Monday, July 24, 2006

Can we "just say no" to irrationality?

This is one of several blog entries that spin out of the book review column I wrote for the upcoming Fall issue of UU World. One of the books I discuss in that column is Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Briefly, this book claims that a world in which WMDs are so easily obtained can no longer afford “irrational” worldviews, which includes just about all religions.

Harris notes all the wars and atrocities in which religion can be implicated, and then proposes rationality as the solution:
Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. [page 79]

As the book's argument evolves, however, Harris comes dangerously close to proposing his own genocidal project against Islamist countries that acquire WMDs.
In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime – as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day – but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. [page 129]

Personally, I don't think this idea is rational at all, but I don't doubt that Harris got here by trying to be rational. Which raises an interesting question: Is trying-to-be-rational always the best way to secure the fruits of rationality?

I'd like to propose an analogy: abstinence-only sex education. Its proponents claim that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. But, of course, this is only true if you succeed in abstaining. Because the attempt to abstain frequently fails, teens who choose abstinence as their sexual strategy, if I remember correctly, actually are as likely as anybody else to get pregnant and are significantly more likely to catch an STD.

I wonder if the same thing happens with rationality. All kinds of good things follow if a person succeeds at being rational. But abstaining from irrationality is at least as hard as abstaining from sex, and people like Sam Harris frequently wind up rationalizing actions every bit as horrible as those put forward by people who barely value rationality at all. Might not some of them be better served by devoting themselves irrationally to a code that tells them to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

All things considered, I wonder who gets better results.

4 comments:

indrax said...

The problem that most people are unwilling to deal with is that all morality, and in fact all motivation, is irrational.
There is no logical way to get from empirical statements based on evidence to moral statements or plans of action without inserting premises like "killing is wrong". Because these moral premises are pulled out of thin air, there is no reliable way to evaluate their truth.

All behavior stems from some irrational motivation, be it a value system or animal instincts. Saying one behavior is less rational than another is almost meaningless. (It is valid to criticize the rationality if the behavior doesn't lead to the goals, but if you hate me and want me dead, killing me will achieve your goal.)

The problem is not rationality, but values. (and so your solution is quite right.)

Harris' mistake seems to be associating some religions' empirical irrationality with the values he disagrees with, but that connection doesn't always hold.

I think that if a lot of people suddenly became more logical, a lot of them would become amoralists, and that could be very bad.

p0m said...

Many preconceptions cloud the issue of how human decisions are grounded. A truly irrational decision is one that flies in the face of the things that are known and the consequences they imply. Donning a 100 kg. lead belt weight as a substitute for a life preserver would be irrational.Wanting to live in not rational, but neither is it irrational. When people value something, they can learn to use logic and other rational processes to help assure that they do not make any mistakes in thinking that will cause them to thwart themselves. Often we value two or more things and the acquisition of one can interfere with the acquisition of the other. So we improve our functioning to the extent that we can integrate all our motivations and give them each due weight.

One of our preconceptions is that all life is in a state of warfare, and even humans have no innate gregarious or pro-social motivation but must be conditioned so as to have values that tend to keep society together. Objective analysis supports the alternative view that some problems come about when humans are not sufficiently integrated to avoid doing things that will ultimately cause regrets, and that the major malefactors are individuals who have been severely abused.

Most religions are mythological presentations of the basic pro-social impulses of human beings, instructions for achieving integration, precautions against abusive practices. Take away the particular creative details of attempts to reduce the infinite to human terms and all the maor religions are pretty much the same.

Perhaps the least problematical treatment is in the ancient Zhou dynasty religious beliefs that culminated in the philosophy of Mencius. Unfortunately, Confucianism became co-opted by the ruling classes and the core insights have been largely obscured. Karl Menninger reached essentially the same conclusions in mid 20th Century America.

Unfortunately, people are generally very defensive about their own religions. That fact has led to fights between parties who each say, "My invisible friend is more powerful than yours." Then they set out to destroy each other. Recently somebody suggested that we have no need to defend our religions, and ought instead to take refuge in them.

The Emerson Avenger said...

:indrax said... The problem that most people are unwilling to deal with is that all morality, and in fact all motivation, is irrational.

Speak for yourself Indrax. . .

:There is no logical way to get from empirical statements based on evidence to moral statements or plans of action without inserting premises like "killing is wrong". Because these moral premises are pulled out of thin air, there is no reliable way to evaluate their truth.

I dare say that your whole "premise" above was "pulled out of thin air" itself. . . Moral premises were hardly "pulled out of thin air". They were developed over millennia of human experience and contemplation of moral and ethical principles.

:All behavior stems from some irrational motivation, be it a value system or animal instincts.

Speak for yourself again Indrax. Lot's of behaviour "stems" from highly rational motivation, including the creation of any "value system".

:Saying one behavior is less rational than another is almost meaningless.

Only to you and some of the other less rational U*Us know.

:I think that if a lot of people suddenly became more logical, a lot of them would become amoralists, and that could be very bad.

Well in the case of U*Us I dare say that some of them would almost certainly be poly-amoralists if I may coin a pun and I dare say that I know rather too many U*Us who are quite poly in their amoral behaviour. . .

Virtue01 said...

Doug,

"But abstaining from irrationality is at least as hard as abstaining from sex"

I disagree. I'd say, rather, that abstaining from [i]rationality[/i] is harder than abstaining from sex.


[i]Might not some of them be better served by devoting themselves irrationally to a code that tells them to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?[/i]

The Golden Rule seems pretty rational to me, actually. There's no need to couch a simple and reasonable categorical imperative with irrational notions of the supernatural, is there?

I think the so-called religious people who devalue rationality don't really know what rationality is. Religions use irrational beliefs, yes, but they would be nothing without rationality.