Sam Harris wants to help non-religious people understand how it feels to be a believer confronted with scientific rationality. Toward that end, he offers the fireplace delusion. The idea is simple:
On a cold night, most people consider a well-tended fire to be one of the more wholesome pleasures that humanity has produced. A fire, burning safely within the confines of a fireplace or a woodstove, is a visible and tangible source of comfort to us.
That love is misguided, however. The scientific evidence is compelling:
The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children.
So far so good. People like to romanticize fires, yet research shows it to be anything but wholesome. It’s incontrovertible, and Harris presents the argument well. I’ve never felt that fires were particularly healthy, so it was no challenge to convince me.
Yet it seems that my reaction may be unique, to judge by the reactions of the people with whom Harris has discussed the issue:
I have discovered that when I make this case, even to highly intelligent and health-conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of clenched fists: They do not want to believe any of it. Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts.
My reaction to such a commitment: Those people are being completely irrational. Why would anyone argue with such compelling evidence, unless they are so wed to their belief that it deafens them to the truth. They plug their ears and over and over shout “I can’t hear you!” These are Harris’s friends:
Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.
Now, I am not a religious person, and like Harris strongly advocate for the use of scientific reasoning and rational thought in social, political, and economic discourse. I have no bona-fides to offer, but personally find the entire idea of religion to be nonsensical.
But even I think that this analogy—admittedly imperfect, Harris says—to be entirely disingenuous.
The problem is not that religious people are irrational in their beliefs, but my reading of The Fireplace Delusion makes exactly that point: Religious people continue to believe in the face of rational refutation simply because they want to believe. But that’s a dishonest reading of faith.
Faith has nothing whatsoever to do with rationality.
Nothing. Nada. Faith is not an irrational resistance to rational reasoning and facts, because it is not subject to rational reasoning and facts. It’s something different, an entirely other animal. Not irrational, but a-rational.
A better analogy than the fireplace delusion might be something derived from it. I offer, instead, love.
Love is not rational. It cannot be refuted by rationality and facts. Scientific reasoning may suggest that my entire biological purpose is to pass my genes on to my children. Yet my deep and abiding love for my wife does not enter into it. It might be argued that love evolved to increase the chances of human genetic success, but such argument neither supports nor refutes my love the way scientific research refutes the value of fire. It simply is.
It’s not just love and religion that work like this, that are a-rational. Art. Jazz. Hacking. That which motivates, that drives passion, dedication, and creation, that embodies culture in the Anthropological sense—including, yes, the pursuit of scientific research and reasoning—is a-rational. No, better: it’s extra-rational. That’s part of what makes it beautiful.
You cannot refute love. You cannot refute art. You cannot refute faith. Because they are not in the domain of refutation, are not subject to the facts. They are something else entirely. Often—not always, but often—they create beauty.
And beauty isn’t subject to refutation, either.