While discussing rationality with a few friends, I was reminded of how I had recently allowed an anonymous entity pay a stranger to stab me in the back of my jaw with a six inch needle.
The absurdity of this realization made me think back along the long chain of absurdities that led to that moment. I was getting my teeth cleaned, after six years of not paying people to scrape my teeth with wickedly bent, pointed instruments, the dentist found it necessary to use an instrument somewhere between a drill and a ray gun. Knowing that this would cause me unbearable pain even if I couldn’t feel my jaw, he injected muscles I never knew existed with a chemical designed to disconnect my nerves from my carefully calibrated survival instincts to prevent me dying from shock.
This seemed completely rational at the time. I also did not pay him the two or three thousand dollars he charges for this kind of thing, because I have a running bet with an agency based in Ohio. The bet is that, each year, I will probably not need to have large needles stuck in my jaw. At least, they’re betting that I won’t, and I’m sacrificing a chunk of my paycheck betting that I will. So far, I’m winning.
All of this is based on the presumption that I will need my teeth, and paid due to the fact that I have not taken care of them. So despite an assumption that’s worth a hundred bucks a month to me, I repeatedly decided for years to not do the things that might have prevented me needing this expense. Oddly, I spent all those years spending my money, and other people’s money, going to schools, which, according to the schools, are designed to prevent me from making decisions that cost me monthly fees, while at the same time teaching me to make the kind of money I’ll need to pay those fees, because they know they’ll probably only manage to teach me one or the other, if either.
School, in general, consisted of me paying up to 25,000 dollars a year to have a nearly constant hangover and resent the people trying to help me. Honestly, I was nicer than most. Many others paid the same amount of money to not learn anything, and to sit around claiming that the people trying to teach them things were ignorant fascists and/or misinformed hippies. To be fair, many of the people I met in high school were in fact misinformed fascists.
Many of the dollars spent on my education were the product of my father’s job, which he got after many years of expensive schools, apparently so he could afford to pay for me to go to expensive schools, which I went to so I can afford to send my kid to expensive school. Assuming I have a kid, which I should probably do, ere thirty years of higher education go to waste. Currently, I spend most of my hard earned education hard earning money to buy alcohol to make me forget the consequences of spending a chunk of my life spending other’s people money to go to institutions I used as an excuse to not take care of my teeth while not learning what I was supposed to be learning from people I didn’t trust who were trying to teach me to earn enough money to afford to not have taken care of my teeth while I was spending other people’s money to go to said institutions.
The reason for all this is that I was born into a family with a high earning father that it didn’t much matter what I did with the rest of my life, which gave me time to pursue higher virtues such as getting drunk at universities with well-groomed women, instead of getting drunk in alleys with less-well-groomed hookers.1
I will not claim that I made a series of rational decisions that led to my being able to afford to not pay people to stab me. I think the word “rational” has spent at least a thousand years painting itself into a corner, and it’s using a particular shade of purple I don’t care for.
I dismiss philosophers from this debate because they rightly and carefully examine their use of the word. Usually. It’s the common man’s assumption that Man Is a Rational Animal. I recommend a slight modification to this statement: Man Is a Rationalizing Animal. A philosopher whose name I can’t remember because I was trying to bang the republican girl in my ethics class said that we know what is right, but we rationalize our actions after the fact in order to do what we know is wrong. I would take that a step further, to say we rationalize what is right. Modern thinking has successfully dispensed with any absolutes we might actually know, but the better part of the population still acts on the assumption, doctrine, or tradition that there is a right, and they rationalize their actions accordingly.
Today’s true rationalist must rationalize away any foundation for rationality. That’s the unfortunate silver medal for the atheist. Yet even the most die hard of atheists often fail to see their own rationality as a mutable and emotional rationalization. To the unfortunates still young enough to take heed, I remind you that not a few of the great rationalists died virgins.
I have the good fortune to have grown up as the son of a lawyer. This taught me three important things: I’ll never really be accountable for my actions because I’m upper middle class; I’ll never really be accountable for my actions because everything thing is amoral, and I’ll never really be accountable for my actions because everything is arguable. Despite this wealth of unaccountability, I have ended up with a perverse sense of schizo-cultural honor that impels me to do what I think is right, despite the surprising amount of time I spend debating whether or not it is wrong to kill people for fun.
As a wannabe rationalist, the word “wrong” in the previous sentence is the easy one to pick at, but it’s the word “despite” that needs to be examined, for it implies a natural revulsion that must be questioned. This is the ultimate problem of the atheist: not that morality is man’s invention, but that meaning itself is man’s invention; imposed rather than granted.
Some people bring up Descartes at this juncture. I love Descartes. I think, therefore I am. How do you argue with that? What they never mention is that Descartes’ second principle runs something like this: Having had this perfect thought, it must have been granted to me by God, for only God could have such a perfect thought, thus God exists.
As a long time atheist and admirer of the high school variation of Descartes, this made me gag not a little. But given the time of day, why not? I would hate to be accused of backing a creationist—who debases both science and religion—but the rationality of Descartes’ day presupposed a divine creator in most areas of thought.
Today, I love theoretical physics as medieval me might have loved Aquinas. I do not think medieval me would have been a lesser person, because of this:
I love physics. I love probability. These two things are deeply interwoven in science since they discovered that electrons only dance when a man with a microscope cares. A core principle of physics is that entropy always increases, but this presents a problem. In order for the universe to be 16,000,000,000+ years old, the entropy at ground zero must have been low. Damn low. Entropy is a measure of disorder, so the odds of entropy being that low at any given point are actually much worse than the odds of launching a 52,000,000,000 playing cards into space and having them land in a billion neat decks on pluto. The odds of the universe ever having been ordered enough to be as ordered as it is today, sixteen billion years later, are significantly worse than the odds of the universe having popped into existence in its present state ten minutes ago.
It still seems rational to me to think that science will sort this out, and explain to me or my descendants what went down at bang moment. As I’m sure it must have seemed rational to my ancestors to attribute lightning to an angry god.
The oddest thing about humans is our need to attribute anything to anything, and the most frustrating aspect of that fact is that we’re not finding good reasons to make those attributions. Rationality has taught me that my reason is used to defend the cravings of my body and neglected teeth, and to either proactively plan to meet those needs, or retroactively explain why I didn’t. It is the absurdity of the universe that remains constant, and under such conditions, the absurdity of my rationales seems perfectly reasonable.
Left with this, my aforementioned insensible sense of honor is precisely the kind of quixotic pursuit in which the human race takes pride, and to which it attributes all its failure, its success, its struggle, and its reason to be.
Teeth be damned.
1 I regret nothing.