I have been pondering rationality. We all (I assume) like to think that we are rational to some extent - that we consider the available information and make decisions to achieve the most favourable outcome. Of course, if it were that simple there would be no free will and we would all agree.

It is not that simple - for a start we do not all have all of the information, or the same information, and the information we have may be wrong. A key part of assessing information to make a decision is predicting the future, and we all have different luck and skills in that. We also have lots of bias based on our previous success in predicting the future. There are a huge number of psychological effects that are well documented that create lots of bias in our decision making processes.

The other obvious factor is how we decide what is a favourable outcome. We "feel" that we want certain things and certain outcomes, but what makes us feel that way is not necessarily rational in itself. Ultimately "what makes us happy" is a key factor, or perhaps "what we think will make us happy". I don't know how that comes about - our previous experience, genetics, what?

One of the reasons I was pondering rationality is seeing again the phrase "We are all atheists for almost all gods in human history, it is just that some people take it one god further". I was pondering the impossibility of debating religion with people. It is not totally impossible, but often one hits a brick wall where any rational debate falls down.

A rational debate involves one party trying to change the mind of the other - and if we assume people are rational then that means changing one of the parameters. Change the available information or change the perceived future prediction based on providing other experience of such predictions, or perhaps even change the views of what is a favourable outcome. It is not always possible, but in an ideal world it should be possible for two parties to agree the set of facts and rules and hence find that they have to agree on a decision.

I find it quite useful in a debate to try and get people to "step back", and try to agree on the desired objectives, and then how one measures success against those objectives. You can then back track to considering the alternatives and assessing against the agreed metrics to reach a decision on which all parties must agree (having agreed the test / metrics to follow).

Religious debates do not always follow such "logic", sadly. For a start - people are rarely prepared to specify their objectives in such debates!

If the world had one religion you could almost understand that the religious would not fathom the arguments of the non religions. But when there is a world with lots of religions, you end up with each group believing a set of arguments in favour of their own religion, but somehow dismissing the identical set of arguments presented by an opposing religion. It means that one person has to somehow hold conflicting logic and apply it differently depending on the context.

To be honest, that is a clever trick!

I am reminded of the electric monk: “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder... Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”  One of its key features is described later "The man from the Monk shop said that it needed a whole new motherboard, but then pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multi-tasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model."


  1. Electric Monk, that sounds like a Douglas Adams idea... *checks* yup.

    1. And I think the length of the quote would make an attribution (Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) a "good idea" (TM).

  2. The difficulty with getting people to state their objectives is that in many cases objectives are more complex than even the person having them can understand.

    As social animals I think we are predisposed to want to conform to something larger than us, just to feel part of things, and that is probably how things like religion got their roots, interspersed with customs and laws.

    Then there is ego, wanting to be right, wanting to APPEAR to the rest of our peers as being a top performer in our social group, which is going to affect both religious and secular groups.

    Our brains are constantly making decisions and then rationalising them away at a level below conscious thought let alone rational debate so it isn't surprising that all of that baggage can lead to irrational actions.

    Over time I think humanity will become more sophisticated and put aside dead end arguments like "Faith is required for a good life. Proof is not required for faith. Proof denies faith.", but, we will probably never escape some degree of irrationality, it will just be that the things wecare irrational about will become more complex. :)

  3. Many years ago I realised that almost all religions say: "We are right, all the others are wrong. If you don't agree with us, you are damned". Now as so many of them say this, what is the chance that one of them is actually right? Pretty much none, IMHO, so I decided that as they are probably all wrong, I'll have nothing to do wth any of them!

    I think that as well as an opposable thumb, one reason why humans are where we are (considering ourselves to be Top Species) may be to do with our powerful "Us and Them" attitude. We will fight to the death to protect our group against all others, and as a result we end up as the only group standing. Just look at how some pairs of groups are, or have been, bitter enemies: Catholic vs. Protestant, Sunni vs Shi'ite, where they are the same religions, but with different affiliations, Palestine vs Israel, Aresnal vs Spurs, Everton vs Liverpool, etc.

    And during wars Governments stir this up to produce a strong hated of "Them", and the attendant "if you aren't with us, you're against us" attitude to make dissent difficult (or actually illegal). Think how attitudes were in this country towards Argentinians during the Falklands War - a lot of otherwise sensible people really did believe they (including civilians that happened to be living here) were evil! (There was an Argentinian who wrote articles for, I think, "Pilot" magazine, and some people wrote to them saying they shouldn't be publishing him!).

    These things mean that I'm afraid your "rational argument" is just not going to happen when the opponents' primary goal is the wiping-out of "Them". It also makes you wonder what a particular group would do if their opponents were actually wiped out...

    I remember a quote from a character played by Robert Vaughn in a Superman film, something like: "It is not sufficient that I should win - everyone else must lose". This is completely contrary to my attitude - I want everyone to win!

    I'm afraid that your first premise, that rational argument is the way things are / should / will be done is flawed in some cases - some people just want what they want and have no rationale behind it, and won't have their position challenged, let alone changed.

    Perhaps us rational types should make it our mission to defeat the others? :-)


  4. > and if we assume people are rational

    Don't, they aren't.

    I used to say "I am a rational person". Today I say "I try to be a rational person, and fail, mostly".

    Really our brains are wired in such a way to make true rationality quite impossible; we have so many cognitive biases and other failings the best we can do is accept them, be aware of when they're causing us to think the way we do and then trying to overcome them. Non of this is easy.

    I know I've recommended this before but I really do think you should take a look at the lesswrong wiki, judging by what you occasionally write here I think you'll find it interesting.

  5. What I really don't understand is how people can insist on a completely literal interpretation of a reformed (or completely made up) religion.

    Take Church of England, for example - the religion was reformed by Henry VIII (and this is well documented - hard for someone to dispute). So in a religion where some of the doctrines have been changed relatively recently, how can anyone claim that the other doctrines are the word of god and therefore immutable? Surely if you're happy to change some, you should be happy to change them all?


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