Rationality refers to a state of mind which possesses these attributes: reasonable or logical thought processes, clear and precise thinking, thinking which is internally consistent with experience, exercising good judgment, and thinking which is compatible with one’s actions and beliefs.
Rationalization refers to the action of attempting to explain or justify behavior, decision, or attitude with logical sounding reasons, even if they are not appropriate. Rationalization (also known as making excuses) is a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation.
As we can see, rationalization bears no meaningful relationship to rationality, except that we might refer to rationalization as “fake rationality”, something some of us fall back on if we think it might get us out of a bind.
Rationality does not require knowledge in order to work well, although it certainly works well with knowledge by breaking down concepts that are difficult to understand into their component parts and by integrating new concepts into existing systems where appropriate. The beauty of rationality, however, is that it helps us deal with uncertainty and what we don’t know in an appropriate manner, knowing what you don’t know, as it were.
It is clear to me, as I would hope it would be to you too, that rationality is a useful trait to have, certainly a lot better than rationalization.
Now we get to the crux of the matter: let’s say you believe that you are a rational person. You are a normal guy or gal. You exercise good judgment. Your thinking is clear to you. Your beliefs and actions are compatible with your thoughts, and vice-versa.
How do you know you’re thinking rationally? Well, for one thing, you think like everybody else around you. How do you know that? Can you read their minds? Well, nobody around you has told you that you are not thinking rationally. Maybe they are just being polite. Maybe they aren’t very rational themselves. Look, I know what I see and hear. I know what I know, and that’s that.
There are formal rules for logical implications and proofs. For instance, if one proposition implies a second proposition, that doesn’t mean that the second proposition implies the first one, but it does mean that the negation of the second proposition implies the negation of the first proposition.
But we are not logical systems, ourselves. Being biological systems, our commitment to logic is haphazard and unreliable at best, and non-existent at worst. We can be illogical and still survive for an indefinite period of time, depending on whether the person taking care of you is relatively rational, you are rich and powerful enough to hire rational people to protect you, or other factors.
Okay, so my commitment to logic does not go all the way down my cellular level. Let’s assume for a moment that I’m a full professor of philosophy and I’ve taught logic and propositional calculus for the last 50 years. Assume that logic is second nature to me. Let’s now assume, however, that the magnificent neural structures in my brain are succumbing to the insidious attacks of Alzheimer’s beta-amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and tau proteins. Assume that the cells of my brain, containing my memories, my capacity to process different kinds of information, and my abilities to muster my motor system into action, are going dark, slowly but inexorably.
Now, my question is this: what fail-safe mechanisms, if any, exist within our systems of logic that would allow me to know that my mental processes were functioning rationally or not? Obviously, it is not so difficult for us to answer that question about others; however, about ourselves is another question altogether.
If there is no fail-safe mechanism that can let us know beyond a doubt that we are not functioning rationally, then what good is rationality? Certainly the demented, the neurotics, and the psychotics have no use for it.