This is the English version. For the Norwegian version, see “Ting som ikke finnes”.
Rationality. Political correctness. The Devil. What might such things have in common? They can all be defined (although definitions may vary widely), described, reasoned about, and in some cases, can even meaningfully explain things. But, as far as I can tell, none of them actually exist. They are all projections, mental defenses that we humans use to protect our own fragile egos. To truly understand the world, and maybe survive the years to come, we must understand such illusions, and where they come from.
Let’s start by clarifying a few things. Rationality is not the same as logic. Logic does exist, and most of us are capable of some degree of logical or analytical thinking. We all use this capacity when we deem it necessary. But logical thinking does not necessarily imply rationality. All logic is based on axioms in some form, and without intuition, you don’t have axioms to work with. So pure logical thinking does not and can not exist. What can exist, is logic based on a set of assumptions, which, in turn, are often shaped by experience (or by prejudice). But no logic can guarantee that these assumptions are true, or even reasonable. (A more powerful system than logic, such as science, can come close. But that’s a different topic.)
There’s a definition of rationality in economics, but even economists know that humans are not perfectly rational, so they’ve come up with the concept of “bounded rationality” to more closely describe how humans might behave in an economy. Such models may work, at least for investors and others that care about money (which may indeed be most of us, out of necessity). But at best, this proves their willingness and ability to use analytic thinking in money matters, not their rationality as human beings. But then again, these models were never intended to prove that; rather, they start with the assumption that something to that effect exists (even if in an imperfect form), and studies the implications. Besides, the most successful businesses today are those whose marketing departments do not necessarily assume that consumers are rational, as modern commercials clearly show. They’re loaded with appeals to our emotions.
If, instead, we turn to psychology, we quickly learn that the human mind is riddled by so many cognitive biases (numbering in the hundreds, most of them invisible to yourself) that a truly rational mind is all but impossible. Even if you’re specifically trained to be aware of them and compensate for them, you will have your blind spots. (If you’re interested, a good way to reduce them is by listening to feedback from others, but obviously others may have their own biases. The greatest risk is if their biases are the same as yours, since then neither you nor they may be aware of them. On the contrary, you’d just strengthen your biased beliefs. This is popularly known as an “echo chamber”.)
So there’s no proof that rationality is a thing that actually exists. Yet we rely heavily on it. Why? Where does the illusion come from? To better understand it, let’s first take a look at a couple other illusions.
Some belief systems speak of a personification of evil. A liar, trickster, rebel, and destroyer, ultimately responsible for all the bad things in the world. Even if we were to believe that the universe had a benevolent creator, why would we also choose to believe in such a figure?
The rationale seems to be that since evil exists, someone must be responsible for it. Since the Creator is benevolent, it must be someone else. As the story goes, this was someone that was originally a servant of the Creator, but rebelled and decided to become a saboteur instead. This servant was apparently powerful and independent enough to create evil (not to mention very tenacious to keep at it for all these millennia).
But the logic doesn’t consider another possibility: us. If we were “created in God’s image”, given free will, and meant to rule over Earth and create things on it, then it should be reasonable to assume that we, too, should be just as capable of creating evil as this supposed servant would be. And all indications are that we are. We shouldn’t need this figure to explain things.
So the reason this figure is necessary is not because of logic. Rather, it’s because of something emotional: the necessity of a scapegoat, someone we can blame. But not to defend our belief in a benevolent creator, but to defend our belief in ourselves. We really want to believe in our own innocence, our rationality, and that the things we do are right and just. When we sin, it’s really convenient to be able to believe it was this evil guy that tricked us into it, and that we can just say “no” next time and be free, instead of facing the fact that this so-called evil was a part of ourselves all along. Every one of us has been born with the capacity to commit monstrous acts (and sadly, our belief in our illusory rationality makes us more likely to do so). It’ll always be part of us, and part of anyone else we care about or trust, including the clergy.
So this “devil” figure was most likely created because, for various reasons, it was not acceptable to admit all this. Whatever the justifications, reality was, we just could not face the truth about ourselves.
In today’s secular, democratic, free-speech-valuing society, the devil has outplayed its role, and many have felt the need for another type of scapegoat: the labeling of people that disagree with you. Once you put labels on people, it takes much less effort to dismiss or ignore their opinions. There’s no need for actual logical thinking.
The immediate problem with this approach is that if you have a minority opinion, but still believe yourself rational, you have to be able to explain what’s wrong with the majority. Why don’t otherwise reasonable people agree with you?
The idea of “political correctness” offers a way out. It says that well, actually, the majority would agree with you, but they’re either too brainwashed, or too afraid, to question the established beliefs. While the logic can be somewhat questionable (after all, if you’re not brainwashed and nobody’s stopping you from questioning things, what’s stopping others?), it very conveniently lets you continue to believe that you’re rational and not wrong.
The argument has far-reaching implications. For the idea to work, there must be some kind of conspiracy, complete with unethical politicians, biased mainstream media, and such, that must all be in on the brainwashing of the masses and the suppression of undesirable opinions, willingly or not. Furthermore, since this supposed conspiracy seems to have an interest in suppressing the opinions of ‘patriots’, maybe they’re in cahoots with foreign powers.
In essence, to believe in such a thing as political correctness, you must also believe in conspiracy theories that are unrealistic in a typical Western democratic society. (There are certainly countries where something similar would be realistic, though, but then it would probably be called something else, like censorship.) So we see that the concept of “political correctness” fits neatly into the same pattern of denial as before. It’s something you can project onto people who disagree with you, to avoid having to face the truth about yourself.
I think the years to come will be very challenging ones for mankind as a whole, and if we hope to survive, we need to decide who we are and what we want to be. At some point, we have to face the truth about ourselves, and figure out how to deal with it. If we don’t, we could very well end up condemning ourselves to extinction.
We are flawed, but also promising. We are not rational, but with care we can choose to be constructive. We are not innocent, but we all have the capacity for both good and evil. Within us all is both a creator and a destroyer. If we don’t acknowledge that the destroyer exists, then we can’t control it, and it will control us. But if we know it’s there, we can choose who we want to be. We can say, “today, I will be a creator”.
As humans, we have the ability to create beautiful things, to create a world filled with life, wisdom, art, and love. We also have the ability to tear it all down. These two abilities are inseparable, we all have both.
I’m grateful that through my own life, I’ve had the privilege to be a creator in my own way. I’m still finding new ways to create, and I know I will try to be a creator for as long as I possibly can. But to do that, you have to accept what’s within you, the power you have, and the responsibility that comes with it. Be good, be a creator, not because it necessarily comes naturally to you, but because you choose to be.