Reason, to my mind, is a human universal (though some do it far better than others).
In other words, barring intellectual disability or brain injury, human beings have a universal capacity for reasoning with others: we can deduct, induct, experiment, offer reasons to one another, theorize, dialogue, analogize, make rhetorical appeals, argue with ourselves in solitude, calculate, and evaluate evidence.
When we do these things systematically, as in Baconian science, we can arrive at reasonable public conclusions about the world that all people, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are likely to recognize as true (at least on the premises that we can agree upon). This doesn’t mean that we all start with the same philosophical premises; it means that we can all follow one another’s rationales (so long as we understand the premises that we start from). Put another way, the methodologies of science and reason are not culture-bound and contingent; they are things that all human beings, in all places and times, are able to practice.
As a humanist, I believe that the rational and global human community—far more so than race, faith, or nation—represents our most hopeful, meaningful, and unifying concept. The university, not the church or mosque, should be the temple for our most cherished human hopes. In other words, I think that neither nation, race, religion, or culture should trump the human universal of reason in the human psyche. And wherever they do, they are the enemies of human progress.
Reason is the universal human grammar on which a hopeful future depends. Of course, there are other things that are universally shared, but reason is chief among them. No form of provincialism should trump reason.
I would offer dogs as an analogy. Dogs have “dog universals”: all dogs—large or small, long hair or short—like to fetch balls, bark at strangers, wag their tails, live in groups, and eat people food dropped from the kitchen table.
Likewise, the human being’s most fundamental characteristic is that she reasons.
That sounds nice in theory–who doesn’t like reason, after all–but in practice might lead itself to some rather…unpalatable outcomes. You say reason is universal “barring intellectual or neurological disability” and you also say “When we do these things systematically, as in Baconian science, we can arrive at reasonable public conclusions about the world that all people, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are likely to recognize as true.”
The problem is, at least as far as I can see, ‘rational’ people have a tendency to come to pretty different conclusions about nearly everything except the most banal or most indisputable matters of fact. If I recall correctly, you and Mr. Andrew Clunn have disagreed (and perhaps do still disagree) on a wide variety of things–whether Islam can be compatible with Lockean individualism, and you apparently disagree with our President about whether or not it’s acceptable to call hits on U.S citizens. However, all three of you–yourself, Mr. Obama, and Mr. Clunn–are all, so far as I can tell, reasonable men. How can you disagree? If what you’ve said in this post is true, then *at least* one of you must be “intellectually or neurologically disabled,” since if you weren’t, your systematic exercise of reason should have led you to conclusions which almost all of humanity, including the three of you, should agree on.
This isn’t to argue against reason, of course, but I think that when you say that the exercise of reason leads almost all people to conclusions they can all agree on, you severely underestimate the number of things and degree to which reasonable men may disagree.
When Andrew and I disagree, we understand completely the premises that we disagree on, and why we’ve adopted different starting premises, and yet we are both interested enough in rational dialogue that we still talk to each other. We understand that there are things to learn from each other, that two heads are better than one, and that strong dialectic disagreement is informative, and leads to progress.
Scientists do the same. When they disagree (and frequently they do), they know the ground rules for disagreement. They know the importance of reason and dialogue, and they make it a source of solidarity. They might not arrive at the same conclusions, but they know why the other person is reasoning the way they are, and the human dignity of the person starting with different theories and premises.
What I’m suggesting is that the mystification of culture—a Christian or atheist can’t really understand a Muslim—is fallacious.
I’m not advocating a process of reasoning that leads to cultural agreement and conformity on what truth is. I’m advocating for a global culture that, whatever individual commitments are made, makes reason and ongoing dialogue central, as it generally is on the world’s university campuses, and among scientific communities. You can have all sorts of ideas, religious or otherwise, and still function with dignity in the mix of a university community.
In a sense, blog threads belong to this Socratic ideal. They are part of the hope of the world.
Heh heh. So you admit reasonable people *can* disagree if they start from different premises? Unfortunately, it seems to me that this makes your position not much more tenable–there are virtually an infinity of mutually incompatible premises any number of rational actors can start from, once again making common ground between “rational” people almost impossible to maintain except for, again, the most banal or indisputable matters of fact. For instance, you say,
I’m advocating for a global culture that, whatever individual commitments are made, makes reason and ongoing dialogue central,
But for someone whose premises are different–for instance, they don’t want a ‘global culture’ of any sort–they can disagree with you most fervently yet still live up to your ideals of ‘rationality,’ at least technically.
Once again, this is not to say that reason is a ‘bad’ thing or whatever, merely that it is not as universal as you make it out to be–or, to be more specific in response to your second post, its *effective* ecumenism is severely circumscribed by the fact that it can only lead rational people to ‘common ground’ when they share the same premises, and that happens much less often than it might be comforting to think.
I’m not sure how your pessimism translates into the world. What are you resigning yourself to, exactly? Might you explain?
