Of irrationality and compartmentalisation

Forgive the sesquipedalian title. A surprising email-debate erupted in the EMU recently. This mail-a-thon started with something RR shared about the ‘you will get 72 virgins in heaven if you follow the quran‘ belief of Islam, from wikiislam – the online resource on Islam (yes, such a thing apparently exists).

Which led to some of us arguing that this stupidity of Islam is only symptomatic of what is wrong with religion in general. I commented that even somebody as seemingly moderate in his religion as Gandhi believed in the power of semen. This observation, which I naively assumed would clinch the argument, was only confirmed when RR volunteered that he believed in the power of semen too, and commented that I shouldn’t simply oppose the idea for the sake of opposition. RR also volunteered that he believed that people could survive without food, and that he personally knew somebody who has done it.

Lots of sarcasm and satire followed.

Which was all fun until ‘I-am-a-professional-centrist’ SS came along and started to defend the idea that human beings can live without food as being plausible. He even brought along references from medical literature. (Oh, never fret: while the research is perfectly fine, even the authors themselves dismiss the idea of human hibernation… right in the abstract. More about this research article here. [Update(12/4/2012): link added])

Now, both RR and SS are entirely sensible people… most of the time. But, in this case, they both took positions which – to put it gently – required serious mental gymnastics on their part.

Which brings me to the title. It has been my experience that otherwise competent and intelligent people can be irrational when it comes to some ideas. This cognitive dissonance requires that people compartmentalise – keep our rational minds from analysing some ideas we’ve invested in, and we do it very well indeed. This accounts for why, even among scientists, a significant majority are theists (this statistic changes if you ask only scientists from the very top of their fields, but never mind that).

Cue Jesus and Mo!

What we do this for is a complicated question to answer. It seems to me that social pressures are a factor. The ideas which one wants to keep out of reach of rationality are a function of one’s social milieu. The renowned biologist Ken Miller is known to believe in the literal trans-substantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. Why could this be? It isn’t a stretch to argue that this is precisely because Miller was brought up Catholic. Francis Collins, the director of the human genome project, is known to be a kook when it comes to the positions he will take (on when in the process of evolution human beings attained the ‘image of god’, for example). It isn’t hard to see that this is because his faith in the belief that ‘man is made in the image of god’ is important to him.

I would even argue that people can defend a position even when it is patently irrational, simply because others in their peer-group hold the position. There are experiments which show that people ‘fell in line’ with an obviously wrong answer because other people (who were planted in the experiment by the experimenters) before them gave that wrong answer. But I think this phenomenon can be even more subtle. It seems to me that putting up a defence of one’s friends is important to people. Some of us do it overtly, some not so overtly. It seems to me to be important to us that our friends are right.

I’d like to end with a caveat. They say the worst thing you can do in a debate is to psycho-analyse your opponent, which seems to me a reasonable thing to keep in mind. Also, it is important to me that one doesn’t have to be on guard about what they say among friends – people deserve friends who will try and not judge everything that is said. So, if you don’t already know who RR and SS are, their identities are none of your business.

[Update (April 9, 12pm): The last two sentences in the last paragraph strike me as being hypocritical, given what this post is about. By all means, discount them. Lesson learnt.]


2 thoughts on “Of irrationality and compartmentalisation”

  1. I appreciate your efforts in concealing my identity, but I don’t feel compelled to hide behind ‘SS’.

    I thought, it would be fair if who read this blog get to read my statements as they were stated and judge for themselves on how irrational they were.

    “While I am not a person who bases my beliefs or arguments on newspaper reports, I believe that the human body (or any macroscopic living organism) is more complicated than your average beam or acid which can be studied great detail and with great confidence in the lab and ‘accurate’ theories can be formulated. While medical science seems to have made great progress in ‘understanding’ and providing ‘cures’ for many diseases, IMHO the level of understanding is a far cry from say fluid mechanics ( even that has so many unanswered questions and new phenomenon waiting to be discovered that we have an entire unit supposedly doing research)

    While it sounds improbable to me that someone could defy gravity or time travel, It wouldn’t be absurd to me if one could survive long periods without food…

    ..There are animals we know of, from frogs to polar bears, who literally shut down their body during hibernation. It doesn’t seem improbable to me if some human manages to regulate his metabolism such that the expenditure of energy is greatly minimized so that he/she could survive using resources in the body for a decade.



    (from the second link) “The breakthrough suggests humans along with other mammals might harbor a mostly unused ability to hibernate on demand. “, I presume its an exaggerated statement typical of popular science reporting, nevertheless makes the point .. it perhaps is not improbable.

    I am not stating that any of the claims people to be living without food for years are true. But dismissing the idea as impossible is not the position I take. ”

    Later, I find from the internet that a fair amount of grant money (2 million USD for one such grant), is spent on research aimed at exploring the idea of human hibernation. This IMHO indicates that while there isn’t evidence yet to establish that human hibernation is possible, there isn’t sufficient evidence to rule out its possibility either.

    All I ways saying is that some of what seems science fiction today MAY become reality tomorrow (or in the distant future) and just because we don’t have evidence that something will work, it doesn’t rule out it’s possibility.

    I hope everyone takes note :
    ” It doesn’t sound absurd to me ” , ” it perhaps is not impossible” etc. is not the same as saying “it is possible”.

    ‘I-am-a-professional-centrist’ – doesn’t seem to describe me, oh wait.. are we talking about another SS here ?

  2. Saikishan, I gave up on the hide-the-identity thing after I realised that it was neither going to work, nor worth it.

    I invite you to tell us how ‘it is not impossible’ is different from ‘it is possible’. I know two negatives in English don’t always make a positive, but they do here.

    Also, with your criteria, everything is ‘perhaps possible’:

    Astrology? Hey, you know, could be. After all, it is ancient wisdom.

    Homeopathy? There are lots of people who believe in it, and lots of money is spent on researching it. Surely it must be plausible?

    I know you don’t believe in the above non-sciences. How is you arguing that human hibernation is ‘perhaps not impossible’ different from somebody arguing that homeopathy is practically scientific?

    Also, your quoting from the pop-science reporters poor reporting of the research in the medical journal is bad, especially after I told you I’d skimmed through the article and found that the author explicitly calls human hibernation ‘bordering on science fiction’.

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