Unreasonable Belief by Sol Schimmel

By Solomon Schimmel*

Solomon Schimmel in Action

In addition to the philosophical critique of evidentialism, there is another ground for questioning the priority of reason in deciding what we should believe and how we should live our lives. The human capacity to use reason is, after all, nothing but an evolutionary adaptation that enables our species to survive. Moreover, human reason is far from perfect. We make all kinds of logical errors in a variety of contexts.

Reasoning skills do not come naturally, but require disciplined training, often of many years’ duration, and for numerous people they never come at all. Most human beings believe things that do not meet the criteria of logical deduction or scientific induction, or even plausibility.

We frequently make inferences about events of the past, or predictions about the future, which on strictly logical or probabilistic grounds do not make much sense, and we act in accordance with these erroneous assessments or expectations.

Ancient and medieval philosophers pointed to the deficiencies of human reasoning in ascertaining “truth,” and modern experimental psychologists have demonstrated these deficiencies in numerous contexts. Simply put, human “reasoning” doesn’t live up to all that its devotees have claimed for it. It is nothing but a flawed, imperfect evolutionary tool that has been conducive to our survival as a species until now. There is no guarantee that it will continue to serve this function in the years ahead (just as our affinity for sugar helped us survive in the past but might not be conducive to our health today). Indeed, some of the most impressive products of human reason, such as nuclear physics—one of the pinnacles of reason’s achievements—may yet prove to be the instrument for the destruction, rather than the survival, of humanity.

Consequently, if at times non rational, intuitive, experiential, emotional, or even irrational beliefs and behaviors are more effective than “reason” for a particular individual or group in enabling them to survive, physically or culturally, then “reason” has no a priori claim on how they should lead their lives.

Reason is only an instrument to be used when it is the best instrument available. If falsehood, self-deception, and psychological mechanisms of denial are better for certain purposes, so be it. “Reason” is not divine; it is not more or less “human” than are emotions, or self-deception. If self-deception, or denial, or faulty reasoning, or deliberate lying can, for example, make an individual less depressed, happier, more fulfilled, and even more humane, whereas reason would lead to nihilism, despair, depression, or inhumanity, then we need not assume that one should blindly follow reason and logic and empiricism to wherever they might lead.

Why not take a Jamesian pragmatic approach to the “truth” or to religious experience and apply them to beliefs and doctrines as well? Whichever worldview bears better fruits is the one that we should, or at least can defensibly, adopt as “truer.” An argument can be made that in some circumstances and for some people, for some of the time, the “objectively false” myths and assertions of religions serve mankind better than do the fruits of “critical thinking.”

There is no reason, therefore, that the presumed “truths” discovered by “objective reasoning” should have a favored status in guiding our lives. Naturally, because reason has evolved as a survival mechanism, it probably is in our interest to use it frequently, when it is shown to be advantageous to do so.

Most religious fundamentalists are not averse to using modern technology and modern medicine, the fruits of reason and science.

However, it is not appropriate to challenge the desirability or the utility of religious beliefs simply because they may be implausible or irrational. One would have to demonstrate that such beliefs are in the long run detrimental to human welfare, relative to the human welfare that would result by following only well-established “facts” and indisputable “reasons.”

So, by acknowledging the limitations of reason, have I conceded defeat to the fundamentalists who are anti rationalists or limited rationalists? No. The issue is not whether reason, scholarship, and science are flawless tools for understanding and interpreting reality, and for living in and controlling reality for human benefit. It is rather whether, all things considered, they are preferable to a non rational or irrational fundamentalist religious approach to life and reality.

One must make a cost-benefit analysis comparing the effects on human welfare of maintaining a non-rational, or a-rational, or implausible religious worldview, with the costs and benefits of maintaining a non-fundamentalist worldview, whether religious or secular, in which reason and empirical evidence are given priority over other alleged sources of knowledge and insight.

The rationalist need not claim that reason and empiricism are the only sources of valuable human knowledge and insight. Art, music, poetry, fiction, and religious myth — much of which are not generated by, and do not appeal to, reason or to the empirical for their value to humanity — can be deeply appreciated by the rationalist for the richness they endow on human experience and the emotional and psychological insights and wisdom that they often convey. Imagination is a natural human faculty no less than is reason. Only when the humanities, including religions, make assertions about human nature, or about reality, in a propositional form, which can be subjected to rational analysis or empirical test, and those assertions fail to withstand that analysis or to meet that test, does the rationalist give reason and science epistemological priority over the humanities and religion.

We need to ask, does a particular fundamentalist religious worldview enhance the welfare of the individual believer or of the believing group? What is its impact on the welfare of people who do not subscribe to it? The same questions would have to be asked of the “rationalist,” empiricist worldview. There are no single or simple answers to these questions.

Solomon Schimmel is professor of psychology at Hebrew College and the author of The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth” (Oxford University Press, 2008 from which this excerpt is taken by the author.

4 thoughts on “Unreasonable Belief by Sol Schimmel

  1. Analyses such as Sol’s beg the question of whether reason, like ethics, exists at all.

    I don’t think it’s possible for humans to be much devoid of reason, except when encumbered by bad health, pain, injury etc.

    As for the ‘cost-benefits’ of reason – we should be talking about personal courage and the benefits to the species as criteria for such weighing, in Life, as more likely to be relevant than some supposed degree of ‘rationality’. It’s way too smug to sit on the fence of ‘reason’ and declare others to be out of bounds – the banal tactic of the atheists.

    As an example. the Hebrew people taught themselves that they were ‘chosen’, they evolved societal practices of marrying and doing business with each other preferentially, and not only in deference to outside pressure.

    This carried their semitic features into Europe, where they became identified as outsiders in part for those traditions. Was that strategy ‘rational’ over the past millennia? Or did it fly in the face of biological diversity and end up revealed as completely ‘unscientific’ and badly thought out?

    Be care of what lies in Pandora’s box – reason has its own agenda, and there be dragons there.

  2. Well, I used to like the reasons-of-the heart response to the full-reasonableness approach; but we see that those reasons are contingent on whose heart it is. The implication is that there are things we might do for the good of others, altruistically, or even for our own benefit that can’t be located in body and brain–in evolution. This is fine if you have a large and generous heart, not so good if the reasons it “proposes” are based on strongly felt passions that then drive us to do wicked or violent things. I agree with you about the dragons of full-reasonableness, but it has to balanced against Hume’s cautions in the teatise of Human nature.

  3. I see Sol’s point. He’s referring to a sort of moral relativity and evaluating relative moral packages. I’m going to take a stab at tying the idea of reason to two things. Reason should be based on best practices and best information. And despite that, reason should incorporate empathy so that, the most reasonable stance is factually correct and comes with a plan to bring unreasonable people into the reasonable fold.

    The problem with his stance is that you use reason to evaluate which tools are best… including self deception. Otherwise, you really don’t know which tools are best and there is no argument to be made against reason there.

  4. ” Reason should incorporate empathy so that, the most reasonable stance is factually correct and comes with a plan to bring unreasonable people into the reasonable fold…” Exactly. And of course Sol and Paul (great biblical names oddly) are pushing for the same thing–that the truth claims of religious systems be subject to rational scrutiny. It seems a mild suggestion to make in the wake of recent world events. The problem is always going to be how to bring that about: since the more we understand about religions at a cognitive or scientific level, the less people who are fervently religious care about understanding and assessing their positions.

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