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.]