When it comes to human behavior, rationality isn’t always the most important quality. It isn’t even the most important quality—at least not in some extreme cases. Intelligent design, for example, implies that humans have somehow evolved a deep capacity for objective reasoning—not for identifying a target error and then assessing the error in order to understand what the target error actually is, but for the incredibly complicated calculation that is essentially the process of consciousness. In fact, the rest of the scientific method—the examination of data, the inquiry into what a data can tell us, the pursuit of knowledge—is simply the exercise of this capacity, “even when undertaking the most sophisticated forms of reasoning,” writes Andy Prouty in The Consciousness Revolution.
Still, Prouty believes that in science, rationality still has some worth. It is empirically measurable and empirically important—which is quite a feat considering what else animals, nature, or even our own brains are capable of. Today’s scientific approach at many levels of research represents a sort of stable rationality—the introduction of standardized experiments and the recognition that the best way to know is to determine what one is looking for. This may be an artificial construct, says Prouty, but it represents a plausible narrative of scientific progress.
The novel Rationality takes this story forward, moving from one element to another through four large-scale psychological experiments, five characters and five stories. Structured as a sort of academic seminar, the book has a strong academic feel, one that comes with intense focus on both the science and the individual participants. The style is clear and lucid; there are no blank pages or digressions into plotting. Everything is tied together with a purpose.
The four large-scale studies are the most engaging aspect of the book, the one that each captivates the reader in turn. While we don’t get far into one of them (we only visit the first experiment), the structure of each offers a visual (sometimes aural) picture that plays into the direction of the narrative.
The narrators in the first three stories—a biologist and an insurance agent—tell their own stories through journal entries, anecdotes, and more structured, narrated walks through the science in each case. Our group then travels to a lab in order to visit the women in the second study, as well as a third study performed by two of the researchers with each of the four experiments. The different individuals offer their own narrative, telling their own stories, explaining how they come to agree or disagree with the group’s conclusions.
Because each subject exhibits similar characteristics, it is not very difficult to determine the meaning of the first or third story. Yet the fourth is still very much a work in progress, as the narrators in this story struggle to match two very different narratives, more to the reader’s benefit than to the characters’. The tellers of both stories won’t reveal themselves until later, in a number of interconnected chapters that sequence the four character stories to form the kind of tightly wrapped narrative that holds the novel together.
This flow is what makes the novel hypnotic: each story is an interesting framework within which the reader is invited to piece together the narrative of another. This format—formed by an author who knows that the theme is the novel’s strength—nudges you toward the next chapter. It isn’t until the fourth story that you are given the opportunity to interpret the data from the last chapter.
To the most rigorously empirical reader, such a format may be a problem: Again, the reader is invited to contemplate the meaning of the data and then to begin to extract the meaning of that data—unlikely, and more likely, an unwarranted speculation that risks limiting the reader’s understanding of the book. But the method of framing the case creates a vivid picture of the questions the reader should be asking the characters in the various cases.
In any event, while the book may cause some discomfort for those who are not invested in the material—and who have only read anecdotal responses to the same questions through scientific experiments—then by the time the next chapter starts, you should be fully committed to the project. The book will lead you somewhere—almost anywhere—in the name of science, because you are better served by learning the answer than missing the question entirely.