Some answers are beyond our reason

'We use reasons to explain why we do things, but they aren’t necessarily actually why we do things'

July 23, 2020 16:23

Years ago, when I had just started writing for The Times, I came across a story I thought bizarre, humorous and perhaps even a little bit worrying. And I had the response of any journalist. Excellent. Copy.

I produced a small item on a local police chief who was attempting to use the power of prayer to fight crime.

Now, I have never thought there was a God who acted in the world like that. I have always found ridiculous the idea that God is out, say, looking for your lost cat. Just for example, the cat being found is good for the cat, as well as you. But the cat can’t pray. So, if you don’t, would God really punish the cat as well as you? That doesn’t seem very nice.

There’s also the more serious moral problem that it suggests that your being murdered might be part of God’s plan or in some way the fault of the victim. This gives a very dark edge to what otherwise might be playful philosophical speculation.

In the case of the police officer, his position might suggest that criminals would be diverted to a nearby district where your house might be burgled because your police chief is insufficiently devout.

You’ve doubtless heard these points made before and I’m a little embarrassed now that I thought them sufficiently original and witty to make them into an article. But I’m embarrassed now for another altogether different reason. I’m no longer sure that I was right.

For the last few days I have been reading Alchemy, a new book by the advertising guru Rory Sutherland, someone I find consistently interesting. This book was no exception.

Alchemy is an assault on reason. Sutherland argues compellingly that our brain is merely the PR department of our instinct. We use reasons to explain why we do things, but they aren’t necessarily actually why we do things.

If asked why we took a step back on the pavement when a bus came towards us, we might be able to give a good reason. We looked, we saw the bus, we have learned from experience that they come close to the curb and so forth. In fact, we stepped back on instinct even before we consciously saw the bus.

Reason and logic serve us well when describing the physical world. Alchemy isn’t an argument against the scientific method. But it serves us much less well in explaining or predicting human behaviour. Sutherland’s core point is that we often don’t try things because they don’t seem to make sense to us, they don’t seem logical, yet in reality they work. And they can work even when you don’t really understand why.

He is an ad man who has spent a career judging consumer response. So naturally he gives examples from marketing. For instance, a charity fundraising mailout was more successful when the opening to the envelope was along the short side.

Now, this is completely illogical. Why would this envelope produce, as it did, a 10 per cent increase in donations over a control envelope? Sutherland speculates — perhaps it encourages slipping in a cheque — but his speculation isn’t his point. His point is that he doesn’t know. All he know is that it worked.

Now, perhaps you can see where I am going with this. I have always struggled with the reason for my Jewish observance. And no reason I ever try out really works. Indeed the more I reason, the more I struggle.

Rory Sutherland is arguing that I should stop worrying. That the worrying is getting in the way. All I should focus on is that it works.

There are lots of things that religion can’t do. To suggest that a victim might be in some way have a share in responsibility for a crime committed against them, because it wouldn’t have happened if they had prayed or been more devout still seems to me not only a silly argument but also a horrible one.

But to argue that religious commitment can make you more resilient and more content, that it can aid material well being in many ways is not only plausible, it seems to be supported by the scientific evidence.

And it doesn’t really matter that we don’t quite know why, and will probably never know. Reason isn’t everything.

Daniel Finkelstein is is associate editor of The Times


July 23, 2020 16:23

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