Bizarre beliefs that make us tick: Reason

Rodin’s “The Thinker”. Credit: Karora, via Wikimedia Commons

In my first attempt at a “thematic” blog post, I’m going to tackle this difficult problem. What is so bizarre about the most sensible belief of of all?

Reason. We all have it and we wouldn’t give it up for anything. But I would suggest most of us don’t truly understand it. In fact, in many cases our belief in the reasonableness of our own actions is the most bizarre delusion of them all.

Have you ever experienced an argument where you were absolutely certain that you were right? It happens to me all the time. Unfortunately for me, certainty is not proof-positive evidence of a rhetorical advantage, else I would not have flunked out of the debate club in grade 9. (True story.)

But there’s something to this fact that two otherwise perfectly intelligent and rational people can find themselves at loggerheads on the same topic, both equally sure of their own correctness. The fact that often these two are talking past each other doesn’t diminish the irrationality inherent in a debate based upon misunderstanding or deliberate dissembling. Political debates are arguably the highly publicized epitome of this phenomenon.

If one were to read the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman–whose ground-breaking research in the 1970s and 1980s with statistician Amos Tversky won him the Nobel prize–the ubiquity of such irrationality would seem apparent. Reason then is not a perfectly tuned skill of which all humans are masters, but one which requires practice and experience.

But this question becomes of even greater concern when we consider the extent that unreason exists in our society. Irrationality, or the use of reasoning in a way which distorts empirical facts or circumvents desired outcomes, is alive and prospering in the 21st century. I suspect that one key feature of the phenomenon of unreason is the relative nature of how reasoning proceeds. It is not a process whereby humans work from a set of premises to a set of well-defined conclusions–reasoning as it is commonly practiced tends to be haphazard and fallible.

But why is the practice of reason in such an advanced society so inconsistent?

Let’s consider just one situation. There is an antiquated meme which still hangs around that men tend to be more rational, whereas women tend to be more emotional. Of course, we could expose this falsehood for what it is by simply counting the relative number of men and women in prison or who get into bar fights, but this would bypass a broader point. We can also set set aside obvious problems with this perspective–such as, the fact that reason and emotion are not truly distinct, or that enormous groups like ‘men’ and ‘women’ are both filled with individuals who have a diversity of abilities and inabilities–and challenge the very heart of this myth.

One of the core reasons why is meme exists is because for a long time the reasons for a man’s actions did make more sense. In a society which values the efforts of the “breadwinner” above all else, this person’s desires and wishes take a prominent role: they become the assumptions and premises of all decisions. In effect, they are the structure–theĀ frame–around which the process of reasoning occurs.

This same principle can be applied to many situations: opposition to technology, industry or social action; beliefs about foods or supernatural agents; personal ambitions and self-knowledge.

Reasoning is a valuable tool, but we do a disservice to ourselves when we fail to accept that the drivers of human belief and action, the frames for their reasoning, play a major role in determining the positions that people will take on an issue. So long as we place only a fraction of these considerations into any discussion, so long as we fail to accept the drivers of our own beliefs and those of others, we are depriving the conversation of a legitimate voice.

In effect, we are talking past each other.

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