Monday, 13 June 2011

Rational and Irrational

Man is fundamentally irrational with a recent overlay of rationality
A bull at Lascaux - click to enlarge
Ever since man lived in caves, and painted beautiful pictures of animals, to evoke their spirits and help them with their hunting, humanity has evolved both rational and irrational beliefs in parallel. Whilst the Cro-Magnon proto-rationalists of their communities applied their knowledge and experience to find the animals and trap them, their artists/shamen called on the spirits to help them.

In the 21st century things haven’t fundamentally changed. At the same time as science and its application has transformed day to day life, mankind remains fundamentally irrational with science and rationality being just a thin veneer on top of superstition and emotionally driven beliefs.  Many people have no difficulty in holding beliefs which are not supported by, or are contrary to, the facts, especially those people who have not benefitted from education concerning science or who refuse to accept the scientific method.  People whose thinking is not constrained by any rational framework, like science or logic, and whose thought processes are based on deeply held beliefs or prejudices, believe what they believe as a matter of faith. 

Here is a selection of current irrational beliefs. The first three come from local sources and are sincerely believed by people we know. 
Click to enlarge
 If you plant and sow seeds according to the phases of the moon they grow better.
White washing left outside in the moonlight goes yellow (or is bleached).
Moonlight makes wood which has darkened in the sun lighten in colour.

Or perhaps one of these is your favourite conspiracy theory!

Or perhaps you hold a belief which overrides everything else and determines your interpretation of all the relevant facts.
The Bible is literally true 
The Earth is flat not round
The Earth is not moving or rotating
Now although some of the examples cited above concern religious beliefs, I am not primarily concerned with religion here!  (People who start from the assumption that the Bible is literally true, if they have read this far into this post, are encouraged to make comments. If they are polite, I guarantee that they will be published).

I have to admit that, although I have tried to be a rationalist since my mid-teens, I am not immune to irrational responses and fears, especially at moments of heightened emotion. I wouldn’t be human otherwise! Sometimes the thought processes work with a rapidity, and on a level which bypasses logic.  If you reflect later you have to work out why you reacted that way and rationalize it after the event. 

Politicians spend a lot of their time trying to manipulate people’s beliefs and prejudices in support of their cause. They do this by distorting the facts or being highly selective in choosing the things which appear to support their case.  Most people are familiar with the dissembling of politicians but it sometimes becomes more worrying when political opinions are entirely irrational.

The other day I was at a meeting of a local non-political association and someone was reporting the recent events in Spain, particularly the protests which have erupted across the country and how the protesters were forcibly removed from camping in the main square of Barcelona.  Amongst the 30 to 40 people present there seemed to be a fairly strong current of support for these protests. The speaker even expressed the hope that the spirit of revolutionary change in Arab countries would spread to France and no-one challenged him.

Revolutions almost always leave people worse off.  Sometimes they result in civil war and they are often hijacked by butchers like Robespierre and Pol Pot; or dictators like Franco, Salazar, Sadam Hussein or Stalin. (Come to think of it Stalin was also a butcher, responsible for the deaths of more than 30 million of his own citizens. I haven't mentioned Hitler, even though he is a very good example of irrational behaviour patterns, because he was democratically elected!) 

To mix up the Arab revolt, against oppressive and corrupt regimes, with the protests of European young people is, in my view, irrational and unhelpful. The unemployment, redundancies and cutbacks in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK result from the bursting of speculative financial bubbles in badly regulated democracies and not because economic development is being stifled by ideology; or because money is being siphoned out of the country by corrupt leaders, instead of being re-invested to develop the economy.
An appeal for revolutionary change in Western societies is not based on rational argument but is founded emotionally on the a priori belief that capitalism is bad and does not deliver prosperity to the majority of the people.  That it's wrong to reward people for investing their money in expectation of a financial return!  We all know the slogans, "Property is theft", "No war but the class war", "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun", "The end justifies the means"!  Although communism as an ideology has failed, there are still plenty of individuals left like the lady interviewed on France Inter this morning, who clearly stated that she was prepared to use all means available, including violence to effect revolutionary change.  These people should always be challenged vigorously.  They are trying to impose their views on the rest of us and they don't believe in democracy.  The State has a duty to keep them under surveillance to ensure that they are not planning terrorist attacks.
On France Inter, on Saturday morning, Aurélie Trouvé* was arguing that we should stop the IMF demanding spending cuts in near bankrupt countries.  I was struggling to find any logic in the proposal.  Surely if a country overspends then it must correct its budget and repay its debt. If it doesn’t it's logical to expect lenders to charge more interest to cover the risk of default or to refuse to lend altogether. 
Clearly she also believed that capitalism is wrong and should be replaced.  She was starting from the proposition that the spending cuts demanded as a condition of financial aid were too destructive socially, but there was no discussion about how the countries concerned had arrived in their parlous state or could be prevented from doing so again in the future.

When she also proposed to turn the IMF into a way of redistributing wealth between rich and poor nations I became agitated. Then logic began to assert itself and I realised just how unrealistic she was being and I relaxed slightly.

Perhaps she also thinks that individuals should be treated the same way and those that overspend, and can’t pay the interest on their debts, should be bailed out without consequences. Perhaps she believes that society as a whole should protect such ill advised or irresponsible individuals by paying off their debts and supporting their lifestyle out of general taxation. Or does she believe that capitalist institutions , like banks, are at fault for lending the money in the first place.

Just like the lady who advocated violence to promote change, the interviewer allowed Mlle (or Mme.) Trouvé to complete her discourse without interruption or challenge, so people who don’t think rationally but are in sympathy with her point of view could applaud her fine sentiments and her idealistic approach without needing to think it through. Like some of the members of the non-political association I referred to above, they could then carry on with their lives as normal but with the comfort of knowing that, in their deepest emotional levels, they were in favour of revolutionary change, and solidarity with poorer nations, and that they agreed with the redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer, as long as they never have to think rationally about the consequences to their own lives if these beliefs were ever acted upon!

*Aurélie Trouvé, (Co Présidente d'Attac France- Maître de conférences en économie - Candidate à la Direction du FMI)


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