Rationality is instrumental, and that’s a problem

The subtle and complex relationship between logic, philosophy, and science

by Massimo Pigliucci

Today I read a decidedly unfavorable review of the latest book by Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. I’m no fan of Pinker, but this article isn’t (mostly) about him or the book. Rather, it’s about one of the main criticisms brought up in the review, written by Ted McCormick for Slate magazine. Pinker wants to argue that if only people acted rationally then this would be a much better world. But he — correctly — defines rationality as an instrumental quality: “[rationality] is a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.” … (continue at Medium)


  1. “One thing we need to stop doing is to label people who disagree with us “irrational.” It’s not just psychologically unhelpful, it’s likely to be wrong. More productive, perhaps, is to ask them: what values and premises do you hold that led you to this conclusion? Who knows, a productive dialogue may ensue.”

    Excellent advice and article.

    But a person’s premises can be ‘irrational’ in the sense that they are inconsistent with a person’s values and goals. And the set of a person’s values and goals can be ‘irrational’ in the sense that they are incoherent.

    So perhaps a productive dialog could begin with the coherence and balance of values and goals and then move to the rationality of premises that follow.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. I totally agree. This is an example of what I call cutting out the middleman. Instead of saying “Your argument is of type X; Arguments of type X are wrong because Y; Therefore your argument is wrong” we can cut to the chase and simply say “Your argument is wrong because Y”
      Massimo and Boudry discussed some examples of this in their analysis of the informal fallacy fallacy.
      Similarly, I have argued that the classical argument
      “Socrates is human; all humans are mortal because [evidence, inference]; therefore Socrates is mortal” should also cut out the middleman, giving us “Socrates is mortal because [evidence, inference].”

      Liked by 1 person

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