Rationality And Well-Being

by Zoe Pollock

The eternal fight over religion and rhetoric was reignited this week, fueled by the basic question: should atheists should be nicer? Quinn O'Neill at 3QD voted for moderation:

Let’s assume that the value of reason ultimately lies in its ability to improve well-being.  Reason and empiricism have brought us great scientific discoveries, lifesaving medicines, and technologies that make our lives longer and healthier.  It’s undeniable that rationality can improve well-being.

It might seem, given these benefits, that improving rationality would improve well-being.  But irrationality has its perks.  Delusions can provide comfort.  They can give us confidence, hope, or a sense of purpose.  Superstitions can improve athletic performance, and psychics and astrologers can help people deal with the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds.  The most rational objective, then, is not necessarily to have everyone be completely rational but rational to the extent that optimizes well-being.  

Phil Plait's lecture, "Don't Be A Dick" which Quinn references, is now online, wherein he writes he wasn't specifically reprimanding people like Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers:

It was aimed at everyone, everywhere, and also inward toward myself. I cannot accuse others of that which I have not at the very least searched for in myself. And I have indeed found it in myself, which was the final factor in my making the speech in the first place.

PZ Myers rebutted using his own heart trouble this week as an allegory about the importance of skepticism:

Denial is so tempting: the appeal of choosing ignorance to avoid hard consequences was something I felt strongly it would have been so nice to go home and pretend there were no problems, and I probably would have been just fine, on the surface. But the heart disease would have continued to progress, and a problem deferred would have become a problem amplified.

That is the virtue of dickishness. It provides the social and psychological penalties that counter the draw of complacency. It's so easy to go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it's homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy, and it's even easier to demonize the cranky Cassandras and make them the problem, because they make people uncomfortable.

But if bad ideas don't have immediate consequences to the placid mob, and if everyone is being Mr and Mrs Nice Folk and reassuring everyone that they're still good people no matter what foolishness they might believe in, where is the motivation to change? A skeptic who thinks their mission is to provide only positive messages and lead everyone along with affirmations and friendliness is going to be an ineffective skeptic.