In Pursuit of Rationality

Devin Z
8 min readJun 13, 2021

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Golden Gate Bridge, August 16, 2020

Over the past whole year, I’ve been tucked away at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I got to spend more time pondering philosophical questions (over myriad sleepless nights). I wondered if there were any key principles that one could follow to lead a more reasonable life.

Here are some thoughts that came to me in my quest of answers.

Keep Aware of Emotions

Humans, as part of nature, obeys the same physical laws as the rest of this imperfect world. Despite our pursuit of rationality, we are created to be more irrational than we think. We could be dumb because of limited information, lack of knowledge, or subtle influences instilled by the societies we live in. But more importantly, human brains are inherently dominated by an evolutionary heritage — emotions. That’s why we are obliged to be more considerate of others’ feelings and more critical of our own thoughts.

Back in the hunter-gatherer age, emotions were efficient short-cuts for our ancestors to decide on a “fight-or-flight” response. That helped them survive dangerous situations where quick decisions were more valuable than thoughtful plans. In modern societies, however, emotions that overwhelm us more often lead to undesired consequences, for they are no longer fit for this industrious world. What’s worse, modern homo sapiens are often kidnapped by emotions without awareness. We may obstinately believe that we are making our own decisions judiciously, even though what our reasoning does is simply justify what a mammalian brain has bet on.

Rational people should have a more objective view on themselves and heed habitual thinkings to resist their irrational instincts. In order to keep emotions at bay, one should first be constantly alert to them. When you notice some intense emotions come along, neither strengthen nor resist them. Instead, just observe them carefully, and usually they will go away themselves. Another tip on taming emotions is to engage yourself in rational thinking. For example, if something unreasonable annoys you, convince yourself that what’s in existence must make sense in the first place, and try to understand it without judging it. Often when you come to an understanding, you’ll feel better about the thing that disturbs you. In other times, you may find yourself upset for no reason. Instead of ignoring those obscure feelings, analyze them and trace their causes in your life. That helps to assuage your anxiety, but sometimes also prevents you from dismissing some practical issues that your subconsciousness has kindly reminded you of.

Distinguish Values from Facts

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

Another point I want to make is that being rational does not necessarily mean being objective. Rational beings can be biased by subjective values.

There is an objective world that only consists of pure facts, which are observable, undebatable, and independent of our cognition. At any moment in history, our society as a whole has a limited understanding about the objective world, and everyone could agree on that understanding based on our common observations by the time. On top of that, individuals may build up their own subjective value systems to facilitate decision-makings for sake of physiological and psychological needs. Only in that value system can we tell something is good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or hideous.

Facts tell us what the world really is, while values tell us what it ideally should be from a certain perspective. Unlike facts, values have no ground truths and are not falsifiable. Just as rational beings may have different risk preferences to make financial markets thrive, it also makes sense for them to hold different beliefs, ideologies and aesthetics. People living in the same society tend to share more common values, which, unfortunately, may cultivate the “us-vs-them” mentality between different groups of people.

Rational thinkings are constraint optimizations that maximize subjective values while satisfying object constraints. Gaining a better understanding of facts is therefore the fundamental step of being more rational. But all too often, we are vigorously engaged in some debate even when we haven’t collected enough information. Sometimes we even selectively ignore some observations at hand just in defense of a stance or an opinion. Such habits are doomed to backfire and impede the development of our cognition.

Besides seeking truth from facts, a rational person should also be open to different values. Not only can this help us be less narrow-minded when getting along with others, but also it helps us to reduce cognitive biases and get a better understanding about reality. Driven by subjective values, most of our reasonings repeat certain logical paths that we are used to, so we inevitably miss some facts in areas that our thoughts never traveled. Even worse, existing opinions could be cached by our subconsciousness and over time become stale. We are not optimistic just because we fail to realize that what we think of as a dumpster fire could be a great opportunity from a new perspective. The only way out is to be more open-minded, stand higher, look farther, and think deeper.

