10 Things About Which I Am Irrational

I’ve heard a lot about the book Supersense, by Bruce Hood recently. It sounds really cool – it’s about the irrational and superstitious beliefs that everyone, including the most hardcore skeptics, have. I think it’s very important for people like me, who advocate publicly for science and reason, and against such superstitions, to understand, acknowledge, and even embrace our own propensity for illogical thinking. It seems to me that not all irrationality is bad. A life devoid of all wonder and emotion would be hardly worth living, but at a certain point and within certain criteria, unreasonable beliefs can become harmful. So what, exactly, is it that I oppose? Where is this line, and what are these criteria? This is something I need to think about very carefully. Perhaps I’ll have an answer after reading the book.

For now, I have compiled a short list of my own beliefs which are not grounded in empirical facts. Some of these I could probably do without, and others I could not bare to part with. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Humour

Humour is universally irrational. It completely defies explanation (poor Richard Wiseman). Some things are just funny, and some things just aren’t. I don’t even know how I could reconcile this into a rational framework – the humour response seems largely autonomic, probably evolved for a very good, but intractable reason.

2. Signed books and other memorabilia

The example of a supersense that Bruce Hood uses in most interviews is the killer’s sweater. If you ask a group of people who would be willing to put on a particular sweater (for a $10 incentive, or something), just about everyone agrees. If you tell them the sweater belonged to a serial killer (but is currently clean and sterile) most of the hands go down. We have an irrational negative association with objects belonging to bad people. I don’t think I’ve got this response so much. I kinda feel the initial repulsion, but I believe that if I were in that situation, I would reason myself out of it pretty quickly and wear the damn sweater.

However, I do suffer from the opposite effect. Collectible items that once belonged to famous people, or are associated with an important event have more intrinsic value to me than identical objects with boring histories. I have a collection of books signed by the authors which I hold in much higher reverence than their unmarred counterparts. This is silly! I would do well to sell these books to another irrational dope and buy a brand new clean version, pocketing the profit. I kinda like this irrational belief though, so I’m not actively trying to drop it, even though I probably could. Does this make me a hypocrite? Maybe.

3. Basic morality

Some actions illicit a bad feeling in me. Some, a good one. I feel all warm and fuzzy when I help out a friend, and I feel icky when I act like a dick for whatever reason. Is it objectively, empirically, absolutely bad to steal? I can’t imagine why it would be – I don’t believe in a god who sets moral principles which then exist as universal laws. Morals, like humour or pain, are an evolved response to certain stimuli that turns out to be beneficial to the genes that cause it. As with humour, I can’t even imagine how I could go about eliminating this, and as with the autographed books, I wouldn’t want to if I could.

4. Optimism about the future

This sums it up pretty well (Idiocracy is a movie about cultural de-evolution via dumb people procreating faster than smart people). Not all of the evidence points to a bright and shiny future. I do think there is a solid rational basis for thinking things will just get better in the long run, but it’s far from certain. Yet I choose to be optimistic. I really don’t like the anti-technology theme that sometimes seems so pervasive in modern culture, from Frankenstein to Battlestar Galactica. Every generation seems to think they’re fine, but their kids are doomed. I dunno – I think the kids are alright! You can find examples of moral panic stemming from comic books, then television, then rock music, then video games, then the Internet, and surely my own generation will find… whatever, augmented reality, to be the end of civilization. Maybe it is! Maybe it’s not! Lacking any and all hard proof, I maintain a positive outlook. Sue me.

5. Rejection of existential angst

I believe that life has no ultimate meaning beyond that which we give it while we’re alive. I believe that when I die, I will completely cease to be. I will have no awareness, no rebirth, no consciousness in any form. The billions of years after my death will feel much like the billions of years before my birth. Once I am dead, all of my goals, all of my work will be for naught. It might matter to those still living – I may have a profound impact on humanity for thousands of years. But to me, none of that will matter at all. Dying 100 years from now after a happy and successful life is ultimately no different than dying right now. Yet I choose to live. I choose to pursue goals. I choose to seek happiness. I can’t rationally justify this, but I see no signs of giving up.

6. Fiction

I know fully well that the characters in novels and movies are made up. Bruce Willis is an actor, not an alcoholic cop with nothing left to lose. So why do I react as if these characters are real? Why do I cheer for a nonexistent protagonist, or cry when a drawing of a deer becomes a drawing of a dead deer? I deliberately consent to having my evolved empathetic software “tricked” by circumstances that did not exist in my evolutionary environment. This is another superstition that I could drop, but choose not to.

7. Free will

A friend recently asked, “Does the whole nature vs nurture debate just ignore free will, or does it suggest it doesn’t exist?” and my response was, “The entirety of the universe bludgeons us with the fact that free will doesn’t exist.”

This, I believe. Either the universe is completely deterministic, or quantum events are fundamentally random. The latter theory is by far the favoured one by all reasonable interpretations of current evidence. Neither option leaves any room for free will as we innately understand it. I guess I can’t say that I act as if free will existed, because I can’t imagine what it would be to act as if it didn’t! It certainly makes no sense to choose to act as if I had no choice. This is a tough one, but I think it’s safe to say I’m not totally rational about it on a day to day basis.

