separate rationality from irrationality, two modes of thought perhaps, but for me they are most likely always linked.
    I do agree that human cognition is at its best, creative. really appreciate your thoughts on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: