DL Fowler's Blog

I Believe In …

By the way, the opposite of belief isn’t logic, it’s disbelief.   Reasoning is what we do to fortify our beliefs. 

A friend of mine (we’ll call  him John because that’s his real name, and since I know so many people named John no one will know who I’m talking about) – anyway, he told me “Human beings are not rational, we’re rationalizers.”

While I was doing research for my novel, Lincoln’s Diary, I discovered that Abe Lincoln was great at rationalizing. My favorite example was his reply to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who complained the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional. Lincoln replied that it  certainly was constitutional since, as commander-in-chief, he had the constitutional authority to appropriate enemy property to advance the war effort. But if slaves weren’t property, the Proclamation didn’t do anything, so it didn’t violate the Constitution. 

Another friend of mine, Jack (now you’re wondering if that is just a nickname for another guy named John), insists that he always makes rational decisions … like the umpteenth time he called and said, “This is how we should do it.” I asked, “And have you thought about …?” He replied, “No, but it doesn’t matter. This is how I want to do it.” I countered, “In spite of some of the consequences you haven’t considered?” He answered, “They won’t be a problem.”  Now tell me, how the hell did Jack know whether the things he hadn’t thought about would be a problem? Answer – he didn’t. He just believed they wouldn’t be because it might destroy his reasoning if he checked them out.

As writers we often try to get our readers to suspend their disbelief – like Jack always tries to get me to do.  But our task is even harder than Jack’s.  For instance, if Jack was a character in one of my novels no one would believe my story because – Jack’s too much like real people and we have trouble believing (there’s that word again) those kind of people really exist. Besides, they’re too convenient.  Fiction writers should have to work harder than that.

Wait a minute. Where was I going with this train of thought?

Oh, yeah – the way the human mind works is that we first decide what we want to believe, then we filter out information that could discredit our beliefs.  By definition, information that challenges our beliefs is in error. It’s unreal.

Let’s give this a try. Okay, I like Gary. Gary doesn’t like cats. It must be all right to dislike cats, since Gary wouldn’t do anything terrible.

Or, Ted lied to me. He must lie all the time. I bet he wouldn’t recognize the truth if it walked up to him wearing a name tag. It’s obvious that Ted’s evil. Nothing good can come out of him.

So what does it do to my world if Ted does something good, or if he is a great dad? What am I supposed to do if I discover Gary doesn’t just dislike cats, he’s cruel to them? More bizarre, what would I do if I got volunteered to take care of my daughter’s cat and wound up actually liking it? Gary wouldn’t be such a cool guy anymore. What would I do about that?

And guess what. You weren’t at all interested in Ted or Gary until now, but now you’re also curious about me and what I’d do if I had to confront either of those possibilities. And that, my friends, is where a good story is supposed to begin.

One Response

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  1. Paula Tohline Calhoun said, on March 1, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    An entertaining approach to syllogisms! I’m just about to download “Lincoln’s Diary” (your version, anyway! 😀 ). Your writing style is very engaging, and while mine is not nearly so, the style is similar to mine! I’m trying to improve! Drop by my blog whenever you get the chance. I love feedback!



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