Friday, December 21, 2007

Emotion and Rationality

I want to revisit a point from Robert Farley's exercise in mendacious stupidity on which I wrote earlier:
And one more bit on the rational/irrational point; most of the commitments we feel are, in some sense, irrational. I love my wife, and I'm not sure that there's a version of rationality that can sufficiently explain what that means. I love the Oregon Ducks and hate the Washington Huskies, but I can't give a rational account for the one vs. the other, or for either instead of some third attachment. As such, if we're going to start worrying about people have irrational attachments and convictions, religion is only the first of our problems. Moreover, it seems to me that evaluating and condemning such convictions is absolutely the last thing that we should want the state to do.
It bears repeating: the idea that the state should have anything to say about rational or irrational belief is a pure invention of Farley's imagination; to give the impression the idea is Dawkins' is nothing better than a lie.

Notice the weasel qualifier: "[M]ost of the commitments we feel are, in some sense, irrational." In some sense? Everything is "irrational" in some sense. "Two plus two equals four," is irrational and meaningless in Lithuanian. The point is not that ideas about God are irrational in some sense, the point is that ideas about God are irrational in every sense. (Except the sense of pure literary metaphor; academics might say snarky things about each other, but as far as I know, no ordinary, normal person has ever killed or tortured anyone over a literary metaphor, and the framers did not consider literary metaphor an important enough issue to mention in the Constitution.)

Loving your wife or rooting for a sports team is not by itself irrational at all. Indeed, emotions in general are not irrational. Emotions are facts about our minds, and it is rational by definition to believe in the facts. Everything else being the same, it is rational to do something because you want to. (Everything else is often not equal, but that's a discussion for another day.) If you want to love someone, if you want to root for a sports team, then it's rational to do so.

It is possible that Farley has some beliefs that are false-to-fact and thus irrational: He might, for instance, believe that his wife really is the prettiest, smartest, sweetest and most charming woman in the world. He is, of course, mistaken: my wife really is the prettiest, etc. Even so, this sort of irrationality is completely irrelevant to the discussion of Dawkins' opinions: Dawkins condemns religion not just because it is irrational, but because it also causes, or so he believes, human suffering. Even if Farley did hold irrational beliefs, we would have to conclude that those beliefs really did cause profound suffering before we could condemn them in the same breath as religion.

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