More (Rational?) Compelling Reasons to be Unreasonable


Our long-standing book club met this week and discussed The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and political strategy consultant. It’s a provocative book arguing that the Republicans keep winning elections because they aim at the voter’s emotional side of the brain rather than their reasoning powers. The Democratic candidates are stuck, he argues, in a rhetorical style that presents the “facts” and expects the target voter to come to the only rational conclusion, one that would put their vote squarely in the “D” column.

People don’t work that way, says Westen. We have all sorts of biases and erroneous processes that interfere with the logical conclusion of our argument. We tend to hear only the data that tends to confirm our already preferred outcomes. My friends and colleagues keep asking me how can so many people deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change. They take the scientific evidence as the reasonable, rational basis for making decisions about this issue, and claim, that except for a very few contrary “scientists,’ there is consensus on the deleterious role of human activities. Many of the deniers, starting with a position that government should not interfere with the workings of the free market, hear a threat to that and respond accordingly. Calling them unreasonable does not and, according to Westen, will not change their minds and actions.

This behavior is consistent with the new models of rationality I recently wrote about. The first, from an article reporting on the work of two French researchers, Sperber and Mercier, had the provocative headline, “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth.” “Weapon” referred to the use of reason as a way to win arguments rather than its paradigmatic description—a thought process based on a set of logical steps based on information gleaned from the senses. A short time later, the NYTimes published an op-ed piece, based on this story. Writing in his occasional column, “The Stone,” philosopher Gary Gutting, points to the self-contained inconsistency in the article and in the claim of the French researchers that their theory is the right one. If one uses their own arguments, then the claim that their work tells the truth about reason is no more than another attempt to convince people of their claims, and bears no relationship to the “real” truth.

Gutting, then, provides a philosopher’s view that this apparent internal inconsistency is explainable and doesn’t obviate their claims. He writes:

But how do I justify a belief and so come to know that it’s true?  There are competing philosophical answers to this question, but one fits particularly well with Sperber and Mercier’s approach.  This is the view that justification is a matter of being able to convince other people that a claim is correct, a view held in various ways by the classic American pragmatists (Peirce, James and Dewey) and, in recent years, by Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas.

The key point is that justification — and therefore knowledge of the truth — is a social process.  This need not mean that claims are true because we come to rational agreement about them.  But such agreement, properly arrived at, is the best possible justification of a claim to truth.  For example, our best guarantee that stars are gigantic masses of hot gas is that scientists have developed arguments for this claim that almost anyone who looks into the matter will accept.

Much earlier than this work, the Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana, made an almost identical claim in a 1988 article entitled, “Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument,” published in The Irish Journal of Psychology, republished at this link. It is an absolutely fascinating, but difficult, paper well worth reading. For me, he makes the most compelling argument about the shape of reality. His article opens with this challenge:

I claim that the most central question that humanity faces today is the question of reality. And I claim that this is so, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, because every thing that we do as modern human beings, either as individuals, as social entities, or as members of some non-social human community, entails an explicit or implicit answer to this question as a foundation for the rational arguments that we use to justify our actions.

Just as Stone writes, the key factor in social interactions is the way we justify our explanations for the way the world is, including the actions we take within it. Actions include the speech acts we make, such as asserting that something is so, requesting something from others, or promising to do something. Maturana distinguishes two non-overlapping explanatory paths which he calls: objectivity-without-parenthesis and objectivity-in-parenthesis. The first is the everyday belief in a Cartesian, objective world that we apprehend and employ in our reasoning independently from our history as observers. This also goes by the name of objective reality, technical rationality, and more. Maturana writes:

In this explanatory path, the entities assumed to exist independently of what the observer does, as well as those entities that arise as constructs from these, constitute the real, and anything else is an illusion. In other words, in this explanatory path, to claim that a given statement is an illusion is to deny it reality and to negate its validity.

This mode is the norm in our society. When people depart from this mode they can be delegitimized by those that believe that they hold the genuine truth. This holds great import for sustainability as flourishing because as Maturana writes, “It is in this explanatory path that a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” When those making these claims are the powerful in a society, domination follows. The Enlightenment creators thought that their philosophy of “truth” based on this new, objective form of reality would free human beings from the historic domination of church dogma. Not quite; power still lurks in the background in the differential legitimacy given to the institutions invoked as the source of truth; science, religion, or simply one’s gut feeling. Domination greatly diminishes the possibility of flourishing, and so also sustainability.

