Rules of irrationality

29 July 2012 by Thomas Grüter, posted in Irrational thinking

Is irrationality just the lack of rationality, just the breakdown of normal thinking? If so, human reason seems to fail quite regularly, because a surprising number of people are taken in by quacks every year. They pay for horoscopes or believe in homoeopathy. And what about religion? Is it, as Richard Dawkins proposes, nothing more than a dangerous delusion?

I doubt it very much, because evolution has produced a brain that may think logically, but doesn't have to. Certain kinds of irrationality may even be advantageous for the survival of the individual. In this case, we would expect that most people find some irrational ideas more plausible than others. And in fact, this is what we observe.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the British Anthropologist James George Frazer documented magical and religious beliefs and rituals from all over the world in his ground-breaking twelve-volume book The Golden Bough.

While his conclusions are no longer supported by most contemporary anthropologists, the work is still the biggest single collection of superstitions and magical beliefs. Frazer found that all peoples, no matter of what culture, acknowledge two kinds of supernatural connections: Imitative magic and contagious magic. The imitative or homoeopathic magic is based on similarity. Humans tend to transfer a similarity in one aspect to other aspects. The mandrake root can resemble a human figure and contains hallucinogenic substances. These characteristics caused people from the antiquity to assume that it had magic powers. Harry Potter fans will know that the mandrake root can issue a terrible and harmful scream if torn out of the earth. Homoeopathic medicine claims that substances causing certain symptoms in a healthy individual will alleviate them in sick persons. Therefore homoeopathic physicians will administer a substance that cause exactly the symptoms that the patients suffers from already (the infamous potentization by dilution is a secondary idea, that came up later).

Contagious magic is based on the idea that inanimate objects can pass on certain qualities from their owners or their surroundings. Therefore, quite inconspicuous objects from celebrity households are sold or auctioned at amazingly high prices. The buyers obviously expect to acquire a share of the former owner’s glamour with the item.

In nearly all cultures, most people find it plausible that thoughts or words directly influence matter. Using the word devil may summon him, therefore people tend to avoid it. The Germanic word bear (German Bär, Swedish bjorn) is an old euphemism meaning the brown one. The old Indo-European root arkt (Greek arktos, Latin ursus probably from urctus via urcsus) was lost. The Germanic tribes were afraid to use the “true” name of the dangerous animal, because this might call it.

And as everyone knows, god created the world by commanding it to be (And god said: “Let there be light …”).

The word is a symbol of the corresponding object and is therefore magically connected to it. But also pictorial or even abstract symbols like amulets or totem poles are thought to have magical powers. Across all cultures of the globe, people believe that manipulating the symbol influences reality. In the epic tale The Lord of Rings the malevolent One Ring symbolizes the evil Lord Sauron. Once the ring is destroyed, Sauron loses all his power.

In November 2008, a French company sold Voodoo dolls symbolizing Nicolas Sarkozy. His election campaign slogans were printed all over it and some needles were packed with the doll. The company said the needles were for sticking in the doll. This would prevent Sarkozy “from doing more damage”.

Don't think we have covered the subject now, there is more. Quite a lot of people believe that the future can be foretold. But to be plausible, soothsayers need to observe some rules. Hardly anyone would assume that any clairvoyant knows tomorrow's or next week's news headlines. Also, they obviously don't know next year’s share values, otherwise they wouldn't need to work anymore. And finally, we don't really want to know what our unalterable destiny will be. In fact, we would like to be warned about future stumbling blocks, or want an advice on what route to take at a future crossroad silently assuming that the future is immutable, until we arrive at this crossroad, but open for changes from that moment on.

If we dig deeper in the mud of worldwide superstition, we find that everywhere in the world there are characters like shamans, wizard, magicians, seers, diviners or witches. Gods, spirits or demons have furnished them with supernatural powers, or they may have learned to master magic by many years of practice.

This only makes sense if people assume that there is a spiritual universe invisibly enveloping our material world. Powerful spiritual agents dwell there who can appear and disappear at will. They are thought to be motivated by human emotions like happiness, anger or rage. They act fatherly, motherly, belligerent or peaceful and are supposedly superhumanly attractive, quick or strong. They are in fact, oversized humans. This is not really a new finding.

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have,

the Greek philosopher Xenophanes wrote more than 2500 years ago.

Please note that this survey of superstition is only a description of the structures. It doesn't give any explanation. But until today, human irrationality has always obeyed these rules. For example, the U.S. Presidential oath of office has some attributes of a magic spell. In general, any oath binds a person and calls upon supernatural beings as witnesses. If the very wording is of utter importance, it becomes a magical spell. President Obama had to take his oath twice, because the judge administering it recited it wrongly in the official public ceremony. This didn't change the meaning, but the ceremony was repeated on the next day in private “out of an abundance of caution”.

2 Responses to “Rules of irrationality”

  1. Diane de Reynier Reply | Permalink

    If you want cristallization ln a solution, you need a bit of dirt. Irrationality helps motivation (you do your duty or you believe in some man-made "good" reason to do it), may induce self-healing, give birth to great works of art, etc.
    Rationality is a computer view of the world, yes/no. In the eEast , yes and no are one unity, not mutually excluding each other. Insecure people need rationality, order, they rely on "this is right", "this is wrong". But the world is far more complex than that. Irrationality helps cope with that, I think

  2. Dan Arel Reply | Permalink

    I think irrationality comes from a lack of critical thinking. People so desperately want to believe in something, be it a god, a spirit, or that taking some "drug" they think is natural and from the earth will heal their disease.

    How many time have you heard someone say "my mom beat cancer using only vitamin c" only to find out she was also getting radiation and taking medication, but the person so desperately wants the cure to be the natural cause so they ignore all other factors. Same thing happens with prayer. Recently my grandfathers brother posted on Facebook that his wife was recovering from a serious heart problem and at the last doctors visit the doc said she was almost 100% better and she was no longer a high health risk. He thanks god and thanked everyone for their prayers and stated "this is proof the power of prayer works". He seemed to fail to mention thanking the doctors, the medication, her new diet, her exercise routine, etc and only thanked his superstitious beliefs.

    I think religion (or spirituality for those cultures w/ our a normal based religion style) leads to this lack of critical thinking. It starts with someone wanting to know more about life, or the world, but ends with them going with the easiest and most comforting answer, usually taught to them and handed down from their parents, or found on their own during a tough time. Religion tries very hard to put a cap on critical thinking, they don't want you to think passed god, if you don't have the answer, just assume its more than god wants us to know.

    I think things like astrology falls into the same puzzle, people are looking for an answer and are going with something easy that happens to fit into their thought process of perfect.

    I think (at least in the US) we need to focus more on critical thinking in our schools, courses on how to think critically, question things around us, and to not settle for the first and easiest answer we find.

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