This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.
On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.
So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for. Including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, and work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?
Let me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back — time and money that I’d love to spend elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and enticed by a dozen other things — including the sofa. When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there… what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym, I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I typically spend at least an hour.
This is entirely irrational.
So the question is: Do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, as irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted, and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk cost fallacy, but actually use this fallacy to my advantage?
Which is the rational choice?
Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.
And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.
Totally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.
So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?
I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.
So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?
I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:
There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.
“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. This preference may not be rational — okay, it’s definitely not rational — but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality, and an acceptance of it.
On the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.
And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.
But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.