Sentimental Irrationality

Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels, who normally has little patience for the irrationality of religious belief, has been denying the irrationality of attaching sentimental value to objects (here,
here, and here).

I agree that it’s not exactly the same thing. Religious belief is actually claiming that certain facts about reality are true, while sentimental attachment (or repugnance) to objects is more of a feeling than a statement of fact.

However, they both can affect behavior. One could risk injury or death trying to salvage a sentimental object when a physically identical object is easy to acquire. Wouldn’t that be irrational? If so, couldn’t we justly consider the idea that causes someone to make such a choice irrational?

I think that ideas are very important. And, I understand that symbols are very useful and important, too.

But the symbol and the idea it represents are different things! Damage to the symbol is not damage to the idea. Thinking that it is actually does remind me of the same sort of magical thinking that one finds in religious belief. It’s the kind of thinking that causes people to support an anti-flag-burning amendment to the constitution [update: and censorship].

I know that it’s very common (and usually harmless) to value (or disvalue) certain objects because of their associations. It’s such a common and reliable phenomenon that it’s rational to invest in various collectibles, knowing that other people will value the items much more than physically identical facsimiles. Such things actually are more valuable because of what you can trade them for; not because of anything intrinsically superior about them.

Being common doesn’t make something rational. It makes it less likely to be criticized, but not necessarily less deserving of criticism.

You could say that it’s not a big deal, and we should ignore the apparent irrationality because people find it comforting and pleasant. But, I often hear the exact same thing about religious belief.

I’m not condemning anybody for their irrationalities (large or small). I’m just trying to honestly evaluate whether sentimental attachment belongs in that category.

UPDATE: My son reminded me of Penn Jillette’s observation that this sort of over-identification of a symbol with the thing it represents is Voodoo. That’s the sort of thinking I’m talking about. And, Damn! I wish I’d thought of that yesterday when I wrote this post.


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