Knowledge is Both a Means and an End

通过实践而发现真理,又通过实践而证实真理和发展真理。

——毛泽东

The mission of all rational beings, I believe, is to comprehend the world and to change the world. One needs to learn how the world works in order to take actions to improve one’s life, yet getting an understanding is a spiritual enjoyment by itself. In that sense, knowledge is both a means and an end in one’s life-long journey. On the one hand, we exploit knowledge to solve problems and achieve our goals. On the other hand, we get to learn from experiences and continually update our knowledge.

Knowledge in mind is derivatives of objective facts that we observe in practice. From concrete examples witnessed by us, we get to establish general theories and elegant models that help us predict what we haven’t experienced. Every piece of knowledge is more or less an abstraction or approximation of the complex real world. They spare us from the exorbitant mental costs of reasoning about every detail all the time, yet remain to be useful as long as they apply to sufficiently many practical problems. But at some point, they start to fail, just as every piece of software may go wrong no matter how many tests it passed. It is thus necessary for us to delve deeper into the particular problems we face rather than just rest on conclusions about general cases. Otherwise, our experience may not work out as expected, or we may miss out on some shortcut for solving a problem more efficiently.

The history of the human race is an everlasting process of testing and developing knowledge in practice. As a society, we have to revise a theory only when it is at odds with some new finding. As individuals, we get to learn something new only when we experience something unexpected. Hence, one should relish and appreciate the setbacks and failures that they never expected, for they are golden opportunities to further one’s education. When everything is smooth and pleasant, chances are that you’ve been trapped in a comfort zone and can hardly learn anything new. Only when things get tough are you able to observe more facts than what your mental models have been overfitted for, and thereby get to upgrade your knowledge into the next level.

In addition, rational people never shy away from a good chance of making mistakes. Instead, they “fail early, fail fast, fail often”, and keep a growth mindset about themselves as well as everything else in the world. They actively engage themselves in a closed loop between knowledge and practice, meeting challenges with an aim to learn and learning from the challenges they meet. Neither will they circumscribe themselves to a single endeavor or a certain area. On the contrary, they embrace whatever problems they meet in life and are willing to diversity their knowledge portfolios. They wouldn’t treat anything as a detour off a destined journey, for every path in life deserves a sightseeing.

Be a Proactive Owner of Life

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

—Reinhold Niebuhr

The serenity prayer is one of my favorite quotes. It reminds me of one takeaway that I got from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: be proactive within your circle of influence, and beyond that just let nature take its course.

A common sloppy thinking regarding life is to completely deny one’s control over it. Such a thinking tempts us to ascribe everything happening on us to the people around us or some inescapable destiny that we are at the mercy of. After all, tackling a problem head-on might cost more energy than simply whining about it. It would be more than wonderful if our grudges could miraculously dispel all the bad luck or hold someone else to handling the situation for us.

But a rational person will soon realize that wishful thinking can get us nowhere, and that strokes of luck will not find us until we create them. The objective world is value-neutral — neither to our advantage, nor to our disadvantage. It is our freedom and responsibility to understand our situation and change it in our favor. People around us, like us, are intelligent agents pursuing their own values, but to us they are just part of the objective world, from which we should demand less. Only our own decisions and actions are in our control and can consistently help us in the long run. Once we take more initiatives in what we can do, we will find that challenges are often overestimated at first and that we have more power than we thought. We are active owners of our lives, not passive victims.

On the other hand, uncertainty abounds in nature, and not everything falls in our circle of influence. Our attention is a scare resource, so it is unwise to waste it on things we can’t control. Even for things we can control, it is more advisable to prioritize important ones and put first things first. Then how can we delineate the circle of influence and get our priorities straight? The key is to maintain a larger circle of concern, in which we strive to get an understanding rather than make a difference. The circle of influence should be a subset of the circle of concern, because we can solve a problem only when we understand it. As we understand more problems, we get to decide which are critical and which are solvable. Over time, both circles will expand as we are armed with more knowledge and experience. But as with many other things, that takes continuous learning through trial and error. After all, life is an upward spiral between understanding oneself and changing oneself, between understanding the world and changing the world.

San Francisco, December 28, 2019

Thanks for reading this! Wish you all have a wonderful life.

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