Decisions, decisions, decisions. We make them every day, and, for the most part, we make them rationally. Untrue, I fear. Most of our decisions – correct or otherwise – are arational.
This is because our brains are very efficient at minimising their processing power by using a system of measuring difference. That is, we make our judgments by comparing new information with the information already stored – fallible information and patterns and stereotypes which have been built up by experience modified by our inherited characteristics. What we notice is change.
This is easy to see at the biological level. We notice a moving object where we do not notice a static one. Watch the cat, who has needed to evolve this characteristic to a high degree. We screen out the ticking clock but we notice its chime. We pick up the smell of tobacco because it is now unusual: a generation ago we would have been scarcely aware because tobacco was so often the ambient smell.
This attention to change is evolutionarily valuable. Change warns us, and the animals, of threat or opportunity. Those who did not respond to it tended to have short lives, and so few progeny.
Conversely, we are insulated against small changes, even if they add up to big change over a period of time. We may not notice small, but frequent, rises in bills but we do notice an infrequent substantial hike. We inveigh against growing political correctness, yet the range of remarks which we ourselves now think unacceptable has extended enormously.
The changes in the Church have taken place over so many centuries and, with some exceptions, by such small steps that we are often unaware of how considerable they have been. For example, the meaning of the proposition that outside the Church there is no salvation has subtly changed over history. If a time machine could take us back to the Middle Ages we might be very shocked by much of the common teaching and general assumptions which were taken for granted.
At the secular level we have, for instance, begun at last to realise that our personal freedom has been substantially reduced by a series of regulatory changes, each one small in itself but which, taken as a whole, have brought about a revolution in the relationship between government and citizen.
Such comparisons are open to deliberate manipulation by the skilled persuader. He sets the starting point for the comparison. The story, so old that it has grey whiskers, is about the Jesuit and the Benedictine who sought permission to smoke while they said their offices. The Benedictine failed because he asked if he could smoke while be was praying: the Jesuit succeeded because he asked if he could pray while he was smoking. Same question but different comparison.
Once I had given them a little instruction, I asked a group of actuaries (clever people) how they would persuade their spouses not to object to them buying a fast motorbike. The best answer given was to proclaim an intention to take up motorcycle racing, and then to allow themselves to be talked into settling for a road bike.
Another way of setting the basis for comparison is through analogy and metaphor. These can of course lead us usefully towards the truth (many of Christ’s parables provide examples). But we need to be on our guard. Professor Dawkins’s presentation of belief in fairies as an equivalent to belief in God has appealed to so many that it has become a standing argument to defeat the credulous Christian. (Bertrand Russell used a flying teapot as his example.) Only a moment’s thought will show that we have no reason to believe in fairies or flying teapots while the existence of God is necessary as the only answer to fundamental questions of meaning.
In fact there is always hazard in speaking about God because we have no way of describing him other than through an extension of human knowledge. That is, by analogy – useful as far as it goes, but no further. It is only too easy to forget his reality lies outside human understanding. As he says, through Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.”
So what is the best defence? For the most part we cannot avoid making our judgments through comparisons. Otherwise we would have to devote all our time to analysis, and probably never reach a decision. But we do need to take stock from time to time. Are these small changes cumulative? Does each one provide a precedent for the next? What is the direction of change, and do we think it to be good?
Beware the persuader who presents us with a basis for comparison. He has chosen it, so should we accept it? You might try the exercise of noting how many comparisons are suggested to us in television advertisements. Or in any politician’s speech. Or, perhaps, in every Sunday homily. Look at the analogies and metaphors which others present. Are they really appropriate, and just how much do they really explain?
To take a contemporary example, Cardinal O’Brien has compared aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to Nazi practices. To what extent are there, or are there not, relevant similarities in this case? Analysis may confirm or weaken his comparison.
The pursuit of truth is an unending duty in every sphere of our lives. Being aware of the instinctive ways in which we make our decisions, and then raising our level of alertness to reduce the amount of bilge we are ready to swallow is a habit we should cultivate.
Do contribute more examples of how arational decisions are made. I have only skimmed the surface. Perhaps you have some anecdotes.