There is some conflict over what the term “rationality” actually means, and how we should go about putting this meaning to use in a practical setting.
Some would say that rationality is directly related to our capacity to apply critical thinking skills, or to our ability to recognize cognitive biases, or to our careful consideration of the evidence prior to making a decision or judgment.
Certainly, rationality is a loaded term. So in order to find the best approach to improving our own rationality, we must reach some common ground on the implications of the term itself.
To accomplish this goal, I will settle for appeals to authority for I am not, by any means, an expert on the topic.
Before we get to the definitions of the experts, I feel that consulting Wikipedia will provide us with an adequate starting point.
Wikipedia defines rationality as: “A normative concept that refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.”
So in a basic sense, rationality is the careful evaluation of one’s reasons for believing certain things or acting in certain ways.
For a more focused look at the meaning of rationality we will turn to Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is the author of the ever-expanding fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and content producer at both Less Wrong and his personal blog, provides us with the following definitions, splitting rationality into two distinct parts:
- Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory. The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible. This correspondence is commonly termed “truth” or “accuracy”, and we’re happy to call it that.
- Instrumental rationality: achieving your values. Not necessarily “your values” in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: “your values” means anything you care about. The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences. On LW we sometimes refer to this as “winning”.
Along these same lines, writer and president of the Center for Applied Rationality Julia Galef explains the aforementioned terms in a video format below.
All in all these definitions should provide us with a useful base on which to build.
To sum up, I’ll do my best to formulate a broad definition of rationality (and what a “rational mind” entails) that does justice to the nuance provided by the experts above:
Rationality is the careful evaluation of our reasons for believing and acting. Based on this evaluation, a rational mind changes its viewpoints and attitudes to fit what is most closely represented by reality and the vast body of evidence. And to conclude, a rational mind is always open to change based on new and improved arguments and evidence.