Raw Reflections on Rationality and Intelligence + Two Cat Pictures

So I have two cats. One is a British Shorthair named after the very English Philippa Foot. The other is an Ocicat named Catullus, after Gaius Valerius Catullus, an ancient Roman poet some of whose stuff is decisively Not Safe For Work. I often refer to the two as “the irrational animals” – as in “the irrational animals are hungry” or “thank you for taking care of the irrational animals” – but I suspect this is just an Aristotelian slur. They are probably more rational than I am, though I am surely smarter.

Can you be smarter but less rational? I hear epistemologists talk as if you can’t. But you can, easily. Consider a mentally healthy child of 11. Imagine the same child at 14. She has gotten smarter, but probably less rational.


Some moral psychologists assume that the salient difference between adult humans and cats is a binary difference in terms of rationality (or something called autonomy – some other time!). To me (who argued in 2012 that one can be rational without deliberating) it looks like the difference isn’t binary but in degree and isn’t a difference in rationality but rather in conceptual sophistication – as well as some raw abilities like working memory.  Such a difference can have dramatic implications: there is a great variety of things, from football to ethics, from math to romance, that my cats cannot understand and I can because I can conceptualize more (and more complicated) things. While I think rationality also comes in degrees – the irrationality of someone who fears that there might be a burglar because of ordinary creaking sounds is less severe than that of the person who, on the same evidence, is absolutely sure there is a burglar – it seems quite possible that, neuron for neuron, my cats are more rational than I am, as their behavior seems to make perfect sense in view of the few things they (probably) know and the few things they (probably) want.


This isn’t just about cats. It sounds very weird to me when epistemologists talk as if my failure to understand, say, topological set theory is a failure of rationality. The point is not that it takes a brutally high standard to accuse a person of irrationality for not getting a difficult branch of math. Bring on the high standards! I am willing to admit a failure. I just don’t think it’s specifically rationality at which I fail.

Here’s a related tale. In a different life, I knew Mottke, a man whose cognitive abilities were those of an 6-8 year old. Only a child myself, I accidentally tormented him one day when he declared that Venus had no arms and I made it my mission to correct him: it wasn’t Venus who had no arms. He first learned of Venus in connection to a picture of a famous statue of Venus, and the statue had no arms. “That’s what I said, Venus has no arms”, he said cheerfully.  I re-explained. He really tried to understand the difference, but to no avail.

I think I know what went on. It probably did not occur to Mottke that the statue used to have arms and lost them. He saw Venus as a make-believe person and could not fully grasp the concept of a make-believe person being misrepresented by her make-believers. It was as if we argued as to whether the Simpsons were yellow-skinned or only drawn in yellow, and he, knowing that they were fictional, couldn’t get around the difference. If that was the problem, I suspect that Mottke was not displaying irrationality. A poor conceptual repertoire, or an inability to acquire some complex concepts, is a failure to be smart (in general or with regards to a certain type of thing), not irrationality.  Irrationality is what happens if you already have the relevant concept(s) and yet you fail to draw conclusions – if, for example, Mottke, who seemed to have a full grasp on the concept “imaginary”, knew that monsters were imaginary but was afraid of finding one under his bed.

Conversely, smartness (plus education) is Stephen Jay Gould understanding that his cancer diagnosis being associated with an 8 months median survival rate did not mean that he was likely to die in 8 months. Rationality is Gould writing soon afterwards (1985) for the New York Times suggesting that he’s going to live for many years to come – presumably without worrying (much) that as soon as he volunteered the very public prediction, the disease will come back. Maybe it’s my wimpy-ness talking, but I would guess that the number of people rational enough to handle something as scary as cancer without magical thinking is smaller than the number of people smart and educated enough to master the concept “median”.

Just a hunch. Time to feed the irrational animals.


One thought on “Raw Reflections on Rationality and Intelligence + Two Cat Pictures

  1. Keith Stanovich has done fascinating research on the differences between rationality and intelligence. The latter is an ability to discern unfamiliar patterns after a few examples, while the former is an ability to figure out what follows from what. Just as there’s an IQ test for intelligence, Stanovich is now developing an RQ test for rationality, and the questions are of a completely different kind. IQ test questions are of the form “which of these various things doesn’t belong together?” or “which is the next item in this series?”, whereas RQ test questions are of the form “given these constraints about which person had to be called before/after which other person, what is the order in which the protagonist called the various characters that she needed to call?”

    Of course we can also describe a person as “rational” if their thoughts, feelings, or deeds are just those that good reasoning would lead them to, whether or not they arrived at those thoughts, feelings, or deeds on the basis of reasoning.

    But, if Stanovich understand the contrast correctly, then only a creature that understood what it is for one thing to “follow from” another could be rational. Any creature capable of pattern recognition is intelligent.


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