Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't think twice, Ma. I'm only believin'

It’s irrational to argue rationally. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from a recent study on the nature of belief and reason.

According to Lane Wallace in THE WEEK (October 9, 2009), recent studies show that people will defend their strongly held beliefs regardless of the facts, and will do so using what researchers call “motivated reasoning.”

Motivated reasoning is actually illogical thinking fueled by the desperate need to be right. People so identify with their opinions that to be wrong is to lose some sense of one’s very existence. In other words, facts, logic, and reason are irrelevant when dealing with passionately held beliefs.

So is discussion on deeply held issues useless? Probably. If other people are going to resort of illogic to defeat my logic,* I can’t win. And if I can’t win, why bother playing?

This is both refreshing and troubling. Refreshing because now I have scientific evidence that other people are crazy. Troubling because now the only way to win an argument is to kill the person with whom you are arguing. This isn’t news. The Bible and the Koran make it pretty clear that there is no point in arguing with infidels; kill them and be done with it. Kill their cows, too, while you’re at it; you can never be too careful.

But perhaps there is hope in these findings. Now that we know we will employ all kinds of irrationality to maintain the pretense that our beliefs are rational, we might hold our beliefs with a bit more humility.

How might that humility manifest? It might allow us to listen to one another a bit more carefully. If I know that I resort to irrationality to defend my beliefs, I might be more careful in my positions and defense of them. If I know that my beliefs may be bolstered by unreason, I might be more open to hearing the beliefs of others, and less inclined to attack those beliefs. And, if I don’t attack the beliefs of others, perhaps they will feel less inclined to resort to illogic themselves. And if all of us are wary of our own irrationality we might actually learn something from one another, and that would be refreshing.

But I suspect I am being Pollyannaish; it is just too inconvenient having different-believers around. All you have to do is watch the insanity that passes for discussion and debate in Congress or town hall meetings or cable news shows to know that people are addicted to irrationality.

So what will we conclude from this study? It’s simple: stop worrying about being rational and just up the volume.

*I would never resort to irrationality, illogic, or falsehood. Or, if I did, I would never admit, just as I am not admitting it here.


AaronHerschel said...

What get's really confusing here is that we may believe that we are rational beings so strongly, that we resort to irrational arguments to defend the proposition that we are rational in the first place.

For example: Human beings are rational. I am a human being. Therefore I am rational.

Just begs the question, doesn't it?

briankb said...

I heard Joseph Campbell say that the definition of myth is other people's religion. Therefore what I believe can not be myth (false) and thus I hold the truth. Yeah, I wish we could all agree to your proposition, but then that would be rational.

Patti said...

I can totally see this phenomenon in others. But I have to admit it in myself, that's a supreme sucker punch.