Do people believe things that they know or believe are irrational? Do some theists think "I know belief in God is irrational, but I believe in Him anyway". etc.. I've not read Kierkegaard, not even in any primers etc.. Does he say that belief in God is always irrational, anything like that? Clearly, some beliefs are irrational.

Jn my experience, there is a liminal state in which we believe something is irrational but can convince ourselves to believe it. I've never allowed myself - knowingly - to pass that threshold, so can say little about it.

I have briefly postponed belief at times I thought it may be (likely to be?) irrational to do so. This may be the the liminal state I mentioned above, but one which keeps you in the same place, rather than shifts one into religiosity etc.; or it may be its opposite!

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    The issue regarding "belief in God" is maybe not the best example: in most cases it is grounded in faith. Sep 14 at 9:38
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    no typo @MauroALLEGRANZA i don't mean have irrational beliefs, i mean have beliefs that you believe yourself are irrational
    – user67675
    Sep 14 at 9:39
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    Well-known example: Pascal's wager: a rational argument aimed at supporting the "irrational" belief in the existence of God. Sep 14 at 9:41
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    no, i don't mean specifically "you" @MauroALLEGRANZA but thanks for the comments
    – user67675
    Sep 14 at 9:48
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    At times like these, I realize ... there's a lot still left to be done. Sic vita est. Sep 14 at 9:53

5 Answers 5


The SEP article on Donald Davidson gives an overview of his outlook on this question:

Davidson’s commitment to the rationality of the mental as one of the cornerstones of anomalous monism (as well as to the account of ‘radical interpretation’ [see ‘Meaning and Truth’ below]) led him to take a special interest in the problem of apparently irrational belief and action – something first addressed in ‘How is Weakness of the Will Possible?’(1970a). While Davidson treats irrationality as a real feature of our mental lives, he offers a way of dealing with it that aims at preserving, in some sense, the overall rationality of the mind (see especially ‘Two Paradoxes of Irrationality’ [1982b]). A belief or desire in the mind of one person can cause a belief or desire in the mind of another without this compromising the rationality of the mental. (Davidson’s example is my growing of a beautiful flower because I desire you to enter my garden – you develop a craving to see the flower as a result of my desire and my desire has thereby caused, without being a reason for, your craving). Davidson suggests that we should view the same sort of relation as sometimes holding within a single mind. To this end we should view the mind as weakly ‘partitioned’ so that different attitudes may be located within different ‘territories’ and need not, therefore, be taken to come into direct conflict.

I mention Davidson because he advanced a seemingly helpful distinction between all-things-considered and all-out judgments:

The phrase “all things considered” is not, as it might seem, merely a minor difference in wording that allows weakness of will to get off on a technicality. Rather, that phrase marks an important contrast in logical form to which we would need to attend in any case in order properly to understand the structure of practical reasoning. For that phrase indicates a judgment that is conditional or relational rather than all-out or unconditional in form; and that difference is crucial.

Now, so far as the OP question goes, we would be assimilating holding-an-irrational-belief to an act of mental will that can exhibit such weakness. I.e. if it is possible to stop at an all-things-considered belief even when a more categorical thought is in sight, then we can at least willfully hold suboptimally rational beliefs.

Another good SEP article to look over in this connection is one added just the other day, on structural irrationality. The idea is, roughly, that we can be irrational either procedurally (how we evaluate evidence/information) or per the content of reasonability (we might be e.g. consistent with our applications of eldritch astrology but appealing to such an antiquated doctrine is prime facie deficiently reasonable). So we can refine the OP question as, "Is it possible to be both structurally and substantively irrational with respect to some belief?"

What we will end up having to look into more, then, is the distinction between "merely non-rational" and "actively counter-rational" beliefs. Moreover, we will have to address our beliefs-about-those-beliefs: if we "know" that some belief is underdetermined by the required evidence, or if we don't "know" that some belief goes against that evidence, then is it possible for us to hold to such beliefs? Or does recognition of suboptimality or outright contrariety, here, indeed block us from continuing to hold such beliefs? This is, ultimately, Immanuel Kant's optimism about the problem: he says that a radically corrupted will, a will going directly and strictly against reason, is not possible for us. So though he laments that we will never be quite free of transcendental illusions, and hence there will always be a temptation for us to end up with irrational beliefs (even contradictory, or antinomian, judgments as such), yet so long as our apprehension of the illusion is clear, we will perforce fend off falling prey to full acceptance of these illusions.

