My Name Doesn’t Have An "S" In It

Every year, I read George Orwell’s 1984. Not because it’s a good book (although it is), but for the fact that I am paranoid as hell about everything and everyone. Which brings me to “Room 101”. In the book, there’s this thing called Room 101. Inside Room 101 is your worst fear, what really scares you. For our protagonist, Winston Smith, it was a rat-filled cage to the head (which was, if I remember correctly, what they did to some guy in that Missing In Action movie). Anyway, while contemplating how Winston Smith totally sold-out Julia, I started thinking about what would be in my Room 101. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. I thought, almost immediately, about something that I saw when I was a kid. It was a TV commercial. Back around 1982, the gore/slasher flick was king. Since drive-ins were still around, there was plenty od screen space for movies with nubile, oversexed teens, played by people who were so obviously over the age of 37, to be sliced and diced for the transgression of wantin’ to get it on in the woods. The commercial that traumatized me was the advertisement for the movie The Beast Within. I’m not going to go into details about the ad, except to say that it scared the beejezus out of me. To be totally honest, all these years later, I still haven’t seen the movie — even though you can easily score it in the 5 buck bin at just about any DVD store. I’m not sure if it’s philosophically correct to say so, but that commercial really scared the shit out of me. So, if I were 8 years old (hell, even now) my Room 101 would be that same commercial played on a loop. That commercial, on a loop, on a hi-def TV. The funny thing is, is that I had developed, over the ensuing years, not just an irrational fear of TV commercials for horror flicks, but a fear of TV commercials in general. I knew then and now, that my fear was irrational. It was, not just because my fear was generated at a time when I wasn’t fully capable of reasonable thought, but primarily beacuse having a fear of a TV commercial served no purpose. The other day, it was sunny out, so I decided to be a good, energy-conserving Californian, and hang my laundry out to dry. I was hanging up my Morrissey tee when a bee buzzed me. Naturally I freaked out. I have what any reasonable person might call an insane fear of bees. More to the point, I have an insane fear of being stung by Africanized Killer Bees (blame Mutual of Omaha for that one). I decided that the best course of action would not be to simply let the bee fly off, but to start shouting and waving my hands about in a frenzied semifore that, I suppose signaled to the bee the words (translated into bee language) “go away”. I hoped that the bee would be so stunned by the sight of a five foot tall human shouting and waving her hands in the air for no discernable reason, that it would freak out and leave. Which it did — but before I had even commenced to my anti-bee dance. Once I had stopped my impersonation of Chicken Little, and was safely locked behind a sliding glass door, I, regaining my sense of composure and reason, asked myself, ‘why the hell was I so afraid of that bee?’. My fear of a creature that is less than an inch long is like my fear of that movie commercial — completely and totally irrational. I have no good reason to be afraid of that or any single bee. It was epistemology all over again. And amazingly enough, a question that had been on my mind in that class came to mind again: is it possible to rationally hold irrational beliefs? Meaning, can we justify holding a belief that is a tad on the unreasonable side? In particular, can we reasonably hold an irrational belief if that belief, however irrational, enables us to make rational choices? Usually the answer is not only is it not possible to generate rational beliefs from irrational beliefs, but a straight-up no. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that the no’s have it. For the record, in addition to bees, I’m also afraid of clowns, inflated balloons, crickets (or any hopping insect generally), and touching other people’s electronic equipment (computers, laptops, digital cameras, anything that has batteries or plugs in). Really. I have a phobia about touching other people’s electronic stuff. I have absolutely no idea where that one came from. Now, my other fears may serve no purpose (being afraid of clowns or balloons), but being afraid of bees may serve a purpose. A person may have a good reason to fear bees, as in the case of a person with a bee allergy. Their life may depend on their fear. So, if I had a bee allergy, my thoughts (or beliefs if we’re being technical) may include: I am allergic to bees. Bees sting. Bee stings cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to them. I should not get stung by bees, and so on. Those are completely legitimate reasons for fearing bees. One who is allergic and believes these things is thought of as reasonable. Ok,so say I am not allergic to bees, which I am not. But my beliefs go something like this: Bees have stingers. Stingers will pierce your skin. That hurts. I am a total wuss when it comes to pain. I don’t want pain, etc. My life may not depend on it, but my wussoutedness when it comes to pain I believe gives me reason to fear bees just the same. Even if someone says that getting stung by a bee in nothing compared with the pain of something like childbirth. Apples and oranges, people. Nonetheless, avoidance of pain is not irrational. But someone might say my clothesline dancing was. But that brings in something that we haven’t until this point considered: the difference between irrational beliefs and irrational acts. The belief, according to the philosopher, to be justifiably true must not be based on emotion. That is, our beliefs ( those that are justifiable, anyway) are the product of a reasonable thought process. Emotions, as Mr. Spock will tell you, are not reasonable. But, I will say that what I do is, to some degree, emotionally driven. For example, I