Reason can convince you of stuff that’s stupid and wrong

August 8, 2011 | 44 comments

Oh man, was I in a terrible mood a couple days ago. It was bad. I’d had two nights in a row of getting very little sleep because the baby had been fussy, then had one of those days where even my smallest ambitions were thwarted: I wanted to freeze some leftovers, and out of the ten thousand containers and three thousand lids in my Tupperware drawer, I could not find a single matching set. I wanted to banish the stircrazy kids outside for a while, but it was 107 degrees. I wanted to get the mail, but it was 107 degrees. Did I mention that it was 107 degrees? Anyway, whatever. The point is that it was one of those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong.

So you know what that meant, right? I’m exhausted. I’m having the worst day ever. The weather is miserable. I’m miserable. Thus, it is obviously time to evaluate my entire life, as well as the state of the world, and make judgment calls about how it’s all going!

I went through the usual process: It started with creating a detailed list of everything that’s wrong in my life, followed by some ruminations about every time anyone has said or done something that annoyed me over the past six months. From there I went on to reliving all my recent failures, reprioritized my list of pet peeves, and closed the brainstorming session with a Top 10 list of people whose lives are better than mine.

My husband came home about the time I was wrapping up, which was perfect timing since obviously I had to share all of this with someone else. I was not content to wallow in my own misery. Nay, I had to make sure that I had agreement and confirmation from someone else about how horrible everything was. So as soon as we got the kids to bed, I sat down with my husband to give him my Why Everything Sucks presentation, stopping just short of including PowerPoint slides.

But here was the problem: I knew that he was going to think that I came up with all these negative takes because I was tired and in a bad mood. Obviously the fact that I had had five hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and had faced one frustration after another had nothing to do with my apocalyptic conclusions, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me convincing him of that fact.

And so when we sat down to talk, I brought my intellectual A-game. I did not appeal to emotion once. I did not make a single statement that was not backed up by concrete evidence. When my husband offered counterpoints to make the case that life was actually pretty great, I always had a solid, fact-based comeback. I calmly crafted a careful step-by-step analysis of the terribleness of my life, including perfectly logical extrapolations about how said terribleness would only increase in the future. It was reasonable. It was evidence-based. It was linear. And it was completely wrong.

After we chatted for a while, my husband kindly offered to take on extra nighttime duties with the baby (despite having a busy work schedule the next day) so that I could get some extra sleep. I took him up on his offer, while assuring him that that wouldn’t matter AT ALL in terms of my outlook. Nope. I would stand by every single thing I’d said this evening. Catching up on sleep would make no difference — after all, all of my conclusions were based on reason.

I woke up the next day refreshed and energized. I got great sleep, went out for a quick jog before my husband left for work, and came back feeling in tip-top shape both physically and mentally. And, whaddaya know, I didn’t feel like my life was so terrible anymore. The problems that I had detailed the night before were still there, and they were legitimate problems, but their scale and scope seemed entirely different now. Though I still saw all the same details here in the light of day, looking at the from a new perspective changed my entire perception of the overall situation. In fact, I was perplexed at how I could have been so gloomy the night before.

When I looked back on those ridiculous ideas, what was most interesting to me about it was that I’d used reason to get there. It reminded me of the back-and-forth we had with PZ Myers and his atheist readers a couple weeks ago: one of the subtexts of that debate was, Is reason the only thing you need to deduce the truth? Myers & co. seemed to think that the answer is yes. But I think that what happened when I was tired and having a bad day is a good example of why the answer is no.

Granted, my conclusions about my life were far stupider than theirs are about religion (I actually don’t think atheism is stupid at all), but the same principle is at work: reason won’t get you all the way to the truth. Knowing the truth takes more than just intellect; it requires the right disposition of the heart as well. If your soul isn’t in a state of openness, it’s easy to unintentionally disregard some data, to fixate on the wrong angles, to be right on the details but wrong on the big picture. If you’re not seeking the truth with peaceful humility, you’re not seeking the truth at all, no matter how rational your thought process is.

