Rationality

In common usage, people sometimes tend to use the words rational and logical somewhat interchangeably. The purpose of this post is to distinguish between these.

Logic:

Logic is the set of rules that allows me to evaluate an arguement independent of its content, purely from its structure. Just as I use grammar to parse a sentence and determine the relationships between the words in the sentence, I use logic to parse an arguement and determine the relationships between the statements in the arguement. Just as a grammatical sentence may be meaningless (Colorless green ideas sleep furiously), a logical arguement may be meaningless or irrelevant. However, the analogy with grammar only goes so far. There are many different grammars and all of them are equally valid within the context of their application – a given language. Any consistently applied way of meaningfully combining words in a sentence forms a grammar. Grammar is a matter of convention. The same is not true of logic. The word itself has no plural. This is a striking fact. Think about it. It indicates that man cannot even conceive of a plural for logic. There can be no such thing as my logic vs your logic. Logic is the structure of coherant thought. It is a part of the mental apparatus that man is born with. It is implicit in the capacity to think. By implicit, I mean that I cannot choose to think illogically (though I may make mistakes). To identify mistakes in thinking, the implicit rules of logic need to be made explicit by identifying them. This is a science. Like all sciences, the science of logic also presupposes several things. In particular, it presupposes man’s ability to use logic (implicitly). Whether the word logic refers to the implicit set of rules or to the science which deals with identifying them depends on context. In this post, I am going to use the word logic to refer to the implicit set of rules.

Reason:

Reason is the faculty of understanding and integrating sensory material into knowledge. Reason does not work automatically. To reason, man has to consciously choose to think and to direct his thoughts to achieve understanding. By directing thoughts, I mean preventing thoughts from wandering by staying focussed. Reasoning involves the use of logic. It also involves several other techniques. “Reason employs methods. Reason can use sense-perception, integration, differentiation, reduction, induction, deduction, philosophical detection, and so forth in any combination as a chosen method in solving a particular problem.” [Burgess Laughlin in a comment on an old post] Deduction obviously uses logic. I believe induction does too but the science on inductive logic is nowhere as well developed as it is on deductive logic. Sense-perception, integration and differentiation don’t use logic (Note: integration and differentiation refer to grasping the similarities and differences between various things). Reason then is not simply the faculty of using logic.

Rationality:

“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues… The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” [Ayn Rand, in The Virtue of Selfishness]

In the discussion that motivated this post, a colleague argued that if the use of reason does not guarantee correct decisions, it cannot be one’s only guide to action. A gut feeling or intuition might sometimes be a better guide to action. There are two separate issues here – the fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions and the claim that intuition can be an alternative guide to action.

Consider intuition first. Intuition is an involuntary automatic evaluation of the available choices. There is no conscious awareness of the reasons for the evaluation. Intuition is a learnt response from previous experience. As such intuition is extremely helpful in any decision making process. However, the fact remains that in every voluntary decision – the sort of decision where there is enough time to reason – intuition is only one of the inputs to the use of reason. As long as I make a decision consciously and deliberately, reason remains the only guide to action. The only alternative is to evade the responsibility of a choice. Relying upon intuition is not irrational in itself. I might decide that I do not have sufficient knowledge to reach a decision and choose to rely upon intuition instead. As long as I identify the lack of knowledge, my decision is fully rational. Identifying the lack of knowledge (and hopefully doing something about it) will actually allow me to learn from the new experience and improve my intuitions for future use. Blindly relying on intuition – by default instead of by choice – will actually weaken my intuition in the long run. Intuition is one of the most valuable tools for decision making but it needs to be carefully cultivated by the use of reason for it to be good or useful.

It is important to stress that rationality (in the context of making a decision) involves the use of all my knowledge to the best of my ability. In particular, this includes knowledge of the time available, the relevance of prior experience and any known gaps in knowledge. It is this last aspect of rationality – the use of known gaps in knowledge – that is the motivation for the field of probability. Probability is about quantifying uncertainty by making use of all known information and postulating equal likelihood where no information is available. The consistent use of the equal likelihood postulate is at the heart of probability theory and it is what gives probability its precise mathematical characteristics. In modeling an outcome for an uncertain event, I start with a uniform distribution (every outcome is equally likely) and use available information to transform it into a more appropriate distribution. The parameters of the transformation represent a quantitative use of known information. The shape of the final distribution represent a qualitative use of the known information.

With this brief treatment of probability, I can now address the obvious fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions. Consider an example. I have historical data for the exchange rate between a pair of currencies. I also have market quoted prices for various financial instruments involving the currency pair. To model the exchange rate at some future time with a probability distribution, I can use the historical data to establish the shape of the distribution and the market quoted prices to obtain the parameters of the distribution. If I had more information (say a model for other parameters that affect the exchange rate), I could incorporate that too. A decision based on such a model would be a rational decision. On the other hand, I could say that since the model does not guarantee success, I will simply use a uniform distribution (Ouch!! That is not even possible since the range for the exchange rate is unbounded. Let me simply restrict the range to an intuitive upper bound) with the arguement that the uniform distribution might actually turn out to be better. Yes, it might turn out to be better, but the arguement that it should be used is still invalid (Consequentialism is invalid and I am not going to argue this). Not all decisions can be formulated with precise mathematics like this, but the principle is the same. It is always better to use all my knowledge to the best of my ability.