  • good description of theism there by donaldson (imvho)
    – user67675
    Sep 14 at 16:51
  • i could read not process the kant stuff. wanted to double check that an "all things considered" belief is the belief that can be irrationally held (strange phrase for it, if so). "all things considered": i cannot think of any i (fwiw) have outside religion... just trying to apply your insights to my internal life, and if you say "yes" i can probably relate to the rest
    – user67675
    Sep 14 at 17:27
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    @prof_post the technicality would be that the three states having-just-an-ATC-belief, having-just-an-AO-belief, and having-both, would be the states whose rationality we evaluated: we might say that the first state is irrational when the ATC-belief conflicts with the AO-belief, and I don't think it's supposed to be that one can have an AO-belief without including the ATC-belief. The possible gap, which goes in only one direction, would be the irrational thing, more than the belief per se, we'd say (Rawls applies Davidson's difference to this effect, for example). Sep 14 at 17:31
  • ok i think i get it "conflict". thanks for your time!!
    – user67675
    Sep 14 at 17:44

Humans will believe almost anything, no matter how irrational, if they perceive that doing so will furnish them with some benefit.

One such benefit comes from being part of a group or clan in which the belief is shared with your peers.

Another benefit is the feeling that holding those beliefs makes you special and confers positive status to you that nonbelievers lack.

In this way, humans who claim membership in certain religions or political movements can thereby be manipulated into performing horrible acts against outsiders.

  • As an anecdotal case: when I held that moral realism was irrational I also thought I was asserting my superiority to the universe by remaining a moral realist (this was long before taking any philosophy classes).
    – Hokon
    Sep 14 at 17:11
  • This is sadly true for both sides of the theist-atheist argument: some people become theists mainly because it gives them the position of seeing the opposite side as immoral, and some people become atheists mainly because it gives them the position of seeing the opposite side as unintelligent.
    – vsz
    Sep 15 at 7:50

I believe I am irrational and I have irrational faith. I know life is suffering but I still crave for it. I know I am not body but I care for the body. I know I am not feelings but I care for the feelings, I know I am not perceptions but I care for my perceptions. I know I am not choices but I care for the choices I make. I know I am not consciousness but I care for the kind of consciousness I experience.

All of the above apply to most of us but still we are not alert about it.

It seems to me that the whole world is irrational and only a few are truly rational.

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    caring about things is a strange and tragic fate at times +1
    – user67675
    Nov 18 at 5:41

Some people do, generally if they think the world itself is irrational. Belief in an irrational idea wouldn't make any sense for someone who believes that the world is fundamentally rational and rule-based, but that isn't the totality of people in the world (I personally do not believe the world is rational).

Kierkegaard in particular didn't shy away from the "absurd" nature of faith. https://thoughtsonthinking.org/2020/09/04/kierkegaard-leap-of-faith-vs-camus-the-absurd-philosophy/ In his Fear and Trembling he echoes the a statement attributed (apparently wrongly) to the ancient Roman theologian Tertullian, "I believe because it's absurd." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credo_quia_absurdum


From a physiological standpoint: yes, they absolutely do (or, at least, parts of their brain do), and this property of the brain is easily demonstrable.

Consider the Müller-Lyer illusion. The crucial characteristics is that as soon as you've verified for yourself the line lengths are indeed identical, the illusion does not disappear.

This is because the system that falls prey to the illusion happens to be your fast thinking system, and the slow thinking system, even having concluded the illusion, to be, well, illusory, cannot alter the perceptions of the fast thinking system.

There is no reason to believe this effect is limited to visual input, and indeed, several more examples have been reported that go way beyond simple optical illusions.

Should you want to expand on the topic, I recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, where he expands on this problem specifically, as well as other cognitive biases that originate from the friction between the fast and slow system, or from failing to engage the slow system at all.

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