Monday, June 4, 2012

Three Irrational Things I Believe In

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.

1) Choice

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.  


  1. OOh, I just took a summer course on this very topic, Science v. Pseudoscience. It was a very good course and brought to light some really interesting dichotomies that I have within myself as well. I too believe firmly in religious life and the very cool unscientific ways I have to prove it. But I'm also extremely active in a group that promotes evidence based prenatal and labor care, (whereas most of our obstetric care in the US is not evidence based). I find that in the dichotomies in life we find the greatest fulfillment and truth.

    1. One thing I decided not to get into in the post is that reason and evidence help us know how A effects B, not which B we should be tracking. For something like childbirth, you're not just up against tradition (and we do have some weird childbirth care traditions in this country), you're also up against competing values. Should we focus, for example, on which procedure is best for a woman when performed correctly, or which procedure is hardest for a doctor to screw up? How do we decide whether a test is "worth it" when we're weighing probability of benefit, chance of complication, and expense?
      How much we value a child's health, a doctor's time, a mother's wishes, or a financial expense is actually beyond the scope of rationality as well. We start with values and then reason helps us figure out whether our actions are likely to give us our values or not.

  2. For a really good academic argument on human choice, look at:

    The human context of agency.
    Williams, Richard N.
    American Psychologist, Vol 47(6), Jun 1992, 752-760.

    1. Sadly, BYU's library search is down at the moment. But thanks for the recommendation. Eight pages I can probably handle. ;)

  3. This is a really well-written article. I'll add, though, that it doesn't take into account some of the faith-based aspects of science which are within the scientific community itself, and which require scrutiny the other way around.

    For instance, there is the belief that science will eventually tell us everything there is to know. This statement is not remotely scientific. There is no rational reason to believe that we will ever get anything more than the most superficial view of how things "really" work. There is no reason not to believe that, given our world, some regimes might be beyond our reach. We *might* never understand the big bang and get off our planet. Despite this, you get people who claim that science has solved almost everything, and will finish in the near future---and you always have. And yet the actual evidence in favor of that notion is currently weaker than it has been since Newton.

    Another is the belief that progress is both inevitably good and inevitable. Large amounts of progress have been very good indeed, no mistake, but each new bit should be taken on its own merits, in accordance with our preexisting and primarily irrational values.

    Just my $0.02.

    1. I think scientists are well over the science-will-teach-us-everything idea. You don't even need quantum physics to reach that conclusion--we also know that we don't even have close to the computational power to figure out whether white or black is the winner in an omniscient, flawless game of chess.

      But yeah, there are still non-scientists who grossly underestimate the amount of possible knowledge and think we're going to make it there.

      I'd say something like this to them: I'm way too interested in the Big Mysteries to ever be fully satisfied by our little human answers.

  4. I've thought a lot about the topic of irrationality and faith (I even wrote a post about it, which I will shamelessly promote here).

    I think that it is very healthy for us to accept that just having faith in God is irrational, and to accept that irrationality. It's when we try to support our faith with reason that we tend to run into trouble.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. I'm irrational enough to think that I'd love to have the "Moses experience" of being in the presence of the Creator as He reveals what He's organized in the universe and in the earth itself. It makes my heart beat faster to think of it. I love my irrationality!

  6. This reminded me so much of what Marilynne Robinson says in one of her essays that I decided to share it with you.

    She's talking about how Jefferson used religious rhetoric to develop the idea of inherent human rights. She says, "In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? As animals, some of us are smarter or stronger than others, as Jefferson was certainly in a position to know. What would be the nonreligious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case? Every civilization, including this one, has always been able to reason its way to ignoring or denying the most minimal claims to justice in any form that deserves the name. The temptation is always present and powerful because the rationalizations are always ready to hand. One group is congenially inferior, another is alien or shiftless, or they are enemies of the people or of the state. Yet others are carriers of intellectual or spiritual contagion. Jefferson makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization."

    Boy, James, are you ever in good company.

  7. Great post. Rationality isn't the end-all and be-all of truth. Still, I prefer the term "extra-rational" to describe the things your post calls irrational. "Extra-rational" means that there are some things outside the purview of rationality. When we enter the realm of faith, rationality doesn't have the final say, but we don't abandon it either. We study it out in our minds, we seek learning by study, etc. We don't ever just jettison reason, but we know that what we call rationality has it's limits. The classic statement is Pascal's: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows not at all."

    1. Yeah, something like "extra-rational" is better at describing something that is outside the scope of rationality as opposed to something that is attempting to be rational and fails.

      That said, I think it's telling that English doesn't have a standard, everyday term for that sort of thing.

      What tends to happen, honestly, is that my religion is labelled irrational by people who agree with me on the first two things--but don't realize that they have an "extra-rational" basis.

    2. Now I'm curious to know if there are languages that do have a term for "extra-rational"-- or ways of knowing that are recognized to be both unscientific *and* legitimate.

  8. Belief in the unproven is perfectly rational. What determines rationality is the basis for belief, not the verdict of belief or disbelief.

    1. Human choice isn't just unproven, goes against our most basic assumptions about how to prove things. And the existence of inalienable human rights isn't just unproven...if taken literally, it's demonstrably false. And there are plenty of people today who say that religion (particularly our religion) is not just unproven, but disproven by this or that piece of evidence that goes against our story of how things went.

      And I believe in all three anyway--partly as things that go beyond evidence, but also as things in active tension with our scientific/rational ways of knowing.



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