Often when I argue with friends, or on the Internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. It is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. Scottish philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at.
An excellent illustration of how our mind does this comes from neuroscience. In the 1960s, neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of experiments on patients with split-brain epilepsy. A common treatment for such patients used to be to sever the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This effectively splits the brain into two: rational thought is carried out by the left hemisphere, but the two halves of the brain stop being aware of the happenings in the other half.
Describing the experiments in his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker wrote of how “the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behaviour chosen without its knowledge by the right.” One example: the experimenters would flash the word “walk” in the visual field of the right hemisphere. The patient would get up and start walking. But when asked why he did so, his left brain, which would be unaware of what the right brain had seen, and would effectively be doing the replying, gave answers such as “to get a Coke.” The remarkable thing is that patients actually believed their explanation, even though the conscious mind arrived at it after the unconscious mind prompted the body to start walking.
Pinker called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief,” while Gazzaniga referred to the left brain as “the interpreter.” In his book Phantoms in the Brain, V.S. Ramachandran wrote: “The left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate—anything to preserve the status quo.”
In other words, the left brain’s job is to make sense of the world and build a coherent worldview. This isn’t easy. The world is full of complicated phenomena, and the most intelligent among us would not be able to make sense of it all if we tried to place each disparate event in its perspective. We would be perpetually bewildered.
To deal with this, our brains evolved to seek patterns in everything. This explains, among other things, religion. For much of our existence, science hasn’t been around to answer the big questions of the day. We’d have gone mad thinking about it all if we didn’t have religion to give us ready-made patterns that explained everything. Similarly, in the modern world, we have all kinds of belief systems that help make sense of the world around us, and provide us with cognitive short cuts to think about the world.
When the belief systems we have adopted are attacked, it is natural for us to not want to have to rethink them. As economists say, that would be inefficient, wasting too much time and energy. This is why I believe most arguments, especially about politics and economics, are pointless. If both sides have firm beliefs, they stand no chance of convincing the other person, for all reasoned argument in such cases is mostly rationalization couched as reason, even though people involved may sincerely believe that they are, well, thinking it through. But that is mostly self-deception.
Amit Varma writes the popular blog, India Uncut, at www.indiauncut.com Your comments are welcome at email@example.com