I recently adopted the benign superstition that the new moon is an auspicious time to begin new projects. For me this means that I aim (and generally fail) to start work on a new piece of writing, whether it’s a poem or a paper. But yesterday, being the day of the first new moon of the new year, it seemed particularly significant, so I thought I might set out my stall for the next twelve months, and in particular try and formulate my first research question.
For a while now, partly inspired by reading Dan Ariely, I’ve been telling people that I want to focus my attention on the topic of human irrationality, and, what is much the same thing, what passes for “rationality”. Partly this unhealthy interest in, to use Bukowski’s phrase, “ordinary madness” is an attempt to answer Mrs. Kaamos’ galling challenge to my analytic mindset: “Sometimes it’s rational to be irrational.”
The study of irrationality goes back to Ancient Greece, and in particular the curious case of akrasia or weakness of the will, familiar to anyone who has already broken their new year’s resolution, considered at some length by Aristotle.
The same issue runs through the Stoics and on through to the Early Modern philosophers, Descartes and also Spinoza who described the person subject to emotions – pretty much all of us really – as in bondage: “though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse.” And then around 300 years later, along comes Freud and it all starts getting really interesting, when he fiendishly places the source of irrationality in the covert drives of the unconscious.
There are, or course, other aspects of irrationality: error, bias and prejudice, hallucination, illusion and delusion. Why does it matter? Well, if you believe as I do, that we might all be going to hell in a handcart, a you might start to wonder about the collective irrationality of a species bent on its own destruction. To borrow from the medical model, before we can begin to discover the cure, it might help us if we try to understand the sickness.
But the irrationality module that piques my curiosity at the time of writing is the remarkable human capacity to remain convinced of a belief for which there is no evidence and which has no practical benefit. Why do we stubbornly persist in holding, even defending, such beliefs, often incompatible with other firmly held convictions, even if everyone around us tells us they are false?
Almost every time I come to write an essay, I reach a point where I fully believe that it is impossible for me to write it. I procrastinate, I go on Facebook, I stare at the screen, cursing the cursor.
This is not, I believe with complete certainty, because it’s rather arduous work and I’m not always completely thrilled by the topic, but because, without a shadow of a doubt, I know that I am incapable of doing it. At that moment, all the essays I have written in the past are just statistical anomalies, freaks of my otherwise fixed nature.
The reality that I perceive is that I have either never really been able to write, or even if I once have, I’ve lost my touch.
And then, when I give up and in my frustrated exasperation just write something, guess what? I write something. And that something gets mucked around with until it suddenly emerges as an essay.
So, here it comes, the Instant Kaamos 2013 question of the year:
How and why do we protect, preserve – treasure even – our false beliefs against the corrosive effect of reason and evidence?