I think this is an important lesson here in the age when reason is held up as the pathway to all wisdom. It’s certainly a necessary component of any good decision making process, but it’s not the only component. It needs to be accompanied by the right spiritual and emotional states. Because, as I found when I was lamenting my tragic first world life, sometimes you can be perfectly reasonable and still be wrong.


  1. Laura M

    Sleep depravation can cause havoc

  2. Leila


  3. Kristen @ St Monica's Bridge

    How bad is it that I have those days and I don’t have a little baby anymore? Thanks for this, I needed it today, badly.

  4. Barbara

    I think it is interesting that we think other people’s reasoning can be clouded, while ours is crystal clear. Just depends which side we are on. That goes for the atheists, too.

  5. Mel

    It is nice to know that I’m not the only one that creates these types of lists. Maybe I can use this to tell my husband that I’m normal.

  6. Dianne

    Amazingly insightful post; I think you’re spot on.

  7. suburbancorrespondent

    The restorative powers of a good night’s sleep are nothing short of amazing. And don’t forget: “The heart has its own reasons, that reason does not know.” I forget who said it…Rousseau?

  8. Katie

    Wow – your description of this made me laugh, because I tend to do the same thing on a bad day, but I rarely make my argument as reasonable, and my husband is able to see right through it. One thing I’ve noticed, when I have been “reasonable” and accosted my husband with my list, is that occasionally, I succeed in convincing him, and then I pretty much only succeed with transferring my lousy mood, anxiety, etc. onto him. I had a pretty clarifying moment with this the other day, and I realized how selfish my rants are. It’s all about me. I think in the future I’m going to try to keep my mouth shut more – good redemptive suffering, right? Thanks for sharing!

    • Kayla

      I’ve noticed the same thing. I hate making my husband feel bad, and yet when I’m in that type of mood I think “how can he be so happy when X,Y, and Z are so wrong!”

  9. Éamonn

    “The heart has its reasons that the reason knows nothing of” is Pascal rather than Rousseau – the Pensées I think, but I’m not sure which number.

    Regarding the business of reason leading you astray, I think the problem is not rational argument but an excessively narrow version of what constitutes rationality. Orthos logos it ain’t

  10. Christy

    I’m reading the chapter in Chesteron’s Orthodoxy on maniacs and madness right now, and his point is pretty much exactly the same! Sure, everything the lunatic conspiracy theorist says makes rational sense: ie, it covers all the bases and explains the incidents we can all perceive. But what a limited explanation, and what a limited world he is forced to inhabit if his conclusions are actually true.

    Wishing you more and better sleep in the (very, very near) future.

  11. Larry

    Wow, great great article. Both my wife and I have been there, luckily not at the same time. The mind, heart, and emotions can sure get tangled up. How about this related question. When I am in a bad mood with a pessimistic outlook I often try to reason my way out of it. However, even if my logic is convincing, it rarely lifts the mood. Still looking for an answer to that one.

  12. Adrienne

    Wouldn’t a person be unreasonable (without reason) if they are blinded to certain truths or as you stated “unintentionally disregard some data”? I agree with everything you said about the need for an openness of soul, etc. in order to discern truth, but the truth never contradicts reason. It can go beyond reason, but never contradicts it.

    • Susan McAlinden

      That was a SUPER post, Jennifer! Perhaps those that don’t believe will the logic of it. Keep up the great work!

  13. Marian

    Great description. (Thanks for your honesty. I think we’ve all been there in the mood-driven apocalyptic zone.) Great analogy.

  14. Michael

    When talking to people who emphasize rational thought, I usually note that “rational” only implies “consistent”…You can be consistently wrong!

    On the flip side, recent research concluded that when the emotional center of the brain was damaged, people made poorer decisions. We need our emotions to make good decisions.

