Belief and Rationality/Irrationality

22:50 Sat 03 Mar 2007
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Do people have rational reasons for believing things that are irrational?

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define “irrational beliefs” as “belief in things that are demonstrably untrue”. For example, the belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. I regard this as demonstrably false because it’s either untrue, or almost everything we understand about the physical laws of the universe goes out the window.

However, I don’t want to be distracted by this particular example—if you don’t think that this is demonstrably false, please substitute for it some other belief of your own choosing, such as the existence of Santa Claus, or that the earth is flat, or that the Sun and the Moon are actually the Golden and Silver Apples of Eris*. In other words, feel free to frame this discussion as “why do other people believe things that are demonstrably false?”

We can of course simply assume that people do not act rationally. That seems dubious, though. If they’re not acting rationally, what are they basing their decisions on? Presumably they think they’re basing them on something, and presumably they think they’re doing what’s right for them. Being wrong is not the same as being irrational—there’s a lot of missing information in all of our decisions, and many of us will make “wrong” decisions often, but they’re not always irrational.

In any case, without delving too far into what constitutes rationality, it’s clear that some people believe things that there is a fairly massive preponderance of evidence against. Their working hypothesis about that area is clearly wrong, but they stick to it anyway. Accepting that the belief is irrational, is the decision to stick to it also irrational?

Not necessarily.

It is hard to make a man understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it.
—Upton Sinclair

Obviously, this is also true if the person in question thinks that this is the case. Equally obviously, “salary” can be swapped out for a variety of other things, for example “happiness”. If a person thinks that irrational belief X helps them to be happy, they’re not going to be cooperative in understanding that X is manifestly untrue.

Further, they are unlikely to openly admit that their lack of cooperation is due to this factor, and they are likely to hide this from themselves while at some level believing that this is the right thing to do in order to safeguard their happiness.

We can argue that this behavior is cumulatively irrational, in that it allows for all kinds of beliefs to resist contrary evidence, and some of these are bound to have negative impacts on the believer. However, it is much more difficult to make this case for any individual belief. Especially since we don’t understand happiness all that well, and cannot really state authoritatively that giving up on belief X will make the believer happier.

Perhaps the believer is rational in other areas of their life, but clings to belief X, and to the various meta-layers that make them believe that belief X is actually rational. Furthermore, perhaps they are correct that belief X aids their happiness. Can we really claim that this behavior is irrational, even if the belief itself is clearly so?

We could make various claims about this being harmful for the larger society, especially if many people adopt irrational beliefs, but this does not address the rationality/irrationality of the individual’s decision for themselves.

(We could also claim that this is “bad faith” in the existentialist sense, but proving that eliminating their “bad faith” makes all, or even most, individuals happier, or “better off” in some other way, seems difficult indeed.)

It is my suspicion that people don’t act “irrationally” all that often. When they appear to do so (to some observers), ignorance is a significant factor, but in some cases this ignorance is deliberate, based on a fear that knowledge may bring unhappiness (and/or unwanted complications leading to unhappiness).

This entire question may boil down to whether that belief is irrational. Is it rational to assert that knowledge will bring happiness? That question seems difficult indeed to answer definitively. On the other hand, trying to construct a world in which knowledge will generally bring happiness is a worthwhile project indeed—or is that just an irrational belief on my part?

* I in no way equate this Holy and True belief with the fables listed prior to it; it is placed here for the purpose of argument only.

4 Responses to “Belief and Rationality/Irrationality”

  1. mollydot Says:

    You might find this an interesting read: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/ Some of it is relevant to your question.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Heh, indeed. I linked to that in Tools for Political Understanding: The “War on Drugs” last week. I’ve only read the first couple of chapters so far, but it’s interesting and definitely relevant.

  3. mollydot Says:

    Oops! That’s probably where I found it. I couldn’t remember. I’m working my way through it. I think I’m about to recommend it to someone else: http://slithytove.livejournal.com/558768.html

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Ha! That’s pretty amusing, actually. Circular internet references…

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