In reply to my latest installment of the “Disambiguating Faith” series in which I replied to Adam’s query about whether an episode of House M.D. provided an example in which a choice to think irrationally (to eliminate symptoms when diagnosing an illness) might prove the more rational course. I argued that if eliminating symptoms helped you isolate the best illness by separating which illnesses were germane to the maladies you were treating and which ones were not, then there was nothing irrational about that, even if it was not the normal course of investigation.
In reply, Adam has written to me (again on Facebook, where you can find and friend me too!) and has clarified his thoughts with some provocative suggestions. I am going to reply to him over the course of two posts starting with this one:
I should clarify the example from House M.D, although you’ve extrapolated most accurately given my brief overlay of the situation 🙂 The priest’s first symtom is a hallucination of Jesus, the symptom that Dr. House ignores to solve the case. By ignoring the hallucination, the remaining symptoms present a correct diagnosis (as you said). What I should clarify more thoroughly is that with or without the hallucination, there were still a vast amount of diagnoses that fit. This is why in medicine elminating a symptom is often considered irrational. It does not narrow down the amount of diagnoses but instead piles on more possibilities with each eliminated symptom. You are still correct though, that there is nothing irrational about creating more possibilities to discern the cause of certain maladies, and certainly no less rational to attribute the correct maladies to the correct diagnosis.
Given your argument, I must unavoidably try and explain the deeper seeded opposition I was taking from this episode. There is nothing faith based or irrational in Dr. House’s actions. In fact the show hints that the hallucination was a cause of the priest’s drinking that night, although it is obviously rare. Also the show and myself favor the rational option of coincidence to explain House’s epiphany and eliminating the symptom. Briefly, the epiphany was caused when House’s friend Dr. Wilson says “even if an absolute truth exists, we can’t know all of it”, then House justifies eliminating the symptom by saying “truth is truth”.
It is clear now that the cause of the hallucination can be attributed to unfounded or unexplained rational phenomenon (not sure what you call it in Philosophy). There may also be a rational explanation for why we choose to make certain rational decisions at certain times, such as eliminating a symptom, when at other times they would be irrational. In these cases we trust that our limited human rationale will guide us toward truth better than any other tool, faith for example.
It is a mistake to judge most ideas by where they come from rather than how they are justified. In the history of human learning there are numerous stories of thinkers having epiphanies triggered by experiences that were irrelevant to the phenomenon at hand but which simply brought together an analogical relationship that they then successfully turned to apply to the world. In fact there are even those who advocate for literally sleeping on problems because while sleeping the brain sometimes seems to process things for us in sub- or unconscious ways.
Because much of our thinking happens below the level of conscious thought, we are constantly perceive, and sometimes even rationally concluding, true things about the world without having consciously thought through them at all. Our perceptual knowledge is like this, our attempts to “read” other people, our rapid fire debates with other people in which we have no time to reflect, etc. are all cases where we think without thinking so to speak. And sometimes we continue processing ideas while dreaming or daydreaming, etc.
So, there are ideas which feel like they just “come to us” and through the senses we have a steady stream of beliefs which we form automatically. This is all quite fine (and exciting even) as long as we remind ourselves not to confuse the source of our ideas with something outside our own brain, its cognitive wiring, its experiences, or our senses. If we misattribute the source of our epiphanies to “God” we leap from the rationally explicable and justifiable process of unconscious brain processing to the arbitrary guess that God feeds us thoughts directly. Worse, when we attribute our epiphanies to God we shut down the possibility of checking our intuitions against abstract reasoning. Our unconsciously worked out sense of things often guides us extremely well, but it can also be deeply prejudiced, badly conditioned, or work from fundamental ignorance. It is important that our intuitions be subject to an explicit re-examination before we trust them.
So, yes, House is right when he reasons that “truth is truth” and it does not matter if it comes to us in hunches which appeal to us for sub- or unconscious reasons which we cannot not articulate, as long as we know how to properly examine those hunches to see if they are confirmable as true.
So, our epiphanies and our pre-, sub-, or unconsciously generated ideas are not examples of acceptable irrational beliefs but candidates for rational confirmation or, in a word, hypotheses. And in the case of sense perception, they are simply rationally trustworthy beliefs which in most cases need no further explicit corroboration or justification in order to believe them. Only in cases where our apparent sense perceptions conflict with each other or conflict significantly with other firm beliefs about the world must we start to doubt them, hold them only provisionally, and investigate them critically by confirming what they tell us by reference to other sense perceptions and by using other reliable belief forming means of assessing what we seem to perceive.
I’ll stop here for now and continue with Adam’s more in-depth passes at his idea in the next post. Stay tuned.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.