Friday, August 08, 2014

In the Shadow of Reason

John Gray:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Outside of some areas of science, human beings rarely give up their convictions just because they can be shown to be false. No doubt we can become a little more reasonable, at least for a time, in some parts of our lives, but being reasonable means accepting that many human problems aren’t actually soluble, and our persistent irrationality is one of these problems. At its best, religion is an antidote against the prevailing type of credulity – in our day, a naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind.

…The refusal to see clear and present danger shows that the idea that human beings base their beliefs on their experience is just a fairy-tale. The opposite is closer to the truth – shaping their perceptions according to what they already believe, human beings block out from their minds anything that disturbs their view of the world. Psychologists who examine this tendency – sometimes called cognitive dissonance – have speculated that refusing to face the truth may confer an evolutionary advantage. Screening out unpleasant or disturbing facts may, in some circumstances, give some people a better chance of survival. But at the same time this tendency leads us all into one folly after another. Many regard science as the supreme embodiment of human reason, but science may yet confirm what history so strongly suggests – irrationality is hard-wired in the human animal.

Certainly unreason can be tempered by the hard-won practices of civilisation, but civilisation will always be a precarious achievement. To believe that human beings can be much improved by rational argument is to assume that they are already reasonable, which is obviously false. The old doctrine of original sin contained a vital truth – there are impulses of irrational destructiveness in every one of us.

Todd Tremlin:

In Pascal’s vocabulary, heart is not a word for feelings or emotions but for a mode of thinking best understood as “intuition”. Intuition for Pascal is a compelling and effective method of comprehending certain things without having to reason our way to them. In addition to being a mode of thinking distinct from reason, intuition also supplies the basic apprehensions that reason requires for its own operation…Pascal knew well what he was saying in implicating intuition as the seat of religious belief, though there is no reason to view intuition as somehow less intelligent or rational than other, more explicit, modes of thinking. Indeed, much of the “reasoning” we do, as well as many of the “reasonable” conclusions that we come to, owe their existence to the supporting work of the kinds of intuitive thinking processes discussed in this and previous chapters.

…Blaise Pascal’s well-educated and imminently “reasonable” contemporaries pinned their hopes and lavished praise on reason precisely because they deemed it capable of cutting through unfounded beliefs and superstitious faith and arriving at true knowledge logically evaluated and clear-mindedly obtained. The problem, though, is that only someone wearing blinders can argue for this view of knowledge acquisition. While such careful, calculated thinking certainly takes place — scientists, for example, try very hard to emulate this process and hold their compatriots accountable to it — in everyday life the formation of the majority of our beliefs, even for the well-educated and reasonable, follows a less rigorous course.

Intuitive beliefs, the kind of basic beliefs that ought to be found in a belief box, are concrete, commonsense descriptions of the real world derived from perception and spontaneous, nonconscious inferences. Intuitive beliefs are intuitive both in the sense that they are products of innate cognitive mechanisms and in that you need not be aware of holding them, even less of the reasons why. Nonetheless, because intuitive beliefs arise from reliable perceptions and inferences, they are rigidly held. Examples of intuitive belief include the belief that when you are tired you should sleep, that you cannot walk through walls, and that books cannot swim. Intuitive beliefs are so obvious that they hardly seem like “beliefs” at all, yet they are. Countless such beliefs continually operate in the background of daily thought, supporting conscious reasoning and guiding behavior.

Reflective beliefs are what people normally understand by the word “belief”. Instead of being derived automatically and nonconsciously, reflective beliefs come from conscious, deliberate reasoning or from external sources of authority like parents, teachers and books. Reflective beliefs are usually explanatory and interpretative rather than descriptive. Reflective beliefs may or may not be fully understood or well grounded and, consequently, people’s commitment to them may vary widely, from loosely held notions to dogmatic convictions.

…Reflective beliefs are influenced by intuitive beliefs primarily because intuitive beliefs provide the default assumptions that underpin reflective beliefs. As an example, most of us believe that any two objects will fall to the ground at the same rate. This is a reflective belief concerning gravity that was taught to us and probably required a demonstration before it was accepted. What that reflective belief requires, though, is a previous understanding that objects in fact fall to the ground when released. This is an intuitive belief — derived from our intuitive physics — that all people share and that, interestingly, is neither itself in need of demonstration nor made an explicit part of the final reflective belief. Similarly, intuitive beliefs are routinely operating in the background of most of our reflective beliefs, supplying the host of default assumptions that make conscious reasoning possible but nevertheless go largely unnoticed.

