The Rational Mind

RationalityI am a human. And if some other species hasn’t learned English, you too are. In being human we share some common traits (perhaps) exclusive to our species, rationality being one of them. Now, being a student of science I can’t help but wonder if rationality can be quantified in terms of some objective parameters applicable to all of us. What is the rational mind? Why do we think? What is the nature of the Mind? What is consciousness?

Cogito, ergo sum,’’ said Descartes – “I think therefore I am”, the sole assumption that he made in constructing a complete philosophical system starting from scratch, in his “Discours sur la methode” (Discourse on Method) published in 1638. If you were to seek a reason to everything you encounter, you would find a cause to every effect and a cause to the cause of each effect. Keep doing that – searching for a cause to one thing, and following it up by looking for a cause to the cause of each effect you encounter in the process – and sooner or later you will find an effect that has an unknown cause (if it has any!). This effect turns out to be the “ultimate” cause unless you manage to find a cause to this effect. But if you do find one, you wonder: what is the cause of this cause? The point where you give up looking for a cause becomes your fundamental assumption. And at this point you will invariably encounter a circular argument: the “ultimate” cause turns out to be an effect of its immediate effect. It defines your limitation in being able to ascribe a cause to all effects.

Thus to begin with you have to make a fundamental assumption – the “ultimate” cause that leads to everything else. Descartes’ limitation is defined by, “I think therefore I am” ¬– his “ultimate” cause. I think therefore I exist. And I exist therefore everything else happens. And if you were to ask Descartes why he is (i.e. why he exists), I suppose he wouldn’t hesitate while saying: I am because I think (not quite a circular argument, I guess!).

The rational mind is a tool that enables us to seek and find reasons for believing what we believe in. It seeks a logically consistent cause-effect relationship to everything observed in nature or conceived otherwise in the mind. Most events in nature proceed in a logical fashion. Some interesting comments on reason and rationality:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Albert Einstein

I adopted early in life a system of believing what I wanted to believe , while at the same time leaving reason to pursue unfettered whatever paths she was capable of treading.”


It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Bertrand Russell

Einstein’s assertion that the rational mind is a ‘faithful servant’ quite underlines the essential nature of the rational mind – that it is subservient to the will (given that ‘will’ is not a part of the ‘rational mind’; rather., it’s an entity independent of it, governing it, and forming a vital part of our consciousness which I choose to call the Mind). The intuitive mind, on the other hand, is a ‘gift’ in that it is not under the direct control of our ‘will’. It works out miracles for us when we least expect them. To quote from Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics”,

“The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative.”

Intuition is the essence of creativity. And rationality, the essence of chronology, for it is rationality alone that establishes the cause-effect relationship between events in nature.

On a different note, Churchill’s principle of separating belief from reason and letting them run parallel in his mind seems a rather intriguing proposition. The underlying idea, of course, is exercising one’s will (and not necessarily reason) in forming beliefs. Indeed,

it reconciles belief and reason without establishing an explicit reason(s) for belief(s).

And, well, Russell’s suspicion of man’s rationality borders on rejecting the possibility of any tangible measures of rationality; for in doubting one’s rationality one rejects the possibility of quantifying it objectively.

In a nutshell: man is a rational animal. Don’t ask me why?

Ravi Kunjwal