conclude, after some thought, that I will take a philosophy of language class. I have a whole host of reasons for doing so. Let’s say that some go along the lines of: taking this class is beneficial for a person studying philosophy, blah, blah, blah. I haven’t dragged in the fact that I find the whole pursuit useless, and on top of that, the professor is a little longwinded and boring. Pushing emotions aside, I take the class. Now, I take the class, which was the result of reasoned argumentation. The enthusiasm with which I participate in the class, however, is determined by other factors — many of which are emotional. I have plenty of “rational”reasons for taking the class, but I do it half-assed because I just can’t stand the class itself. What I am experiencing is a conflict between my reason and my emotion. This leads me to a question — which is actually irrational, the emotion or the belief that is inextricably tied to that emotion? How do our emotions interplay with our beliefs? Is an irrational belief such as a phobia only understandable as a psychological phenomena or can they be accounted for philosophically? It seems that, no matter how hard I try, my beliefs about clowns, bees, or movie trailers are bound to emotions. These emotions influence my beliefs and my actions that re based on those beliefs. I ask here, which takes precedence — my emotion, my belief, or my action that is influenced by one or most likely both — what I am asking, is which one is the irrational one? Try as I might to prevent such a thing from happening, my emotions (however irrational they may be) inform my beliefs and influence the decisions that I make, even the decisions that I claim are rendered in a rational manner. Our biggest problem is that we have difficulty defining words like “irrationality” and “rationality”. We are, in our everyday discourse, not always entirely sure if we are using our words in the same way that others are using them. We may imbue our words (and meanings) with poetic or religious sensibility. We are often ambiguious or vague with our language or we may be misusing our words (as in the case when we use words that we believe are synonymous, but are not). Our words often have colloquial or social contexts when we use them. When I say that I am “rational”, I am suggesting some sort of justification for why I believe as I do. This may not be the case for others, and is not alway the case for myself. As of this moment, I say that my thoughts are reasonable. But there is a problem here. All of my assertions are primed on one BIG assumption: I am rational. This presupposes that my beliefs are rational, as would be required to undertake any account of my rationality. So, what I am saying is that I am rationally holding rational beliefs, based on the idea that I had to be rational in order to hold my beliefs in the first place. That is, i have to be ina reasonable frame of mind to conjure reasonable beliefs. This is all, unfortunately, some rotten sort of question-begging. Sorry, but it seems that it is, alas, unavoidable. So let’s just forget all about it, shall we? So, to say that I have an irrational belief implies that there is some sort of irrationality in my ability to process my beliefs ( you may call this emotion, if you like). But, if I am being strict about the role emotion should play in my belief processes, then I would say that that irrationality is more likely to give me false beliefs, and that there is, therfore, no chance that I would ever get a rational belief from an irrational one. This leads me, once again, to asking, am I right on my terminology? Is the problem that I’m not thinking straight semantically? It is important to figure out what we are saying or what we mean (or “mean”) when we say that we believe anything. The justification of our beliefs depends on the clarity of our language ( that is, to paraphrase Orwell, if we don’t have our words straight, we can’t have our thoughts straight, since how we think is necessarily in words). Being clear is vitally important. So, maybe my problem isn’t so much epistemic as it is semantic. The problem is that I am dealing with an extraordinarily muddled language that forces me to think in ways that aren’t correct (worse than that, ways that can’t get correct). I’m not so smug to deny that I’m saying anything new here, but in philosophy, we deal with a very (often annoyingly) specific, technical nomenclature. Unfortunately, we live in a world where those same very specific, technical words are jointly used by ordinary people, who use words like “belief” and “thought” and “idea” interchangably. In the ordinary world, we use philosophical words like “argument”, “valid”, or “intuition” in ways that are nowhere near as precise as the philosopher demands. And as my words are imprecise, moreso are my emotions — which tend to be tossed aside by the philosopher completely. I can think (or at least attempt to think) my thoughts as clearly and succinctly in my head, but as soon as I attempt to articulate them, I lose something… clarity, meaning. And, something is added — what I FEEL. It is strange that, given that we philosophers hate emotions so, that it is our emotions that have the clarity and purity that often our rational thoughts and or words do not. My emotions are immediate and so strong, that oftentimes, they do not need words. I ran from the bee because I had to. That, perhaps, is its own justification. But, I must remind myself that the clarity of an emotion is not always so clear, and as the philosopher reminds me, my emotions can lead me to many false beliefs, including the belief that clowns are malevolent beings sent up from the deep trenches of hell to frighten the ever-loving poop out of people. So, as I look at my irrational beliefs, I ask, what have I? Where do I go from here? If I fear that my language fails me, then I must turn to my sentiments. But, my sentiments are often irrational and wrong. Which gets me right bact to where I started. Hmmm.

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