…Pascal’s critics insist that people have good reasons for their beliefs, yet that not the way belief generally works. Many of the “reasons” that we put forth to explain particular reflective beliefs are simply post-hoc justifications that had little to do with the belief’s actual formation. Furthermore, a good number of our reflective beliefs have no explicit reasons for support because none are called for. If intuitive beliefs get the job done, we don’t stop to draw up more reflective arguments. Explicit reasoning or elaboration only comes later. The same is true of religious belief. Lots of people can give explicit reasons for their belief in gods, but few if any of these explicit reasons were actually part of the mental process that formed the original belief. Religious belief, rather, arises from that mode of thinking correctly identified by Pascal as intuition.

Like progress, reason certainly exists and we can be grateful for it. But also like progress, its advance is neither uniform nor permanent — individuals, cultures and historical epochs do not become more "reasonable" in some kind of zero-sum manner, and setbacks can occur in the right circumstances. On a individual level, we all know people who can be highly educated and intelligent experts in one area while being shockingly ignorant and stubbornly irrational in another, and behavioral economists have recently been mainstreaming the understanding of just how omnipresent this sort of selective, intermittent rationality is. It's not any different on a grander stage, either — in the twentieth century, educated people prided themselves on no longer being the sort of ignorant, superstitious barbarians who put people to death for witchcraft, even as they prepared (one hundred years ago precisely as of this week) to slaughter each other by the millions for dimly understood reasons which seemed to take on a life of their own, outstripping the ability of their human creators to control them. Within a couple decades, the honestly-conceived byproducts of scientific advance, eugenics and racial science, would lead directly to the loss of tens of millions more lives before being officially discarded as a regrettable detour into pseudoscience. Steven Pinker cites widespread literacy as an essential building block in the history of humanity's supposed progress toward increased reason and empathy, but Timothy Snyder responds by pointing out the essential role literacy also played in the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe and in the spread of virulent nationalism in our own day.

There's always a tradeoff, always a new set of problems and dilemmas accompanying every advance.

A detached observer surveying the sweep of human history from a vantage point in the stratosphere might find it reasonable to conclude that "reasons" are just the changing fashions we wear while getting down to the perennial killing which is truly the serious business of our existence as a species. Apologists for Communism desperately try to convince themselves that the ostensible reasons for their mass murders somehow represented an advance over the reasons people had committed mass murder in the past — killing reactionaries, class traitors and counter-revolutionaries was "better" than killing people for being of a different ethnic group, or killing them in the process of colonizing their land. But the idea that history is a dialectical process in which humans hate and kill each other for increasingly better and more valid reasons until they arrive at a final synthesis in which no one needs to be killed for anything ever again is the most delusional of myths. Humans will always differentiate themselves from one another no matter how often the field is leveled, and some of those differences will intensify into hatred and violence.

The moral of the story from this perspective is not at all about urging anyone to give up reason and embrace irrationality, or to foreswear any attempts to improve their circumstances in practical ways. For that matter, I don't believe humans are even capable of ceasing to use their minds to manipulate their environment to their liking. No, the goal is only to attempt to illuminate a sort of parallel track of human existence, one that has nothing to do with concrete progression within linear time. What Gray is saying about "religion at its best" could apply to philosophy or mystical spirituality as well, and it's what I think Jerry Coyne misses in his eagerness to have the same old argument he's always had about religion vs. science — there's a certain type of wisdom that isn't the same thing as intelligence or knowledge.

There's a perennial question humans have been asking themselves as long as they've been recording their thoughts: How should we live? It's not the kind of question that depends on amassing a collection of facts, or mastering intricate theories. We will never achieve complete understanding or control of all the countless variables that create the circumstances of our lives. We will never agree on what constitutes an ideal existence, let alone attain the god's-eye perspective necessary to create and maintain it. Every improvement we make will also bring along unforeseen results, and the cycle will continue as long as we do. Realizing all that, one also realizes that the basics of how to live a good life do not become more complicated in tandem with our technology and our expertise. The virtues that ancient philosophers recommended are just as valid today; they haven't been "improved" upon or rendered obsolete by material changes. As much as it offends our pride to hear it, we are not going to think our way beyond the basic dilemmas of the human condition.