I’m thinking of Roger, as an example. Roger is a very, very conservative Catholic (pre-Vatican II). He really has no use for my Enlighenment globalism, but he still comes around and talks to me in threads here on a regular basis. He offers me his reasons, I offer him my reasons. I see his humanity; he sees mine (presumably). Somehow, his religious walls come down low enough to exchange in some intellectual trade with “Phoenecians” like me. The only thing that links Roger and me is our capacity for reason, and our ongoing willingness to substitute talk for the sword.
And I hate to be blunt, but I really think that the world is in a hostage situation. In other words, the Enlightenment has won, but there are a lot of religious fanatics who haven’t gotten the email, and mean to hold the world hostage to terror. And the trick is to keep all the other cultural and religious reactionaries talking (as opposed to joining the violent). That’s what I mean by a global community.
A century from now, I am convinced, the world will be a better place. It will be more rational and less fanatically religious and nationalistic. And the reason that it will be better is because prosperity will be more general and people will be better educated. The caveat is whether the violent irrationalists gain the upper hand by detonating atomic weapons in cities every other year or two. If that starts happening, the global economy will stall, our environmental problems will get worse, and politics will become extremely nationalistic, security-driven, and anti-rational (even more so than today).
What, I ask you again, are you resigning yourself to? And why the Iago glee that reason is not a sufficient source for global peace and solidarity? Reason is our only hope, Obi Wan Kinobe.
What are you resigning yourself to, exactly? Might you explain?
A world in which, despite reason’s best efforts, conflict is still commonplace. Even if everyone were to reject irrationality entirely in the next few years (an unlikely prospect in and of itself), the fact that they would still start out from such a wide variety of unshared premises makes the prospect of a happy New World Order based on reason to be fairly unlikely. You and Roger may be able to have productive dialogue, but that’s merely because despite all the other different premises you start from, both of you share one–I assume both of you start from the premise that there’s no need to resort to violence when you can just talk. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that premise. Until they do, some form of violent conflict, regardless of how ‘rational’ humanity becomes, will stay with us till the end of days.
May your pessimism be proved wrong.
Do you really think, for example, that, in 2030, life won’t be at least a bit more reasonable and more prosperous than it is today? And what about 2050? And 2070? And 2090?
My kids are 4 and 6, and barring a severe catastrophe (personal or civilizational), my guess is that they’ll have lifespans that might double yours and mine. By the time they hit about the age of 50 (around 2055) my bet is that medical technology will stand a good chance of keeping them alive at least another 50 years or so. And by the time they hit that age, they might well find that technology can help them live yet another 50 years after that. And I’m betting that Americans, in 2055, on average, will be about twice as wealthy as Americans are today. And technology and energy innovation are likely to do a great deal to bring up the prosperity of the entire globe (and with this increase in prosperity, we stand to be nicer to one another).
The joker in the hat, of course, is nuclear or biological terrorism, which, if it managed to stall global economic progress for a century or more, could end up ruining the human future.
But I’m betting on a rational human advance over the next century or two. And once we have flying altitude, it will be difficult for the human species to revert back to the old fanaticisms and nationalisms. People will be too comfy. And we’ll live in a global, mostly peaceful world.
Of course, as I write we may be within, say, 3000 days of a nuclear 9-11, and we’ll all think of the early part of the 21st century as an age of innocence. I suppose that the next decade is likely to be extremely dicey. But at some point over the next couple of decades, the tide is going to turn in an irreversible way towards greater reason and peace.
That’s my bet.
The joker in the hat, of course, is nuclear or biological terrorism, which, if it managed to stall global economic progress for a century or more, could end up ruining the human future.
Those are possibilities, but don’t be so melodramatic, my friend–there are other alternatives besides those at the extremes in which human ‘progress’ may be thwarted besides apocalyptic doomsday scenarios. The gradual decline of rationalist, “Enlightenment” societies like ours is one, for instance. Rather than ending with a bang, the Enlightment goes out with a whisper as countries like the U.S, Japan, etc. find their economies swamped by debt, a declining population, or whatever, resulting in their governments sliding into irrelevance and eventual collapse. This leads to the decay of their educational, financial, and subsequently military institutions, leaving the irrationalists to inherit the earth, whether they’re religious “fanatics” of the Muslim, Christian, or whatever stripe, or pragmatists like the Chinese (and even that nation has some problems of its own, from what I’ve heard–some economists claim they have a housing bubble waiting to pop, too). No, humanity won’t be exterminated in nuclear fire, the Enlightenment will simply be forgotten as the societies supposedly championing it fall to their own ennui and short-sightedness.
That’s one possibility. I could be wrong. But in answer to your question, “will life be better in the future,” I can’t say I’d put my money on it. It’s possible, but hardly as certain as you claim it to be.
The Enlightenment is like the wheel. Once it’s discovered, it will live in lots of places. And America is like Britain. The British of a hundred years ago, at the height of Empire, did not live better than the British of today. Today, relative to others, the British are weaker than their contemporaries. Relative to their ancestors, however, they are vastly better off. It will be the same with the United States a hundred years from now. We probably won’t be the preminent power, but individual Americans will almost certainly be vastly better off than today.
