Are Humans Really Rational Creatures?

In a previous post about a wingnut claiming that the Obama administration is allowing Muslims to skip TSA checks at the airport, Dr. X left one of the most lucid and important comments I’ve seen on my blog in more than 8 years of doing this. It was in response to this comment by Michael Heath:

I’m still mulling over Christopher Hitchen’s conclusion that, “religion poisons everything”. However the fact that religious indoctrination systemically taught to children develops people who’ll believe irrational assertions lacking any evidence, well that’s one compelling premise which supports Mr. Hitchen’s conclusion.

And this is Dr. X’s full response:

There is abundant evidence from psychological research that irrationality is built into us, and that pre-rational heuristics govern our beliefs far more than rationality. Ideologies, social bonds and group identifications, not training, determine the ability of most of us to process evidence in dealing with matters related to our sense of social alliances. It’s easy to see how this powerful tendency was selected in human beings and no reason to assume that vulnerability to bias is trained into people or that we can be trained out of bias in some general sense during childhood. My mother loved me when I was born, not because of any inherent quality in me that made me more worthy of love. She regularly acted with disregard for her own interests to protect me. So much of our survival is based on pre-rational, preconscious tendencies and heuristics, while reason is a rather lowly step-child in social relations, and that would generally hold true for group identity.

Reasoning is only a shaky overlay on non-conscious, pre-rational processes. One problem is that reasoning can actually be used quite effectively to support pre-determined views. In people who are more intelligent, the tendency is all the more pronounced. Smart people can talk themselves into a lot of things that aren’t true and sound very thoughtful and rational while they do it. A less intelligent person will be more comfortable with blunt denial. A brighter person will erect complex intellectual systems of justification without awareness that their opinion was already formed. It isn’t that those systems and reasons are necessarily wrong; quite often they’re right. The point is that the intellectual wouldn’t have gotten there if a strong tribal identification was standing in the way. Quite often, smart people who can earn an A+ in a Logic 101, go into false territory and cannot be talked out of it because of an existing group identification and the perception that the enemy holds an opposing position.

I think wingnuts are especially crazy at this time because of the power of their group identity and the perception of a serious threat to the group. The evolved adaptive response to this situation is to become nuts in support of the tribe and nuts in contempt for the opposition.

I also think that the history of the American South in relation to race and to Washington, the capital of the n-loving conqueror, is at the core of the wingnut identity. Republicans have ruthlessly and successfully exploited a fusion between downtrodden (read threatened) Southern, white group identity and an assortment of geographical, educational and religious markers, as well as a variety of cultural tics and habits that extend the identity well beyond the American South. In each of these areas, the idea has been promoted that white people, especially non-urban white men, are members of a unified tribe that is in a fight for its life, under attack from outside enemies. A person who identifies with that group and takes on that sense of life or death threat will not join the discussion as a reasoning, evidence-processing participant. They’re at war with the mental equivalent of Hitler or Stalin or pick your historical enemy who was beyond a reasoning and good-faith discussion.

Why do some of us decouple from our early group identities and change our beliefs? I think there are many circumstantial and internal reasons that it can happen. I used to think I reasoned my way out of my early tribal alliances, but I’m now convinced that reason was only introduced to the extent that my tribal bonds were fraying for other reasons.

Religion, rather than poisoning everything, is IMO usually a group identity not unlike any other group identity. It’s impact become poisonous when that identity feels threatened, but that’s not because religious people aren’t taught to reason. It’s because of group identification and evolved responses to group threat.

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