I Don't Think, Therefore: Am I?


When I was a mere lad, my teacher — a Greek fellow named, if I remember rightly — Aristotle, used to annoy us by insisting that human beings could be defined as "rational animals." Well, maybe.

I will admit that in the long string of decades that comprise my life, I’ve encountered several people who exhibited rational behavior. So maybe old Ari was right. But I’ve also noticed that friends — even those I consider quite intelligent — will, if pressed hard in an argument, frequently terminate the discussion with a non sequitur of breathtaking enormity. And that’s that, because there’s no response to such an "argument" except to jeopardize the friendship by pointing out the absurdity of the friend’s position. Reason crumbles before pride!

My thoughts about this rational animal business were triggered by an article in the paper. Page One headline: "Playing it safe. Mattel recalls nearly 10 million toys." Wow! Ten million! What was wrong with these toys? Well, it seems that many of them contained magnets, and the magnets were quite small. So what? The article answered that question: "Tiny magnets can be swallowed or aspirated by children, or placed in their ears or nose. When more than one magnet is swallowed, they can attract each other and cause potentially fatal intestinal perforation, infection, or blockage. Aspiration to the lungs requires immediate surgery and magnets in a child’s nose or ears can cause swelling and be difficult to remove."

Is it reasonable to believe that a child would swallow a magnet? Well, it’s possible, of course. Would he be likely to swallow another? Perhaps, if the first one was to his liking. In that case, instead of one tiny magnet in his stomach, he’d have two, likely stuck together by the attraction magnets have for one another. That this attraction could result in "perforation, infection, or blockage" seems unbelievably remote. Likelier, the child could be struck by lightning.

But where rationality is totally lacking is the selectivity of the prohibition. No tiny magnets! They can be swallowed, or inserted into ears or noses. But, of course, so can peas, beans, pebbles, kernels of corn, raisins, or dozens of other items found in the house. We aren’t warned about these. Is it because they didn’t come from China? I’d have to ask Aristotle about that. Maybe small Asian objects are particularly dangerous.

Where is rationality? Do we make judgments on the basis of improbable statistics, or does common sense play a role? Some — probably dangerous radicals — might even suggest that the more rational approach is to let the parents, rather than the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, decide what toys they want their children to play with. What is the greater danger: playing with a toy with a tiny imbedded magnet, or skateboarding, roller-blading, or riding a bike? Is it reasonable to let strangers decide these things regarding our children?

Man’s rational behavior, or lack of it, often manifests itself in these little details, rather than in abstruse philosophical arguments. Another example was my recent experience traveling through "security" at Charles de Gaulle airport. (Tip for travelers: DON’T!! But if you MUST travel, avoid de Gaulle!)

My carry-on luggage often (but not always!) triggers an inspection, because it contains, besides some personal items, my camera kit, with its lead-lined bag for film. The security person at de Gaulle demanded that I open the bag, and then the camera bag within. There it was: the X-Ray opaque film bag which, for all she knew at that point, could have contained a pound or so of plastique explosive. She gave it a glance, touched it, but did not open it. Instead, she opened my Dopp kit and was immediately drawn to a box containing a tube of toothpaste. She scrutinized it carefully, on all sides, and then, using appropriate caution, carefully opened it and withdrew the tube of toothpaste, which, by this time, had traveled thousands of miles through several countries with no reported fatalities. Aha! Contraband! Saying something in French, she confiscated the toothpaste, and indicated that I could pack up my stuff and proceed. It was so ludicrous I could not refrain from laughing, while hoping that laughter would not be interpreted as a terrorist act.

Someone once argued that dogs are rational animals. So supremely rational, in fact, that they conceal the fact, thus maintaining their pampered lifestyle. If it became known that they could do quadratic equations, or write music, they’d be put to work by their masters, and expected to provide their own food, shelter, and vet care, not to mention a profit for the master. No thanks. The canny canines keep quiet.

Maybe it’s the same with some humans. They are capable of rational thought, but suppress it, to maintain their own cushy lifestyle. They naturally gravitate toward government "work." The security people at airports, or on the Consumer Product Safety Commission, might actually have IQ’s higher than the 80 or 85 they appear to have, but conceal it lest they find themselves working at some job where they’d need to take responsibility for their own decisions, which, if unwise, could put them among the unemployed.

But, on the other hand, they might actually be as foolish as they appear. Aristotle could have been wrong. He never endured "security" at an airport.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.