On Rationality and Delusions

This post started as a reply to M Cuffe’s comment on my post on The God Delusion. M Cuffe suggested that I’m merely asserting an individual’s right to be irrational, or ignorant. Yes, I am indeed saying that one has the right to be irrational. But that statement stems from something that I believe is deeper. It stems from what we mean by rationality, and why we think it is a good thing to be rational. I know it sounds “irrational,” but I’m talking about rationality as Persig talked about it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Stepping back a bit, rationality is quintessentially a worldview. By rational, we mean things that seem normal to our commonsense. So the notion of a nuclear bomb moving or obliterating a mountain is rational, although we have never seen it. You believe it because it is consistent with your worldview. I believe it too, trust me. I was a nuclear physicist not too long ago. 🙂

And a god (or faith) moving mountains is clearly ludicrous to our rationality. I’m not asking people to give equal rational weight to faith and bomb moving mountains. I’m merely encouraging them to examine why they believe in one and not the other. Calling one more rational is just another way of saying that you choose to believe one more than the other. Why?

Thinking along those lines, I come to the conclusion that it is only a question of worldviews or belief systems. I personally subscribe to your worldview based on rationality as well, which is why I consider myself also an atheist (although one of my readers thought I was merely confused :-))

A god as an old man hiding behind the clouds is not consistent with our worldview. But it may have been a metaphor for something else. Let me explain. We have these abstract concepts of happiness, perfection, grief etc. Are these things real? Should we believe they exist? Such questions don’t make too much sense because these concepts are all in our minds. But then, what isn’t?

Let’s take perfection, for instance. Let’s say we assign some human form to it, so that we could explain it to a child or something. We then call it, say, the goddess of perfection or whatever. Over generations, for whatever reason, the notion of perfection disappears from our awareness, but the metaphor of the goddess remains. Now, to somebody who believes in the reality perfection, and therefore the existence of the goddess, it is not a delusion. In that belief system, in that context and worldview, it makes perfect sense. But in the absence of the abstract concept of perfection, the goddess becomes a delusion.

I believe that a large part of our collective wisdom is handed down in the form of such metaphors. Instead of dismissing them as delusions because their context is gone, we should perhaps try harder to rediscover the lost concepts. I also believe such metaphors exist in other fields that seem to work well. Take, for instance, the Qi concept in traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements (or three body types) in Ayurveda and so on. To the extent that traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda work, there has to be some knowledge buried in those practices. If we write off their basis merely because their metaphors are not consistent with our rationality, we may be writing off some potential sources of new or forgotten knowledge.

In addition, I believe that some of our smarter geniuses indeed see delusional metaphors in what we take to be supremely real.