I've finished Steven Pinker's book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. I enjoyed it, though some chapters were a bit tedious.
The final chapters, though, held my interest. Here's what I liked most in the next to last chapter, "What's Wrong With People?" Meaning, why do so many people believe such crazy irrational stuff?
It starts off with a great George Carlin quote.
Tell people there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.
Pinker then describes some reasons that prevent people from reasoning correctly. The first is motivated reasoning.
The obvious reason that people avoid getting on a train of reasoning is that they don't like where it takes them... The mustering of rhetorical resources to drive an argument toward a favored conclusion is called motivated reasoning.
The motive may be to end at a congenial conclusion, but it may also be to flaunt the arguer's wisdom, knowledge, or virtue. We all know the barroom blowhard, the debating champ, the legal eagle, the mansplainer, the competitive distance urinator, the intellectual pugilist who would rather be right than get it right.
Another is myside bias.
Politically motivated numeracy and other forms of biased evaluation show that people reason their way into or out of a conclusion even when it offers them no personal advantage.
It's enough that the conclusion enhances the correctness or nobility of their political, religious, ethnic, or cultural tribe. It's called, obviously enough, the myside bias, and it commandeers every kind of reasoning, even logic.
...The myside bias is not an across-the-board personality trait, but presses on whatever trigger or hot button is connected to the reasoner's identity.
This gives us a big clue about why people with religious delusions -- which in my view includes everybody who is religious, as I was for 35 years -- function just fine in everyday life.
Defects like motivated reasoning and the myside bias only come into play when someone has to provide reasons for why they believe something that means a lot to them, yet isn't grounded in reality.
Your crazy Uncle Joe, who embraces every wacko conspiracy theory he sees on Fox News or hears from Donald Trump, is a great mechanic who can diagnose car problems with ease. His ability to reason is fine in that area, yet it sucks when he's asked to defend a bizarre notion like Pizzagate.
Pinker says that what you mean by "believe" is key to understanding how this can be.
Mercier notes that holders of weird beliefs often don't have the courage of their convictions. Though millions of people endorsed the rumor that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington (the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a predecessor of QAnon), virtually none took steps commensurate with such an atrocity such as calling the police.
...At least Edgar Welch, the man who burst into the pizzeria with his gun blazing in a heroic effort to rescue the children, took his beliefs seriously. The millions of others must have believed the rumor in a very different sense of "believe."
That sense points to mythology, the domain of religion, conspiracy theories, and other areas of life that aren't meant to be taken as literally true -- though believers often claim they are. This is why Christians and other believers in a heavenly realm that's much better than our world don't kill themselves to enter it right away.
They believe in this as mythology, not as reality. Pinker explains:
People divide their worlds into two zones. One consists of the physical objects around them, the other people they deal with face to face, the memory of their interactions, and the rules and norms that regulate their lives.
People have mostly accurate beliefs about this zone, and they reason rationally within it. Within this zone, they believe there's a real world and that beliefs about it are true or false. They have no choice: that's the only way to keep gas in the car, money in the bank, and the kids clothed and fed.
Call it the reality mindset.
The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway people and places, remote corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counterfactual, the metaphysical.
People may entertain notions about what happens in these zones, but they have no way of finding out, and anyway it makes no discernible difference in their lives. Beliefs in these zones are narratives which be entertaining or inspiring or morally edifying.
Whether they are literally "true" or "false" is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.
Call it the mythology mindset.
...And for all the conquests of the reality mindset, the mythology mindset still occupies swaths of territory in the landscape of mainstream belief. The obvious example is religion. More than two billion people believe that if one doesn't accept Jesus as one's savior one will be damned to eternal torment in hell.
Fortunately, they don't take the next logical step and try to convert people to Christianity at swordpoint for their own good, or torture heretics who might lure others into damnation.
Yet in past centuries, when Christian belief fell into the reality zone, many Crusaders, Inquisitors, conquistadors, and soldiers in the Wars of Religion did exactly that. Like the Comet Ping Pong redeemer, they treated their beliefs as literally true.
For that matter, though many people profess to believe in an afterlife, they seem to be in no hurry to leave this vale of tears for eternal bliss in paradise.