Limits to Rationality - Concept Note

Project on Knowledge, Thinking & Limits to Rationality

Concept Note

In pursuit of knowledge, humanity depend on a wide variety of instruments suited for study of different fields, but there is one instrument of supreme importance – the instrument of rational thought processes. Given its the central importance, it is remarkable that greater attention is not focused on defining the characteristics of thought processes and the criteria that distinguish rational thought from other forms of cognition which attempt to mimic it, as well as on the inherent limitations in reliance on the faculty of rationality as an instrument of knowledge.

The World Academy proposes to examine a range of questions regarding the nature of knowledge, thought processes and the limits to rationality as they relate to the quest for knowledge in the physical and social sciences and humanities. An ultimate objective of this project is to catalog characteristic patterns, misconceptions and superstitions regarding the nature of human thought processes and to develop guidelines for promoting original thinking and creativity in the quest for knowledge.

Science, humanities and art are all concerned with the pursuit of knowledge of various types through various means. But in the modern era, science has displaced philosophy, art and religion and emerged as the principal form of human inquiry into the nature of reality. Science is knowledge that is power to enrich life materially, socially as well as psychologically. Science is a social institution and subject to the common characteristics of other human organizations. A fragmentation of disciplines has advanced knowledge of specialized areas at the expense of wider, more integrated perspectives of the whole of which these areas are parts. Advanced in technology have driven improvements in our capacity to observe and measure that exceed the development of new theory, leading to an emphasis on data collection and analysis rather than original thinking and theorizing as the central pursuit of science. Although great scientists attribute their theoretical breakthroughs to non-rational processes, the study and practice of science focuses almost exclusively on the systematic means for evaluating theories rather than on the creative process of discovery itself, which remains poorly understood. Science developed in the West as a reaction and remedy for the limitations of a knowledge imposed by religion, yet often we find many of the same limitations in the field of science today – a tendency toward superstitious adherence to established doctrine and intolerance for opposing views. The problem becomes more complex when we extend the discussion from the physical to the social sciences, in which facts are no longer material objects, but social events directly influenced by subjective human perceptions and understanding.

In spite of a century of development, psychology has yet to fully define and understand the nature of knowledge. We still lack clarity on even basic distinctions between sensation, information, thought, conception, idea and values; between processes of observation, thinking, analysis, synthesis, silence and intuition; and between sensation, emotional and mental ways of knowing. We also lack understanding of the characteristic mental processes of thought, such as the propensity to divide and examine reality in component parts, the tendency to view differences in terms of opposites rather than complements, the separation of reality into objective and subjective realms.

The knowledge the world needs today is knowledge that will enable humanity to solve its present problems. A partial knowledge may help solve problems in one area while often creating the problems in another dimension. A complete knowledge has no negative consequences. It can even convert problems into opportunities. What is the impact on knowledge of dividing and examining an integral reality in terms of separate pieces? What does Aristotle mean when he says that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? What is the relationship between knowledge and effectivity? Can a knowledge whose application leads to unexpected consequences be considered real knowledge?


This project will trace the origins of the concept of knowledge from ancient to modern times, with emphasis on the transitions that have occurred over the past 100 years. It will focus on identifying the characteristic patterns of rational thought processes and limits to which they are subject, both in terms of conception and as they actually impact on the practice application of knowledge in modern life.

Limits to Rationality

The term limits to rationality can be conceived at two levels:

1. Identification of the most common ways in which the pursuit of knowledge fails to meet the minimum criteria for rationality: In his recent book the Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin examines some of the ways in which the practice of physics deviates from the theory of a rational science. Apart from logical fallacies, the tendency toward social conformity, egoistic subjectivity and excessive reliance on data rather than theory are serious impediments.

2. Identification of the inherent limits of rationality as an instrument of knowledge: Philosopher Karl Popper pointed out that most significant scientific discoveries are the result of an intuitive, non-rational processes, yet little attention is focused by scientists on understanding those processes and discovering ways to enhance creativity and originality of thought in education and the pursuit of knowledge. Here Science may have much to learn from the experience of Art. The mind’s tendency toward linearity, viewing reality in terms of mutually exclusive opposites and artificial abstractions divorced from life are among the characteristics often overlooked.

