Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, perhaps one of the slipperiest works of modern television, aims to solve a very complex, deeply recurrent problem: how do we navigate our interpersonal relations, which are ever-changing, and filled with opportunities to let people down and harm those we love?

In the show, which constantly blends the real with the fake, the documentary with the theatrical, the off-kilter comedian Nathan Fielder’s solution is supposedly simple: he finds people who are preparing to have difficult conversations with friends and loved ones, and gives them the opportunity to rehearse these encounters ahead of time.

The idea behind this ridiculous, though oddly logical practice is thus: if these people have already rehearsed an uncomfortable exchange with a loved one, then they can predict for every variable. They can polish their approach. When conversations branch off into different directions, they will have accounted for that branching already, leaving them to always choose the best, most impactful response.

To aid his mentees in this practice, Fielder uses an ever-escalating series of interventions. He creates dialogue flow trees, in which conversations can be unveiled in their full myriad of possibilities. He stages strange obstructions, ranging from fake babies to simulated drug overdoses. He takes the joyous chaos of being what Jean-Paul Sartre called “a thing in a world” – an agent who is perceived by other agents, and whose actions affect them – and he tries to simplify it.

Saying The Rehearsal is definitively “about” anything is a mistake – it’s too ever-changing, too messy, for that. But certainly, in its focus on trying to do the right thing by simplifying a complex world so that it might be predicted, the show can serve as a model of the pitfalls of trying to rationalise and generalise. It is a warning to those philosophers from the analytic tradition who reduce a world that is precisely so joyous and beautiful because it is so chaotic. So complex. And so filled with the potential for harm.

The Rehearsal, Image by HBO

Fielder’s methods for helping people confront their own mistruths, find love, or fit better into their communities, are guided by the principle of a kind of lopsided rationality. The methods are laughable, of course – Fielder is a comedian. But they follow a strict, internally coherent form of thought.

In essence, what Fielder tries to do is generalise. He takes the nuances of life’s difficult conversations, and he strips them down to their component parts – maps them out on a board, uses actors to play them out ahead of time.

For instance, in the show’s first episode, Fielder recruits Kor, a competitive and trivia-obsessed young man who is preparing to tell his close friends that he has lied for years about getting a master’s degree. Fielder hires an actress to play Kor’s most abrasive friend, gets that actress to uncover as much information as possible about the real person she is stepping into the shoes of, and then puts Kor and this performer in a set that precisely replicates the dimensions of the bar where the actual conversation will go down.

The method – reduce. Simplify. Abstract. And use that generalised version of a real-life situation to guide how the actual situation will play out. This kind of ethical reasoning is highly tempting to us. We often find ourselves drawn to it, as we move through our lives.

Sure, we might not go to the lengths that Fielder does in The Rehearsal. But we do practice tough conversations in the shower with ourselves, ahead of time. We draft and re-draft text messages, and base them on how we might imagine the person we send them to will respond. In essence, we use our “rationality” and “reason” to help us move through the world, drawing on past experiences to help us navigate future ones.

Trivia-obsessed Kor, in fact, is a specific example of this. He is most worried about revealing his deception to his abrasive friend because of how she’s behaved in the past. He rationalises that because he has seen her blow up at others, getting angry at the drop of a hat, that she’ll do the same in the future, and more specifically, do it to him. He starts with a real-world experience – incidents of her temper – and then generalises them to a rule – she will always get angry – using his rationality to try and deduce the future, and thus the best action.

But what this kind of rationality does not take into account is the way that human beings shift and change; the way that they surprise us. How often have we prepared for an outcome that hasn’t come to light? Stressed about confrontations that turn out not to be confrontations at all?

Rather than generalising away from the inherent changeability of those we love, or indeed any of those who we surround ourselves with, we should instead embrace what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas described as “communicative rationality.”

For Habermas, our rational faculties shouldn’t generalise us away from the world – they shouldn’t isolate us. Instead, they should be part of a process of “achieving consensus”, as Habermas put it. We make decisions with other people. While staying in contact with them.

This means, rather than being a witness to the world – viewing it and then reviewing it, and using what we see and learn to guide our ethics – we are an active participant in it. On this model, our thoughts, desires, and ethical behaviours are essentially collaborative. They are grounded in the real world, and the people around us.

Thus, on Habermas’ view, we never stop discussing, talking, engaging. We don’t do as Kor does – using his rationality to effectively step himself away from his abrasive friend, halting in the process of communicating with her. And we don’t do as Fielder does – creating an artificial replica of the world, rather than just living in the actual world.

When we take the Fielder method, instead of adopting Habermas’ position of making everything communicative, we lose that which makes the world what it is: its messiness, its changeability, its dynamic and fluid nature.

There is nothing logically wrong, broadly speaking, about the kind of rationality that involves a step away from the world – that leads us to run through possible outcomes in our head with ourselves. Difficult conversations do move through different points; do branch off. So it makes some kind of sense to imagine that we should be able to predict them. The error here is not one in internal consistency. The error is taking a step backwards from those around us when trying to work out what to do, rather than taking a step forward.

The joke of The Rehearsal is precisely that this internally consistent form of rationality is remarkably, laughably devoid of life. It’s cold. Alien. It aims to solve real world problems, but it does that by turning to a printed board of branching lines of dialogue, instead of other human beings.

And it’s not even useful. As it turns out, Kor, who is highly nervous about the encounter with his abrasive friend, has little to worry about. When he confronts her, rather than the actress he has been rehearsing with, she is largely unfussed. She doesn’t mind that Kor has misrepresented himself. She expresses understanding for his duplicity. It is all pretty chill. Laughably so, in fact.

What Kor shows us is the importance of remaining in the world. That means we might fail them – that we might do the wrong thing. But that’s better than hiding away in a world of Fielder’s whiteboards. Indeed, our failures tell us that we’re human, bungling from one awful mistake to another, trying, and then failing, and then, beautifully, trying again. Guided always by people. Living always in communities. Staying blissfully, painfully connected.