Critical Thinking Tip #5: Distinguish Between Conscious and Unconscious Rationality in Yourself and Others

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Critical Thinking Tip #5: Distinguish Between Conscious and Unconscious Rationality in Yourself and Others

  1. Paradigm says:

    Interesting post, although I sense a little bit of smugness in it. I’ve read so many liberal, science-minded blogs to see the “logic of desire” and irrationality among the supposedly rational. They are just on and on about how stupid Christians are. To me they are a tribe and they hate the other tribe because that’s in our nature. They wield their Axe of Science at the Christians like a bunch of angry Neanderthals thinking that fancy axe is what separates them from the primitive religious people. It’s almost funny.

    But maybe I misread your post, and you include this behavior in your analysis?

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      I certainly do include my own behavior in the post. Something I’m interested in right now is thinking about how, exactly, one knows when “the rationality of desire” is actually driving your own overt reasoning (and the energy you bring to it). Since such desires may not be readily or fully brought to consciousness (even with effort) it seems tricky. I think that Freud absorbed the contingency of each individual’s experience better than other thinkers, and realized that we reason from contingent motivations often blocked to consciousness, and so I think he is still valuable to read.

      Have you ever noticed, for example, how you seem to see more clearly other people’s motivations and behaviors than they themselves do? I have a friend who gets in atrocious romantic situations, and he never sees it coming. I suppose you see similar foibles in your friends. I once had a friend who dated an older woman who looked exactly like his mother—and he couldn’t see it. He resented that I had pointed it out to him.

      And I can readily think of a perfect recent example of gnu atheists using their rationality as a cover for hostility. There is an astronomer who sought a position at the University of Kentucky who was clearly discriminated against because he is a Christian, and the atheist blogosphere has justified the discrimination. Dawkins piece is especially obnoxious. And PZ Myers’s oral agression is on fine display surrounding this. Maybe I’ll post something on the incident today or tommorrow. His name is Martin Gilbert (if I recall his name correctly).

      —Santi

    • Your analogy is interesting – tribe vs tribe w/ those believing in science as Neanderthals. Is that a purposeful twist, or a subconscious one?

      Here is the difference I see on the logic of desire in the scenario you list. the standard burden of proof that people require in their every day lives is suspended when dealing with religion. The criteria found acceptable for belief in a god and a very convoluted mythology, are unacceptable as valid criteria for something like making a material monetary investment.

      • Paradigm says:

        I don’t think it could be subconscious given the topic. Their hostility is not in proportion to what Christians say or do compared to other groups/tribes. But they constitute the closest opposite of what the sci-atheist group stand for. That’s why I make the analogy to Neanderthals – it’s just the local enemy tribe.

        As for the rest, religion is not the same domain as science. There are of course some people who understand this and can enjoy both, but most people fall for the tribal thinking. They usually rationalize this as a question of burden of proof or similar, although they probably know at some level that it doesn’t apply.

      • @Paradigm – I would disagree with you on the hostility side of atheist vs Christian. I am the only atheist in my family. I see Facebook, emails, etc all the time with religious dogma sent around. The second I point out a flaw in this or send an atheist thing, I get these negative reactions. Christians feel both entitled to spread their dogma around and offended when others do likewise. There are definitely the zealots like PZ, Dawkins, etc. But there are far more zealots on the Christian side. As far as us regular folks go, it seems that there are far more Christian hostiles than atheists.

        Why do you feel the burden of proof is should be different based on topic? I find it baffling, and you are not the only one to suggest it. Most religious folks do. Granted, we all vary our burden of proof to some extent, but there are these crazy variations that are often visible in the religious. They not only accept religion as the truth, but are militant about it. Then they discard scientific results, backed by solid evidence, because they do not desire to believe it.

  2. TomH says:

    You deserve the utmost scorn for implicitly equating Sarah Palin with the Muslim Brotherhood. You yourself don’t deserve the attention of any thinking individual.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom,

      If Palin and the Muslim Brotherhood are vastly different phenomena, could you kindly point out their starkest and most obvious differences (from your perspective)?

      I’ll offer one: I don’t think a Sarah Palin presidency would result in rigging elections, or her not stepping down if she lost an election. I think she would relinquish power after an election. Perhaps a Muslim Brotherhood politician with sufficient power would consolidate it and not ever hold elections again. I don’t know.

