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Frantic rationalisation?

April 21, 2011

I had an interesting conversation the other day.  As some of you may know I pride myself on being a rational person.  I don’t do ‘faith’ or ‘beliefs’ I do rational thought based on evidence.  Or so I thought.  It turns out the very self-image I hold, of a logical, thinking person, may have been, in itself, a belief based on very little evidence.  Just like a Christian who wants to believe that God loves him and convinces himself it’s so, it may be that I have simply convinced myself I am anything other than a collection of primordial instincts held together by tenuous threads of apparent rationality.

What tipped me off to all of this was the realisation that all the rational thought that I am so proud of is simply sitting on top of a seething stew of nonsense beliefs and animal drives.  At best, my will can steer or divert these underlying states but never control them.  It turns that I have a caveman inside me; sitting next to a fire in a cave, trembling at the thunder and lightning and wondering how to appease it.

Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that just because many important parts of my life are driven by the same brain processes as, say, a lizard that I have to act like a lizard.  I am a human being and I can and will rise above the fact that large parts of my nervous system are similar to that of a rat.  To say though, as I have been, that I am entirely rational in my outlook was to ignore the evidence.

Here’s an interesting exercise for those who believe they’re not superstitious (do it as you read it):

Take a piece of paper and fold it in half.  Above the fold, write the name of the person you love the most, the person most dear to you.

Now open the fold and, underneath that name, write ‘will die today in a terrible car accident’.

Speaking for myself, I simply could not do it.  At the start I would have said I was not the tiniest bit superstitious.  Just the thought of writing that second part under the name of someone so special made me feel physically sick.  My every atom recoiled from it.  There is no rational reason for that sort of reaction.  Writing something will not make it so, yet I could not even think of writing it.  I am told by someone who would know that the vast majority of people given that test cannot do it or can only do it by an effort of will.

So, what now?  Well, I would still describe myself as a rational person and certainly still an atheist.  I now have a lot more evidence to take into account when I think about my self and my place in things.  This, I think, is the fundamental difference between someone like me and a religious person.

A religious-type person, when faced with evidence which conflicts with their world-view, will simply ignore the evidence, attempt to denounce the evidence or attempt to change and co-opt it.  A rational-type person in the same situation will take a look at their world-view and, if possible, change that to incorporate the new evidence.  If that’s not possible the rational type will look for more evidence to explain the gap.

So we progress.  Maybe one day our brains won’t be built out of a bodge of 200-million year old parts and our descendants will be able to claim truly to be rational.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2011 20:35

    Maybe, but then irrationality has given us much that is beautiful and wonderful in the world, 100% rational art and poetry sounds like a depressing notion and that’s from a payed up member of the Rat Assoc.

    • April 24, 2011 20:38

      I take your point PJ but I don’t claim to be an artist or a poet. I thought I was 100% rational & it turns out I’m not. So I’m just trying to rationalise it 🙂

  2. April 24, 2011 20:36

    or paid even.

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