On rationality and worldviews
Is the earth round? Well of course! you’d say.
But imagine you are in 500 B.C., before sliced bread, Apollo 13 and Sir Isaac Newton. Now consider someone making the same proposition? A layman would argue: Surely the earth is flat; otherwise it would be quite impossible stand on it now wouldn’t it? Now, if this was 500 BC who would you rather believe? Who would be more ‘rational’? I suspect it would be the latter. In fact when Pythagoras proposed it around the same time, no one believed him. The debate of the flat earth vs. round-earth would rage on for many centuries well into the medieval times and beyond.
The problem with rationality is that it’s derived from a person’s understanding, and understanding as we know – varies. So a man from 500 BC uses the same logic to conclude the earth is flat, which we now use to conclude that it is not.
The point is that even though, many of us like to discredit matters of faith as being ‘irrational’ so many of what we consider ‘rational’ are actually matters of faith. We believe and accept, without question, Newton’s laws of physics, or how Pluto is no more a planet. Most of us don’t really understand the science; we just believe it and consider it a perfectly rational thing. We adopt our own value system of what to believe and what not to believe.
In essence we create or subscribe to a ‘worldview’ and develop a knee-jerk reaction to anything contrary to that view.
The world is terribly complicated, and it isn’t rational for each of us to try and master every subject around us. If that was a prerequisite to having opinions, we wouldn’t have any, and would wander around baffled by everything. It is natural and sensible for us to seek cognitive short cuts to understanding the world. Such short cuts often result in neat little packages known as world views.
World views make us feel that we have it all figured out, with little room for doubt. A world view could be a religion—the devout often find an answer to everything in God. Or it could be an ideology that claims to have answers to all the ills that plague our world. World views are deliciously comforting—in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan nails it by referring to them as “a mental security blanket.”
While world views bring comfort, they also lead to intellectual laziness. Lured by the certitudes of received wisdom, we often stop examining difficult questions, satisfied that we know it all. This can be dangerous if our world view is fundamentally flawed, especially if it is widely shared, and can actually impact the lives of millions of people.
[Read in full: Comfort of a worldview]