A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All

Clever Irrationality*






Many people pride themselves on being clever and equate their cleverness with rationality. For example, the "9/11 truthers" deny the reliability of the hundreds of eyewitnesses to a commercial airliner crashing into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The witnesses are all liars, part of the government conspiracy to make 9/11 look like the work of al-Qaeda terrorists. The "truthers" say a missile hit the Pentagon and all the debris of an airplane and body parts was faked. There's no evidence a missile hit anything. So what? The evidence was cleared away. There were passengers who got on an airplane that day, but they were whisked away and killed by government agents. The evidence? Prove it didn't happen! And so on ad nauseam. These folks who call themselves "truthers" are very clever but they're not very rational. A rational person will not call hundreds of people liars just to maintain their belief that a missile, not a passenger plane, hit the Pentagon. A rational person doesn't dismiss dozens of pieces of evidence that an airliner crashed into the Pentagon by simply denying the evidence is real. Dismissing evidence that doesn't fit with your beliefs isn't what a rational person does.

Being clever is all well and good, but it is not the same as being rational. Being clever, for example, is the foundation of apologetics in Catholic theology which holds that any article of faith can be defended by reason. For example, the idea that God is three persons in one being is said to be a truth that is "above reason." Reason can't comprehend how one being can be three persons. Reason tells us that if there is one being, there is one entity; and if there are three persons, there are three beings. The theologians cleverly argue that a truth that is "above reason" can't be proven false. Very clever, but not very rational. Such reasoning opens the door to believing that nothing is as it appears to be, that anything that seems to be contradictory may actually be possible. If three can equal one in a single special case, then for all we know, two can equal six and eight can equal four in some other special cases. In some worlds, perhaps a six-sided die has eight sides. Can you prove that such a world does not exist? The world is already full of things that appear to be what they're not (like lots of clever people who appear to be rational). Why add another layer to this problem just to defend an article of faith? Why not just say: we have no idea what we mean by saying that God is three persons in one being, but we say it anyway and require you to believe it if you want to be one of us. Likewise, if you want to be a 9/11 truther, you must deny that hundreds of eyewitness are telling the truth about seeing American Airlines flight 77 crash into the Pentagon and you must take as fact the fantasy that a missile hit the Pentagon while the AA plane and the 64 people aboard were annihilated somewhere else by government agents.

There are many scientists who believe that the scientific notion of evolution is entirely compatible with a belief in a creator of the universe and the existence of souls being attached to every human body. Francis Collins, for example, has argued just this point.

Almighty God, who is not limited in space and time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.

God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that plan included human beings.

After evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a sufficiently advanced neurological "house" (the brain), God gifted humanity with free will and with a soul. Thus humans received a special status, "made in God's image."

We humans used our free will to disobey God, leading to our realization of being in violation of the Moral Law. Thus we were estranged from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.

That's it. A very simple but, I think, entirely compatible view that does no violence either to faith or to science. And puts them in a harmonious position

Very clever, to be sure, but not very rational. We can't prove this story isn't true, but what evidence is there for it? None, really. It's just a clever way of joining together two traditions that seem incompatible with one another. The joining does no violence to faith, because faith is not rational anyway. There doesn't have to be a reason for an article of faith. But really, science is being abused by being brought into the fray. Science isn't in the business of inventing fairy tales to accommodate religious beliefs to its discoveries. That's the business of religion and faith. I won't deny that Collins has put science and his religion in a harmonious position, but he's done so at the expense of being rational. There are zillions of other weird stories one could concoct that are harmonious with what we know from science. Inventing these harmonious tales may be clever, but....

