The Age of Bad Reasons

Dear Hannah,

The Atlantic asked its readers whether they think reason or emotions are currently running the nation, and I suspect it will end in catastrophe.  Not only because I lack faith in the people giving the answer, but because I lack faith in the quality of the question.

The most important thing to start with is that we can't reason without our emotions, because without our emotions we can't have a reason to reason.  There's no good reason to steer clear of anything that doesn't upset us, and there's no good reason to attempt anything that doesn't attract us (unless it's a means to another end that does).  The whole of our lives is based on emotions like sadness and lust and joy and disgust, and the question we really ought to be asking isn't whether reason or emotion is better, but whether one reason is better than another for the way we indulge our emotions.

Few people who use the word reason in the current sense are aware that there's no such thing as pure reason, except in an ideal sense used primarily by bad philosophers (see: Kant*).  What is reason, after all?  An ordering of multiple desires and an organized attempt at getting them, which means there are good reasons and bad reasons, and reasons that are useful for some people and very painful for others, and some that are good for almost all of us (think the right to own property) and some that are good for only a few (think a government of crony capitalism).  In short, what our Men of Reason miss is that the only way to reason with someone is by giving him your reasons and hoping he'll listen.  You can't make him reasonable by asking him to be "A Reasonable Man," because asking everyone to be reasonable isn't actually asking everyone to be reasonable.  It's asking them to have your reasons, and to be interested only in your interests.  

One reason The Reasonable Man is a joke is because he always assumes he's being reasonable.  He believes so strongly in his beliefs, that aside from the question of religion, he rarely questions whether he's basing any on blind faith.  He has so much faith in himself that he thinks everyone, if they'd really just think things through, would immediately agree with all of his ideas.  We have bad news for him.  Every baby is an atheist, the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages were obnoxiously logical, Neil Degrasse Tyson is actually fallible, everyone begins knowing nothing, none of us ever knows everything**, our future selves will disagree with our current selves on some issues, all of us are biased in some way or another, and each of us is prone to violating our consciences.  The ideal of reasoning, that we can 1) learn abstract principles from our past and use them to wisely plan our futures, and 2) that we can balance them with any contradictory principles and interests, and 3) that we can actually carry our principles out against any unforeseen obstacles or the possibility of personal weakness -- this ideal, I say, is a beautiful ideal, and one worth struggling for.  But it has almost always been only an ideal.  And the only thing that's gotten in the way of it is the people who thought of it in the first place.

The problem with the modern era is that we think too lowly about our feelings and too highly of our ability to reason.  I think this because our "men of reason" aren't our men of manly feeling and passion, and our men of manly feeling and passion aren't our "men of reason."  We believe that having access to information is the same thing as having wisdom.  We frequently ignore history, and we laugh at holding timeless problems up to the answers of the ancients.   We confuse nice ideas with good ideas. We confound newer things with better things.  We judge men not by what they can do, but rather by what they permit.  We believe too easily in our teachers and professors.  We refuse to really listen to the arguments of our enemies.  We think that scientists and statisticians can tell us more about ourselves than ourselves.  We live in an age of faith -- even if our faith is in the faithlessness of atheism.  We live in social superstructures theorized in books that few of us have read and even fewer understand.  We make fun of the Dark Ages and never wonder why we also don't have a Cicero.  We laugh at The Inquisition, and then jail heretics because they won't admit to the thirtieth gender.

We called the eighteenth century The Age of Reason, and now most Americans are too dumb to read eighteenth-century books. We're too boring to appreciate our great-grandparents' rhetoric.  We're too effeminate to feel the manly sentiments of our ancestors.  And we ask ourselves, in light of the above, whether this means that reason or emotion is winning.  Regardless of what the editors at The Atlantic believe, I'd say reason is winning -- and that we got where we are because we picked all the wrong reasons.

Your father,

*I first delved into philosophy with the idea that every "big name" in the game would blow my mind.  Kant was among the biggest of the disappointments; Kant and Plato and Nietzsche especially -- and if it hadn't been for Nietzsche with his Thus Spake Zarathustra, Kant would have easily been the worst.

Aside from his almost comical preference for technical jargon, my opinion all comes down to his categorical imperative, which is most easily explained as follows.  If you can imagine a world which was perfect and completely devoid of anything evil, to know the categorical imperative you need only ask yourself what the people in it would be like.  Kant decided that a world would be better in which everyone told the truth all the time; and so he decided that telling the truth was something that could never be violated.  And so he said, with a totally straight face, that if somebody came to your door and made it clear that he was going to kill your friend who was hiding in your cellar, and then went on to ask you where your friend was, it would be immoral for you to lie to the killer.  That's what the categorical imperative means for us, and it's really all you need to know about Kant -- although I do believe his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals was worth a read, and his preface to The Critique of Pure Reason was also excellent.  The Critique itself?  Terrible.

**When our theologians said that God was omniscient, they were laying the groundwork for His wisdom.  A God who knows everything about everything is not only able to accomplish anything, but to know what needs accomplishing.  There's no confounding variable or guessing in the interstellar sandbox.  Prophecy is possible because control of the future is possible.  We, on the other hand, are severely limited.  Our reason is only infallible insofar as we understand every single possibility, which means that if we are reasonable, our reasoning is oftentimes prone to surprises and failure.  All of our reasons are a matter of guesswork according to general principles; and the most reasonable of us are only better at guessing than others.  A good philosopher knows the general principles best -- and when it's best to break from them.  A good philosopher is the closest we will probably ever get to a prophet.