Ridiculous Reasons

There’s a scene in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield persuades a suspicious elevator boy to take him to the floor his parents live on. The boy tells him “You better wait in the lobby, fella,” but Holden replies “I’d like to – I really would. But I have a bad leg. I have to hold it in a certain position. I think I’d better sit down in the chair outside the door.”

This does the trick – Holden gets what he wants, and comments, “All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.”

Scott Adams talks about the same idea in his post on the power of ridiculous reasons — “Guys tend to argue over who picks up the check after dinner. In cases where I know this situation is likely to arise, I prepare a ridiculous ‘because’ reason that I trot out when the moment is right. After allowing the other guy or guys to make their ceremonial attempt at paying, I say something like ‘I’ll pay today because this is the seven month anniversary of when you bought your car. Congratulations.’ I’m exaggerating slightly, but it isn’t hard to come up with some trivial reason why you should pay. The funny thing is that any reason you offer will settle the discussion. It works every time.”

The word “ceremonial” may be a tipoff that what Caulfield and Adams are offering, in these examples, are not so much explanations as rituals. Jonah Lehrer blogs here about a Kay, Moscovitch and Laurin study suggesting that “belief in supernatural sources of control, such as God and karma, may function, in part, to defend against distress associated with randomness…”

Explanations that make logical sense aren’t always what we want — sometimes we want explanations that make emotional sense. John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead avoids arguing with atheists because “nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” Logically speaking, this argument is not even an argument, but a pure cop-out – but it has emotional power. Robinson writes in her essay “Darwinism,” collected in The Death of Adam, that “religious people – by definition, I would say – do not look for proof of the existence of God or understand God in a way that makes his existence liable to proof or disproof.”

G.K. Chesterton — “The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”

In our culture we segregate the areas of our lives where we want emotionally satisfying explanations from the areas of our lives where we want logically verifiable explanations. But if you rely wholly on the former kind of explanation, you’re probably in a cult…

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