March 16, 2011
Every normal person is rational when relaxed. And everyone has the potential to become irrational when emotions kick in. That’s obvious enough. The thing that fascinates me is that irrationality is something you’re generally not equipped to recognize in yourself while it’s happening. In a perfect world, we’d have an objective way to measure irrationality, the same way a breathalyzer measures drunkenness.
In this context, being rational doesn’t mean you’re brilliant or entirely logical. It just means you’re willing to evaluate information and attempt to draw reasonable conclusions.
I wonder if scientists can determine when you are using the rational part of your brain and when your irrational part is getting a bit too involved. That seems doable. I believe we know enough about the architecture of the brain and we have the technology to see which parts are most active at any given moment. The problem is that it’s not practical to do a brain scan outside a lab setting.
But will that always be the case?
Technology will probably reach a point where you can put on a hat with sensors that see which parts of your brain are being most active. An LED screen on the hat will indicate whether you’re using the rational part of your brain or the crazy part.
Using the rational part of your brain doesn’t mean your opinion is right, of course. But it’s a start. We can also measure IQ, and we can measure a person’s knowledge on a particular topic. That would give you a good idea who to believe on any particular issue.
That leaves self-interest as the wild card. I assume a politician or business leader would be capable of using the rational part of his brain to mislead others for personal gain. But here again I’ll bet the brain-hat of the future will be able to detect deception based on the totality of which parts of the brain are being active.
Politics would never be the same. Voters would insist that politicians wear brain-hats for all speeches, press conferences, and debates. No one would pay attention to any pundit who wasn’t wearing the brain-hat.
The interesting question is whether some topics, by their very nature, make every participant irrational. I don’t think anyone could pass the brain-hat test when considering topics such as gender equality, war, religion, evolution, race, taxes, Israel, evolution, sexuality, and the like.
I hope I’m dead before technology reaches a point where we can know for sure that people aren’t rational about anything that matters. Because at that point we’ll see there is no reason for debate. Force is all that will matter. Arguably, force is all that matters now, for anything important, but at least the illusion that rationality is an option for persuasion slows down our impulse to bulldoze the opposition. That’s probably a good thing.