The following are the opening five sentences to Bertrand Russell’s essay, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, which was first published in the midst of World War II, in 1943, but then broadly distributed after the war:
Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogy regrettably surviving from a bygone age.
This feels like it could have been written for our time because the madness, the cruelty, the bombastic nonsense, and the superstition continues apace.
And I’m thinking of Egypt, of course. A great issue for our day—an issue on which so much of the next few decades rides—is whether a group enamored of medievalist nostalgia and literalism—the Muslim Brotherhood—obtains, in a pinch, support closer to 20% or 60% of the voting population of Egypt. (A similar equation pertains to Sarah Palin in the United States, so let’s not be smug here.) Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Sarah Palin deserve the support of any thinking individual—their popular support, in a rational world, should be zero. But here we are, in the 21st century, the progress of the world hostage to fundamentalists.
And this raises a question: why do we, as human beings, believe (and why have we always believed) in weird and ridiculous things? Why aren’t we, in general, more rational?
One plausible theory (not meant to be a comprehensive explanation, but surely a big part of the story) is this: human rationality has always run on a parallel track: there is the reason that a person gives for her beliefs and behavior—let’s call this “rationality #1”—and then there is, lurking in the shadows of the psyche, the real reason (“rationality #2”).
The below cartoon illustrates this perfectly. First have a look at it, and then I’ll explain why I think it is so profound:
Let’s first evaluate the overt rationality in operation here—rationality #1. Notice that the bird-human embrace is born of a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow from the premises). A human mother cannot be the mother of a baby bird and abandonment in Central Park proves nothing of the bird’s maternity—you can be abandoned in a park under all sorts of circumstances. Thus the mother’s triumphant “You must be my little boy!” is, on analysis, a badly supported claim that is almost certainly false.
But in terms of rationality #2 it is completely rational (that is, we can understand the emotions at work, and why they are at work). A bird and a woman are lonely. Rationality #1, however strained, gives them an excuse to eliminate their loneliness and be a family. We can forgive them the error in logic that brings them together because we recognize that their desire is rational—wholly understandable—even moving.
So rationality #1 is frequently in the service of rationality #2—the logic of desire. And if our desires were always positive, and led to outcomes like that depicted in the cartoon, we might wish the world remained largely irrational. But, alas, human desires are not just toward eros, they also move toward thanatos, as Bertrand Russell nicely illustrates here (from the same essay quoted above):
[The] myth-making faculty is often allied with cruelty. Ever since the Middle Ages, the Jews have been accused of practicing ritual murder. There is not an iota of evidence for this accusation, and no sane person who has examined it believes it. Nevertheless it persists. I have met with White Russians who were convinced of its truth, and among many Nazis it was accepted without question. Such myths give an excuse for the infliction of torture, and the unfounded belief in them is evidence of the unconscious desire to find some victim to persecute.
In other words, sublimated hatred can unconsciously drive one’s rationality as sure as love can (as the American right’s hysteria-driven response to Barack Obama these past few years so readily attests).
So how do we get to a more rational world? Maybe by first simply bringing into consciousness the wee-possibility that maybe, just maybe, our beliefs and behaviors are not wholly driven by the overt reasons that we offer, but also by our desires—often malignant—such as envy, revenge, and cruelty.
Voltaire once said (I’m paraphrasing here) that you can get people to do monstrous things only after you get them in the habit of believing ridiculous things. Actually, here’s the exact quote:
Those who can lead you to believe absurdities can lead you to commit atrocities.
But maybe this equation also runs in reverse: we believe absurd things that justify our already existing (and often sublimated and atrocious) impulses. This seems a good reason to try and be mindful, not just of our overt rationality—the justifications we offer for our beliefs—but of our desire-driven rationality and the role it plays in energizing for us those justifications.