John-Evo has been selling rationality big-time over at Evolutionary Middleman. (I’m not going to link to any particular post except this latest one, because you really ought to be reading everything he has to say. Even if you don’t agree with all of it.)
Now, we atheists pride ourselves on being rational, but what do we mean by that? Is it possible that there can be two, or even more, different versions of rationality? Does a purely scientific rationality always trump the others? What about common sense and practicality? Where do they come in?
I’m not inclined to use this blog as a place to talk about my personal problems, but I do have an example from life that — although trivial in the grand scheme of things — I think illustrates very well the question I’m asking.
Last year, late at night on November 30, one of my cats started struggling to breathe. It looked like it was going to be a losing battle for her. My wife and I felt that if we didn’t get her immediate medical attention, she wouldn’t make it to the morning. We rushed her to our local animal emergency clinic, where she was put into an oxygen tent and given a battery of fancy tests. The doctor came back about an hour later with a dire diagnosis: our pet had lung cancer. The X-rays showed it clearly. The other tests confirmed it. The doctor’s considered advice, based on the scientific evidence and long experience: euthanize her immediately because it would be cruel to stand by and watch her suffer.
But my wife and I were not feeling very rational at the time. We insisted on bringing her home and taking her to our own vet.
Our vet is an old-fashioned, tobacco-chawin’ kind of guy. He’s definitely not someone who would strike you as being on the frontiers of science, although you might want to join him for a beer. His office is filled with all kinds of quasi-religious embroideries spouting “uplifting” nonsense about how your pets will be waiting in heaven for you when you die, how “dog” is “god” spelled backwards, that kind of drivel.
But he’s pretty practical. When I showed him my cat’s X-rays, he agreed that she was probably on death’s door. But he asked me one important question: what was her quality of life like? Then he followed with what passed for diagnostics: Before the episode the previous night, had she been eating and drinking normally? Could she still urinate and defecate without any problems? Was she able to curl up and sleep comfortably? Did she groom herself the way cats are supposed to? Most of all, did she seem to be “enjoying” being alive? Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I answered: yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
So this guy examined the cat, confirmed that her lungs sounded awful, and said that he wasn’t confident that he could do anything for her. Oh, maybe he’d try giving her some steroids to make her feel a little more comfortable for a short while. They might work; they might not. “Well,” I asked, “should we just do the humane thing and put her out of her misery? Does that make the most sense?”
He shook his head. “It depends what you mean by ‘sense.’ I wouldn’t put her to sleep right now if she were my cat. Why not try a steroid? It’s cheap and it can’t hurt.” Frankly, he told me, he didn’t really know whether there was any point; he knew of no scientific tests that dealt specifically with that kind of treatment for my cat’s condition. But, hey, who knew? There was a chance it would work. “We’re not talking about faith-healing here, right?” I had to ask. He howled. No, he assured me, prayer was not going to be a factor on his end. Of course, I was free to pray, he pointed out with a big grin, which made me explode in much-needed laughter.
It has now been almost a year. I’ve brought that poor cat in for steroid shots every week-and-a-half or so. Whenever she starts having trouble breathing, I call the vet and ask him if he can see her right away for another “treatment.” No matter how crowded his office is — and it’s often overflowing with patients — he never turns me down. That’s not too rational of him, but I don’t argue. “Hey,” he’ll say, “we still don’t really know what we’re doing here. This isn’t good science. We’re just giving her a shot and holding our breaths.”
It’s certainly much less rational than just reading the X-rays and drawing the most reasonable conclusion would have been. But, although her death may be just around the corner, my cat is still eating, drinking, peeing, shitting, complaining loudly about the lousy cleaning service that takes care of her litter, licking herself into feline fashion, sleeping whenever and wherever she damn well pleases, blackmailing us into giving her treats, scratching the furniture just for the fuck of it, looking for affection at inconvenient times, and, in general hanging on to the only life she’ll ever have. Not rational at all.