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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I see a curious contradiction in your ‘Socratic mission’. On the one hand you champion rationality. On the other hand you speak continually of human folly, including your own. So my question for you is: Do you, like your student Plato ’s student Aristotle, believe that humans are rational animals? If so, what does that mean?

Yours truly,

Dear Janice,

I must admit to puzzlement on this score myself. The most obvious meaning of ‘rational animal’ would be a type of animal that tends to behave rationally. Is that us? Well, that kind of question always has two components, doesn’t it? On the one hand is the conceptual question: what does ‘rational’ mean? On the other hand is an empirical question: does the definition in fact fit (ie correctly characterize) us? Answers to those questions are interdependent. For example, suppose that as a matter of empirical fact, human beings usually behave irrationally. Would it follow that we are not rational animals? Not necessarily. For the meaning of ‘rational’ in this context could be ‘ capable of behaving rationally’ – analogous to how we can say someone is an ‘emotional’ person even though he is calmly sleeping. Therefore, so long as we were capable of behaving rationally we could be considered rational animals, even if we usually didn ’t behave rationally! Descartes seems to have had something like this in mind in his Meditations when he acknowledged that human beings are liable to sensory illusions and intellectual mistakes, but also insisted that we have the capacity to correct and overcome them.

But even that might seem too modest a claim about human beings. After all, humans not only survive but thrive on this planet; we have just about taken it over (for better or worse). Therefore it seems absurd on the face of it to claim or assume that our behavior is overwhelmingly irrational. We must be ‘getting it right’ a great deal of the time, right? However, that little argument itself contains assumptions worth examining. For one, it assumes that rationality is instrumental to surviving and thriving. But is that true? Obviously logicians and most philosophers would like to think so. But what proof or argument is there to support this idea?

Here again we cannot even begin to address the question before we know what is meant by ‘rational.’ For example, if ‘rational’ means ‘knows the rules of logic, including modus ponens, modus tollens etc’, then the obvious facts of our numerical thriving alongside almost universal ignorance of such rules instantly refutes the hypothesis that rationality is an aid to thriving. But even if we adopted a more inclusive notion of rationality, its importance in our lives could be questioned. Maybe in this crazy world it actually helps to be irrational, even a little insane. This would explain why so many people believe fervently in patently ridiculous things, without which their lives might not have sufficient prospects of enjoyment or meaning to ‘keep them going’. Alternatively one might point to all of the non-human animals, not to mention plants, which at least until our recent dominance, managed to thrive just fine without the sort of rationality that, ex hypothesi, defines us, the rational animal, as distinct from them. So if not irrationality, then non-rationality could be sufficient to thrive, and rationality is irrelevant here. Either way, rationality would turn out not to be essential to thriving. Unless, of course, we conceived rationality even more inclusively, to encompass all living things –in which case our being rational animals would no longer distinguish us, and ‘rational animal’ would be a redundant phrase.

Meanwhile, another assumption being made by both sides of this ‘thriving’ argument is that numerical proliferation is the same thing as thriving. But maybe it isn ’t. Maybe a truly rational populace might cut down the rate of propagation of its own species. Indeed, this might even be a prerequisite of that species ’ long-term survival. This would suggest that we have not been behaving rationally after all (whether or not we are capable of doing so). Indeed, other animals could prove to have been more rational than we have, insofar as they ’ve maintained their numbers at a sustainable level, both by curbing their own reproduction and refraining from excessive killing of their prey and destruction of their habitat.

Or: it could be precisely our much vaunted rationality that has brought us to this pass of threatening our own survival, by giving us a leg up on the workings of the natural order; and the superior environmentally-stable position of other animals has been due to their not being rational (or alternatively, so rational that they could figure out how to subvert the seemingly cruel but in fact benign mechanisms of environmental homeostasis).

So you ask me what I am about by forever urging people to be logical and rational in the face of their (perhaps our) seemingly inveterate irrationality. Well, by Apollo – maybe this tendency of mine is none other than my way of being irrational! I would not doubt it. Who am I to transcend a dominant characteristic of our species? For humans are surely the irrational animals, however much they may also be the rational ones. You are not likely to come across an irrational monkey or hippopotamus, however non-rational they may or may not be. But just as there are no evil opossums because there are no virtuous ones, so we humans are both good and evil, and, I am afraid, both rational and irrational.

As ever,


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