  15. Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    I recently went to confession with our pastor, a wise and gentle man. He spoke of the importance of rest especially for mothers with little ones.

  16. Gail

    Okay, I’m just wrapping up a bad day. I could stay on the computer for another hour or two, or I could go to bed. I think I better go to bed.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  17. Lisa Mladinich

    Right on, Jennifer!

    There is so much more to our human nature than just reason. And yes, we need sleep to reason well. I, too, needed this reminder. Man, was I under a black cloud, today, and even my reason won’t argue with the blessedness of my easy, American life. Heading off to pray and sleep. Thanks so much for this.

  18. Emily W

    Hmm…definitely been there recently.

    I’ve got to say, though, your description of your thought-process is not reason, it’s logic. Equating the two is what gets you in trouble with truth. Logic is only a part of reason, and once you reduce reason to one of its constituents, you cease to be reasonable (like doing a chemical analysis of your husband to make sure he loves you. Chemical analysis is scientific and reasonable, but to do such a thing would be to drastically reduce reason to only one of its factors while throwing out the rest. Seriously unreasonable). Also, emotions are not opposed to reason. I can think of plenty of times that NOT feeling or expressing emotion is would be unreasonable (such as in the face of tragedy or great joy).

  19. Chris Burgwald

    I concur with Emily’s comment at 9:38… it’s not that PZ et al. employ reason in some hyperactive fashion, but that they *reduce* reason to logic or — perhaps more likely in their case — the scientific method.

    We can’t cede to them the meaning of reason, for much hinges on properly grasping the true nature of human reason, not the reductive sense which passes for it in much of contemporary discourse.

  20. Ashley

    Great post. It was actually exactly what I needed to read at this exact moment. Thank you.

  21. Momma in Progress

    I think I have lived this exact day. Multiple times. Lucky for me, my husband is one of those people who is a complete rock . . . he helps me see reality again and all is well 🙂 One of us needs to be well-grounded and sane, and usually it’s not me.

  22. ryza

    This post could really help and guide all the readers. I really learned something and will try to apply this concept to my daily life.

    Thanks a lot!

  23. Cottage By The Sea

    Amen. This happens to me about once a week. You would think, being the reasonable person I am, that I would figure this out. Thanks for the reminder.

  24. Ann Voskamp @ Holy Experience


    Thank you, Jennifer — this was a gift.

    All’s grace,

  25. Kathy

    Vince Lombardi once said “Fatigue makes cowards of us all”. I think of this quote often when I have an infant, or when I see my friends with teeny babies. Hang in there . . .

  26. 'Becca

    The Episcopal Church has a saying that decisions should be supported by a “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. While that doesn’t seem to leave room for “what your heart tells you,” I consider that a part of Tradition because one of the main reasons people follow traditions is the emotional comfort and sense of rightness they provide.

    I think that basing a decision entirely on reason makes no more sense than basing it entirely on scripture or tradition.

    But I don’t think you WERE basing your argument entirely on reason, anyway. You were using reason only on the facts that seemed important to you at the time. Other facts, such as, “I have five healthy children and an enormously popular blog to be happy about, and there is not a scorpion running up my neck at this moment,” were excluded from your reasoning. If your husband, instead of humoring you, had insisted on bringing up a lot of positive facts, most likely you would’ve argued against them using what you thought was reason but which was heavily slanted by your emotions. It’s pretty hard to use reason to prove that anybody ought to be happy or unhappy, given that happiness is emotion and therefore not subject to reason.

    • Caravelle

      It is a common pitfall to separate our reasoning process from our emotions, assuming that the latter shouldn’t and therefore don’t influence the latter. Assuming a line of reasoning is valid without taking into account one’s emotional state (or other externals such as life experience and so on) IS bad reasoning. And bad reasoning does tend to convince one of stuff that’s stupid and wrong.

