Dissonance, Bi-sonance and Consonance

by V.V. Raman

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There are countless people who conduct their lives while simultaneously holding on to incompatible worldviews. Isaac Newton and Leonard Euler, Augustin Cauchy and Michael Faraday, Chandrasekhara Raman and Srinivasa Ramanujan, and many other clear thinking scientists and mathematicians have had deep religious convictions which, when brought under the microscope of logical rigor and empirical demands, might simply crumble down. It cannot be argued these people could not think or reason. Indeed, to this day there are good thinkers and creative scientists who are meticulous in their scientific methodology when they are arguing, observing and theorizing, but are no less committed to some of the doctrinal dimensions of their faith community which outsiders might regard as of dubious validity. In the particularity of form and terms, these are vestiges of early indoctrination, but in spirit and worldview, they carry significant trans-denominational weight.

In the 1950s, the psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the notion of cognitive dissonance: a state in which people sometimes hold contradictory or irreconcilable opinions, which could create internal tension and affect one's behavior. Festinger noted that "there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance." He went on to say that "Dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory."

It must be noted that in many instances when one describes a situation as being cognitively dissonant, it is so only for the external observer. To the individuals so categorized, their views often seem complementary rather than contradictory, sometimes one even reinforces the other. What must be recognized in this context is that in order to understand something, we use our mind: thinking, reasoning, logic, etc. However, this is only one aspect of conscious living. In many instances, we feel rather than analyze: whether it is a beautiful sunset, a lovely rose, a magnificent piece of music, or love for a dear one.

One result of the enormous successes of rationalistic science is that we have come to attach far greater significance to whether one thinks correctly than to how deeply one feels. Though interconnected, thinking and feeling often reign separately. Pascal was only stating an ancient truth when he wrote: Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas: The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

Most normal humans oscillate between the two modes of experience: thinking and feeling. While one is in the feeling mode, logic and analysis recede. It is only to the observer that behavior prompted by feeling alone is not in consonance with the rational dimension. We are bipedal, bi-manual, binaural, and binocular. We are also experientially bi-sonant creatures: responding to the voice of the head and also of the heart. This has been our boon and blemish: to be feeling creatures and also erring from impeccable syllogism. This is what enables us to imagine and to create, to be inspired and be religious also. Those who have optimized their thinking and feeling modes, who are deeply religious and sharply scientific (in the best meanings of the word), enjoy experiential consonance. From the analytic perspective, this may seem to be cognitive dissonance, just as for those constrained by feelings alone, the unweaving of the rainbow might appear to be seem heartless vivisection.

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is emeritus professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's written many books including Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections.