Being Unreasonable is Critical for Sustainability


I often note instances of synchronicity when something I have been writing about shows up elsewhere at about the same time. I have, if you have been following this blog, been focusing on complexity and its consequences in practice. The wicked problems series has one more to go. In a closely related topic, the NYTimes carried a very interesting and important story on its online edition.

The headline, "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth," disguises the richness of the article. The gist is that our reasoning powers, rather than the output of something wired in the brain as an original, basic part of human nature, have developed over time. The Cartesian idea of a mind, capturing the information coming via the senses (mirroring nature) and manipulating the images, has led to a picture of the brain as a sort of computer with a built in logic, just like the PCS most of us use everyday.

Reason was the name given to the processes by which the computer worked to produce a logical truth manifest through the language used to express our thoughts. The article puts it this way.

For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment. For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

The authors of the scientific paper on which the article is based have a very different explanation, which may seem a bit shocking at first. Here is part of the abstract from the paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, referred to by Patricia Cohen, the Times reporter.

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.
The paper's authors are focused on explaining a particular type of psychological behavior, but their conclusions have much broader implications. The idea that our rational powers and the reality we create with them are the result of interacting with the world is not new. One of the earliest to make a related claim is Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist who presented this concept in an 1988 paper, entitled, "Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument." Note the similarity to the title of the news item. I have picked out a few key lines from Maturana's paper . The paper is not easy to read as he uses a strange vocabulary to avoid the mental traps that familiar words create.
Or, in other words, due to the nature of rationality in the explanatory path of objectivity-without-parenthesis [his term for ordinary (Cartesian) objective reality], in it the search for reality is the search for the compelling argument.
The same applies to reality: reality is a proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of co-ordinations of actions, or to generate a new one." [My interpretation of this is that the powerful win the argument and their claims of truth/reality become the one that becomes embedded as the cultural meme. Sustainability lives in the "lost domain of co-ordinations of actors" and needs a new reality to get us back on track.]

This is the reason that non-modern-paradigmatic thinking (systems thinking) is so important. The reality produced by reason is not the "truth." Much of deconstructionism takes this as the ground, arguing that power creates reality. In this sense, power is used to establish the dominator's reason. Another great quote from the paper is:

Therefore,in this explanatory path [Cartesian, objective reality], explanations entail the claim of a privileged access to an objective reality by the explaining observer, and in it the observers do not take responsibility for the mutual negation in their explanatory disagreements because this is the consequence of arguments whose validity does not depend on them. It is in this explanatory path that a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience (emphasis added).

A critique of the standard notion of reality and rationality, based largely on Maturana's work, is one of the foundations of my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture, and informs all my teaching. Maturana is a biologist, not a philosopher or psychologist, and bases his findings on fundamental science. Unfortunately, his model of human cognition has not made it to the NyTimes. I believe that is because it is so challenging and threatening to the standard set of beliefs that it is simply written off. Ironically, this is one of the consequences of Mercier and Sperber's argument. People adopt "irrational" and mistaken positions (in terms of objective reality) to win the arguments important to them. Nothing is more important than retaining one's sense of rationality and reality and so rationalists that legitimate objective knowledge, the scientific community, dismiss Maturana's arguments.

Several very important consequences for sustainability follow. "Truths" about the world gleaned from scientific studies are dismissed by those who have taken positions contradictory to these truths. It will not do anything simply to call them irrational and invoke the legitimacy of science to counter them. It is a lost cause. If they are to be brought in line with these "truths, other arguments must be prepared. To make progress toward sustainability in the world, not just on the papers we write, it seems to me that we must accept this claim and change the way those committed to sustainability work.

It is not the content of what we develop by the tools we have become familiar with and use competently that will make a difference; it is how well we can make our case, and, as the third Maturana quote infers, speak our new "truths" to power. It is more about the art of rhetoric and communication that of reason that will count. "Speaking truth to power" is a phrase widely used in the sense of my argument. Erich Fromm appears to be the original source, coming from his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. A great book, by the way.

The notion of complexity also indirectly reflects this finding. Complexity means that there are aspects of the world that we cannot claim to be true in the sense of some objective finding. Maturana and Mercier and Sperber says we create the reality of each case in a situation where we are attempting to find a compelling argument. Sometimes it is an argument in real time with real people, and other times it is an argument with an anonymous audience, for example those reading a technical or position paper we have written.

I belong to a small group of thinkers, mostly in the systems thinking community, that see the poor state of the world has been created by a society that believes it is acting rationally and reasonably. The reality they claim exists outside of our mental functioning. The cultural underpinnings of normal behavior are based on a long evolution of "truths" that are nothing more than arguments won by the most powerful members of the society, those holding the most legitimacy. If we are to be effective in setting the world on a trajectory toward sustainability, we have no choice but to be explicitly unreasonable, and to focus our work on designing ways to compel, in Maturana's sense, others to accept our arguments. It does little for our cause to spend all of our time talking to one another.

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David M. Carter said:

Brilliant piece! You captured "it" in one sentence: The cultural underpinings of normal behavior are based on a long evolution of "truths" that are nothing more than arguments won by the most powerful members of society. Thanks John.

Bela said:

And . . . . a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience. Amen to that. A daily presence. Thanks for talking me through Maturana's paper.