Reason can convince you of stuff that’s stupid and wrong
Oh man, was I in a terrible mood a couple days ago. It was bad. I’d had two nights in a row of getting very little sleep because the baby had been fussy, then had one of those days where even my smallest ambitions were thwarted: I wanted to freeze some leftovers, and out of the ten thousand containers and three thousand lids in my Tupperware drawer, I could not find a single matching set. I wanted to banish the stircrazy kids outside for a while, but it was 107 degrees. I wanted to get the mail, but it was 107 degrees. Did I mention that it was 107 degrees? Anyway, whatever. The point is that it was one of those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong.
So you know what that meant, right? I’m exhausted. I’m having the worst day ever. The weather is miserable. I’m miserable. Thus, it is obviously time to evaluate my entire life, as well as the state of the world, and make judgment calls about how it’s all going!
I went through the usual process: It started with creating a detailed list of everything that’s wrong in my life, followed by some ruminations about every time anyone has said or done something that annoyed me over the past six months. From there I went on to reliving all my recent failures, reprioritized my list of pet peeves, and closed the brainstorming session with a Top 10 list of people whose lives are better than mine.
My husband came home about the time I was wrapping up, which was perfect timing since obviously I had to share all of this with someone else. I was not content to wallow in my own misery. Nay, I had to make sure that I had agreement and confirmation from someone else about how horrible everything was. So as soon as we got the kids to bed, I sat down with my husband to give him my Why Everything Sucks presentation, stopping just short of including PowerPoint slides.
But here was the problem: I knew that he was going to think that I came up with all these negative takes because I was tired and in a bad mood. Obviously the fact that I had had five hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and had faced one frustration after another had nothing to do with my apocalyptic conclusions, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me convincing him of that fact.
And so when we sat down to talk, I brought my intellectual A-game. I did not appeal to emotion once. I did not make a single statement that was not backed up by concrete evidence. When my husband offered counterpoints to make the case that life was actually pretty great, I always had a solid, fact-based comeback. I calmly crafted a careful step-by-step analysis of the terribleness of my life, including perfectly logical extrapolations about how said terribleness would only increase in the future. It was reasonable. It was evidence-based. It was linear. And it was completely wrong.
After we chatted for a while, my husband kindly offered to take on extra nighttime duties with the baby (despite having a busy work schedule the next day) so that I could get some extra sleep. I took him up on his offer, while assuring him that that wouldn’t matter AT ALL in terms of my outlook. Nope. I would stand by every single thing I’d said this evening. Catching up on sleep would make no difference — after all, all of my conclusions were based on reason.
I woke up the next day refreshed and energized. I got great sleep, went out for a quick jog before my husband left for work, and came back feeling in tip-top shape both physically and mentally. And, whaddaya know, I didn’t feel like my life was so terrible anymore. The problems that I had detailed the night before were still there, and they were legitimate problems, but their scale and scope seemed entirely different now. Though I still saw all the same details here in the light of day, looking at the from a new perspective changed my entire perception of the overall situation. In fact, I was perplexed at how I could have been so gloomy the night before.
When I looked back on those ridiculous ideas, what was most interesting to me about it was that I’d used reason to get there. It reminded me of the back-and-forth we had with PZ Myers and his atheist readers a couple weeks ago: one of the subtexts of that debate was, Is reason the only thing you need to deduce the truth? Myers & co. seemed to think that the answer is yes. But I think that what happened when I was tired and having a bad day is a good example of why the answer is no.
Granted, my conclusions about my life were far stupider than theirs are about religion (I actually don’t think atheism is stupid at all), but the same principle is at work: reason won’t get you all the way to the truth. Knowing the truth takes more than just intellect; it requires the right disposition of the heart as well. If your soul isn’t in a state of openness, it’s easy to unintentionally disregard some data, to fixate on the wrong angles, to be right on the details but wrong on the big picture. If you’re not seeking the truth with peaceful humility, you’re not seeking the truth at all, no matter how rational your thought process is.
I think this is an important lesson here in the age when reason is held up as the pathway to all wisdom. It’s certainly a necessary component of any good decision making process, but it’s not the only component. It needs to be accompanied by the right spiritual and emotional states. Because, as I found when I was lamenting my tragic first world life, sometimes you can be perfectly reasonable and still be wrong.