Attempting to prove yourself wrong

We want to be rational, but if we don’t have a good definition for what that means, how can we tell if we’re being rational or not? In fact being rational is so tied up with the ways human think and solve problems that being irrational essentially means that it’s impossible to make progress or win an argument. If someone tells you that “you’re not being rational”, but you feel you are, who’s right? The dictionary definition doesn’t help us too much: “based on or in accordance with reason or logic.”

Part of the problem is that this is circular because “logic” usually references “reason” and reason usually references “rational.” We might rely on synonyms like “sensible”, but that implies that a rational choice is something that’s either widely accepted already or is already known to be correct. That can’t be right because if that was true then anything that challenged accepted wisdom couldn’t be rational. Humans make progress, we overthrow old ways of thinking and invent new technologies, by being rational. Often making progress means trying things that at first don’t seem sensible, but of course for every new discovery there’s lots of new ideas that never go anywhere, so being rational isn’t just trying new things either.

We want a definition of rational that will capture what it really means to solve problems in the best way that humans can. So it should capture why we use science to make new discoveries, but it shouldn’t ignore emotions and feelings either. Is it rational to rescue an injured animal or give money to a charity on the other side of the globe? I think it is, and that’s because rational doesn’t just mean “simple and straightforward” or “a clear solution to every problem.” Someone who’s trying to help in the best way they can think of is being rational, and in fact acting rationally doesn’t even mean you always end up being correct either.

Think of Isaac Newton, when he described the law of gravity that was a great, and rational, example of the progress of science. But it was undoubtedly wrong, it’s a very good approximation, but it’s been proven many times since that General Relativity is a better and more accurate description of gravity. Does that mean that Newton was being irrational? Definitely not, Newton’s law of gravity is a very rational explanation of a force that wasn’t well understood before. What was Newton doing that was rational even though he was also wrong?

What Newton did was to test his ideas, which means he was trying to prove himself wrong. He thought that gravity might work a certain way, but instead of just going with his first idea that seemed to work he came up with ways to test it to see if it would fail. What he was doing was attempting to ensure logical consistency

There’s two key ideas to this definition. The first is that it requires an attempt, not necessarily success. If you came up with a new theory of gravity, to be rational you’d have to test it. The test might fail, you might disprove yourself, but you could be wrong and still be acting rationally because it’s the attempt that matters. Also, complete logical consistency might be possible sometimes in mathematics, but it’s rarely completely possible in the real world. Newton didn’t have any way to test how gravity worked at the speed of light, or near black holes, so there was no way he could ever be 100% sure that his law would hold up perfectly. But he did the best he could, he attempted to disprove his theory with every tool at his disposal. And that’s the second key point to this definition, it involve and active part for the person who wants to be rational. It’s not enough to just say “there’s no obvious problems with my idea.” If you want to be rational you have to actually try and find mistakes or counterexamples or experiments that could disprove yourself. It’s not enough to just have some facts or observations that support the conclusion, we have to actively seek out new facts that could disprove it.

However being rational doesn’t demand perfection, you don’t have to be a genius to be rational. If you try your best to come up with the best possible solution to a problem, and really question it and try to find flaws or improvements and can’t, then that’s a rational solution even if it may not end up being the best possible solution. We could imagine a young student and an adult who’s drunk both trying to solve a math problem, and they’re both having problems with it (for different reasons). Even if the student has difficulties figuring out the answer they can prove to themselves that it’s right by checking it and checking wrong answers to make sure they understand how it works. That would be a rational solution, to check their own answer to make sure it’s right. But the drunk adult might not be acting rational, and could get stuck insisting that an answer is right because they’re not willing to check it. Even if they picked an answer randomly and it happened to be the right answer we wouldn’t say they were acting rationally.

Of course most problems aren’t like math problems, they don’t have a single right answer that’s easy to check, and so it’s a lot easier to act irrationally when trying to tackle most of life’s problems. We don’t act rationally when we don’t question ourselves or don’t consider other options or we just do what ‘feels right’ or apply old rules of thumb to new situations or we want to believe something is true so we overlook chances to disprove ourselves.

Being rational means having a logical reason, but also trying to disprove that logical reason by looking for ways it might be wrong. If we’ve honestly questioned ourselves, our facts and our logic to the best of our ability and haven’t found a flaw, then we can come to a rational conclusion. And of course if new information is discovered or a new explanation comes to light that causes a problem then the rational thing to do is to discard the old argument. In these cases it’s not required that we have a new answer or a new solution to continue to be considered ‘rational’, the attempt to question and disprove ourselves is enough because almost everyone would agree that saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” is a perfectly rational response.

Thinking about being rational like this has made me think about these articles differently because that’s what I’m ultimately trying to do, write rational definitions for complex ideas. On one hand it’s a little liberating because it means I don’t have to be 100% correct, if I come up with the best definition I can and question myself and accept criticism and it still seems like the best definition, than that’s rational. But it also means that if I, or anybody, wants to be rational that you can never call it done or call it perfect. There’s always the new ideas and new perspectives and if we want to be rational that means being willing to question anything when presented with new information.