Are Humans Capable of Rational Thought?

It has long been held that humans are “rational creatures”, that is their behaviour is governed by reason. The term “age of reason” was the (self proclaimed) view that humans awarded themselves in self-congratulation. Indeed there is ample evidence of profound “cause and effect” behaviour in the human extraction from the physical world which is based upon “cause and effect” knowledge. This is demonstrated by mining, engineering and much more. However there is also the specter of “unintended consequences” which is the failure to see cause and effect, often on a massive scale with widespread effects.

However the major behavioural actions of humans have illustrated a failure to rationalise and the dominance of emotion. Examples are the massive wars and other examples of “crowd behaviour” which reflect an emotional origin and a stupidity which is far removed from reason. Undoubtedly, within the province of war many examples of successful “cause and effect” activities were demonstrated. But those examples should not distract from an appreciation that the foundation endeavour was emotional rather than rational.

Are Humans Capable of Rational Thought?

Probably not. There are rare exceptions (likely these persons are called “geniuses”).

It seems possible to train individuals in rational thought. This is usually within “disciplines”, the thin pie-slices of human behaviour associated (in the capitalist-materialist era) with skills learned for the “professions”. But this is exceptional, and beyond the realm of their discipline these people seem to revert to “non-rational” behaviour

The reason is that humans are primarily social animals with bisexual reproduction and have the need for sustained conjugation between the sexes, both to initiate reproduction and to retain the coupling for the extended periods of (multiple) pregnancies as well as the nurturing of the children until adulthood. The social component also requires a uniformity of opinion and attitude to allow harmonious assembly of societal assembly.

In addressing this question, the term “rational” needs to be analysed. It comes, of course, from reason. Reason itself means the ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships. This has been termed (amongst others) “logic’ which is likely a superfluous term conjured at a time when an attempt was made to create a “discipline” under this name.[This “discipline” originally lay in the realm of philosophy, but currently is housed under “computer science”]

“Logic” does not occur naturally in the human brain. What one should call “cause and effect” can (and usually is) be well enmeshed with emotion and modified by emotion, and expressed as a melange of incorporated experience.


Cause and effect” results from experience, indoctrination or meme. No other way. (Except, arguably, “inherited memories”.) Even the “highest” levels of symbolic (“mathematical”) complexity, in all the conclusions and the assembled information is ultimately adducted from the observed world. This is captured by the brain in memory and retrieved from memory. Those individuals who are regarded as “genius” seem to have the ability to select their skills from memory, and exclude emotional intrusion.


Sententious Logic” is a mere game existing somewhere between language and mathematics and is relevant only as a path to understand fallacies.


Context: The brain has the capacity to create a “context” for each (potential) cognitive expression, which then grades further interpretation of emotional reaction to an external stimuli. This will distinguish (for example) between a horror movie and a real life horror situation.


Confusion: It is because the “cause and effect” relationships are expressed, by humans, via the same neuro-mechanical mechanisms as are all the emotional expressions, that the two – which are entirely distinct – have become confused with one another as “brain power”. Often the two merge as single, although complex, expressions, adding to the assumption that each is a product of the “cognitive brain”.

Because the brain’s capacity to reproduce “cause and effect” information (a feature of memory) is shared between two very different functions, namely between “cause and effect” and the product of the complex integration of both learned and inherent directives (the end product being “emotions”), the distinction between the two has been confused, and the brain has had attributed to it the capacity for “creative logic”.


Melange”. A well mixed compound in which the individual components can no longer be separated or identified


Further there appear to be “thresholds”, both upper and lower which characterize individuality. For example a high emotional threshold might be considered “autism”, whilst a low threshold might indicate “emotional lability”, and so with multiple other pathologies.


There is no consensus opinion about cause or source of emotion. Therefore it might be presumptuous to enter the debate. However, the knowing that the mystery remains is reason enough to enter the field.
Perhaps these multiple theories are looking for identifiable, extractable components, in a mechanical concept, without realizing that emotion is the total output of the integrated brain. Is it “not seeing the wood for the trees”?
There are at least 80 plausible theorists none of whom is assertively convincing.
One theory gets as close as possible to suggesting “inherited memories” exist without saying so directly (!). Kurt Kortschal 2013

It has long been assumed that “logic” is an inherent part of brain function. Undoubtedly the brain mediates the action derived from a conclusion (i.e. a cause and result observation). But such “cause and effect “decisions cannot be generated within the brain: the brain merely transmutes (and integrates) the resulting conclusion. The term “logic” is inappropriate because “logic” is a composite term, which includes the realm of  fallacies. Hence “cause and effect” is used instead.
Cause and effect all originate, and can only originate, external to the brain, and only by three sources, namely experience, or indoctrination (schooling) or meme.

Emotions are absolutes (since they are the end-point of a decision making process, albeit subliminal).

It is likely that emotions will produce physiological changes as secondary phenomena.

The evolutionary background  to emotion is irrelevant to the understanding of the nature of emotion, but is an interesting diversion.

What, then, is the purpose of a brain which converts its inputs into emotion? George Orwell pointed out the tendency of humans to selectively grade unpleasant events according to their “nationalism” (he had searched for a better word). What good does this do? In a community this reduces emotional differences (assuming common experiences have a common influence on the emotions of each in the group. I.e. this creates a ”common value system” assuming that the sensory inputs were similar- which would be likely in a close community) allowing closer cohesion of the members of that group. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in their book The Enigma of Reason make the same observation, although labeling it “interactionalist”

With the output of the brain being, primarily, emotional – and as this is a mechanism of homogenising human behaviour –  comes the problem of “mob behaviour” albeit small groups or entire nations. This emotional selectivity both explains and causes “mob benaviour”. The larger the group of people involved, so the greater the “mob”, culminating in entire nations acting irrationally and (often) destructively towards other huan groups. Thus, in prevention of this, political and national groups need to be fragmented.

Value judgements such as “good”, “bad” and “evil” are all emotions, powerfully influenced by context and meme.

There are many such value judgements, such as the primacy of children (there is an obvious evolutionary benefit, since children are the next “crop”). Following that (as demonstrated by the old evacuation adage) are women – since they will be responsible for the next harvest of that crop. Associated with the primacy of children are a host of other emotions – such as protecting children from premature sexual exposure (and the abhorrence of “paedophiles”)


This, like fantasy, is an emotion.

Many (or most) humans believe that they can control the world external to them, even believing that they can control their rate of healing. With very minor exceptions humans cannot control the world about them. It is common for these exceptions to be touted in an attempt to “universalise” them, that is, to claim that the exceptions are the rule and should be accepted as “standard”.

Some indefinable (and therefore nebulous – aka illusionary – concepts such as God) have been the basis for entire cultures and (by extension) entire Empires. Even some politicians have been wrapped in  illusionary cloaks, and as a result been adulated and deified



About jp

Orthopaedic Surgeon
This entry was posted in Human Behaviour, Humans as social animals, Language, Sex and Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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