More Than Ever, We Need Reason


I have been taking a short break. Sorry not to let you know in advance. I am running a bit short on thoughts these days. I find it very hard to keep focused on flourishing when there is so much bad stuff going on in the world. Some of my more critical concepts are taking a beating. The tragedies in Paris and elsewhere perpetrated by Islamic terrorists show a complete absence of care and connectedness to the world. The best word I find to describe these murderers is inhuman. They lack any characteristics I would use in talking about what it means to be a human being. They live in a reality that might have been found in about 600 BCE.

While in no way equivalent to the events, I find the position being taken by the many politicians currently in and seeking office towards those human beings who are seeking a safe haven also inhuman. Surely, we are able to work through our fears. The risks posed by allowing refugees into America are less than those we take getting into an automobile. Accidents take tens of thousands of lives every year, many by drunk drivers, who have been described as terrorists behind the wheel.

The main difference between our Western cultures and those of radical Islam is the place of reason, our inheritance from the Enlightenment. The idea of reason and truth underlie the United States, although it is hard to find them in today’s public arena. Our laws are man, not God, made which is most appropriate to a secular culture. They, too, lie on a foundation of reason. They have served us well for some 300 years, even as we can observe their imperfections.

I am often critical of modern ideas, or more accurately, of modern ideologies. One way one can think about ideologies is as a collection of frozen reason. Another comes by analogy to current neuroscience as a cultural form of cognitive dissonance, that is, being conscious that what you believe does not fit the world you know by experience, but holding onto the belief anyway.

The same neuroscience leads many to argue that individual human beings are not reasonable. I’ve known that forever from experience, but it helps to have some evidence from scientific sources. This, however, is no argument to give up on cultural reasonableness, unless that points directly to the formal structure of scientific truth finding. Science is, like all other fixed belief systems, an ideology. It has gotten away without being tarred with the brush of ideology for a long time because so many results of using science to get to know how the world works have been important to what has gone for “progress.”

Even without the intractability of terrorism that has grabbed recent headlines, we moderns are being faced by increasingly obvious signs that science isn’t getting it all right. All the signs of unsustainability that I and so many others are concerned about are arising from the flaws in the models we are using to run the world. These models, like those driving economic policy, are flawed because they cannot accurately describe the real, complex world. But that does does preclude continuing to base our societies on reason, albeit not the kind of formal reasoning that underpins both philosophy and the natural and social sciences.

I have often cited the work of Humberto Maturana, who argues that the ideology of modern science, even with the objective, materialistic reality it reveals, is fundamentally dominating, as is any ideology. Ideologies are expressions of bodies of absolute beliefs about the world. It follows, as Maturana says that, “A claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” This terse sentence is never more relevant than in the absolutism of Radical Islam, but it is also to be found in many of the current strands of public conversations in the US.

The Great Depression was a time that taxed conventional reason, but was faced down by another form of reason, pragmatism, a method for understanding and coping with reality that eschews ideologies. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon. Its causes are manifold and highly interconnected—characteristics that deem it complex. We cannot cope with it through ideology. Nor can we cope by using socio-political conventional strategies. The sooner our leaders and wannabe leaders recognize that, the sooner we can start to understand and deal with the system of underlying causes. President Obama, by refusing to be ideological, has been labeled a pragmatist, but I would argue that he has not been enough of a pragmatist yet.

Bernie Sanders has been ridiculed for claiming that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism, but he is absolutely right on target. Terrible as have been the recent attacks, the global reach of climate change will cause much more damage if it is allowed to continue on its present trajectory. Even many cold-blooded technocrats, using conventional cost-risk-benefit analysis would agree.

Some argue that we should return to the ways of our founders and opt for a simpler form of governance. They miss the point. The world and the United States were always complex systems. We could ignore this for many years because both systems were relatively resilient. There were not so many people around, nor were they doing the levels of damage to the Planet that we, with our high levels of economic activity, are inflicting. That resilience allowed us to build our societies on the ideologies of modernity, but we cannot afford to do this any longer.

When ideologues are not getting the obedience they are demanding, they use an old fashioned strategy; they shout louder and louder. Unfortunately, the ensuing din tends to boggle the minds of those who might turn to the only path that can lead us towards the kind of flourishing world I envision. Now, as it has been for quite a while, we desperately need to return to a culture of reasonableness, but one only available through the mantle of pragmatism. Ideological demagoguery will only diminish the little resiliency we still possess and hasten the unintended and unpredictable consequences that might make Jared Diamond’s tales of Collapse look like bedtime stories.