      But I also imagine that, if the Muslim Brotherhood wins substantial support in Egypt, the fundamentalism in Egypt could contribute to the rise of a fundamentalist politician like Palin to the presidency in the United States. I hardly think it implausible that a fundamentalist led and energized Islamic world could face off with a fundamentalist led and energized United States a decade from now.

      If there are differences between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism it is in the narcissism of small differences. Both are holy book oriented and authoritarian cultural phenomena tied to Herderian-style nationalisms. Both have a mentality of endless war against the devil. Both are energized by psychological anality, cruelty, and resentment. Neither side blinks at the use of force against outsiders. Both are anti-science and anti-intellectual. Both have eschatological longings that entail their own deliverance from a world that is smashed by God apocalyptically. (At least Iranian Shiites have such an eschatology.)

      Fortunately for the United States we have an ingenious combination of checks and balances against concentrated power, and a great Bill of Rights. The one party state rarely functions for long in the United States. Save these checks and balances, Palin’s fundamentalism would be every bit as dangerous as the Muslim Brotherhood may prove to be in Egypt. El Baradei very specifically wants to see, for example, an independent judiciary (something anethema to Sharia desiring fundamentalists). In the United States, fundamentalists also hate the independent judiciary.

      —Santi

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi – Interesting idea to put a palindromic-like twist on the logic of that aphorism. (‘Word’ rejects the foregoing adjective, but it is in the OED!).

    A thought-provoking post, even if I don’t find it entirely coherent. It seems to me that a belief or a deductive line of reasoning can only be either rational or not rational. So I think it is confusing to qualify the word, as in “overt rationality” and “desire-driven rationality”. How about substituting ‘rationale’ for the word ‘rationality’?

    Colin

    • santitafarella says:

      Colin,

      What about sayings like these: “There is method to my madness” and “The heart has its reasons”?

      Hamlet only appears overtly irrational.

      Once we uncover underlying motivations and the unconscious strategems at work in a person or a movement, doesn’t it invariably make sense in ways that overt logic makes sense?

      The unconscious is surreal without being logically disjointed like surrealism.

      Desire seems a form of rationality to me. A rationale is a dubious excuse, but what’s dubious (for example) about a good reason to love—about seeking love from a position of loneliness? Often the “rationale” is the overt explanation—a justification after the fact of what the heart has rationally—that is, in a completely understandable way—arrived at.

      —Santi

  4. Paradigm says:

    “Why do you feel the burden of proof is should be different based on topic? I find it baffling, and you are not the only one to suggest it. Most religious folks do. Granted, we all vary our burden of proof to some extent, but there are these crazy variations that are often visible in the religious. They not only accept religion as the truth, but are militant about it. Then they discard scientific results, backed by solid evidence, because they do not desire to believe it.”

    Faith is not the same as science. It’ not a matter of topic, these are completely different domains. Like art or love. If I say Juliet Landau is the sweetest thing I ever saw, you’re not going to lay the burden of proof on me, right? Because you realize it’s not science, it’s something else. You seem to view religion as some kind of flawed science. It’s not – it’s belief. Some religious fundamentalist overstep their domain and view religion as absolute knowledge – which neither science or religion is. But this is not any different from when you overstep your domain and insist on proof.

    My point is that both camps are driven by the “logic of desire” that Santi talks of.

    “I would disagree with you on the hostility side of atheist vs Christian. I am the only atheist in my family. /…/ Christians feel both entitled to spread their dogma around and offended when others do likewise. There are definitely the zealots like PZ, Dawkins, etc. But there are far more zealots on the Christian side. As far as us regular folks go, it seems that there are far more Christian hostiles than atheists.”

    Yes, there are more Christians than atheists but the hostility is the same. I’m talking quality, not quantity.

    • I guess that it is difficult to view them as so separated by the fact that religion bleeds over into so many areas. Look at the Texas Board of Education as a great example of religion bleeding over into science and education. There are many Americans that view religion as equivalent to science. Many who disbelieve science because it conflicts with their religion.

      The catholic church does a good job of keeping science and religion as separate domains. Evangelicals in the USA do quite the opposite. They intermingle the two as if they are one and the same.

      • Paradigm says:

        Yes, I’m glad we don’t have something like your Evangelicals here. But unfortunately we have a lot of Muslims and almost all of them are fundamentalists. One recently blew himself to pieces, partly because of an artist making fun of the prophet Muhammed : (

      • Oh, there is no comparison of evangelicals to Muslim fundamentalists. Evangelicals have some issues, but nothing like that.

  5. Pingback: Thinking and the Unconscious « LentilAsylum

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