The myth of the rational argument

We believe the truth lies along the path of rationality. Logic, evidence, knowledge–it is through these we achieve enlightenment, right? It is natural to think so. Science is the epitome of rational thought, and it has peeled back the curtains of reality producing insights into the universe’s nature. The technologies science has produced have dramatically improved quality of life of our species. 

Yet, how often have you presented ideas supported by iron-clad arguments and sound evidence only to have other people ignore them? Are those people merely ignorant? It certainly feels good believing so. 

I have discussed some reasons why rational arguments fail to sway others in my previous blog, “We think we’re arguing about the evidence. We’re actually arguing about values.” There, I discussed that rationality is a way to determine how to achieve a particular end, and it is our values that define which ends we want to pursue. If I have a different value than you, then I will not find your rational argument meaningful because you are using rationality to achieve an end that does not interest me. 

In today’s post, I want to explore another reason why rational arguments sometimes fail to carry the day. That reason is there are different ways of coming to know something — that is, there are various forms of rationality. For example, scientific experimentation is a great way to discover the properties of stars, but it is not how we learn to drive a car. When learning to drive, we gain a “feel” for brake and acceleration through practice. 

I may brandish in your face the latest scientific study of how to merge onto the freeway, telling you the optimum acceleration you must bring your car to, the precise angle of the steering wheel, all backed with statistical analyses and graphs. I reckon, however, you would ignore my science when you merge onto your next highway. Instead, you would probably rely on feel for how the car handles and use your judgement of how fast to drive to safely slide into an available opening in traffic. 

You probably do not find that example revolutionary, but consider this. Why do we accept that you will trust your judgement over science when merging into traffic, but criticize parents who trust their judgement over science when withholding vaccinations from their children? Why is merging into traffic something that requires personal discretion whereas, with vaccinations, science trumps personal discretion?

We know how to merge into traffic. We know how to use vaccines to prevent disease. The way we come to know those two things, however, is very different. 

What forms can rationality take?

Barbara Townley presented an organizing framework of the many different ways we come to know things in her book, Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. I will briefly describe the categories she uses below and then discuss why this matters in our everyday lives. 

Disembedded rationality: This form of rationality assumes there is an objective truth separate from our personal experiences. For example, if I invest $100 in a savings bond earning 5% a year, then next year I will have $105. That is a truth. It will happen regardless of my personal experiences and beliefs.

Embedded rationality: This form of rationality assumes that the truth is embedded in a social context. If your culture believes you need money to buy food, for example, then the rational thing for you to do is earn money so you can eat. This truth, however, does not hold up in a hunter-gather society that relies on barter. What is true depends on the environment in which you exist. 

Embodied rationality: This rationality assumes the experiences of our body are a source of knowledge. Learning how to drive is one example. So is learning to play the piano. The gut instinct a physician gains when treating a patient, honed over years of experience, is yet another example. Practice and experience yield potent insights into our reality.

Collective rationality: This is the rationality of groups. Collective action can be as simple as the sum of individual actions. Alternatively, it can be driven through robust debates–i.e. deliberative democracy. Here, members of a group put forth ideas and debate them. They discard weak ideas, strengthen good ones, and ultimately use this process to select group actions. 

Practical reason: This is an integrative form of rationality. People exercising practical reason use disembedded rationality to inform embedded and embodied rationalities. They rely on collective rationality to sharpen their ideas. The hope is that through integrating multiple rationalities, we gain superior insights. 

Different rationalities as a source of conflict

As you might imagine, people applying different forms of rationality may disagree with one another. In my research, I saw several examples of such conflicts. A group of researchers wanted to work with seniors to facilitate lifestyle changes that would delay the onset of frailty. The science told these researchers that it was possible to slow if not avoid frailty through exercise and nutrition. The phrase, “the science …” is a giveaway this was the product of disembedded rationality. It was through scientific experimentation that researchers made these discoveries.

Seniors, however, felt the aches and pains in their body and concluded that exercise was not for them. Due to their arthritis, or broken hip, or whatever ailment afflicted them, they felt that not only was exercise uncomfortable, it might be dangerous.

Moreover, they watched their friends and family descend into frailty, and they came to believe that frailty was an inevitable part of ageing. This is an example of embodied rationality. Their lived experience with their own body and watching the experience of others told them all they needed to know about the reality of ageing, science be damned.

Practical reason: The power of blending rationalities to create insights

Relying on different rationalities may bring people to disagreement. It is, however, also a source of powerful insights. Each of those forms of rationality I listed above captures a different truth about reality. They are, likewise, blind to other truths. Through blending rationalities, the blind spot of one rationality is compensated by another. 

For example, the researchers above were committed to delaying frailty in seniors–research told them this was possible! But, how could they convince seniors to adopt the recommendations science told them worked? 

To solve this conundrum, they sat down and asked seniors, “What would it take to get you to follow this program?” They learned that seniors would adopt this program if their family doctor recommended it.  

This is a form of embedded rationality. Recall, embedded rationality is embedded in the social context. In the social context of the senior population, the word of family physicians had authority. 

Disembedded rationality informed the researchers how to prevent frailty. Embedded rationality told them how to convince seniors to adopt their program. 

How can you use this in your life? 

First, recognize there are different ways through which we come to know the world. We may prefer one of these ways over others, but those other ways have value nonetheless. 

Understand that this may be a source of conflict. If someone is not responding to the evidence you are forwarding, ask them what would convince them. Listen to the answer, for within their reply you will find glimmers of the type of rationality they use to navigate the issue. Knowing the method they use to understand the problem may yield insights into how to proceed. 

Utilize different forms of rationality to tackle difficult problems. Remember, every type of rationality has a blind spot. Blending rationalities give us a bigger picture of the issues we face and reveals solutions that are otherwise hidden. 

Our stories have power

They are how we understand and change the world. Of the different forms of rationality I described above, which one do you find yourself relying on most? What’s been your experience when working with others who use different forms of rationality? I’d enjoy reading your experiences in the comments.

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