Monday, April 2, 2012

The Illusion of Reason

While the self esteem movement was plenty noxious and we are still living the consequences of it, a similar movement has enjoyed uncritical growth.  That movement was the one that pushed reason.  It comes in many guises.  Critical thinking was one catch word.  With children's programs we are seeing the word "hypothesis" and the scientific method thrown around quite a bit.  The problem is not with reason itself.

It is ultimately a problem of hubris.  One of the requirements for reason is knowledge.  Society is coming around to accepting this.  Society now has created a simple dichotomy.  There are stupid people and intelligent people.  The former can't reason, and the latter can.  This would seem to solve a lot of problems except that it is unexceptional to hear someone refer to a person with a doctorate as an idiot.  In other words, the people who agree with me are smart seems to be a convenient tautology regardless of the merits.  While admittedly the rank tribalism so rampant today is an ill effect of this, I'm not sure it is worth dismissing as a bad thing altogether.

As the tribalism has shown, we are utterly dependent upon authorities.  Even with Google, no person has the capacity to critically evaluate all the claims one would have to do in order to be totally independent.  There are numerous things in this world that require a half dozen years of education in order to understand the actual debates occurring within a community, let alone offer an intelligent commentary upon them.  Something as trivial as the Linux operating system is to the point where a single person cannot be found who can speak expertly on all parts.  That includes Linus Torvalds.  Let's be frank for a moment here.  Linux is a niche of operating systems which is a niche of computer science which is a niche of electrical engineering which is a niche of engineering which is a niche of science.  Not only is this true, but there are thousands of people paid tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands to develop and support this system.  Some of these people even have doctorates.  Yet, it is impossible to find an expert on all parts of Linux today.  If that is true today, then why on earth would we think that the common person or even an exceptional one could critically evaluate claims outside their specialty?  It is incredibly difficult to find people who can critically evaluate claims within a specialty.

There are other issues as well.  The biggest issue is that reason has very, very little to do with our body of knowledge today.  While some like to mock a certain set of Christians for believing the operating principles of society just dropped out of the pure blue sky, our society acts today as if there are well known principles that arose from reason and that reason has been behind the wheel the rest of the way.  This has not been the dominant stream from which knowledge has arose.  Knowledge has predominantly been acquired through feedback mechanisms.  There isn't a complete absence of knowledge acquired from fiddling with equations, but the typical path has been to make the equation fit the observed phenomenon, not find the phenomenon from the equation.  And yes, there have been big walk backs in history.  What were considered first principles in physics at the beginning of the 20th century are now quite often considered the first term in a Taylor Series expansion.  In other words, they are good approximations, but they aren't first principles, and they break down at the limits.  This isn't a boo and a hiss at science.  Since science is the area most people are least informed about, it has tended to be the area people are most naive and idealistic about.  Science isn't wrong.  Theoretical physicists aren't history majors however.  We expend a lot of money and human capital on science because there are a lot of things to figure out still.

What this all means is that reason takes a back seat to authority.  While philosophers may not care for arguments from authority, we mortals must rely upon them.  And the sooner we admit that we are just following a given authority, the happier everyone can be.  If we can cite authority without feeling like an intellectual eunuch, all the better.  I realize arguments won't be as interesting when a person says, "I'll leave  my economic explanations to the OECD," but perhaps then we can also proceed to end the mire of atheists miming 16th century arguments and acting like they are being novel.  The philosopher's objection after all isn't about the acquisition of knowledge, rather it governs the adjudication of disputes.  And unfortunately the folks obsessed with reason aren't interested in the acquisition of knowledge for if they were, they would debate experts.  The folks obsessed with reason are obsessed with winning arguments.

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