Thursday, 14 November 2013

The weirdness of unreason

Another World - M C Escher - from Wikipedia

Have you ever been in a meeting where certain people seem absolutely set on dredging up every irrational argument they can think of?


And apart from the frustration, do you ever find irrational ideas a little weird? How do we explain them for example - how do we picture what is going on in the irrational head?

Instead of thinking in terms of rational and irrational ideas, suppose we think in terms of allegiance - a personal allegiance to some social situation, trend, norm, cause or whatever. That something could be allegiance to a person, social group, project, profession, institution, fashion or any one of countless other possibilities.

It may be an allegiance to Arsenal Football Club, holistic therapy, quantum theory, yoga or a political party. There is no difference – it is all allegiance.

So there are no rational or irrational structures inside our heads. Reasons are essentially tactical and strategic. Beliefs may feel like a nexus of rational ideas but are nothing of the kind. Our beliefs and ideas are merely our allegiances expressed in all their infinite variety.

We are not rational, but merely complex, subtle, resourceful and often covert in expressing our allegiances. Reason is how we raise, gauge and foster support for those allegiances, but that’s all. There is no structure to reason other than the structure of allegiance. That’s why your reason can be my unreason.

We have differing allegiances – that’s all.

So we don’t think rationally or irrationally, but merely offer our allegiance to different social norms, situations and events from the trivial to the essentials of daily life. The central influences over these allegiances are numerous, from language to our personal welfare and the welfare of family, friends, business interests and so on and so on.

However, when it comes to less central concerns, many of us do not seem to have strong allegiances and are willing to probe them. Yet this probing, this apparent vacillation can seem odd and obstructive to those with a strong allegiance to a particular narrative or agenda. In my view this explains human intransigence quite well where the notion of reason and unreason does not.

Maybe this is the value of those of us who mistakenly see ourselves as rational. We are not so much rational as able to see the allegiances others skate over in their pursuit of an agenda. By not having strong allegiances ourselves, we are able to weigh their various claims, especially where popular allegiances are neither as beneficial nor as harmless as commonly assumed.

So rational behaviour is not so much an ability to apply reason, whatever that might be, as a reluctance to offer one’s allegiance without weighing the consequences. Often not even then.


Nigel Sedgwick said...

Some thoughts on this interesting topic.

Firstly, one can have (as you sort of imply) allegiance to truth, and rationality. But is this any better than other allegiances? I think we would argue yes. Those who undertake diligent gathering and exposition of evidence and the making of logic deductions from it have a higher and wider group of allegiance.

Secondly, one can have allegiance to the quiet life, or something equivalent. So (in particular - and I argue - rationally), the issue of contention must be worth fighting for. If the issue is minor, going against entrenched opinion over it might not be worth the effort. In such circumstances, perhaps the best way forward is to prepare the ground against a re-occurrence of the issue, so that the total allegiance of the opposition is weakened, come the re-occurrence.

Thirdly, we each surely belong to a multiplicity of groups, to each of which we owe some allegiance. Where the calls of those allegiances are conflicting, we have a problem in getting the balance right. This is another reason why truth and rationality are important - they help us keep satisfied all of (or more of) our allegiance groups.

Fourthly, your word allegiance can also be viewed, more negatively, as tribalism: so labelling the view as more primitive. In particular, those who are tribal (?tribalistic) have only one group for their allegiance, or one group that has dominance over all the others: so they are less balanced in outlook.

Lastly, often there is no way to avoid some group from being disadvantaged. However, the argument can still be won by calling for the 'common good' and by identifying the disadvantaged group (particularly without attributing hidden membership to it of any of the protagonists), recognising the group is disadvantaged by the proposal, and seeking to reduce their disadvantage. This can be done by planned and advertised notification and delay, smoothing of the transition, etc. So a bit of a compromise.

Best regards

A K Haart said...

Nigel - good points. I intend to follow this up with a post about allegiance to abstractions which is where I think many conflicts and conundrums reside.

Demetrius said...

Today Princess Anne suggested that in the UK we might develop a taste for horsemeat. Her case seemed to be rational but it seems that many critics do not agree on other grounds. I am trying to work it out, without a lot of success.

Sam Vega said...

Rationality in its stripped-down form is the ability to act according to reasons. So if we accept allegiances, impulses, preferences, etc. as reasons, then any self-directed behaviours could count as rational.

But would your idea mean that the formal expressions of rationality (logic, maths, etc.) are merely conventions? I suspect that the irrational people in meetings that you refer to are merely incapable of reasoning (possibly temporarily) but if their lives depended on it, they could reason along with the rest of us. It might also be the case that the irrational are drawn to meetings, a bit like schizophrenics are drawn to run-down coastal resorts.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - does this imply that Princess Anne already eats horse meat? Royalty isn't what it was.

Sam - logic and basic maths have very strong allegiances. I intend to post on allegiance to abstractions too, because I think this is what divides us in so many areas.

What I'm mainly trying to test here is the idea that reason and allegiance may be the same, but it is rarely convenient to admit it simply because of the nature of allegiance.

James Higham said...

reluctance to offer one’s allegiance without weighing the consequences

Saved the best till last here.

A K Haart said...

James - it's what thinkers do isn't it?