Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist, has said silly things about evolution and religion. But his recent blog post entitled The Power of Ridiculous Reasons brings up an interesting idea worth contemplating:
The human mind is wired to accept ridiculous reasons as if they are legitimate. Studies have shown that people are more likely to agree to a favor if the word “because” is used in the request. It doesn’t seem to matter what follows that word. As long as the sentence is in the form of a reason, people accept it as though some actual reason is present.
I’ve often used this method. I think I’ve mentioned these uses before, but I will reiterate to set up my larger point.
Guys tend to argue over who picks up the check after dinner. In cases where I know this situation is likely to arise, I prepare a ridiculous “because” reason that I trot out when the moment is right. After allowing the other guy or guys to make their ceremonial attempt at paying, I say something like “I’ll pay today because this is the seven month anniversary of when you bought your car. Congratulations.” I’m exaggerating slightly, but it isn’t hard to come up with some trivial reason why you should pay. The funny thing is that any reason you offer will settle the discussion. It works every time.
What do you think would happen if Adams turned it around and told them “YOU should pay the check today because this is the seven-month anniversary of when you bought your car.” Can you picture that working? Neither can I.
But I don’t want to dismiss the insight; I just want to modify it to say: “The human mind is wired to accept ridiculous reasons as if they are legitimate as long as it supports their desires.”
I instantly thought of Francis Collins, who wrote that he became a Christian because he saw a waterfall frozen in three streams, invoking the Trinity in his eyes. In his review of Collins’ book, Sam Harris tears into the argument.
It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings. One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity…
If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins’ alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.
A frozen waterfall has less to do with the truth of supernatural claims than the seven-month anniversary of a purchase has to do with who pays for dinner. People looking for a reason to act or believe will latch onto flimsy reasons to do so. Religion relies on it.
When I was in college, I used to talk to the Mormon missionaries whenever I got the chance. They told me that in order to believe, I had to pray to God with an open heart, hoping to know Him. I asked whether I could try with an open mind, hoping to know the truth. They didn’t think those were the same. Neither did I.
But of course… if God doesn’t exist, then how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??