So I’m in the middle of reading Bruce Hood’s Supersense, and so far it’s looking like a really worthwhile read. I’m going to wait till I’ve followed his reasoning through to the end before deciding exactly what I think of it, but it’s prompted me to think (and subsequently rant) about something that’s bugged me sporadically for some time.
The book’s about the natural human tendency to believe in supernatural ideas, seek supernatural explanations for phenomena we don’t immediately understand, and so forth. A big part of his thesis is that everybody, however rational they try to be, has some irrational or supernatural elements to their belief system. The main example he uses is the revulsion most people feel on being asked to don an item of clothing previously worn by a notorious serial killer. There’s no real, physical, material connection to anything negative whatsoever, it’s a completely innocuous item entirely unaltered by some irrelevant piece of information about its past… and yet most people would still feel icky about putting on Fred West’s sweater.
Our emotions – obviously a significant part of what it means to be human, and a part famously not over-burdened by rationality – are what he’s starting to talk about at the point of the book I’ve reached. As I say, I’m going to let him finish before passing judgement, but there’s an annoyingly prevalent assumption elsewhere in a lot of our culture that deserves a tirade.
Emotional != Irrational.
(That’s a makeshift “does not equal” sign, for anyone who was wondering.)
Films and TV like this one a lot. Whenever anyone in any kind of dramatisation does anything out of love, for instance, they’re generally seen as acting against logic. It’s a totally irrational act, they’re told, to have given up the chance for so many material pleasures just so they could get the girl – and this irrationality is held up as triumphantly praiseworthy. Screw reason, you’re doing something better.
Now, I acknowledge the obvious irrational aspects to something like love. Emotions are things that happen without recourse to reason, and I know there’s a significant difference between empirically assessing somebody’s attributes and calculating them to be laudable, and loving someone for being a wonderful person. I accept all that.
But that doesn’t make it an irrational thing to act on one’s emotions in any way, once they’re there.
Concrete example: I finished watching the complete series of Due South not long ago, and toward the end, Fraser gets an offer of some big fancy job of some sort elsewhere, with more money, more prestige, more whatever. It’s a promotion, a step up for him professionally in every way, and it’s his for the taking. But he doesn’t. He turns it down, and chooses to stay in his current position, a lower-paying job with a crappy apartment and few perks. And why? Because he wants to keep working with his partner, Ray, along with all the other people with whom he’s built up a relationship where he currently is.
Now, Ray’s the first to tell Fraser that this makes no sense, it’s an illogical choice. But it makes perfect sense. Fraser’s looking at his choices and deciding what would make him happiest, and it isn’t the pay rise and the fancy apartment in some other part of the country, it’s doing a job he loves with people he cares about. Staying where he is is entirely the correct and sensible decision, because of the emotions he’s feeling.
No doubt letting overwhelming emotions drown out any other factors at all can lead people to irrational decisions, where they fail to act in their best overall interests due to what feels right more immediately. But it’s annoying how everyone always seems to get described as “irrational” whenever they admit that emotions matter. Give rationalism a little more credit.
For that matter, don’t get me started on the phrase “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this”. “Reasonable” does not mean being in denial about the fact that there are very obviously vampires trying to eat you. For instance.
People saying that line (or one very like it) are so often mere moments away from getting shown up and humiliated/disembowelled for their oh-so-foolish-in-retrospect skepticism. Look, being skeptical when some crazy guy starts ranting about the zombie apocalypse is a good thing. Otherwise you’ll believe any old shit crazy people tell you. But once you’ve seen the hordes of dead rising from their graves, or looked into the dead eyes of your best friend as he gnaws on the leg of your brother’s corpse, or been provided with whatever extraordinary evidence the extraordinary claims in question need, then the “rational explanation” becomes holy shit you guys there’s fucking zombies.
Seriously, you’re allowed to be rational and still change your mind when new facts come in. If you’re Buffy, the most reasonable explanation for a lot of things is vampires, duh, but otherwise you really shouldn’t be chastised for not leaping straight to wacky assumptions about undead armies as soon as something odd crops up which needs explaining.
Okay, hold on… this has nothing to do with anything, but did anyone else see that the Large Hadron Collider was scuppered when a bird dropped some bread in it? It’s not clear from this one article quite how big a problem it’s caused – did they just notice that something was up, have a look, take the bread out, and get on with things? Should I take @ProfBrianCox’s silence on the matter as a sign that nothing too drastic has gone awry this time? Anyone know any more about this?
That’s derailed whatever minimal train of thought I might have had, now.