The value of irrational thinking

Posted on August 27, 2013
Filed Under Magic | 6 Comments


I’ve been playing the re-mastered version of Ducktales lately. It’s a game which brings back fond memories of my childhood. On one of the levels, the miners are afraid of sounds coming from the mine, so they leave. Scrooge insists that there is a rational explanation and eventually gets to the bottom of the mine, where he discovers a race of underground dwellers who’ve been causing the noise. Afterwards he tells his nephews how there was a rational explanation for everything, at which point one of them dryly observes that a race of people in the Earth who don’t like diamonds is a perfectly explanation. I thought it was an interesting point to make, especially as I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, which explores just how prevalent irrational behavior is.

Rational thinking is a bit overblown in my opinion. We use rational thinking to explain why we’ve chosen to undertake a particular action or made a decision, and conveniently ignore the emotional, irrational factors that play a role in our decision making process. And while there might be a rational explanation for everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean that explanation is the best explanation out there. There’s a presumption that being irrational is bad or that it makes you less in control of a given situation, but I’d argue that what irrationality can provide are alternative explanations that may not overtly make sense, but nonetheless provide a different way to view a given situation and can actually help you find solutions to your problems. It may not be a rational solution, but why stick with rationality?

In one sense, I think the reason rationality is so prized is because it’s perceived as a negation of everything that doesn’t conform to a neat little package of the universe. Rational thinking has an explanation for everything, or promises that it will, and those explanations will be packaged in a nice safe way that makes sense to everyone. Irrationality isn’t necessarily safe. It embraces the unknown and explores the possibilities that the answers may not be known or may not fit conventional thinking. Irrational thinking embraces the validity of believing in spirits as being a reasonable (if not rational) explanation.

I’m not much for rational thinking because I’ve never found it to be as useful as some people portray it. A lot of my work has come from being deliberately irrational and using the irrational perspectives to gain insight into what I’m working on. I think rational thinking has its time and place, but so does irrational thinking! Embrace irrationality for the possibility of unusual perspectives and non-rational solutions. And explore irrational thinking so that you can understand how you already engage in it, and thus can makes changes in that thinking, if you so desire.


BhimaBeausoleil 1 Like

Hi Taylor, 

Nice post. However, I was left wondering just how accurate were the concepts you were talking about. I would probably start with irrationality and improbability. You start by pointing out how, at some point of the DuckTales game it seemed that an underground race of dwellers feels like an irrational explanation, for the noise the other characters heard when mining. For me, it feels more like an improbable explanation. If indeed the underground dwellers made the amount of noise necessary, it would seem, rationally, that their activity can justify the event, even if this hypothesis has a initial statistical value nearing zero. 

I do tend to agree with you that we, as humans, tend to embrace rational explanations due to its simplicity of process. As if implying there's a chain of events that can neatly lead us from event A to event B. Or C, D, etc. However, these explanations more than based on rationality, seem based on the familiar, the current. Ockham, a famous philosopher from the 14th century, even stated that between two or more competing hypothesis that can accurately explain a single phenomenon, we should always choose the simplest one. Something that became known as Ockham's razor. But I'd argue that you can have simple neat non-rational explanations that can explain events rationally. As you pointed out, you can group some of them as emotions. Love. Hatred. Jealousy, Anger, Envy, Ambition (and yes, this almost seems like a 7 deadly sins list. Coincidence???). Other "non-rational" rational explanations might involve morals or feelings of duty, just to point a few. You name any of these and you have great chances that people will understand what you mean and deem it rational. "The heart has reasons that reason itself doesn't know about", can often be heard, as if to justify this.

But getting back to the beginning, I'd like to call your attention to a Arthur Conan Doyle quote. Sherlock Holmes, known for his rationality, would often say that to find a solution to a problem, "you simply remove the impossible. Whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth". This would put the answer not in the neat simple package Ockham and most but not all humans prefer, but in the explanation which might best satisfy all we know about something.

Does this deems rational thinking above all else? Absolutely not. As you pointed out, irrational thinking does have its advantages. It does spark evolution. In arts, science, life. By fueling desires, dreams, feelings, and everything else in between, we can promote innovation, different ways of seeing a problem and even dealing with it. We can improve ourselves and the world around us. The Laughing Buddha story does seem an excellent example of someone who practicing only the irrational managed to achieve enlightenment and to lead people into Nirvana. And, do correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't remember a single being reaching enlightenment with a rational, logical thinking. Usually, you have a leap of faith at some point. Something outside the grid that pushes you forth. It might happen at the beginning of the process. Or nearing the end. I would agree with you when you say we should embrace these leaps of faith, these bursts of irrationality and use them to our best advantage. But I would suggest keeping them side by side. Left brain/right brain. Both of them working together, even if in their own ways, to take us to better heights. 

Sorry about all the ramble. I only intended to comment on the improbability thing, and things just grew from there.

Magicexperiment moderator

@BhimaBeausoleil In the game, they actually say irrational and thus my use of the word. You are correct that there is value in rational thinking. Certainly I don't think we should toss it out. I just sometimes see people who hate on irrational thinking (ironically enough) and focus on putting rational thinking on a pedestal. Each has their place and purpose.

MikhaelBrown 1 Like

A quote from Jung might be appropriate here or not.  Just wanted to share.

“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life...If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature...Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.”

― C.G. Jung, The Red Book

Magicexperiment moderator

@MikhaelBrown You'll groan when you read this, but there's a method to my madness ;) I like the Jung quote and I agree with it. Having had some experience with madness of one form or another (as society defines it), I can say it's always proven illuminating to have the experience.

MikhaelBrown 1 Like

@Magicexperiment @MikhaelBrown No groaning on my part at all. After all what is considered rational depends a lot on ones view of what is.  The visionaries are often thought mad or at least wrong and irrational.  Case in point, the Wright brothers and man flying, or the quantum mechanical model of the physical universe and something being in two place simultaneously.  Once we become open to other possibilities as possibility and not impossibilities, then whole new worlds open up no matter how crazy or "irrational" they may appear to others or even ourselves at the time.  The whole concept of "Rational" as it is used is very limiting and debilitating to creative exportation.