“man is not a rational animal…

…he is a rationalizing animal.” [source]

ed yong wrote about some neat self-deception research the other day (People don’t know when they’re lying to themselves.)

in his post, he highlighted a couple of high-profile (probable) self-deceivers, gaddafi and sheen, as examples of self-deceivers. which seems to illustrate that ed missed the point entirely: we’re aaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllll self-deceving self-deceivers! if not 24/7, then pretty d*mn close to it.

we’re rationalizers.

take religious belief, for example. if you ask them, most believers will tell you their reasons for believing. and most non-believers will tell you their reasons for not believing.

but religious belief is heritable! there’s probably very little rational thinking involved in “deciding” to be religious or not! the “reasons” given by these two groups are just after-the-fact rationalizations — people trying to explain to themselves, and others, why the h*ck they believe or not. the reasons might feel really real, but that’s the beauty of self-deception.

i remember when i became a non-believer (i’m an agnostic). it suddenly just dawned on me one day when i was a young teenager that we can’t possibly know for sure if there’s a god or not. i wasn’t thinking about the question. i hadn’t even been pondering about the issue beforehand. it just came to me — an epiphany. (or, a reverse epiphany, i guess.) there was no reasoning involved. it just sorta happened.

looking back on it now, i can see that my “moment of clarity” prolly had something to do with how my brain was developing at a time. it was on a trajectory that was, no doubt, mostly outlined by my genes. i grew up in an affluent western world, so most environmental factors, like poor nutrition, can be ruled out as having had any strong influence on my development. my genes were probably allowed to express themselves to their fullest, agnotic little selves. i even grew up in a typical religious household! not overly religious, but the family attended regular sunday services.

but, there was just something in my genome that made me think: hmmmmmm? (my a-religious tendencies come, i think, from one of my grandfathers who, reportedly, wasn’t much of a church-goer. he died when i was very small, so he couldn’t have been much influence on me.)

so, i never give anyone a reason for why i’m agnostic. when they ask why, i tell them that i just am. sometimes i throw in that my genes made me this way. (~_^)

humans are not rational creatures. far from it! a few of us try real hard to be, and on occasion maybe we sometimes succeed. most of the time we don’t. ’cause it ain’t easy to overcome nature!

a helluva lot (most?) of the reasons we consciously give to explain our actions do not reflect the reality of the situation. that is why reductionism works: all of the “causes and ideals” that people say they have are not truly explanatory, but merely after-the-fact rationalizations.

previously: “know thyself” and word iv

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5 Comments

  1. A: it suddenly just dawned on me one day when i was a young teenager that we can’t possibly know for sure if there’s a god or not
    B: i grew up in an affluent western world

    B could well be a cultural cause of A.

    There is no “cultural blank slate”, as you imply the affluent western world is, in which genes will do everything.

    Reply

  2. That said, you have a point about rationalizations, etc. But it is folly to assume there are no cultural influences on affluent-western people.

    BTW, on agnosticism. The classic anti-agnostic position would be something like this: Premise: “We cannot be sure there is a God.” Well, if we pull on that string even more, we also cannot be sure that we won’t be paralyzed tomorrow and spend the rest of life in a vegetative state. Does this mean we should commit suicide today to ensure that won’t happen?

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  3. As Hume said, reason is a slave to our passions. A purely rational world view would have nothing to work on. Myself, I believe because it is beautiful. Believe what? The fairest and most beautiful possible thing consistent with everything we know. Just how beautiful and fair that can be is, finally, a challenge to the imagination. As to how to communicate the best we can imagine, that takes metaphor, simile, paradox, parable. Personally I think the Hebrews got it right. But, hey, what do I know? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

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  4. @hail – “There is no ‘cultural blank slate’, as you imply the affluent western world is, in which genes will do everything.”

    no, you’re absolutely right. the western world is definitely not a cultural blank slate. however … well, i guess i have to tell you more about my upbringing:

    – like i said, grew up in an averagely religious household – went to church on sundays, but not much more than that;
    – i grew up in a neighborhood where everyone else went to church on sundays, too, but not much more than that;
    – i didn’t go to publc schools, so i wasn’t indoctrinated by non-religious ideas/ideals;
    – only child, so no “bad” influences from older siblings;
    – television in our house was permitted on a saturday evening – that was IT – i remember watching lots of lawrence welk (~_^);
    – mine was an upper-working class/lower-middle class house – so, no one was sitting around discussing hume or dante’s inferno or nuthin’ interesting. as far as my family was concerned, of course there was a god, but he wasn’t something to get overly concerned about or talk much about. there were no great mysteries in life.

    i pretty much didn’t get exposed to the concept of atheism until sometime in high school, much later than my agnostic moment. i remember learning the word agnostic when i was 15, again much later than my agnostic moment. (i was delighted that there was a word for me!)

    no. i really think my experience is pretty much due to my genes. (^_^) not everyone will be the same, of course. and, yet, heritability is there when it comes to religious belief. it cannot be denied.

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  5. @hail – “we also cannot be sure that we won’t be paralyzed tomorrow and spend the rest of life in a vegetative state. Does this mean we should commit suicide today to ensure that won’t happen?”

    i never “get” these sort of problems ’cause they seem so illogical and twisted.

    i also might NOT be paralyzed tomorrow and spend the rest of my life in a vegetative state, so why should i commit suicide today?

    i really don’t get it.

    afaiac, i’m an agnostic when it comes to god(s). there’s no way, if he’s really omnipotent, that i can KNOW that there’s a god. (i’m pretty sure there’s no zeus, ’cause he wasn’t omnipotent, was he? he couldn’t conceal himself from everyone 24/7.) so, why would i just believe in something that i don’t know exists? why would i do that?

    i actually cannot. my very nature does not permit it. i cannot fight how my brain works, however hard i try. i cannot just choose to believe in fairies or aliens or a god or gods without some proof. that’s not how my brain works.

    i do, however, leave the possibility open that there is a god. there might be one, if he’s really omnipotent. maybe he’s just out there playing some sort-of passive-aggressive joke on us all. (~_^)

    Reply

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