I love science. Considering that the survival rate for testicular cancer has gone from under 10% in the 1960s to over 95% today, I probably owe my life to scientific ways of thinking. For many problems, the scientific method (creating a clear and precise research question, gathering independently verifiable evidence, and coming to tentative conclusions about cause and effect) is absolutely the best route to useable answers. Scientific rationality deserves our respect for that.
But sometimes we seem to forget that scientific ways of thinking have their limits. As heirs to the Enlightenment, we've come to use the term "rational" as if it meant "good." And we often use the word "irrational" to dismiss an idea...forgetting that our whole lives are built around ideas that are beyond the scope of rationality.
So today, in celebration of just such ideas, I present you three irrational things I believe in deeply.
Science is essentially the study of causes and effects. As such, it assumes that every effect can be traced to a previous cause. When we're reasoning in a scientific way, then, we don't ask whether a person chose to be a certain way or not. Instead, we ask whether a person is a certain way because of his/her genetics or because of his/her environment--the existence of one cause or another is simply assumed.
From a strictly rational perspective, then, all of my apparent choices are actually the product of prior influences, which in turn would have been the product of still earlier influences, and so on all the way back to the Big Bang.
Now, I may feel like I am making choices quite frequently, but feelings and intuition don't count as evidence in a rational frame. From a rational perspective, if I choose not to cheat on a test it's because more factors or experiences have sharpened my desire to be honest than have sharpened my desire to be praised--not because I truly decided in any sort of moral way which value would matter most to me.
The only way I can see to believe in choice is to step outside of the rational frame of cause-and-effect thinking. To simply assert that my subjective experience of moral choice is more real than rationality.
I find that it's easy to describe choice in religious terms: to say that revelation supports the possibility of human agency, or that humans have inherited the divine attribute of being original causes. But I don't know how, in secular and scientific terms, to make a remotely convincing argument that human choice is real.
Choice is one irrational idea it means everything to me to believe in.
2) Human rights
Most public schools in America teach evolution in their science classrooms and creationism in their history classrooms. Believing in evolution allows us to keep up with new strains of flu that would otherwise devastate our population. Believing that "all men are created equal" lays a foundation for our national social values.
But "all men are created equal" is not good science or universally verifiable reason. What evidence do we have that men were "created"? And in what measurable sense are human beings inherently "equal"? Can we perform experiments to find out which proposed human rights are actually inborn or inalienable?
We could perform experiments, of course, and they would prove that an individual can in fact be violated and deprived and limited in an endless number of ways. We could measure individuals with countless different quantitative metrics and find one where everyone comes out exactly equal.
There is no strictly rational basis I can think of to "prove" the existence of a single human right, however basic, as anything other than a passing social construct.
And yet, I refuse to accept that human rights are only an agreement we make. On an intuitive level (which holds no rational weight), I genuinely feel that certain wrongs go against the order of the universe, that some injustices are an affront to God. I would rather be irrational and believe in our fundamental equality and absolute right to dignity than be rational and accept that people are lumps of matter which can often be pushed around and manipulated without significant consequence.
Rational, objectively verifiable arguments for human rights break down quickly under scrutiny--but I'm proud to believe human rights can exist anyway.
3) The Church
I probably don't have to tell you it isn't rational to believe in our religion.
But I'll point out, just in case, that the Biblical account of Abraham includes numerous anachronisms, that there's no conclusive archeological evidence for the Exodus, that miracles can't be consistently reproduced and verified by independent and unbiased laboratories, and that it's outright bizarre to count an uneducated New York farmhand as an expert on diet and health.
So where exactly do I get off acknowledging all that and still saying that I know the Church is true?
Because I don't think the word "know" should be limited to rational kinds of knowing.
I know I'm responsible for the choices I make.
I know there are ways of treating other people which are absolutely and non-negotiably wrong.
And in the same irrational or extra-rational or soul-deep way, I know that God lives and that I've felt him in my faith.
I think rationality is great, and deserves an important place in our society. But I fail to see why I should be ashamed of ways of knowing that are intense, personal, burning, and beyond the scope of the rational.