      That doesn’t go just for the negative feelings, really. I’ve had times when I was extremely stressed over stuff and felt everything in my life was going wrong – and then one thing went right and lifted the stress completely, and suddenly I was thinking everything was great and peachy… which led me to neglect dealing with some of the OTHER things that had been stressing me, even though THEY still remained unsolved.

      Of course realizing you’re probably irrationally attributing too much or too little importance to things doesn’t make one suddenly have the right perspective, but it does allow one to step back and think twice about it.

  27. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    I can identify all too well with the negative line of thinking that seems to spiral out of control when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. I’m also blessed with a husband who reminds me of the blessings we have and what’s going well. Prayer time helps me get things in perspective, as has trying to implement what I’ve read about H.A.L.T. When feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, it’s good to stop and address those feelings and take care of those needs, because when we’re one or more of those four, we tend to sin or at the very least make less-than-stellar decisions. I’ve still got a long ways to go in learning this rather than sinking into the negativity, self-loathing abyss, but it seems worth working on. God bless!

  28. Beth

    What a great post! Love the parallels and as usual I love your humor 🙂

  29. A.K.

    “I brought my intellectual A-game. I did not appeal to emotion once.”

    That’s just what you say. Unless we get the actual conversation, why should anyone believe this?

  30. Jason

    Caravelle is spot on. By not taking into account your emotional and physical states, you were not being reasonable.

    At first glance, I can see why this view would appeal to so many, but only if they stop at their first glance. Looking deeper reveals the lack of reason and logic used in the story.

    It also portrays atheism as a very negative thing. Misery loves company kind of view. Unless you are talking to a depressed teenager calling themselves an atheist, you aren’t likely to get that outlook on life from one. Negative views on religion, probably. But life? That’s doubtful. There is a truly poetic beauty in the humility of living life knowing that it will one day end. Truly end.

  31. Leola Whitaker

    Sure, everything the lunatic conspiracy theorist says makes rational sense: ie, it covers all the bases and explains the incidents we can all perceive. “The heart has its reasons that the reason knows nothing of” is Pascal rather than Rousseau – the Pensées I think, but I’m not sure which number.

  32. Edith Walters

    Unless you are talking to a depressed teenager calling themselves an atheist, you aren’t likely to get that outlook on life from one. Truly end.

  33. Obsydian

    Great Blog & article Jennifer. Regarding your comments on Truth. I would argue, as great preachers have before me, that TRUTH is NOT a something, but a SOMEONE !! – & that person is JESUS CHRIST ! – the source of all Truth. He said that he was the WAY, TRUTH & LIFE, & that HE is the LIGHT of the World. Truth is Not an abstract concept, but a grasp of Reality. The source of all Reality & Sanity, is a Divine & Holy Being, who incarnated himself into the Human creatures that He created ! The more we move away from the SOURCE, the more darker, more insane, less wise, knowlegable, rational, & also less honest & truthful we become ! That is what SIN is, following our own fallible will, & breaking away from HIS Divine & Holy Will ! – just a thought, – anyway…. keep up the good work. God Bless.

  34. Tibbs

    It seems to me that your reasoning was clouded by your attitude. You say your reasoning was perfect but excuse me if I need more than your word to buy that. Without reading transcripts of your arguments I can not make any solid conclusions.

  35. Teresa G

    This is a great read for us college-grads-turned-moms!!

  36. Frank

    I wanted to respond in regards to your penultimate paragraph.

    It seems like you’re arguing that openness and peaceful humility are unreasonable. If your soul, or at least your thought, is not in a state of openness, isn’t that an unreasonable state? If you unintentionally disregard some data due to such an openness issue, you are probably thinking in an unreasonable manner, right? Peaceful humility is the most reasonable way I can think of to seek truth, and if you’re not seeking truth that way, you’re seeking truth unreasonable. Semantics, perhaps.

    Great blog, by the way, though your views and and mine differ greatly.

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