Maturana’s title suggests that rationality is not some disconnected mental process that will come up with the same outcome independent of the immediate context, but depends on the immediate and past contexts of the parties involved. In his book with Franscisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, the authors claim that listening is an act of interpretation based on the listener’s mood and history, not merely a logical reconstruction of the information in the message. This claim supports the recent reported findings that people are not “rational” in argumentative situations, rather they find reasons that fit their case, not necessarily those that would stand up in a “scientific” debate. The compelling argument replaces the ‘correct” one. There is little or no chance that the parties will ever agree. Westen, in his book, contrasts the rational framework historically associated with Democratic campaign rhetoric with the emotive framework of much Republican campaigning, and gives evidence that emotionally held, already established postures tend to prevail.

In a highly contested political context, such as exists in the US today, deadlock and “extortion” are the obvious results. Obama appears to be a rationalist, in Maturana’s objectivity-without-parenthesis sense, and must be baffled by the failure of his arguments to convince the public of their correctness. In the political arena of sustainability, this explanation of rationality has been used to explain the failure of recent “campaigns” by advocacy groups to convince the public of the dangers ahead from continued global warming.

Maturana and others, including Jurgen Habermas as noted above, have developed an alternate form of reasoning based on objectivity-in-parenthesis, which accepts that reality is created through a person’s life experience and emerges through social interactions. The world appears as the same to many people, not because it has some eternal form outside of their consciousness, but because they have been socialized in a common culture and have adopted the same set of basic beliefs and norms. I’ll add a few more sentences from the Maturana paper, but warn you that they are difficult to follow.

In the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, existence is constituted with what the observer does, and the observer brings forth the objects that he or she distinguishes with his or her operations of distinction as distinctions of distinctions in language. Moreover, the objects that the observer brings forth in his or her operations of distinction arise endowed with the properties that realise the operational coherences of the domain of praxis of living in which they are constituted. In the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, the observer constitutes existence with his or her operations of distinctions. For these reasons, the observer knows in the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis that he or she cannot use an object assumed to exist as an independent entity as an argument to support his or her explaining. Indeed, I call this explanatory path the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis precisely because of this, and because as such it entails instead the recognition that it is the criterion of acceptability that the observer applies in his or her listening that determines the reformulations of the praxis of living that constitute explanations in it.

Sustainability can come forth only in a reality coming from this latter mode. Ultimately it depends on finding a common set of values and a non-dominating way of settling disputes about facts and norms. Not every single person needs to agree, but the bulk of society must change its behavior to attain consistency with a set aligned with, not opposed to, sustainability. Maturana continues his article with an argument that the mode of rationality and model of reality one adopts is an outcome of one’s emotional state or mood.

From all this, it follows that the reality we live depends on the explanatory path we adopt, and that this in turn depends on the emotional domain in which we enter at the moment of explaining. Thus, if we are in an assertive mood, and we want to impose our views on the other without reflection, de facto negating him or her, or if we are directly in an emotion that negates him or her, we find ourselves operating in the explanatory path of objectivity-without-parenthesis. If, on the contrary, we are in the emotion of acceptance of the other and in the mood of reflection, we find ourselves operationally in the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis. It follows, then, that the kind of reality that we live as a domain of explanatory propositions, reflects at any moment the flow of our interpersonal relations and what sort of co-ordinations of actions we expect to take place in them. Finally, from the perspective of the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, this is so regardless of whether we are aware of it or not because it is constitutive of our operation in the human biology of observing.

His two opposing moods or emotions reflect prevailing moods in America today. The dominant one is narcissistic, self-centered, materialistic, and unaccepting of the “other.” Having dominates Being; actions are inauthentic and unsatisfying. Being, with its consequential authentic actions and caring, empathetic relationships, is the only course to a consensus on the kinds of change we must bring forth for sustainability. Those that seek sustainability must learn to adopt arguments that can be heard by those who would do nothing. These cannot be the usual rational, “obvious” stories; we must create a whole new convincing story that can be heard. My book was a very small beginning, but it will take far more than I can offer.