Jun 24, 2015 | By

Exploring the Flip Side: Irrationality

In our series on rationality, we have attempted to understand our cognitive limitations and to improve our effectiveness in being rational, but we have not discussed what it means to be irrational. Lisa Bortolotti has written an excellent little book, Irrationality (2015), that does exactly that. Bortolotti, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, reviews the current thinking in philosophy and psychology about when and how humans are not rational, and offers some notable conclusions that add significantly to our understanding.For example, she rejects psychologists’ efforts to define rationality as the ability for an observer to understand someone’s behavior as intentional. It is quite possible to understand someone’s behavior, even if it is based on irrational beliefs or errors in reasoning. Conversely, just because we are baffled by someone’s behavior does not mean they are irrational. They may have information or intentions that are unknown to us. Moreover, beliefs, preferences and judgments are part of a complex ecology of cognitive, social and intuitive influences that defy simplistic explanations.

The most intriguing findings highlighted by Bortolotti deals with a phenomenon known as positive illusion – the tendency for humans to judge that they are better than average, have more control than they do, and will experience a brighter future than evidence would warrant. Remarkably, researchers have found that such illusions can be positive! Self-aggrandizing views are correlated with higher achievement.   Couples with overly optimistic views of each other have stronger relationships. Positive illusions about one’s health prospects promote psychological and physical health — “an agent’s belief that she will be healthy and live longer… acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy by becoming true.” (p133)

In assembling and integrating thoughts, feelings and memories, humans create a coherent self-narrative that constitutes one’s identity and expresses one’s aspirations. One feature of this process includes the reconstruction of memories. Quite commonly, memories are biased or even altered in ways that are not true.   “An agent’s memories are sometimes altered to preserve a coherent self-image, as the past us rewritten to make sense of the agent’s current interests and goals.” (p136)   Bortolotti concludes that “Beliefs, memories and narratives that depart substantially from reality are not an asset.” (p144) Yet “Moderately optimistic cognitions can being significant benefits… A positive spin may enhance an agent’s physical and psychological health, and contribute to the capacity they have to achieve their goals and flourish.”

So, in addition to all the challenges to rational decision-making we discussed previously, there is an added conundrum – some level of positive irrationality can be beneficial in improving our lives and our future prospects. Yet the relationship between positive illusions and positive outcomes is anything but precise. Bortolotti concludes that beliefs need to be able to change in the face of evidence “in order to offer an accurate representation of the present physical and social environment, but modest distortions of reality can be instrumental to bringing about a desired future.”

There is a further dimension to the question of irrationality that Bortolotti unfortunately does not address – how to deal with matters of belief or intention when there is little or no evidence. To some, belief in an infinite creator God is seen as irrational, as it lacks substantiated evidence. However, it is also not possible to disprove such belief – and believers claim there is plenty of evidence if one is open to it. Significantly, the identical statements can be applied to a belief in extraterrestrial life, as I noted in earlier Conclusion, although the adherents to this belief tend to be different from those who believe in God.

Perhaps these areas constitute an additional category of beliefs. They are not “positive illusions” as they are not falsifiable and therefore a neutral observer does not know whether they are illusions or not. “Positive affirmations” would be a useful label, but perhaps “Faith” will do. Faith is a belief, or set of beliefs, that plays an essential role in the complex ecology of influences in one’s life. Like positive illusions, a positive faith can have significant benefits on one’s health and happiness (see, for example: Spirituality is Innate)

However we can have negative faith as well, such as a faith that the physical world is the entirety of reality, and science is the only source of knowledge. As I commented on a recent article: “One of the serious problems with the excessive reliance on science is the tendency to narrow the definition of “evidence” to conveniently match what scientists are able to measure, or more egregiously, what adherents to scientism are willing to admit into their field of vision. This is deeply mistaken, as the world, human experience, and consciousness include phenomena, qualities and depths that are not measurable. Denying their existence is to reject those aspects of life that are most interesting. Moreover, there are many mysteries that science is unable to resolve. If fact, it cannot answer the most important questions, including paradoxes that infect the very foundations of science itself.” For a more detailed discussion, please read The Hole at the Center of Creation, submitted in the 2015 FQXi contest.

Bortollu concludes her book by acknowledging the potential value of positive illusions, but cautioning that we also need to be prepared to modify beliefs on the basis of evidence. With this I wholeheartedly agree, but I would add the caveat that evidence is not the only consideration, particularly for matters of faith.

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