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The aspiring rationalist

The brain is an inelegant and inefficient agglomeration of stuff…Evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer…The brain is built like an ice cream cone (and you are the top scoop): Through evolutionary time, as higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged.
–David Linden, The Accidental Mind

Though it’s been years now since I taught college courses and public seminars in critical thinking, I still try to practice it once in awhile. I can even get myself to believe for a moment that it’s easy—that the three-pound mass of goo in my noggin is actually predisposed to thinking well.

To counter that illusion, I’d often start my seminars with a perspective-setting exercise. Take a minute to think of areas in your life in which your decision making is to some degree non-rational. Some would quickly start scribbling, but there’d always be a few who stared into space, trying hard to identify any chinks in their critical armor.

After a few minutes I’d go around the circle and invite participants to share their irrational sides. “Dealing with my mother.” “Whenever I’m buying a car.” “Spiders.”

Once I came to a gentleman, maybe in his 60s, who fixed me with a slow-burning glare. “I could come up with something just to play the game,” he said, “but I can’t think of a single thing. Sorry.” He crossed his arms and fumed. A strictly rational response, of course.

“Allow me to help,” said his wife. Ba-boom!

I then listed my own irrationalities. Food, for one. From the Kroger aisle to my choice of mid-afternoon snack to the 30+ times per meal I “decide” whether to raise the damn fork again, eating is an area in which rational thought vies with non-rational impulse — and mostly loses.

There are a hundred good reasons that I love my wife and each of my three children, but it would be delusional to say that my love for them is entirely the result of a rational process.

I went on and on. I am less than fully rational when someone challenges my opinion, mocks me, or threatens me. I wake in the middle of the night convinced without cause that I am dying. When I come up from a dark basement, I feel a tingling on the back of my neck, my step quickens, and my heart races just a bit. There is a rational, evolutionary explanation for my irrational feeling, but that does not make my response to the dark basement (which, unlike basements on the ancient savannah, rarely contains a cheetah) itself a rational one.

One of the most persistent delusions in the non-theistic community is the idea that, having thought our way out of religious mythology, we are now fully rational. This is most clearly on display when we think we’ve spotted a fundamental error in reasoning by another non-theist and we hurl the ultimate high-horse insult:

“And you call yourself a rationalist.”

This arrogant sniff never fails to cwack me up. It implies that the sniffer is a fully rational being, and had perhaps thought the other person to be so until this happened, and is now sorely dismayed by the lapse, and so now clutches the pearls, aghast, while looking forward to the return of the penitent to the fold of the pristine rational.

Silly monkeys.

As David Linden notes in The Accidental Mind, our brains are a mess of jury-rigged responses to a long series of evolutionary pressures—the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine. As for “intelligent design,” only something as haphazard and imperfect as the human brain could come up with the idea that it is so perfect it must have been designed.

It’s amazing, really, that we can walk, much less figure out the distance to the Sun or juggle chainsaws more than once. And yet we do. In his novel Timequake, Vonnegut argues facetiously for a Creator, saying, “There is no way an unassisted human brain, which is nothing more than a dog’s breakfast, three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge, could have written ‘Stardust’, let alone Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” And yet it did! Instead of being shocked, shocked when we screw up, the fact that we ever do anything right should be a source of continuous giddy amazement. This perspective can also help us step away from self-righteousness, one of the ugliest human traits, and be a little kinder and more empathetic.

One of my favorite people on Earth is Lee Salisbury, a former Pentecostal preacher turned atheist and critical thinking activist in Minnesota. Lee opened each meeting of the organization he founded, the Critical Thinking Club, with a brilliant turn of phrase. “Welcome to a monthly meeting of aspiring critical thinkers,” he said. “We all want to think better, but we also know we have a long way to go.”

In addition to being a healthy way to think about it, this has the virtue of being exactly right, and carries the potential to completely reframe our approach. We are not rationalists, we are aspiring rationalists. We’ve recognized the rational as a good thing, and we’re reaching for it as hard as we can and often failing. Suddenly we can feel a bit of empathy for the rest of humanity instead of placing ourselves in some exalted camp above them.

