Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reasoning, the rational, irrational, objective, subjective, and the realm of the nonrational

Reasoning is a critical capability needed to survive and thrive in the modern world. It is also a foundation of modern computing. But, in the "real" world, reasoning is not always the foundation of all thought and action. We use the term rational to characterize thinking and behavior that employs reasoning. We use the term irrational to characterize thinking and behavior that at least appears to "defy all logic" or "flies in the face of reason." In general, rational thought and action are considered good and irrational thought and behavior are considered bad.

In the context of this note I am concerned mainly with the communication of information, beliefs, observations, facts, logic, and conclusions, so even if an individual may act reasonably (possibly even by flipping a coin or reading tea leaves), the question is whether they are able to effectively communicate their thought processes and observations to the proverbial neutral observer.

Reasoning works well when we have access to an objective view of the facts, when all relevant parties can agree on the truth of the facts.

Reasoning tends to break down when individual views of the facts are subjective. If we can't agree on the truth of the facts, we are less likely to come to compatible conclusions, except maybe by chance.

There is nothing wrong with subjectivity per se, and it may be an essential quality of much of the "real" world, but it does suggest that we cannot categorize all thinking and action as either rational or irrational.

Intuition is one example of thinking that defies categorization as rational or irrational and not clearly based on reasoning per se.

Gut feel is another example of a mental process that defies categorization as rational or irrational.

Personal preferences are commonly not guided exclusively by reasoning.

I would suggest that there is a realm of the nonrational which includes all forms of thought and behavior that might be considered reasonable by at least some neutral observers, but cannot clearly be characterized as strictly rational or irrational.

I would not categorize all aspects of religion, ethics, and aesthetics in the realm of the nonrational, but clearly the spiritual, including the existence and nature of a deity, the existence of a soul, and life before and after death would seem to fit nicely in the realm of the nonrational. Concepts such as beauty and preferred behavior and social values do not strictly flow from hard reasoning, but that does not make them implicitly unreasonable and irrational. They may have significant value to society even if we are currently unable to elucidate a formal logic for such a conclusion.

Many forms of mysticism might also reasonably be categorized as being in the realm of the nonrational, but any form of mysticism based on outright fraud should clearly go into the category of irrational. Or, maybe fraudulent mysticism should actually remain in the realm of the nonrational, but merely flagged as fraudulent, especially since "true" believers might not be inclined to accept any form of reasoning about their cherished beliefs.

I would not suggest that all forms of subjectivity should automatically be categorized as being in the realm of the nonrational. In cases where the range of subjectivity is fairly narrow and bounded, we can still reason reasonably effectively. But where the range of subjectivity is all over the map, unbounded, and unbridled, clearly reasoning is of little value.

Another general category in the realm of the nonrational are beliefs and claims of behavior that by their very definition and nature cannot be verified by observation or any amount of logic. Some examples are:

  • Out of body experiences
  • Communicating with the dead
  • Seeing the future
  • Recalling a past life
  • Having visions that others cannot see
  • Hearing voices in one's head that others cannot hear
  • Characterizing one's soul
  • Claiming the existence of a true soulmate
  • Claiming to have seen or done something without any credible, verifiable evidence

In a Knowledge Web, it does make sense to be able to represent both the irrational and the nonrational in additional to the clearly rational. This does highlight one of the difficulties with reasoning within the context of a Knowledge Web. One might derive a conclusion from irrational or nonrational claims, but one needs to be sure to properly categorize the result based on the strength or weakness of the claims upon which the "reasoning" is based.

In any case, the representation and use of the nonrational in a Knowledge Web is worthy of further consideration.

-- Jack Krupansky


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