Is it? Wheels have been around for a few thousand years, IIRC. “Enlightment rationality” hasn’t existed for even a quarter of that time.
To prosperous Westerners, it certainly seems as if progress is inevitable. Whether it’s the same for other people is much, much more debatable. It’d be hard to argue a Brit today is worse off than he’d be in the Middle Ages. It might be easier to argue, however, that an Iraqi living right now might be less happy than he would have been in the Middle Ages, when Baghdad was one of the cultural, intellectual, and technological jewels of the entire world. Many African countries, mired in poverty and backwardness today, were similarly quite prosperous earlier in their history–look at the old kingdoms of Ghana and Axum, for instance. It’s impossible for America, Britain, or other Western countries to undergo similar declines? You may believe that if you wish, but I think the rest of us can be forgiven for maintaining a studious skepticism about that prospect.
I’m frankly surprised by your examples (because they are quite poor). In absolutely no instance that you cited would a rational person prefer that particular past to this present (at least in terms of life expectancy and the economic prospects for themselves and their children over the next half century). And those who live a hundred years from now will likely say, “I’m glad I didn’t live a hundred years ago!” We say the same thing about previous eras. Things are not static, and they are, on average, getting better. Name one time, prior to the 21st century, that you, personally, would prefer to live (excluding the future).
In absolutely no instance that you cited would a rational person prefer that particular past to this present
Curiously, you don’t provide any reasoning behind why my examples are ‘poor’ beyond merely saying they are. Nothing wrong with that, of course–you’re the proprietor of this blog and I’m merely a guest, you don’t owe me anything. However, if I may be permitted to do so, as an interesting thought experiment let’s again try to look at things from the perspective of an average Iraqi. Today, despite the ~*wonders of science/progress/rationality/whatever*~ you so lovingly describe, he won’t reap the benefits of any of it. His country’s infrastructure has been blown to hell, its government beset by incessant internecine violence, and the Westerners who caused most of these problems (not that they didn’t exist before) are, for the most part, either uninterested in solving them or unable to. Even with the wild advances in science and technology, your average Iraqi isn’t profiting from any of them. On the other hand, what if he was living in Baghdad during, say, the 10th century? Centuries before Wahabism was to emerge with its hateful, anti-intellectual brand of fundamentalism and centuries before foreigners piled bomb after bomb on the people’s heads. It wouldn’t be hard to argue a typical Iraqi (or many other Middle-Easterners) would have been happier living in a society which gave birth to things such as the House of Wisdom rather than a present-day society which has seen such wonderful things such as the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Name one time, prior to the 21st century, that you, personally, would prefer to live
It took me less than 10 seconds of thought to come up with two answers:
1: Late 80s, early 90s–right after the end of the Cold War, right before 9/11. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the world was no longer in danger of nuclear annihilation, and it was before we had the specter of terrorism looming over all our heads as well. The economy was awesome back in the Clinton days, too. Quite frankly, if I could choose any time to freeze the march of human history, 1992 would be it.
2: The roaring twenties. This wasn’t a perfect time by any means–racism was still prevalent in the U.S and the rest of the world, and of course technology wasn’t as advanced in those days. However, in the aftermath of World War I it seemed like it had really been “the war to end all wars,” and before the Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power it was easy to believe. It would have been immensely exciting to live in a time of such cultural flowering–to experience the Harlem Renaissance or the birth of the Jazz Age firsthand. Again, the U.S has made an immense amount of progress in racial terms since then, but on the other hand, is the present era we live in as culturally fecund and dynamic? I’m not sure.
Sounds nice, but is it in our nature? I think faith, race and nation are means by which we form groups and distuingish our group from others. That sort of behavior is shared by most mammals and runs much deeper than rational thought, which is a fairly modern development. You can’t build a pyramid upside down.
That late development—rational thought—wins the prize. It is the thing that distinguishes us from pack animals. Pack animals obviously have their powerful genetic and cultural roots in us. But the stone at the very top, which the builders didn’t start with, must now become the cornerstone. Look at the dollar bill in your pocket and see that eye on the top of the pyramid. It is the eye of reason. It is what makes the many, one. To close that eye is to resign ourselves, collectively, to a new Dark Ages.
I agree it wins the prize and should be used to its fullest potential. But it is such a small and fragile part of human nature that it in no way can be made a cornerstone of society. That’s typical liberal wishful thinking. The cornerstones need to be large and rock solid – family, local community, nation (the pack).
When people are put under pressure reason usually goes out the window. That’s why you need the pack for them to feel safe and not collapse so easily when things go wrong. That way they can still use their reason. And that’s why the eye is at the top of the pyramid.
(By the way I don’t have a dollar bill in my wallet since I’m Swedish.)
Live by the pack, die by the pack.
As for your Swedish citizenship, I knew this but just forgot.
Sorry about that.
Jesus Christ supports the sound mind for He said, “Worry not.”
The overall problem with humanism is that, if unchecked, it divorces man from his Creator. Like Goethe’s “magic” fairy tales about the human will. Without Christ filling the soul with His magic, we wouldn’t exist.