One of the greatest gifts of a nontheistic worldview is the realization that we are not fallen angels but risen apes — and even then only slightly. Given our humble origins and the hot mess we’re balancing on our necks, I’d say we’re doing pretty damn well. But we can do better by recognizing those origins and that mess, and laying off the false presumption that by setting aside one set of irrational beliefs, we’ve left irrationality behind us.



This was written on Tuesday, 12. July 2011 at 10:10 and was filed under critical thinking, fear, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I really enjoy your prose, Dale. Your description of Lee Salisbury reminded me of the Less Wrong community. Have you come across them before?

    As their name suggests, they pursue critical thinking while recognizing that perfect rationality is not something humans are likely to achieve.

    Comment: TimMills – 12. July 2011 @ 11:01 am

  2. Yes, I’m a big fan of Less Wrong. Perfect example, thanks Tim.

    Comment: Dale – 12. July 2011 @ 11:32 am

  3. Hear hear!

    I have yet to find a situation where cultivating sincere humility is not a good idea.

    Comment: jenea – 12. July 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  4. “Instead of being shocked, shocked when we screw up, the fact that we ever do anything right should be a source of continuous giddy amazement. This perspective can also help us step away from self-righteousness, one of the ugliest human traits, and be a little kinder and more empathetic.” — I don’t think that could have been said any better, Dale! The self-righteousness is one of the things that drives me crazy about my overly religious family. This is one lesson everyone can learn from.

    Comment: Cass81 – 12. July 2011 @ 7:46 pm

  5. Excellent post, Dale. Thanks for the reminder, not that I ever need a reminder (cough, cough).
    Actually the 60ish gentlemen you wrote of reminded of someone I saw in the bathroom this morning. And I’m not married…

    Also, this Less Wrong group looks really interesting.
    Thank you, Tim Mills!

    Comment: Brad – 13. July 2011 @ 7:08 am

  6. Exellent post, that fits with my metaphor that our rationality is a screen with a lot of dead pixels. The image is great, but when you find a dead pixel, you cant help looking away from it…

    Religious thinking can be annoying and we tend to thnk ourselvers as superior to that only to have our own irrationailies too…


    Comment: paulo.pontes – 13. July 2011 @ 7:32 am

  7. It often seems that those who claim secular views are held to a higher standard in this regard, as if by claiming the label we are accused of claiming we’re never irrational. But of course we are; it’s in our biology to be irrational at times. Plus, I think this non-thinking side is linked to our creative side (if my two and four year old are any indication). Thanks for the post!

    Comment: hereticmama – 13. July 2011 @ 8:13 am

  8. Jane Goodall: “There isn’t a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, it’s a very wuzzie line, and it’s getting wuzzier all the time. We find animals doing things that we, in our arrogance, used to think was ‘just human’.”

    Also, this:

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 14. July 2011 @ 3:23 pm

  9. @TomZ: That’s one of the best Symphony of Science videos yet (which is saying something). Thanks, I’ll be sharing.

    Comment: Dale – 15. July 2011 @ 7:22 am

  10. I like the idea that I’m not a rationalist, but an aspiring rationalist. I’m not sure that this necessarily translates to the subject area that I feel is most important to apply my (aspiring) rationalism: religion. I’m not an aspiring atheist. I’m an atheist, with never an instance of kind-of believing over the past couple years. Outside of the supernatural, I’m irrational about all kinds of things, including the areas you mentioned: whom I love, what I want to eat, and so on. Thought provoking piece, Dale. Thanks!

    Kevin, Iowa

    Comment: atheistdad – 31. July 2011 @ 8:55 pm

  11. @Kevin: Yes, I agree. Because it is a statement with one easily self-verified variable — whether I believe a god exists — it’s sensible to say I’m an atheist. Much sillier to think that all of the countless influences on my thought process are under my rational control.

    Comment: Dale – 02. August 2011 @ 10:06 am

  12. Great post, Dale. Reminded me a bit of a Harris quote: “There is no question that human beings regularly fail to achieve the norms of rationality. But we do not merely fail – we fail reliably.”

    And Vonnegut’s “Timequake” is such a great book!

    The phrase “aspiring rationalist” is excellent — it sounds more like a way of life rather than a fixed attitude. But, it does make me worry a little bit. Maybe atheism is developing into a full-blown religion after all!

    Comment: Andrew – 08. August 2011 @ 2:11 pm

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