Another aspect of the original discussion remains unaddressed – the claim that rationality is subjective. Since this post has already got long enough, I will just stress here that there is a difference between context-dependent and subjective.

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2G and the real scam

Allegedly, the public exchequer has incurred a loss of several tens of thousands of crores of potential income from auctions on the 2G spectrum. And the controversy over this refuses to die down. No one seems to realize that the government does not own spectrum and has no rights to auction it in the first place. Most people seem to believe that the government owns everything by default. So let me play along and see where this logic leads.

To setup a shop (or pretty much anything) in India, one needs to acquire a license (or registration or whatever). As far as I know, these licenses have never been auctioned. Assuming a very modest figure of Rs 1 lac per shop license auctioned, and just half a million shops who could have paid this modest sum, that works out to a loss of 5000 crores.

Over 750,000 two wheelers were sold in India last year. Each of those had to be registered. These registrations could have been limited (with the added benefit of reducing road congestion and pollution) – say to 500,000 – and auctioned to raise revenue. Assuming a modest amount of an extra Rs 10000 per registration, that works out to a loss of 500 crores. Similar losses could be worked out for sales of other vehicles. Let us say the total loss on all vehicles is 2000 crores. Further the government could have made it mandatory to renew vehicle registrations every year (as a security measure). These renewals could also be auctioned (to reduce the incentive to keep using old vehicles, thus reducing pollution). Assuming a very small amount of Rs 1000 on average per vehicle registration and estimating the number of vehicle owners who would pay this amount at 20 million, the total loss works out to another 2000 crores.

The cricket world cup is coming up. The right to use cricket as a theme for advertisements could be restricted and auctioned. Just imagine the loss! Easily another few thousand crores.

Tens of thousands of people migrate into cities from rural areas or smaller cities and towns. Since these people obviously cannot afford to buy houses, they stay on rent (if not in illegal slums). The right to rent space could be auctioned (with the added benefit of reducing overcrowding of the cities). Another few thousand crores lost.

Enough of examples. Let me generalize. Any activity that results in any value to anyone could be restricted by the government and the rights to it could be auctioned, thus generating additional revenues. Assuming just 1% of GDP as the revenue that the government could have generated by auctioning rights to economic activity, that amounts to a loss of 70,000 crores per year. Aren’t auctions wonderful? They have such immense potential to generate revenue. Sadly, this incredible idea is woefully under-used by policy makers. And no one is complaining about this scam!

Enough of sarcasm! Suppose the license rights had been auctioned. Who would have paid the money? The telecom companies who would have had to remain in business by lowering their costs – paying lower salaries to their staff or by hiring less, increasing the prices for their services and by reducing their profits. Ultimately, it is the “common man” – that mythical creature worshipped by all policy makers – who would have paid for the license rights. And where would the money have gone? Ah it would have gone to the same place where government money usually goes – but really, that is rude of me. I should not dare to ask such questions. Of course it would have gone into welfare schemes for the common man – the NREGA (remember the pictures of smiling villagers carrying a couple kgs of mud on their heads?), the minimum support price for various foodgrains (wasn’t there a recent report about grains rotting in government godowns? never mind), the public distribution system (absolutely necessary since minimum support prices cause inflation), the right to be educated (in a school where teachers never turn up, but that’s OK, the children can atleast have fun) etc. These are all noble ideas with proven track records. They must be implemented at all costs. You see, the “common man” is too stupid to know what he should do with his own money. That money should be taken away from him – by means of taxes on all consumption, license fees on every service that he uses etc, etc. A portion of it should be used to subsidize higher education (after all, the bureaucrats and policy makers need to be educated, don’t they?). Another portion should be used to establish various government agencies (like the agency which calculated the loss to the exchequer in the 2G scam). Another portion should be used to fund events such as the Commonwealth Games (it is a matter of national prestige after all). Another portion should be allocated to muncipal agencies and the like (like the one that digs up the road in front of my house every 3 weeks). Another portion should be used to line the pockets of the entire government machinery (people are corrupt and selfish, what to do?). Another portion should be used to create TV and other media advertisements for welfare schemes. And then, whatever is left (if any) may be returned back to the common man who should be grateful and beholden to the government for thinking of his welfare. Where would he be if he were left to the mercies of the free market? Oh no. That is just unimaginable. He would simply be exploited by the capitalists and left without a home, education and health care if he had full control over all his money. Just imagine!

Oh, did I get back to sarcasm after starting the last para with “Enough of sarcasm!”. Sorry about that. The real scam here is much, much larger than a few thousand crores. It has been in operation for decades (centuries?). And it is primarily a moral scam, not a monetary one. It is perpetuated by people who seek to derive their self esteem second hand – not from their personal achievements but from a claim to altruism (however tenuous), not from producing value but from distributing the value they have not produced. People like Raja are not responsible for the scam. People who support the system that makes Raja inevitable are.

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