Rationality in Policy: How and Why


There was a brief but intense debate on rationality in April 2007, on the listserv of the Millennium Project.

Here I include:

(1)   The email from Tofig Mehdiyev of Armenia, giving an impassioned plea for total rationality;

(2)   My reply, in which I outline a more balanced notion of rationality as an alternative;

(3)   A brief final comment from Arnoldo de Hoyos.

(1) Mehdiyev’s plea ------------------------------------------------

At 08:00 AM 04/13/2007, Tofig Mehdiyev wrote:




The article about Pope's speech (www.timesonline.co.uk, March 27, >> >2007) once again demonstrates that people usually disguise their actions with the good words, that there are no full conformity between the words and actions forever. But nobody wish to recognize it. Everybody counts himself right and can not find own mistake. Pope, Benedict XVI says that "Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire". I would ask him will he also burn in this fire. Is he really sinless? Is or was really sinless man in the world? Of course not - I answer and all scientists can find that there has not been sinless human in the history. As well as no Popes, no prophets were sinless apart a few ones, because of  we do not know in detail.  Every of them have been encouraging the death of innocent people. New facts: 1. At the beginning of the deportation and genocide of Azeri people from the Armenia between the 1988 - 1992 the Pope John Paul II addressed to the head of Armenian Gregorian church encouraged the Armenians for their antihuman action and provided support. Of course, he called the action just and a will of God.  2. After 1990 when the deportation of Kosovians began by the Serbians, the Russian Orthodox Church's head also consecrated Serbians' antihuman actions.  3. The Russian Orthodox Church also congratulated the Armenians and their church's head, when they committed the genocide in Garabakh against Azerbaijanis (1990-1993), as well as, about has implemented a religious ritual in the church. About these facts the local and Russian media reported then. Unless you do not see that all religions (officials) only divide people and serve only their national politicians' ambitions? Very small numbers of religious people really are humanistic. In fact I would say humanism is not a creation of religions and is not their attribute, but is genuinely a human invention. When religions use it when disguise himself by it, when rejects it. The way that they have chosen will never salvage the humanity if not to bring them into clash. Only animals are sinless, but human beings eternally will be sinful, because they have Consciousness. If  reduce the sinfulness (mistake, misconduct, mismanagement) of human being and their organizations, states in 50%  they will reach big happiness; if in 80% they will live in paradise in this life. Only rationality science, training and learning it is able to save the people and their organizations, about I ask of all to join to the rationality movement and change the world and him/her. Once again I appeal to the intellectuals to support the rational society philosophy (<http://rational.sayt.ws>http://rational.sayt .ws) that aims to rationally solve all the problems, mismanagement, misconduct and unethical behavior, providing a rational public design, rational life style, rational law and decision-making with the participation of all wished, rational ethics, rational thinking. Instead of all ideologies and religions the rationality science and rational:  life style; ethics, social and economical principles are proposed for the present and  future humankind.


Your assessment would be valuable.



Tofid Mehdi



(2) My reply -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

After this impassioned plea --




I, too, often feel rather overwhelmed with the many ways in which sheer craziness might lead us all to extinction. The human race has a huge amount of work it needs to do, simply in order to survive... and we seem to be way behind schedule.


Rationality is certainly a key part of what we need more of, in order to be able to get our work done. But what is rationality?


For example -- if the Millennium Project were to take a strong position against religion in all of its forms, would that be rational? Would that help us get the work done? That I doubt.


On your web page, you say that a rational society is one which dedicates itself to the supreme goal of human "prosperity." Certainly there are people who would propose that all of human society, laws and funded activities should be made "efficient" in maximizing one variable - the rate of growth of real GNP. Hazel Henderson and I and others on this list have written at great length about why that is a bad metric... In fact, that concept by itself might be seen as one of the important evils of our age.


We need to have a better concept of what rationality IS, before we can push it further.


Like you, I believe that greater rationality really is essential... Therefore, I have spent a large part of my life developing a more viable concept of what rationality IS. You have to know what it is, before you can use it more pervasively.


The concept STARTS from the earlier concept of rationality developed by Von Neumann, in his classic book The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. In essence -- in order to avoid wasting energy fighting themselves, people need to articulate a kind of "utility function," a decision about what they really want, when they must make a choice. Von Neumann's ideal of rationality does not tell us what the utility function should be, however. Von Neumann's version is the basis of modern decision tree analysis and "risk management" theory, and has many uses -- but has many limitations as well.


There is an important new research community which has begun to

overcome these limitations of the Von Neumann concept - not by throwing it out, but by adding to it. We had an important conference on that subject in Honolulu just last week, in which I was asked to summarize things...


An early part of my paper is posted at...




A lot of earlier work (and my own view of religions) is posted at




though it badly needs to be updated by lots of new material.


Some key notions are:


(1) Logic and mathematics cannot tell us what our utility function "should be." The only firm ground for making that decision is "inside ourselves" – rather like the notion from Confucianism and Taoism that we should be "true to our deepest self." That requires some effort at substantive, concrete self-understanding.


(2) Our higher intelligence is not all verbal. We can be fully conscious of things even without articulating them in words. Our higher intelligence LEARNS to do better and better, with time, but never achieves perfect Von Neumann rationality, even though that is the direction it naturally moves towards.


(3) One part of doing better is that we help ourselves and others LEARN to be more effective, in many ways. One part of that is that we learn to express our natural tendency towards rationality both in words and in mathematics -- recognizing that mathematics is more precise than words, and helps us see things we need to see that we might have missed if we lived only in a foggy subjective world of words.


(4) Rationality is NOT an alternative to such equally basic principles as love and benevolence. If we choose the former over the latter, or the latter over the former, either way we are badly crippled and perhaps even doomed. The natural tendency is to move towards the point where we can understand and see equivalence between what these two sets of principles point towards -- keeping them BOTH alive.


(5) Can SOCIETIES be as intelligent or rational as individual people can be? Is it rational for us as individuals to ask that societies be restructured so that they look more like brains, complete with a collective thalamus and cerebellum and so on? In my view, the concept is useful but it would be dangerous to demand too much; however, it is a very complex topic, and I will say no more about it on this list. The topic of "collective intelligence" is of growing interest to this community, but not for this list.


Enough for now.


Best of luck to us all,




(3)   Arnoldo’s quick comment ---------------------------------------------



Dear Paul,


You are right it´s important to avoid fundamentalisms , and keep our several eyes open , as suggested by Ken Wilber et all , and not forget the possibilities already open by the AQAL integral epistemological approach.


Best Wishes,