Monday, January 12, 2009

That special table

Some months ago, I was watching a play. It was one of those plays that consisted of lots of little skits, some of which make you laugh and others which make you cry. One of the skits was about a woman who was attached to her old table. Her husband wanted to replace it because it was old and falling apart. She was very unhappy about this because she had an emotional attachment to the table. Soon it was revealed that she was sitting at that table when she said her last goodbyes to her son before he died in the army.

Ah yes, the conflict between emotion and reason.

I've read that this is considered to be a kind of superstitious thinking. Even though there is nothing really special about that table, the woman treats it as if it were special because of the experiences she associates it with. Similarly, given an heirloom necklace, most people would value it more highly than any other identical necklace. Similarly, most people would feel uncomfortable about wearing a clean jacket if told that it used to belong to a serial killer.

Ignoring the possibility of germs, I think it's rather clear that this is an irrational emotion. There's nothing really special about that table. It's just an inanimate object, and there is no substantial difference between it and any other table. I can't think of any survival advantage that this emotion could possibly confer. If we wanted to find the evolutionary explanation for this emotion, we would at some point have to talk about how natural selection is not perfect.

But just because an emotion is irrational doesn't mean we should ignore it! After all, the reason we'd like a new table is so that we may sit and eat more comfortably. The reason we'd like to keep the old table is that it also gives us a different sort of comfort, no matter how irrational that comfort may be. If comfort is a worthy goal, it is not really irrational to go along with our emotions.

Therefore, upon some thought, the woman isn't really doing anything irrational in trying to keep the table. It's not something I would do myself, but not everyone needs to act exactly like me.

Now the truly irrational response would be to declare that the table really is special because its quantum state has been entangled with the dead son in such a way that it allows you contact him if you just focus your chi.