Philipp Sterzer’s book The Illusion of Reason

Philipp Sterzer’s book The Illusion of Reason

WWhy are many people convinced of things that are proven to be wrong? Why do reasonable contemporaries ignore facts and valid arguments in discussions? Anyone who wants to discuss this is treading on impassable terrain, because sociologists and philosophers, psychologists and cultural theorists have explanations up their sleeves. Philipp Sterzer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist by training, does not make it easy for himself with an answer in his book about the “Illusion of Reason”. Strictly speaking, there is apparently no one answer either, which is why he offers a series of theses, interpretations and findings.

Just imagine two women who are convinced that climate change is man-made. One has obtained comprehensive information, worked through scientific analyzes on the subject, watched television documentaries and attended lectures by specialists. After the research, she is certain: We are probably contributing significantly to global warming. The other doesn’t think much of statistics, but thinks they know that in a world driven by the desire to maximize profits, the climate must inevitably suffer. She finds the way of life in the West cynical and inhuman, and her gut feeling is clear: Whoever pushes globalization too far will pay the price in the form of increased temperatures.

The example illustrates that even people who together hold a largely scientifically proven opinion, who would therefore not argue about the truth of their belief, can show considerable differences in the degree of their own rationality. Contrary to the two women, who should get along, there would certainly be arguments between, say, an astrophysicist and a conspiracy theorist who is certain that the American flag planted in the lunar soil by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 was flapping – although it should be windless there. Apparently a clear case: the astronauts did not fly into space, but were in a Hollywood studio. Such assumptions should not be dismissed as a niche phenomenon, since polls show that around half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

Conclusions about where we stand and who we are

While such permanent doubters insist on not only not being irrational, but also on being particularly rational, many rational people often behave irrationally in everyday life: Think of the talisman without which you don’t get on the plane, or the footballer who stands in front of the Penalty crossed. Religious faith, for example, draws a not inconsiderable part of its power from that non-falsifiability that makes it appear as if it were above all doubt.

Philipp Sterzer:

Philipp Sterzer: “The Illusion of Reason”. Why we shouldn’t be too confident in our beliefs.

Image: Ullstein Verlag

But why are beliefs or actions that have to be located outside a comprehensible framework of reason so widespread and not an exclusive symptom of delusion? According to Sterzer, the boundary between objectivity and unreason is fluid. There is not even a clear difference between “‘normal’ and pathologically altered processes in the brain”. Rather, one must regard it as a fundamental characteristic of people to build their own worlds in order to then hold on to once-established views.

Worldviews, in turn, arise either because we form an idea based on “the available evidence” or because we adopt views from parents, teachers, friends, or gurus. One adheres to some beliefs because they guarantee belonging to a group, which is why Sterzer calls them “location markers”. They allow “conclusions to be drawn about where we stand and who we are”. For example, if an American believes that climate change is man-made and that the theory of evolution is true, he is likely to regularly vote for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominees.


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