If Youth Knew, If Age Could 14 — A Rational Life Includes Non-Rational Parts
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about the rationality of a life lived with the non-rational.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We’ve talked about rationality and such. You’ve commented on personal experience with love, and more. Love is a non-rational part of life, but love happens, nonetheless. A profound, significant, and, sometimes, incomprehensible and inexplicable component of human life. What do you make of making room, in life, for the non-rational? As Chris Hedges clarifies, he does not mean the irrational, but the non-rational forces of life.
Herb Silverman: For most of my professional life as a mathematician I made good use of the irrational. I speak, of course, about irrational numbers (not expressible as the quotient of two integers) like the square root of 2 and pi. Irrational numbers were discovered in Greece in the 5th century BCE, and challenged the Greek belief in a rational universe controlled by mathematical harmonies. Such numbers seemed to these Greeks so illogical and unreasonable that they called them irrational. So, sometimes things may seem irrational because we don’t understand them.
Outside the world of mathematics, the main difference between rational thinking and non-rational or irrational thinking is that rational thinking is based on logic and reason, while non-rational and irrational thinking are usually based on neither. In rational decision making, choices are made through reason and facts.
The way I distinguish between non-rational and irrational thinking is that non-rational thinking relies more on intuitive judgments, and can sometimes be thought to make common sense, while irrational thinking goes counter to logic, and relies more on emotions without considering the consequences of decisions. In rational thinking we use our brain, and in irrational thinking we listen to our heart or gut. I prefer to think with my brain, not my gut.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that irrational thinking is always wrong. People have won lotteries by choosing numbers based on a dream, or a birthday. A person who thinks rationally tries to use all the information available to make an informed decision, putting aside emotions. But often there are unknown factors or features that the rational person didn’t account for.
It can be argued that humans did not evolve to become rational creatures. We make good use of the non-rational, like love, beauty, art, poetry, music, and grief. I can give good reasons for why I love my wife, though I can’t show that these reasons are rational. As far as we know, these non-rational decisions have nothing to do with science, and are not empirically measurable. However, it’s possible that brain research might someday show there is no such thing as free will, and that I didn’t really choose to marry Sharon.
Jacobsen: Are there any borderline issues between the non-rational and the irrational?
Silverman: When it comes to religion, atheists usually object to irrational beliefs, not necessarily to non-rational beliefs. But how do we decide which is which?
For instance, there is no empirical evidence for the existence or nonexistence of God, so can we say that that both beliefs are non-rational (as opposed to irrational)? People will answer differently, which shows that non-rational and irrational are not well-defined terms. Depending on the definition of “God,” I might be willing to call the belief non-rational (for instance, a creator of the universe who set natural laws in motion, and then retired, died, or moved on to bigger or better things). I don’t believe this, but I’m willing to consider such a deistic belief non-rational. The same with people who define God as love, or who take statements in so-called holy books metaphorically. On the other hand, I would call irrational any belief in the literal God of the Bible or the Quran, because we can find so much scientific evidence that falsifies claims in these “holy” books. (Young earth creationists would criticize me for having “faith” in science.)
I also consider all claims to miracles, including resurrections, as irrational beliefs, though I can’t disprove them. Then again, I also can’t disprove the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster, though everyone would consider such a belief irrational.
Is it fair to call irrational what Christians, Muslims, and UFO abductees believe, because such beliefs are devoid of the kind of evidence we would expect to find for those beliefs? I would say yes, but the majority of the world would disagree with me.
Jacobsen: What can we do to ensure others, who did not have the sanction of the general public, have the same rights and privileges afforded to love and join with whomever they see fit for their lives, especially as societies become freer, opener, and more prosperous?
Silverman: I hope that societies continue to become freer and more open. There was a time in my country and elsewhere when I might not have been allowed to marry because I insisted on a non-religious (humanist) ceremony. Unfortunately, even today, such a marriage is not permissible in some countries. There was also a time that it would have been illegal for Sharon and me to live in sin. I’m pleased to see in my lifetime that gays and lesbians are finally allowed to marry in many countries, and that homosexuality is rarely against the law, except in Muslim countries.
Such restrictions have usually been religion-based. The less religious societies become, the more freedom, privileges, and prosperity individuals will have.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.