8. Music

Just like humour. I likes what I likes. My tastes are more of an observation than a choice, I just happen to be observing inwardly rather than outwardly. Same answer goes for movies, books, food, paintings, etc. There’s no accounting for taste.

9. Drugs

I got brainwashed from a young age, and it stuck. I don’t use illegal drugs. I do use legal drugs: be it recreational alcohol consumption or medically prescribed drugs. I fully support the legalization of most drugs, and in theory (though I’m not 100% convinced) I support the legalization of all drugs. I accept that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, and I sometimes engage in activities that could get me in more legal trouble than marijuana could. I have no good argument not to partake on occassion, but it’s something I irrationally and falsely associate with other undesirable qualities. I developed these associations during childhood and adolescence, and I’m as yet undecided on whether I want to shed them. I believe that I could if I so chose.

10. Weird rituals

This one is kind of odd. Perhaps I suffer from a very mild case of OCD, or perhaps I’m right in the normal range of a spectrum of behaviours that everybody exhibits.

Yeah, another XKCD. I’d include my feelings toward this comic as #11 on this list if it weren’t utterly and completely rational to love it.

Anyways, I do that crazy tile walking thing. No reason, I’m merely compelled to do so. More than that, I have a frequent compulsion to make percussive patterns with various parts of my body, particularly when driving or riding in a vehicle. For example, I might make a pattern of tongue clicks, toe taps, and muscle flexes to match the tempo of passing lamp posts. I know, I should be locked up in a padded room, right? I have no idea where this even comes from, and frankly, sometimes I wish it didn’t happen. The majority of the time it’s not a nuisance, and only bothers me when I’m trying to focus on something more important, but can’t.


So that’s my list. I’m sure there are many more items that I have missed – probably because they’re so pervasive that I don’t even consider them to be irrational. I bet I’ll identify a few more after I read Supersense. I’ll keep you posted!

What are some of the irrational beliefs and behaviours you have?

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~ by jbrydle on June 29, 2009.

8 Responses to “10 Things About Which I Am Irrational”

  1. I think empathy and the ability to understand the suffering of others is the objective basis for morality, and that it is what underlies your (and my) moral sense. It also explains your point about fiction, in that the same mechanism of empathy is activated whenever you are able to imagine the emotional state of another, whether they are real or unreal. Even though in real life moral sense and empathy are not cognitive/rational processes, I think they are entirely justifiable on rational grounds.

  2. Yeah, some of the items on my list are in a grey area, in that they aren’t based on empirical facts, but they don’t run counter to any facts either, so they’re sort of outside the realm of rational or irrational. I fudged it because a list of 10 is better than a list of 7. Hey! Add that to the list! My tendency to favour simple, round, base-10 numbers.

    And yes, I think genetic evolution provides a completely rational explanation for why empathy and morality exist, but that doesn’t necessarily make feeling what others feel a rational activity for me as an individual, given my unique goals and modern environment (especially when those others don’t actually exist). I’m basically using Spock as my meter stick for rationality.

  3. I have your same drug phobias and, as you know, I partake in weird bordering on OCD rituals myself. It took me a long time to become convinced that my argument against the legalization of marijuana was irrational, but, once I did, I am proud to say I changed my mind. You can thank my friend Cornucrapia for that.

    Also, I share your enjoyment for base-10 numbers (I think I talked about that in a post of my own at some point…). More than that, though, I have a distinct preference for even numbers over odd and positive numbers over negative.

  4. Yup, I’ve got those number affiliations too. 6 always felt like an odd number. One more for the list. It was actually your post a week or so ago, as much as hearing about Supersense, that got me thinking about my own irrationalities.

    • Yeah, I thought you left a good comment there. I’m glad it got you thinking… I thought it was one of my better posts, but I’m not always a great judge of my own stuff!

  5. I’ve given up on the drug debate a long time ago. I know it’s the “in” thing to legalize marijuana, but let’s not pretend it’s totally safe. It’s an optimization problem. Obviously if everyone smoked it 24/7 we’d become a pretty unproductive, self-destructive society. Complete prohibition isn’t good, but complete legalization isn’t good either. I’d imagine there would have to be “stonealizer tests” to check for high drivers, much like with alcohol, etc.

    As for irrational beliefs, I think we’ve all got them. I still can’t believe people judge you so harshly based on a first impression, but it’s true. I also believe that whatever your field is, you can compensate for (partial) lack of talent by ruthlessly training yourself. An average hard worker will always beat a lazy genius. I don’t know if that’ corroborated by real life, but that’s just my personal view :).

    • Assaf, I don’t know who is arguing for complete legalization of marijuana – I maintain that it is not completely safe (and it is why I continue to refuse to touch the stuff), but it seems to be no more unsafe than alcohol. We would all be pretty unproductive if everyone drank 24/7, but people don’t do that. So, when I say legalization, I mean (and I assume most people mean, but perhaps I am wrong there) legalization in the same manner that alcohol is legal – there would be regulations on its sale, age limitations on its use, and periods of time when it would be illegal to use (at work, when operating a vehicle, and so on).

  6. Training versus talent is totally true. There’s good recent research showing that what we call talent is in basically all cases really actually several thousand hours of concerted effort. The best atheletes train for many hours a day, the best novelists write and edit for many hours a day, etc., and over the course of years.

    Also, the idea of “natural talent,” where you either have it or you don’t, is (mostly) peculiar to north americans!

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