Of Mannequins and the Evolution of Irrationality

The following thoughts were prompted by an August 4, 2013 sermon by Caleb Mayberry on James 2:14-26 in which he used the metaphor of “mannequin” faith: one which has all the right outward appearances, but actually does nothing.

Pardon me if I don’t get all my facts right in this post, but I’m kind of thinking out loud here—asking questions, not proposing solutions, and not at all thinking I’m “right” about anything.

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant proposed the notion of the “categorical imperative,” a philosophy of morality or even a specific practice which could be accepted as normative only if, applied universally, it would yield positive results. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time,” the principle goes, “will that it should become a universal law.” From this standpoint, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is generally thought of as an acceptable (if not always practical) categorical imperative.

Kant argued from a framework of “deontological” moralism in which the reasons for behaving morally arise from a sense of duty: you do what is right because you have been told what is right and see the sense in being a good moral citizen, essentially. While I thoroughly embrace the idea of the categorical imperative, I don’t, however, see deontological systems, per se, having an advantage over “hypothetical” moral systems of thought such as pragmatism or utilitarianism. The categorical imperative allows a means of evaluating any moral system, based on theoretical outcomes—but is itself based on hypothetical assumptions.

Even if we accept that there is an external moral code to which we have a duty to adhere, we still must assume not only that such a moral code has been revealed (as in Scripture) but that it has been revealed both fully and in a fashion which we are equipped to fully comprehend. If those assumptions are not true (and it is the latter about which evidence fails to convince me), then any attempt to articulate a deontological moral code is by definition crippled; and of what use could any crippled system be as a categorical imperative?

In the real world, I think that “consequentialist” systems of moral thought are more useful for both philosophical reflection and relating to other actual real people. A paper on “Evolution, Culture, and the Irrationality of the Emotions” published by researchers at Rutgers provides a nice overview of consequentialist schools of thought.

The thing about consequentialist thinking that intrigues me is the way in which it reflects reality—and natural laws like thermodynamics, vacuums, and the motion of pendulums. Even if we grant that moral systems arise from the actual practical benefits of behaving morally (properly speaking a utilitarian view, which I normally abhor), we can observe through history that moral norms persist despite the rise and fall of the empires the promote and enforce them. In other words, morality seems to be, over time, a consistent and centering force in cultures, rather than an “upward spiral” of evolutionary sophistication. Even longitudinal moral improvements, such as that toward eradication of slavery, have been interpreted as an outgrowth of underlying moral infrastructure. I would argue that, Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk notwithstanding, progress in rights for gay couples is also an outgrowth of the same moral infrastructure; it’s just taken the Church a couple thousand years to catch up to Jesus.

I believe Shaw was right when he observed that societies are defined by what they will not tolerate, rather than by tolerance; but by and large, societies tend to return to tried-and-true standards for what’s acceptable behavior and what is not after (sometimes centuries-long) experiments with more “tolerant” approaches. There’s got to be a reason for that, from an evolutionary standpoint—if one buys into evolutionary theory, as I do.

Similarly, we see throughout history that irrationality is as valuable and persistent a trait as rationality. Hope is irrational—and yet hope is what often gives rise to monumental scientific, social, or personal progress. Properly speaking, religious belief in the metaphysical (the realm of the spiritual) is also irrational… and yet religious beliefs not only persist, they outlive entire modes of rational discourse. Interesting, don’t you think?

That’s all background for where my mind went while Caleb was preaching:

How does an appetite and desire for / belief in the metaphysical arise and persist in purely physical beings?

If it arises from stupidity, why do we not see faith uniformly exhibited in those with a low IQ, or even in non-intelligent creatures? Why does faith exist at all in the bright and educated?

If it arises from intelligence, doesn’t that imply that faith is an evolutionarily advanced trait, one that ought to be respected and valued by those who adhere to evolutionary theory?

Is it possible that it arises from neither stupidity nor intelligence—that it’s the result of some external stimulus bestowed upon the stupid and the intelligent alike?

I’ve heard many atheists actually argue something like the latter when attributing faith to the effects of some sort of societal disease. But that strikes me as itself an irrational response. You can’t just write off something you don’t like as a disease. e. Coli, for instance, is sure enough a bad thing to have breeding in your hamburger; but most of us have it in reasonable quantities in our guts, where it actually helps our digestive systems. Get all incensed about the evils of e. Coli, rile up the nations about it, and then eliminate it… and where would we all be? In a world of hurt.

So my question is serious: Where does irrationality arise? I would argue that it can’t arise from rationality itself, and that it can’t have predated rationality. Can superstition exist in non-intelligent beings? Possibly. But I will only be convinced when I hear a dog or a horse make the argument.

It seems to me that irrationality satisfies deeply felt human needs—otherwise humanity would have dispensed with it tens of thousands of years ago… certainly within the last three or four hundred.

So I do think irrationality arises from outside ourselves—but not as a disease… as a gift. It’s what inspires artists, gets scientists to defy “conventional wisdom” and make mind-bending breakthroughs, convinces parents that childbearing is a good idea in spite of most evidence, persuades Don Quixote and Martin Luther King, Jr. to dream impossible dreams, and leads broken and trashed people into new lives.

Idolatry of the rational is, in fact, just another manifestation of irrationality… and a hypocritical one at that.


About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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