Sunday, 16 September 2012

Faith in Reason? Well, Reasonable Faith.

I've been accused, in some comments on a posting, of believing that "a simple trust in reason will trump instinct and the problem of short term thinking." Well, Guy, let me stop you there. The truth is not so simple.

Thought emerges from deeper levels that are largely unknown. There is the legacy of evolution that writes the definition of the human species in our genome; there are the biases and passions that wash our mind in sudden waves and slow tides of hormones; there are layers of belief deposited by our experiences, our culture, our society, our family. If you believe that quantum-level events are involved in thought, then add that to the complexity. But do not fall for the reductionism that says that thought is nothing but genetics, experiences, and quantum events. Instead, thought emerges from them, here and there - now and then - to this one and that one. (So I've heard). And reason emerges from thought with a similar frustrating lack of consistency.

In other words, thought is an emergent property of mind, and reason an emergent property of thought.

People are sometimes reasonable. They can even display forethought. In a war or other emergency, for example, the Swiss can depend on having well-stocked shelters, and even underground hospitals, sufficient for 114% of their population. Similarly, as I have pointed out, Canada maintains enough antiviral doses to administer to the entire population in case of a flu pandemic. Making adequate preparations for an emergency seems like good reasoning to me.

Of course, people sometimes fail to show such reasoning ability. For example, the corrupt culture of banking is likely to curb the bankers' freedom of action in numerous ways. The golden goose has been plucked, is naked and shivering in the public gaze, and may yet find itself partially cooked. Still, the lack of reason in one group of people does not negate its presence in another.

The specific case I made in the article you responded to was that politicians should make the military place a higher priority on their preparations for natural disasters. Merely a "higher priority": There are no opposites of "reason" and "unreason" to talk about here, but just a matter of how much gets allocated here, how much there.

We have problems in our culture, our economy, and our governance. It was ever so. In 1960, in Virginia, I would have gone to jail for having married a non-white, and faced other charges if they could prove that we made love. In the 50's and 60's the FBI operated like the STASI, keeping files on the great and the good among the public, and the CIA ran illegal experiments in mind control. In the 30's, the economic problems were worse than now and the United States faced a fascist coup. I know enough of the past to not believe that our problems are worse. I've seen the apartheid regime dismantled in South Africa by a truly great man, I've seen another preside over the dismantling of the Soviet Union, which had seemed eternal. I won't make the mistake of thinking that our present problems are invulnerable to change.


  1. Alas, Gareth, I have not been stopped. ;-)

    Yes, you have spoken truthfully of how things have changed. But at the same you have glossed over crimes far far greater that have been unleashed on hundreds of millions in the last 50 years by the 'masters' of democracy and its concomitant reason. Even now the North American advertising industry will spend more than enough money persuading animal lovers to buy special pet food for their neurotic pets than would prevent the unnecessary deaths of 25-30 million children who will die unnecessarily from primarily ingesting dirty drinking water.

    Change will happen, does happen. But reason will have little sway over its power or effectiveness. When there was a wage slavery revolt in Britain in the 17th century, those reasonable masters killed an estimated 100,000 labourers to make their point. I am quite sure they cited their efforts just as reasonable as those who were revolting against becoming indentured. That was a change, and promoted change in two directions: acquiescence to power by the weak, and exultation in power by the victors. I am not sure how reason applied either to the move to rebel, or to the quashing of the ungrateful rebels. Carnagie repeated that expression of power early last century when he exulted his victory over labour.

    For some reason, lately, images from the myths of dragons razing communities come to mind. What struck me when I was young, was why the elders insisted that the community had to succumb to the dragon's demands. Now that I am older, it strikes me that the elders were arguing from a position of reason: they saw their sacrifice of the community's fiscal wealth, initially, and then their young, as the reasonable and necessary acquiescence to power.

    Who are our dragons, today, and who the elders feeding them our community's gold and future? Can those blinded by reason pierce the veils of ignorance and cowardice? Societies do change, but it is delusional to think that reason is its champion, let alone its leader. Reason is almost always a coward, cowering behind what is known or believed and rejecting the new. In a sense, one could argue that the application of quite obvious absurdities as if they were reasonable by the village elders is a harbinger of change, being a last gasp grasping at near or past truths. And everywhere I look today the reasonable absurdities are multiplying like the hydra's heads. For example, the recent republican debates and nomination process and media coverage; or similarly, Harper's jets and his poorly concealed pride in finding the act of not reading to be a sign of his worthy intelligence.

    LoL! Thank you Gareth, for having stimulated my imagination and for having inspired my reason.

  2. If China and Japan find a way to step back from their confrontation over the Senkaku Islands, that will shoe reason, nothing else, triumphing over passions and prejudice. If not, then sweet reason and good will, what Kipling called "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," will roll up their sleeves and get back to work, again and again.

    As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
    I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
    Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

    We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
    That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
    But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
    So we left them to teach the Gorillas, while we followed the March of Mankind.

    Check out the rest at

  3. Gareth, a fascinating reply to my castigation of the reasonableness of reason, because Kipling is in his own circumloquatious way way making much the same argument that I am, but with a slight emphasis on reason's inability to bring the human animal into a life of peace and justice for all.

    But this is a great link, as it is a kind of fushigi with my anti-economics course. In particular:

    In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
    By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
    But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

    Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
    And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
    That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four —
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.