Balaji Prasad


By Balaji Prasad

“When men sow the wind, it is rational to expect that they will reap the whirlwind.” ~ Frederick Douglass

The opposite of rational is not irrational: it is rationalization! When we rationalize, we may be quite rational, except that we happen to be doing all this in a parallel universe – a very different one from the one that we actually live in.

Rationalizing rationality

It has been said that man is a rational animal. It may be more accurate to say that man is a rationalizing animal. But maybe that too is incorrect because that phrasing suggests that this rationalizing behavior is an inherent characteristic of man, and that it can’t be any other way.

The reality is that it is difficult to clearly delineate what we are born with from what we are indoctrinated with by our environment, which includes countless numbers of other people. So, it is entirely possible that you may have become a devotee of “rationality” because you are surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by worshippers of the religion of “rationality” – a religion that is unfortunately misnamed as this, instead of as “rationalization”.

Why this hair-splitting between “rationality” and “rationalization”, one may ask. As with many other things, the distinction may be in the chasm between a romance with some ideal and the reality of what that ideal really looks like when grasped and repurposed in the real world, by millions of human hands.

An irrational romance with ideas

Making this distinction with rationalization and characterizing “rational” as an ideal makes that notion seem to hold something of value, and something to aspire to. Is that true, and, if so, what is the value there?

Asking such a question may be moot if one, practically, doesn’t have the ability to make it much more than its omnipresent evil twin, “rationalizing”. But having lambasted the evil twin in such a heavy-handed manner, we do need to explain this: it has to do with the intangible nature of ideas.

It is possible to see that ideas sit inside the human mind while real things sit somewhere else, a place that we typically call “the real world”. And while there is this persistent illusion that the idea and the thing that the idea is based on are almost the same thing, we only need to look around to see how a particular thing spawns entirely different ideas in different human beings. This is what make life simultaneously interesting and frustrating, with countless hours of arguments and inability to agree.

Absurd words enable absurd ideas

Also, ideas are fertile soil. We build ideas upon other ideas, some of which are grounded in reality but many that have nothing to do with it. If we are not careful, we may end up with a house of cards of ideas that can be brought down unceremoniously with a single puff of air from the real world.

The fertility of ideas in giving birth to other ideas comes from words. We articulate, record, share and discuss ideas using the medium of words. And, as we combine these words into more complex assemblies of ideas, we use “logical” constructs that tie these together with words such as “since”, “because”, “however”, “therefore”, and such.

If the ideas underlying the words are out of touch with reality, how can the words that represent them be any better? And when these pieces of nonsense are strung together into rich tapestries, can’t we reasonably expect those derivative products to decouple us from our underlying reality even further?

Absurd ideas enable absurd worlds

Besides our penchant for weaving gobbledygook patterns with gobbledygook words and “logic”, there is a deeper issue: motivation. As living things, we are intrinsically motivated to survive. Our DNA seems to program us to seek out things that promote life, and to avoid those that could harm us. But unlike other animals, we live not only among real things in the real world but also among the words, ideas and logic we create – these dim and dubious derivatives of reality that may bear little resemblance to their origins.

And so, we tilt at windmills as Cervantes’ Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote did, imagining those windmills to be his archenemies that he needed to do eternal battle with.

All these complexities underlie what we think of as our “rationality” – This promiscuous playing with words and logic. If we get this one word right and realize that much of the time, we are merely rationalizing rather than being rational, we may stop doing as much of this as we do. Maybe we should just call it “rat” instead of either of those words we have been playing with, so that we remain aware of its true nature. And, if that helps us see it as this unbeloved creature, maybe… just maybe… we may get cured of our infatuation, and maybe even decide to drop out of the rat race. And live. In the real world!

Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and in-person Coach, and K-12 Math Tutor at NewCranium.