July 4th, 2010

Faith in Rationality

Faith in Rationality

Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the alarming degree to which humans rely on what can only be described as blind faith, to avoid feelings of hopelessness, or ease anxieties about inexplicable phenomena and other uncertainties in life.

This, of course, stems from the same underlying psychological mechanisms largely responsible for spiritual dogma, itself a causative link I began to recognize in my early teen years. That mechanism, of course, is well documented and understood, and it handily explains why some devoutly dogmatic religious types get so hostile when their beliefs are challenged: on some level, part of them knows their beliefs -- whether ultimately true or not -- are inherently irrational, and yet they pin so much hope on them that if you disturb the delicate balance, their whole worldview -- stabilized only by a feeling of group consensus -- threatens to come crashing down.

But what's more subtle and insidious is the degree to which dogmatic thinking pops up in non-religious contexts. Human beings are incredibly good at putting forth convenient explanations for their troubles which, upon further examination, really have no factual basis -- yet they choose to believe them simply because it makes them feel better to do so.

Pessimism vs. Realism

I cannot begin to enumerate how many times I have been called pessimistic because of my refusal to fall in line with this sort of thinking. I would say, if anything, it makes me realistic that I reject unsubstantiated fairy-tale warm-&-fuzzy feel-good explanations. This is certainly not to say I never expect a positive outcome from an adverse situation; if I have a cold, there is factual precedent for the likelihood that I will get over it relatively soon. If I don't like the weather at a given moment, I know it will change at some point. But it makes sense to believe such things, and that's the key.

On the other hand, if I talk about -- say -- my strangely prolonged job search difficulties, some people have an entire arsenal of convenient, pat explanations all ready to go, and they hurl them at me in rapid-fire fashion, as though it's beyond my comprehension to have already considered the most obvious possibilities. (This is also a great example of poor listening skills, but that's another topic altogether.)

Everybody knows the economy hasn't been in the best condition the last few years (understatement of the century), so it's easy to pin job search difficulties on that. But the "inconvenient truth" (with apologies to Al Gore) is that the patterns underlying my difficulties are not discernibly different now from when the job market was strong, before the recession. Or for those who know I've been applying for jobs back home in New York, they say distance is the reason I'm not getting hired -- but in truth, I've been selected to interview remotely for a number of positions in recent months, and each time, the hiring managers have made it clear that they considered my location irrelevant, and were perfectly willing to have me move back for the job. Well, assuming I was the one ultimately offered the job, which I inevitably don't turn out to be.

Plus, people get jobs remotely all the time, often even right out of college (i.e. with less documentable experience), and yes, even in this economy. I hear of examples on a regular basis. So distance should definitely not be a prohibitive factor for somebody like me with a substantial accumulation of applicable experience.

I have explained this to many people -- how it's not the economy, not distance, and refutations of other typical theories -- and still, they seem to come away from the conversation having selected one or more of those explanations, and sticking to them because they're convenient and include built-in remedy vectors. I know this because I've explained the same things to the same people multiple times. Many humans are not good at accepting "it's not going well, and there's no clear reason why." Not only does that perpetuate uncertainty -- a very uncomfortable thing for most people -- but it also doesn't readily yield a basis for believing things will improve in the near future. Yet, belief in forthcoming improvement is all that keeps some people going in tough times; sadly, it doesn't seem to earn consideration whether said belief actually makes sense in any given instance, as that might lead to the unfortunate conclusion that it doesn't.

Apparently I am unusual in this regard, because I've found I am simply incapable of clinging to blind faith. I just can't believe something unless I can rationally support my belief in it, and I can't understand how people can truly find comfort in such things. Otherwise, from my perspective, you might as well believe some guy in a red suit is going to come down your chimney on Christmas and leave you presents. Or that a fairy really does leave you money in exchange for your cast-off baby teeth. Hell, it would be like quitting your job because you "believe" you're going to win the lottery tomorrow -- a belief you have chosen to harbor simply because it makes you feel better (at that moment) to believe it, but for no other truly supportable reason.

