Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Arrationality (3/3)

Arrationality is an evolving term.  It evolves specifically in reaction to rationality.  Arrationality is as much a part of the 500-year process of welcoming science into our consciousness as anything else.  In this sense, arrationality was how people thought before the early modern era began around 1500 - admittedly not always to the greatest effect.  


Albert Einstein called the intuitive or metaphoric mind a sacred gift.  He added that the rational mind was a faithful servant.  It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine.
          Bob Samples, Metaphorical Mind

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do; they use their intuition instead; and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.  That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization.  In the villages of India, they never learned it.  They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not.  That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

          Steve Jobs

The term rational means 'agreeable to reason', which means, among other things, 'the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgements, and inference." (Emphasis added.)  As the antithesis of rationality, arrationality is precisely not concerned with forming conclusions - such as on the basis of a premise and the application of syllogistic logic or the observation of a physical object and the application of positivism.  

IMO arrationality is the process of generating insights from the sub-conscious, intuition, instincts, or a community at large.  When applied with the proper intention, arrationality is (accurate, reliable and valuable) visioning, intuition, instinctual decision-making, and creative thinking.*  

Here is an illustrative story demonstrating how experts try to rationalize processes that fundamentally resist rationalization.  I originally attribute 'arrationality' to Professor Gene Rochlin at the Energy and Resource Group at the UC Berkeley.  He used the term in a seminar - ERG 251: Political Economy and Social Theories of Risk (aka PESTR).  According to a story he told, he once was consulting experts at a well-known, high level governmental agency.  (I do not perfectly recall which one.)  These experts wanted to develop accident prediction methods.  This idea is subtle.  

Although you can certainly create statistical models that estimate accident distributions, deterministic models that define unsafe conditions, or management models that reduce overall systemic risk, you can not predict an accident.  Accidents are in their nature and definition unexpected.

These experts wanted to rationalize the arrational.  They almost wanted to control fate and to perfectly determine outcomes.  Some people in the social theory of science field call this process model reification - that is to turn an intellectual model into a king of sorts or to give the abstract more concreteness than appropriate.  The story illustrates the vast over-investment in scientific thinking in a situation where the practitioner probably needs to 'step back' and 'look at the big picture'.  With more time, I would apply this idea to question of foreign policy blowback.

Arrationality and Decision-Making

Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.

The points of this three-parter is, ultimately, to help widen the definition of valid and legitimate knowledge.  To re-iterate what I have said elsewhere, our "decision methodologies have somehow not developed in step with our scientific and political innovations".  Clearly the existing notions of valid and legitimate knowledge have left us exposed to world historic risks such as climate change, nuclear power meltdowns, nuclear war, critical ecosystem damage, and biological diversity losses - not to mention geo-political questions not addressed here (i.e. foreign policy blowback).

The front page of the option3 website speaks to various tensions in public policy such as between progressive neo-Keynesian economics and conservative neo-classical economics.  The same tension sits between science / linear thought and arrationality.  I begin to address that in why a third option?.  Rationality and science in themselves are neither destructive or constructive.  They are simply tools.  But people have abused science and rationality.  Our prejudices have impacted our readings.  We need to bring these frameworks - progressive and conservative economics, rational and arrational decision-making, and others - into better balance.**

* I would also add that arrationality includes empath-ing.  But very few people in the policy realm will know or want to know what that means.

** I decided to footnote the following  informal math metaphor.  If we project rationality onto a Cartesian coordinate system, arrationality is orthogonal to the axis of rationality.  In other words, say you put rationality (and irrationality) on the x-axis, you would naturally put arrationality on the y-axis.  But we face an immediate question: if the negative 'values' of rationality are irrationality, then what are the negative 'values' of arrationality?  Here is my current answer: dis-creativity.  If arrationality has a dark side, I currently see it as dis-creativity.  In this simple coordinate system metaphor, you have fours quadrants: 
  • rational-arrational, 
  • rational-dis-creative, 
  • irrational-arrational, and
  • irrational-dis-creative.
Many policy-makers today make choices in the rational-dis-creative quadrant.  They make choices that exhibit some short-term rationality but also exhibit dis-creativity.  I may develop this metaphor further.  An image will convey the idea better.

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