Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 1 - Deflections & Diversions

Tales of Human Folly, Unreason & Error


If they have anything in common the following accounts might be characterised as a portrayal of irrational or unreasonable behaviour. Many kinds of human behaviour are unreasonable of course. Every sort of misconduct that interferes with the normal, moderate flow of our lives (aggression, greed, spitefulness etc) falls into this category. But the behaviour that is the principle focus of interest here is of a more specific kind, namely on self-delusion in its many and various aspects. For students of the dottier side of human behaviour this is, naturally, a rich area. The ever-present elements of unenlightened self-interest of the kinds mentioned above, i.e. those driven by predatory, or criminal, or pathological motives, are covered too, but are of secondary interest (although, as we shall see, there is often a certain fuzziness at the edges in these matters). There are of course many different categories and varieties of irrational behaviour, but the reader is warned not to expect any serious, systematic examination of this subject. Rather, this is a loose, somewhat schadenfreude, assemblage of stories, anecdotes and potted histories, many of which would have fitted equally well in one of the other sections of the Slight Swerve. The collection is something of a grab-bag; it could hardly be otherwise since irrational and unreasonable behaviour, like error itself, are infinite in their variety …

So what is it that these accounts have in common? Typically, the protagonists involved tended to see their own actions as entirely reasonable – even when, by any objective criteria, they were not. We will encounter a whole range of incongruous and deluded behaviour in these pages but, various as they are, these accounts repeatedly provoke the same sort of questions - What did these people think they were doing? Why should these irrational ideas and misunderstandings so often take hold when more reasonable solutions are ignored? Why do individuals, smaller and larger groups, and even entire nations, doggedly pursue courses of action that are so obviously wrong-headed and, more often than not, entirely against their own best interests? And underlying this whole topic is the question ‘How is it that we, the supposedly intelligent species, get caught up in these absurd and senseless activities?’

As indicated, this is not an entirely serious study, dealing as it does with the more peculiar end of the spectrum of human affairs, but certain broad patterns of behaviour do seem to recur in these stories, and these are noted in passing. It is clear, for instance, that confused situations often arise as a result of an initial misperception of events, and that such errors of judgement are frequently compounded by over-confidence and an over-reliance on prior habits of thought. In short, it would seem that ill-based moral certainty is a key factor. Humans are purposeful creatures, and obviously a basic confidence in ones' beliefs and actions is a fairly essential requirement for our day-to-day existence. But this same sense of purpose, and habitual conviction of the validity of our thoughts and actions, can easily become the royal path to every kind of misguided and incongruous behaviour.

Although we have the advantage of historical hindsight, it often requires an effort of imagination to see past events and the options that were on offer as the entirely coherent state of affairs that they must have presented at the time. Attitudes and actions that once were regarded as fitting and normal can now appear peculiarly distorted. But the fact is that there has never been a reliable touchstone to distinguish erroneous suppositions - and it is really no easier now than at any time in the past to differentiate between reasonable propositions and those that are merely rationalising fantasies.

It is certainly has been the case that, in their own time and place, some of the strangest ideas have been held to be perfectly valid. From a psychological point of view, this is precisely because humans are so adept in constructing a framework of justification for their beliefs and actions. The creative power of the human imagination has been responsible for all the marvels of civilisation, but this remarkable instrument is also perfectly capable of distorting perception and blinding us to any possible alternatives to current beliefs and modes of action. Man is not so much the 'rational animal' of Aristotle’s definition, as the rationalising animal. The main consequence of this is that consensual explanations of events, or beliefs, or behaviour, are usually far more important to us than objective truths about these things. What we are always looking for, in any social setting, is a convincing account of what is going on. In fact, this is a psychological necessity; anomalies are uncomfortable. As Aldous Huxley has pointed out, it would be absolutely intolerable to live in a world that made no sense.

So this feeling of the fitness of ones actions, of purposefulness, is central to everyone's sense of being and of consciousness itself. But our astonishing capacity to recreate the world in our own heads is also, paradoxically, the principle source of human error. However misguided or irrational a particular example of behaviour might appear from the 'outside', that amazingly ingenious and creative tool, the human imagination, will do its best to bestow an 'internal' conviction of purpose. To sustain meaning seems to be the primary function of the human psyche, and the loss of this capacity is the cause of most depressive psychosis. This is serious enough in the individual, but in larger social groups it is utterly catastrophic - one only has to recall the dreadful legacy of the impact of European colonialism on various native populations. To lose conviction in one's basic beliefs, to lose a general sense of purpose, is to lose the capacity to recreate the world. If we are deprived of our dreams, we go mad.