Another bit of cleverness was shown in a test of miraculous events in southern Italy. The test was devised by Massimo Polidoro and Luigi Garlaschelli. Debora Moscogiuri, a young "mystic" who says she gets messages from the Virgin Mary, claimed that sealed vessels left near a statue of Mary would be partially filled with olive oil, apparently as a sign that Debora was telling the truth about her "messages." If you are wondering why a woman who has been dead for 2,000 years and who is hailed as the mother of a god in Catholic mythology would leave a few drops of olive oil in a sealed jar as proof of her visitation, then you obviously lack faith. Anyway, Debora had the blessing of a local priest, a Fr. Civerra, and they agreed to a test.

The skeptics suspected that the methods used to seal the vessels was not foolproof, so they devised their own method:

....we prepared a set of sealed test tubes as follows: An olive leaf was put into each glass test tube. The tubes were flame-sealed on a Bunsen burner, taking care not to scorch the leaf inside. Each tube was numbered in several positions using a vibrating glass-etching instrument. Each tube was checked for invisible gaps by holding it under water; in such conditions small air bubbles would escape from those imperfectly sealed. The tubes were weighed on a precision lab balance (calibrated just prior to this operation), recording all digits with a milligram precision. Each tube was then photographed with additional close-up lenses, in such a way as to record the etched number, and the shape of the sealed tip, where the glass had been melted. It was noticed that when these tubes were slightly heated, a few tiny droplets of water were given off by the leaf inside. The general look was quite different from that of oil, the total weight of course did not change, and the droplets were re-absorbed after a few days. Thus we decided not to worry about this detail. Each tube could now be identified by its weight and photograph, and was "tamper-evident", as there is no way that glass can be melted and resealed exactly in its original shape.

Eight of these phials (numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10) were delivered to Miss D. M. through Dr Gagliardi and Father Civerra, a catholic priest who follows the seers.

Deborah says that after the sealed tubes were prepared, she had a vision of a large tongue of flame, which she identified as the Holy Ghost, taking one of the tubes away! When the skeptics got their tubes back, one was missing.

Tubes No 1, 2, and 7 were intact and did not contain any liquid.

- Tube No 4 had a broken tip that had produced a small gap; no liquid was present.

- Tubes No 6, 8, and 10 did contain a yellow viscous liquid.

A comparison with the photographs of the originals showed that the tips had been melted and re-sealed. The shape of the tips was quite clearly different. One of the tubes had been tampered with on the side, and the glass was deformed leaving a large bubble. One tip was also slightly cracked.  In all of these three phials there were traces of a black substance, and the leaf was partially or completely carbonised.

A rational person would say that the tubes were tampered with and the most likely reason that tube #3 was not returned was that it had been broken during the attempt to open the seal. A clever person, however, might say that the missing tube and the deformities in the others were evidence of tampering by the Holy Ghost. That's what Fr. Civerra maintains. Can you prove he's wrong? I don't think so. Would you bother to try to argue with him about the miracles?

At the top of this column there is a photo of a billboard that has been damaged. Did vandals ram it with a large vehicle? Did the wind bend it? Did God smack it with a tornado to remind atheists that he will not be mocked? Did someone Photoshop the billboard to make it look like somebody vandalized it? A rational person will look for evidence to determine what happened. A clever person won't bother, for even if conclusive evidence is gathered, the clever person knows he can come up with some ad hoc scenario that is compatible with the evidence but which is also harmonious with some other farfetched hypothesis about gods not being mocked.

Examples of clever people trying to appear rational are endless. Remember that just because a statement is harmonious with another statement that is known to be true doesn't mean the first statement is also true. Being harmonious with known truths is a necessary condition for a statement being true, but it is not a sufficient condition. "I am the Holy Ghost and I planned and executed 9/11 all on my own" is a statement that a clever person could make harmonious with all known true statements, but the statement itself would still be one no rational person should assent to.

Robert T. Carroll
April 24, 2010

* Irrational: not rational: as a (1) : not endowed with reason or understanding (2) : lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence b : not governed by or according to reason. (Merriam-Webster)

more essays

Last updated 31-Jul-2015

© Copyright 1994-2011 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.