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 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aristoteles_Louvre.jpg)