Shaya Cohen -


Recognizing How Our Humanity Makes Us Nuts

We prioritize people by how much we love them, regardless of their rational value to us. Most children think their parents are pretty great, even if others might reasonably conclude otherwise. I think there is something very important in this, something that deserves to be broadly investigated and understood.

People are not rational. Perhaps people should not even aspire to be rational! After all, one’s spouse after decades of marriage may no longer be who they were on the wedding night – but for happily married people, those changes are seen as positive features, not through a Vulcan-rational lens that focuses on physical attributes. And why should any outsider tell a happily married man that he should upgrade to a newer and shinier model wife?

Our emotions distort our reality. And I think that can be a good thing. It is a part of every irrational decision we make. Love makes us blind to reality. But so does fear (see Covid) and rage and jealousy and hope… just about any feeling distorts our perspectives, and changes the world we perceive.

Indeed, I think it is kind of analogous to how energy and matter distort each other in the physical realm. We don’t easily see it with the naked eye, but we know that gravitational fields warp light. At very small scales and also at very large ones, Newtonian mechanics are worthless. E=mc^2 is an explanation of the inherently interconnected nature of energy and matter. At very high energy levels (including speeds), matter melts away. And conversely, the more solid matter becomes, the less energy there is.

Isn’t this the same with love? The more we love, the less the physical matters? And the less sensical love becomes?

There are plenty of negative associations with this as well. Whether or not tribalism is an evolutionary trait, it is clear that tribalism is not really rational in today’s world. Steelers fans hate the Ravens, and Ravens fans hate the Steelers. But the people holding these beliefs have no substantive differences between them besides their invented mental associations. The same is true for any decent rivalry, and even in the absence of a rivalry, the desire to root for the Home Team is deep-seated. People need to root for something, and that need has nothing to do with reason or logic.

The net result is that we have unbridgeable differences throughout society. There is no purely rational argument for or against Donald Trump. There are, on the other hand, no shortage of emotional arguments to be made, as well as rational arguments that, if you were to boil the faux-logic away, all comes down to viscerally-instinctive reactions to the man and the way he rubs you. And once you have a position on Trump, or Israel, or, frankly anything that we actually care about, then we simply refuse to see data that challenges our conclusions. Confirmation Bias is the name of the symptom, but the underlying root cause of Confirmation Bias are the emotions that dictate which set of arguments and data we are prepared to accept.

I have been wrestling with this as I try to understand the Torah’s perspectives on anthropomorphisms of G-d (“G-d’s outstretched arm”) and the use of physical words in the Torah that are clearly meant to be analogues or shadow-creatures of words that we cannot relate to because we cannot sense them as easily. Light, for example, is used in the Torah to symbolize all kinds of good things: discovery, knowledge, wisdom, and even holiness. But it is still really mostly a proxy for those things: photons alone do not impart spiritual wisdom. Nevertheless, we still know and understand what the symbol of a menorah stands for. “Light” comes with enormous baggage in the human psyche.

In Judaism, holy relationships trump the physical world. And the holier the relationship, the less the physical realm matters. This is why the dimensions inside the Holy of Holies don’t actually work – the items don’t fit. Unless, of course, the physical world is distorted by strong spiritual fields in a similar way to how matter is distorted by high energy fields. In which case, all bets are off. There are special places in the world, just as there are places in the human heart, that are simply immune to cold, hard logic.

In some sense, this could be some kind of Grand Unifying Theory – one that, instead of looking at energy and matter, is focused on the spiritual and physical worlds, the worlds separated by G-d during creation. Instead of looking outward at the world, this is a way of looking inside – inside each person, searching our souls for who we are based on our emotions.

The benefit of this kind of soul-searching should be self-evident. By recognizing that we are not rational, and many of our opinions are not driven by logic, then we can isolate and query those emotions that, through our subconsciousnesses, lead us to make the bigger decisions that affect our lives. Some of them are good. Some are not. But we can – and certainly should – make the effort to understand what is most important to us. And if, upon reflection, we decide that we would rather not be driven by some of these emotions (like hate or jealousy or old grudges), then we have the opportunity to try to change ourselves, to try to grow in more constructive directions.

There is even a non-zero chance that understanding these root-level drivers for human assessment and decision-making might help us better bridge the gaps between those who are simply unable to see things from the perspective of others. It might help us go from talking past each other (which seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, these days), to actually finding ways to reach those for whom there is little common ground.

One can dream.

Comments are welcome!

%d bloggers like this: