If you have been reading my posts for any length of time, you’ll remember that I really enjoy podcasts. Mostly, they are interviews that you can download to an IPod or other MP3 playing device, and they come out as regular episodes. Mostly, I listen to writing podcasts, but one exception is Philosophy Bites. Most episodes are less than twenty minutes, but they really pack a punch, if you have the patience for academic discussion. It can certainly lack pizazz.
The September 25th 2011 episode featured Dan Sperber, and really hit me between the eyes. Beginning with Aristotle, it was believed that it was ability to reason that set us apart from other animals, and since then, philosophy students have celebrated the primacy of reason. However, studies have shown that we make most of our decisions intuitively and/or emotionally, then we use our reasoning faculties to justify our initial responses.
There are cases where this works. For example, if I said that my child was born in September ’11, you intuitively know that she is two years old. You didn’t consciously do the math, but your prior education and practice made it happen below the surface of your awareness, so it saves a lot of time and mental energy. Same with the weather; a quick look at the sky and the temperature of the air will give you a pretty good idea of what kind of day you’re in for.
An instance of this came up for me a few years ago. I had read a Confucian proverb; “The ideal person is not a tool.” Since the word ‘tool’ is used so differently today, I had to share this simply for the amusement factor of it. It did spark discussion though, and someone argued that someone can use themselves as a tool. No, I think that’s a skill. A tool, by definition, is something outside of the self. They were adamant, however, that they had it right. Well, I suppose that if you re-define what words mean, then they could be right, but I wanted to stick with the classical use of the language.
My first response to the rational/emotional argument was “Oh yeah, I see lots of people doing that.” The I turned my gaze inward, and said “Ow.” I have been pretty guilty of this on many occasions. A rather innocent one is Star Wars. I overlook a lot of silliness and bad dialogue because so much of it is great on its own merit, but more relevantly, it’s really sentimental to my childhood.
I have at times dismissed a favored opinion because the evidence was contrary, or just lacking, but on many occasions, I have been swept away. Does this ring true for you? Can you think of instances where rationality turned into rationalization?