What is rational?

It is generally difficult to imagine what life was like in any other age. Sometimes we think things have changed so much. Other times we think maybe not much has changed. Yet, I figured I might as well just run with this thought and see where it goes. I think we live in a very interesting time when the average person is educated enough to view life in a rational manner. We have all the tools to do it.  Be it literacy, general math and science, general logic, a scientific culture which has delivered results...

Yet, even today, even among the most intelligent people, we still see such irrationality. So, we must ask ourselves why?

Cognitive Dissonance Is a Feature

Let's start by considering people who don't have overt evil intentions. That is to say your average person just living their life. Why would they hold irrational views?

Perhaps being a Lesbian Muslim, like this:

I think the encompassing answer here is that we as humans are built with the ability to have Cognitive Dissonance.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

I use the term 'built with the ability' almost as if it is a feature and not a bug (software terms) I do so on purpose. I come from a culture where cognitive dissonance is very prevalent; especially when it comes to religion. Yet, here's the thing, I admire it to some extent. By not challenging the beliefs of their community, they get to have so many benefits. From financial support from family and the community to a support system to an identity. You would be maligned or even disowned if you went against the beliefs. At times I wish my mind was different and I could do what they do. I'd certainly have less stress and might have had an easier life.

If we trace this back, we can almost hypothesize an evolutionary advantage for cognitive dissonance.

Pardon the humor in the above cartoon, but historically it is pretty accurate for so many cultures and religions. If you went against a belief, you were often killed. People who had the ability to have cognitive dissonance and hold the views of the group, while keeping their own beliefs probably fare better in social structures like that. There's probably some natural selection evolution angle in here. So this ability is a part of us in order for us to cope with contradicting beliefs and perhaps more importantly, their consequences.

In some ways, it is very rational to ignore reality or 'truth' in order to gain the resources or advantages of the community.

1 Part Rational, 1 Part Cognitive Dissonance

Dealing with life in a rational manner is very important for a person. Pretty much everything concerning nature requires us to deal with it in an empirical and rational manner in order for us to be successful.
  • If we see a tiger, we cannot pretend it is not there. It might eat us
  • If we cannot see a tiger, we cannot pretend it is always there. We'd live in a state of permanent fear.
  • If the soil is dry, we cannot plant our crops to eat.
  • If we jump off a cliff, we know we will fall down. If it is high enough, we will die.
  • ...
 So much of our lives are determined by this very rational view. It is the classic.
  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
The facts so to speak. Dealing with life in this manner has resulted in all of our scientific, legal, and industrial progress from roads, to medicine, to airplanes, cars, the wheel, plumping, running water, courts...

Even the most confused person filled with cognitive dissonance has the ability to be rational (insane people excepted). All the shades of grey and interpretations seem to fall away if you deal with
  • Did you cheat on me with that man/women?
  • Did you not borrow $5000 from me and promise to pay it back last month?

So how do we get a human being who is built to be rational and deal with empirical evidence and facts to suddenly not see the world that way when it comes to certain topics? Well that is where cognitive dissonance becomes handy. It allows someone to be rational when dealing with the world and hold irrational beliefs when required. Normally this requirement pertains to group belonging or other social ideas. In a way it optimizes their gain in both the physical and social realms.

And just to be clear, this affects so many people. It is not just people of religion that have cognitive dissonance. The educated are equally likely. One of my favorites as a Canadian is the idea that prevention is the solution to rising healthcare costs. Of course pretty much every study shows that this is not true. Most healthcare costs are in old age or near death. As a matter of fact, healthy people might actually cost the healthcare system more because they live longer and thus spend more time in old age receiving medical treatments.

Yet, very educated people continue to ignore this because it is inconvenient to whatever other beleifs or social groups they might have
  • we should encourage healthy population
  • smoking is bad
  • universal healthcare is affordable
  • public sector unions are good and they will be employed in the prevention field
  • ...
Again, I don't want to spend time on this example. Suffice to say, based on the studies I've read, dealing with old age care and rationing appear to be the most impacting on healthcare costs. Yet prevention is touted as a solution. Not just by politicians, but by ordinary people.

This dual nature allows us to be successful in dealing with the world and in the social world.

Not An Endorsement of Cognitive Dissonance.

I should add that this is not an endorsement of cognitive dissonance. I'm just noting its evolutionary advantage and possible uses. We'd still be clubbing women over the head to mate with them if we just followed our evolutionary programming :P Progress comes from overcoming such bases.

Some of it will change our society tolerates different beliefs. It will change by radical individuals who forge through social change. It will change as society itself changes are permits an easier alignment of the social realm with the rational. For example, if you are no longer disowned or killed for leaving a religion, more people leave religion or the religions will change. Public sector workers might actually choose rational public policy that helps society, if their livelihood and group union mentally offered did was not an issue.

I guess I just don't view cognitive dissonance that poorly anymore. People only have one life to live and they're doing their best to live the best one they can. I used to get really frustrated at it, now it's just a little frustrating :P


Popular posts from this blog

What does it mean to live in a free society?

Post Scarcity Economy

The Niqab is cultural?