Where Is My Mind? (part one)

I take devilish delight in teaching some of the epistemological eccentrics of the Western tradition: Montaigne, Pascal, Hume, Nietzsche. These thinkers challenge the dominant view—established by Plato and endorsed through the centuries by Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and countless others—that reason is the mind’s gatekeeper, allowing beliefs entrance into our worldview only if they are deemed “rational.”

The epistemological eccentrics arrive at the metaphorical club, confront Reason, and say, “You are not the bouncer here.” They then lead some of the beliefs waiting in line to the back of the club and point to an open door, where beliefs of all kinds enter with no ID. And Reason has little clue.

Take Pascal and his famous Wager Argument. Pascal says that Reason’s sorry ass cannot settle the question of whether or not God exists. Reason can offer good reasons both for and against God’s existence. In a move equivalent to sidestepping the bouncer line, Pascal advises we ditch reason and use prudence. Is it more prudent to believe or disbelieve in God? If you disbelieve in God and it turns out he does not exist, you would be pleased to know that you were right in your disbelief. But so what? What difference does it make? You’ll be dead anyway. But if you disbelieve in God and it turns out that he does exist, then you’re not only wrong but damned to eternal hell. In addition, if you wager that God does exist and it turns out you’re wrong, so what? You may be wrong, but again, what real difference does it make? The prudent person, writes Pascal, will wager that God exists.

But let’s say you wager that God exists—because you’re prudent—but you still find it hard to believe. Pascal advises us, in that case, to fake it. Pretend you truly believe. Go through all the motions: church, prayer, rosary, whatever your denominational choice entails. Why? Because if you fake it, you’ll eventually make it. That is, after a while, the belief will become authentic simply through habit.

Both Montaigne and Hume likewise appeal to habit as formative to belief. Regardless, you can see that reason plays a small role in this process. Reason cannot lead to the conclusion that belief in God is rational (or irrational). Reason’s role is confined to the assistance of prudence, which compels us to make an existential leap of faith—not an assent to a theological or philosophical proposition.

As it turns out, much philosophy and psychology over the last fifty years have vindicated the eccentrics. Consider Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt shows how belief-acquisition is a pre-philosophical and even pre-cognitive phenomenon. We come to believe what we believe through “automatic processes” involving moral intuition and emotional impulse.

Haidt makes use of a vivid metaphor: an elephant being led by a rider atop its back. The elephant represents those moral intuitions and emotional impulses that compel us to believe something. The rider is reason. While the rider might try to guide the elephant, that elephant is huge and slow, carried along by its own momentum. The rider has little control, but likes to pretend he knows exactly what he is doing. So he justifies where the elephant goes—who it avoids and who it stomps on. But the rider does so after the elephant has already chosen its path. Here is how Haidt puts it: “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”

In short, most of our beliefs—especially the beliefs that are central to our worldviews—precede reason. To return to my analogy, the owner looks around his club and sees all sorts of beliefs that did not enter through the main door. He asks the bouncer Reason, “How the hell did all these beliefs get in here?” Reason doesn’t want to look bad, so it responds, “Don’t worry. They’re all cool.” Reason then goes on to offer a pretty damn persuasive justification for every one of those back-door beliefs, which now constitute pretty much everyone in the club.

So you may claim your beliefs are rational. But their rationality is simply your after-the-fact justification. You initially committed to beliefs for reasons of which you may not even be aware. Afterwards, you managed to convince yourself—and maybe some others—that your beliefs are rational.