At the Hyderabad General Assembly in October 2008, the Academy conducted a preliminary workshop on this subject which demonstrated the importance of addressing this issue as well as its varied implications when applied to different fields of physical and biological science, mathematics, social science, politics, business and the arts. The significant interest expressed by participants in this workshop indicates the wider interest this topic is likely to attract both within and outside the Academy.

The following partial list is provided in an effort to further define – but not limit – the scope for inquiry as a basis to stimulate inquiry, research and practical application.

Characteristic Errors

  1. Sensation: Rationality requires the ability to factor out the distorting influence of the senses, as in the apparent movement of the sun around the earth.
  2. Logic: Rationality requires the ability to comply with principles of logical analysis.
  3. History: Rationality requires the ability to refrain from interpreting earlier theories or viewpoints in a manner other than their original author’s may have intended.
  4. Data selection: Rationality requires the ability for impartiality in the selection and measurement of data.
  5. Falsification: Rationality requires the capacity to falsify alternative interpretations of data before drawing conclusions.
  6. Ego: Rationality requires the ability to remove the influence of self-interest, prejudice and vested interest in the formulation of hypotheses and conclusions.
  7. Physicality: Rationality requires the ability to dispassionately examine conceptions and conclusions that may be at variance with one’s own past experience, e.g. the mental attitude of saying ‘its never been done before’.
  8. Conformity: Rationality requires the ability to dispassionately examine conceptions and conclusions that are at variance with established beliefs within or outside the scientific community, including those that might meet with extreme skepticism or even ridicule.
  9. Psychological: Rationality requires the ability to dispassionately examine conceptions and conclusions that may be at variance with one’s own opinions, preconceived notions and fundamental conceptions.  
  10. Motive: Rationality requires the ability to dispassionately examine issues with complete disregard to the personal gain or loss that may accrue from validation of a hypothesis.

Inherent Limits of the Rational Faculty

  1. Objectivity: The very act of separating the subject from the object and attempting to study it purely by external means may limit the capacity of the subject to understand the object, especially in the social and psychological sciences. Objectivity in terms of impartiality is essential for knowledge, but objectivity that excludes impartial consideration of subjective experience is inherently deficient.
  2. Division: The natural tendency of mind to divide reality into parts and view each part as a separate and independent whole may result in fragmentation, loss of perspective and distortion of knowledge.
  3. Contradictions:  Mind has a tendency to view reality in terms of contrasting or opposing viewpoints, as if they are mutually exclusive, rather than recognizing the partial truth that may be present in divergent formulations.
  4. Abstraction: Mind tends to mistake words, concepts, theories and mental symbols for the reality they are intended to represent.
  5. Totality: Mind has the tendency to view the whole as the sum of the parts rather than as a totality that exceeds in properties and character that sum, e.g. the concept of health.
  6. Integrality: Mind struggles to comprehend complex interrelationships and interdependence between various elements of a totality.
  7. Intuition: In spite of the fact that great scientists commonly attribute the origin of their discoveries to intuitive rather than logical processes, mind is unable to grasp the nature of intuitive processes or know how to consciously induce them.


The project is of great interest and potentially of universal impact. I would like to contribute. One aspect that should deserve particular attention within this subject is the fact that the current world problematique, including the issue of sustainable development, globalization, and the changing context at the beginning of the 21st century poses new challenges that might require a reconsideration of the method and practice of science. The major challenges arise from increasing complexification at the ontological, epistemological and political levels, calling for an integrated science going far beyond an interdisciplinary style of research. The requirement is for the development, adoption, and dissemination of a truly complex-systems scientific research approach. Complex socio-ecological systems share a number of fundamental properties that require changes in scientific methods, criteria of truth and quality, and conceptual frameworks. These properties include non-linearity, plurality of perspectives, emergence of properties, self-organization, multiplicity of scales, and irreducible uncertainty. Some of the challenges include: Integration of research; Dealing with multiple scales; Criteria of truth or validation; Dealing with uncertainty; Incorporation of other knowledges; Interparadigmatic dialogues; Science-policy interface; Stakeholder involvement; and Inclusion of qualitative variables.