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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Decline Of Reason In An Era Of Personal Identity And Subjective Judgment

“Reason is horseshit”, scrawled on a bathroom mirror in a Harvard dorm room was the work of a philosophy student fed up with Kant, or as the story went, more precisely with his failure to correctly explicate the philosopher’s The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures and especially his Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason made a distinction between a priori and a posteriori reasoning.  The first refers to an innate human ability to understand basic, irrefutable concepts (e.g. 2+2=4) without needing phenomenological proofs; the latter is subject to perception, judgment, and deductive reasoning.  Such reasoning was fallible and imperfect, and problematic for understanding the configurations of life.
Experience is by no means the only field to which our understanding can be confined. Experience tells us what is, but not that it must be necessarily what it is and not otherwise. It therefore never gives us any really general truths; and our reason, which is particularly anxious for that class of knowledge, is roused by it rather than satisfied. General truths, which at the same time bear the character of an inward necessity, must be independent of experience - clear and certain in themselves.
Kant is not easy to understand, especially hard to summarize, and devilishly complex; so it is no wonder that the Harvard student had come to the end of his rope.  However his frustration was made far worse because of a new campus subjectivism which asserted that logic is irrelevant for resolving problems of racial justice, social equality, and ethnic identity.  One has only to feel the pain of alienation, discrimination, and subjugation to understand them.  In a twisted version of Kant, college protesters insisted that such understanding was indeed a priori and as fundamental and irrefutable as 2+2=4

The classic case of ironic use of reason is that of the Early Church Fathers who understood that reason was the most essential and most distinctive gift given to man by God and therefore must be used to explain his Creation and his divinity.  Augustine and Aquinas in particular went to great pains to create a logical foundation for the faith; and ever since their influential writings the Catholic Church has insisted that belief can only come after an absolute conviction in the logic of faith.

The Quinque viæ are Aquinas’ five logical arguments regarding the existence of God summarized in his Summa Theologica  - the unmoved mover; the first cause; the argument from contingency; the argument from degree; the teleological argument. 

While these meticulously-reasoned arguments may have contributed less to the consolidation of the faith than either Aquinas or the Church may have liked to believe, they did provide an intellectual foundation for the faith.  Such a logical foundation would, according to the Church, protect its doctrines from the populist evangelism of Lutherans and later Pentecostal and charismatic heresies.

Most Catholics could care less about Augustine, Aquinas, Tertullian, or any of the other early Christian theologians who tried to sort out such impossibilities as the Trinity or the duality of Christ’s being.  The facts that Jesus is Lord, and salvation can only come through faith, grace, obedience, and good works is enough for them.

Fundamentalists are even less demanding.  Jesus Christ can be one’s personal savior, and his individual revelation and the spiritual epiphany which follows are only matters between him and his supplicants.

There is no doubt that reason is indispensable under certain conditions.  The advances in computer technology, genetics, rocketry, medicine, and optics could only have come through the application of inductive and deductive reasoning and the insights derived from them. 

Yet for the rest of American society reasoning seems remarkably absent despite the fact that most people if asked would consider themselves eminently rational.  Few people would admit to subjectivity when it comes to investment, social choice, or politics.  Yet billions of dollars are bilked by investment counselors from trusting clients.  Programs and policies concerning education, welfare, economic development, and social equality are based more on implicit judgments and political philosophy than logical analysis.

Right and Left in America are divided in many ways but no more so than on political philosophy.  The Left believes in social progress and the instrumental role of government in accelerating it. 
The Right believes in no such thing.  Human nature –assertive, self-interested, territorial, and self-protective – has never changed and will never change; and therefore history is only cyclical, repetitive, and predictable.  There is no such thing as progress; and if there is any value at all in a deterministic world, it is individual will and responsibility.  

Such subjectivity in the era of the Internet is not tempered by reason and objectivity but encouraged.  It is no surprise that the extremes of subjectivity – fake new and conspiracy theories – are common.
The point is that these programs and policies will always be subjective.  Few decision-makers ever get farther than personal, emotional, and philosophical conviction.  The Supreme Court is a good example.  Expected to be absolutely fair, impartial, and dutiful to the text of the Constitution, Justices routinely vote according to party lines.  Few liberals ever espouse conservative causes and vice-versa.

The lack of logic, rationality, and objectivity in politics is nothing new.  Snake-oil salesmen have been a feature of American life since its founding.  A sucker is indeed born every minute,  and few of us have either the intelligence or the intellectual rigor to sort fact from fiction or idealism from realism.

The situation is made worse by the Politics of Inclusivity.  Acceptance within a democratic, pluralistic society is unquestioned.  All beliefs, convictions, purposes, and identities are equally valid and respectable.  Not only is it unnecessary to analyze an applicants’ personal, political, social, ethnic, and religious history; it is wrong to do so, for it denies their dignity and authenticity.

The determinants of poverty, economic and social immobility, crime, family and community dysfunction are irrelevant when judging need.  A priori judgments – apologies again to Immanuel Kant – are all that is required when confecting social policy.  White privilege, slavery, Jim Crow, and capitalist exploitation of the minority poor are enough justification for concerted public efforts to rescue the perennially disadvantaged.

Or, given the God-given resources available to every individual – intelligence, enterprise, and ambition – no one should need a patronizing helping hand.  The country was built on individualism and free-range and free-market independence, and so it should continue.

The situation is made still worse by the both the increase in religious fundamentalism and secular atheism.  Protestant fundamentalists believe in the absolute truth of the Bible.  Either it is the literal word of God or divinely inspired, it is and will always be the first and final arbiter of moral issues.
Atheists, in their dismissal of both God and religion, have cut themselves adrift from the moral and ethical principles which have been defining features of all religions.  While non-believers insist that morality can exist without religion, without a belief in eternal consequences, adherence becomes more difficult.

Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov) made the case for subsuming the State within the Church for exactly that reason.

In other words, a return to a code of universal moral and ethical principles seems advisable but unlikely.  To do so would be to acknowledge the role of reason and objectivity.  Morals and ethics are based on consideration of the individual within society and for the well-being of both.   Without an understanding how a complex society can only function well within a codified and respected moral, ethical, and civic code – rational and objective analysis - a truly civil society cannot survive.

Reason is in short supply and has been ghettoized in Silicon Valley, university laboratories, and in R&D engineering.  For the rest of us it is optional, or worse, used only in defense of our personal interests.

The Catholic Church has been right to go on about Augustine, Aquinas, the pre-eminence of logical inquiry, and the importance of reason as a foundation for faith.  This theological argument has importance and relevance for the secular world as well.

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