Limits of reason

A friend with a profound aversion to religion sends a quotation from Jim Wong at

From an Enlightenment or Positivist point of view, which is Hume's point of view, and mine, there is simply no avoiding the conclusion that the human race is mad. There are scarcely any human beings who do not have some lunatic beliefs or other to which they attach great importance. People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness, as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato, or Augustine, or Comte, or Hegel, or Marx.

Because we can conceive of reason, in our best selves many of us are inclined to prefer reason to all other modes of thought. We easily persuade ourselves that human beings should be rational all the time and that anything else is "madness". But it's not clear to me that reason is the only mode of thought that is biologically necessary or most natural to us. It's also not clear that irrational behavior is without its logical causes. I think many of the most familiar things in human group interactions are half-rationalizations of instinctive behaviors, and even for people who are sincerely intent on living by reason alone they are nigh impossible to change.

The spread of linguistic habits is the example most familiar to me. Since research started in earnest on sociolinguistics beginning in the 1950's, it has become indisputable that human beings use shared linguistic traits to define "in-groups".

Other examples include

  1. the behavior of men after winning or losing struggles for prestige with other men, which seems to be hormonally determined;
  2. the fact that friendships often rupture over people's views on political and social issues - if we were genuinely rational, we would accept that opinions naturally vary (and matter little), but there seems to be something that makes us want to surround ourselves with the like-minded and expell non-conformists.

Actually, I observe that nonconformity is a very powerful draw for the soi-disant rationalist, but I'm not persuaded that it's wholly rational. I certainly exhibit this trait to a high degree, but I can see that the immediate motivation for it (don't like TV commercials!, think pot makes me stupid, am offended by both pro- and anti-war sentiment) is rarely the sole motivation - it satisfies my deep itch to draw a boundary between myself and others. Non-conformism, though it may give the appearance of thoughtfulness, is thus a semi-automatic way of defining my own in-group in many unpredictable situations.

But why bother? Another friend scowls when people say things like "Have a nice day" to him. That seems to me the same kind of thing. Doesn't he realize that this is just a competing way of saying "goodbye"? People who say this don't care what kind of day you have - they say it as a form of social ritual. Maybe it's good self-training to force oneself to engage in such behaviors - specifically the ones that tick us off the most. (You may soon find me sitting stoned in front of a TV watching football, as a form of self-cultivation.)

I wish I could understand what our nearest biological relatives, the gorillas and chimpanzees, do about the struggle between reason and instinctive belief. It would be fascinating to find they have disputes about such things, too. I feel in my bones that they must.

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