Belief vs. Hope

Note that "belief" is not the same as "hope." I am all about hope. By all means, hope that a long string of bad luck will turn around. Hope for some greater meaning beyond your gritty day-to-day struggles -- including, if you wish, some form of an afterlife. Play the lottery and hope to win (...but keep your job for now). Hope is perfectly fine, because it's based on desire for something which, presumably, is reasonable to desire, but without contrived certainty. Blind faith is something else entirely. Blind faith amounts to choosing a very specific outcome or explanation, without any factual or irrefutable experiential evidence to support it, and choosing to believe in it simply because it makes you feel better to do so. Ultimately, the word "belief" doesn't even do such a mechanism justice -- it's really just a soothing self-delusion. One could even compare it to a drug, and it's certainly just as addictive, albeit in a non-physiological way.

The Wrong Side of Progress

It's worth pointing out that blind faith isn't simply irrational; it can be downright dangerous. Let us not forget that not too many hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church placed the earth at the center of the solar system, and ostensibly the universe, to bolster our feelings of "specialness" as human beings, and as central figures in God's Great Plan. This belief was based on nothing more than the faith and the desire for it to be true (a self-referential construct), and it was such a key structural component in the Church's belief system that when early modern astronomers began coming forward with factual evidence that challenged those assumptions, they were harassed and made into pariahs and outcasts. Rather than do what any truly intelligent, rational being would do -- that is, consider new information with an open mind, on its own merits, and revise prior conclusions accordingly -- the Church collectively plugged its ears, yelled "LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!," and did its best to eradicate informed dissent.

In fact, certain faith-based organizations have repeatedly (and revealingly) found themselves on the wrong side of progress throughout history (i.e. "anybody noticing a pattern here?"), whether regarding something like astronomy, slavery, women's rights, or currently, marriage equality. The entire basis for, say, the lunatic fringe movement against evolution is (a) the inability (or unwillingness) to wrap one's mind around the sheer enormity of the scale of time over which organisms adapted and evolved, and (b) the unwillingness (or inability) to let go of the feeling of "specialness" sourced from the idea that we were "intelligently designed" by a superior being as part of His Great Plan. And lest it appear I'm picking on the Christians here (or at least the more extreme fundamentalist ones), it begs acknowledgment that many other faith-based organizations (including both mainstream religions and cults) have also perpetuated truly insane notions in the name of dogma. It's no accident faith has often pitted itself against science, and it's no surprise untold violence and deaths have come at the hands of such belief systems. After all, if you challenge dogma, you are directly challenging the foundation upon which some have ever-so-tenuously built their entire sense of purpose. People don't seem to like that very much, and their reactions can be irrational, erratic, and extreme.

To be fair, although we are a chronically dense species in some ways, we have exhibited a capacity to come around eventually. Most people (keyword: most) now have some vague understanding of the earth's location relative to other heavenly bodies, believe slavery was wrong, and respect (or at least accept) women as equals. And someday in the not-too-distant future, we will collectively look back in embarrassment on the day when we restricted marriage, and the benefits it confers, to opposite-sex couples only. In short: it takes time, and a lot of people suffer needlessly along the way, but we eventually tend to "get it." I only wish we could learn to do so without that interim suffering.

Day-to-Day Dogma

This takes me back to my original point: irrational thinking runs rampant not just among the foundations of faith-based belief systems, but also through many non-spiritual facets of day-to-day interaction and discourse. I confess it frustrates me to no end when people hastily settle upon knee-jerk, overly convenient explanations for life's difficulties. Ultimately, I believe in facing and accepting reality, even when it's unpleasant to do so. Maybe this is also part of the reason I choose not to drink alcohol. In the end, if I attempt to hide from reality while rationally knowing better, I know I'm just cheating myself.

Again, shortcomings of rationality do harm on a variety of levels. When I'm explaining something unpleasant in my life, I probably just want the listener to hear me and acknowledge. If we end up discussing possible reasons for the unpleasant situation, I want the listener to rationally consider the likelihood that any given factor may be applicable, based on information I have given, and not cling to an explanation just because it sounds good in the absence of further examination.

But if it turns out something just sucks and there's no known sensible reason why, then one just needs to accept that. It's sad, and it's unpleasant, but at least it's honest. And sometimes, just being honest is the nicest thing you can do for somebody.