Magical thinking

Unitarian Universalists tend to hold the irrational belief that human beings are predominantly rational. Unitarian Universalists also tend to have faith in scientific insight, yet scientific investigations in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, cognitive science, etc., reveal that human beings are not predominantly rational beings.

This being the case, the belief that a determined individual can conduct his or her life on a rational basis is an example of magical thinking. And such belief is not in essence different from a belief in a supernatural deity, transubstantiation, reincarnation, etc. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Magical thinking”

  1. Maybe being rational in one’s life is a “spiritual discipline”?


    We may not always achieve what we want to achieve with reason, logic, and science. But it’s the best available tool for making sense of the world.

    After all, we know that human thinking is often flawed and not rational. How did we learn this? It wasn’t through divine revelation — it happened with science and we know that it provides us with insights for explaining complicated illogical humanity.

    The bottom line here is that science and rational thinking do work even if humanity isn’t always rational — obligatory xkcd comic to close:

  2. According to James March, “Modern portrayals of human action are overwhelmingly in a calculative and consequentialist tradition. Consequentialist reasoning is the basis for most of modern social and behavioral science, and preeminently for economics. Action is seen as choice; and choice is seen as driven by anticipations, incentives, and desires. These ideas trace their roots at least to the Greeks, owe substantial parts of their modern manifestation to the formulations of Jeremy Bentham, and derive much of their contemporary power from the geniuses of L. J. Savage and John von Neumann.”

    I think UUs tend to follow the calculative and consequentialist tradition which is related to reason and rationality, and use this as the basis to justify their actions.

    But March also says, “there is second grand tradition for understanding, motivating, and justifying action. This tradition sees action as based not on anticipations of consequences but on attempts to fulfill the obligations of personal and social identities and senses of self, particularly as those obligations and senses are informed by the ethos and practices of great human institutions. It is a tradition that speaks of self-conceptions and proper behavior, rather than expectations, incentives, and desires.”

    The other mode of thinking is not necessarily “irrational,” but uses a different type of logic, and a different value system.

    We often underestimate how often we use this alternate logic system, or are unwilling to admit that are doing so.

  3. Steve @ 2 — You get extra bonus points for linking to an xkcd cartoon, something that no other commenter has done for some years.

    Joe @ 3 — Thanks for providing a historical perspective, based on your grounding in cognitive science and education. What’s interesting to me is that mid-nineteenth century Transcendentalists placed rational thought on a par with, or even as less important than, what they called intuition. Similarly, Hosea Ballou and allied nineteenth century Universalists were quite clear that, while rationality was extremely important in determining religious truth, ultimately God was in charge and every human went to heaven whether they were rational or not. There are other examples of Unitarians and Universalists recognizing that rationality had limits. I guess what bothers me these days is the extent to which many Unitarian Universalists seem unwilling to recognize the limits of rationality.

  4. As ironic as it may be to point to scientific studies that show how irrational we are (and how deep our denial of that fact is), yep.

    As a side note, I think that’s what’s wrong with a lot of economic theory also. It keeps presupposing rational actors, but people don’t make economic decisions rationally.

  5. “I guess what bothers me these days is the extent to which many Unitarian Universalists seem unwilling to recognize the limits of rationality.”

    Agree. My feeling is that many UUs value rationality as way of showing their disdain for faith, which they view, incorrectly, as the polar opposite of reason. It’s not irrational to be both rational and to have faith, and history provides us with examples of many individuals who excelled at both. Voltaire, for example, took great delight at mocking the religions of his time. Yet he was both a deist and a supreme rationalist who admonished us all to cultivate the garden of our minds. Rationality and faith are not incompatible. Having faith (or “optimism”) requires that you recognize the limits of rationality. That is why Voltaire ridicules the “reasonableness” of the philosophers of his time in his great short novella “Candide or the Optimist.”

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