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If Reason Dies, So Goes Civilization

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Is there an insoluble glue that sustains what we call civilization, without which everything disintegrates? Okay, beyond breathable air, climate dynamics, electricity or gravity. Ordained commandments by divisive religions or tribal cultures routinely cleave the unity they claim to promote (recall the "human family").  National boundaries, amplified by domestic scrums, only provide the continuity of nasty, oppositional factions and parties. Oddly, the globe's vast, international transport systems defeat time, distance, and space without fostering vital species connectedness. We may all breathe the same air, indeed the same molecules, but curiously we exhale segregation, even estrangement.

Don't insatiable capitalistic fingers insinuate the globe, facing surprisingly minimal resistance while noodling for resources and untapped markets? What nook or cranny, except remote Bhutan, seriously defies Gross National Product to measure progress, let alone happiness? Yet the money octopus is more the effect than the cause, leveraging breakthrough technology, in turn the offspring of science and research. Here we come to the root of the root since applied knowledge is nothing without reason, testing and confirmation. Reason hardly makes the world go 'round, but it fuels our species dominance and whatever passes for progress.

Here is no unqualified defense of what reason (or technology) hath wrought, as negatives of late swamp positives. Even old technology like the telephone, the miracle that connects billions instantly, rings with surveillance. Further, one doesn't have to glorify reason to favor it over the true enemy in our midst -- unreason -- flush with racial superiority, nationalistic frenzies, and knee-jerk militarism that turns troubled nations into rubble.

Enlightenment Flickers

Call me naive, but I posit the Age of Enlightenment rationality still separates modern times (and advances) from medieval fixations. No longer does any absolute, communal faith fulfill all human potential, especially when new truths eviscerate the illusion man is the measure of all things. Wisdom (and biology) define kinship with (soul-less) life forms, despite our presumptions to the contrary.  If scriptural dictates, plus crude sensory perception, still reigned, we'd be doubly misinformed. Not only does our tiny earth not center this solar system: we don't center anything but our own vanity. More liberating still, there is no center, or up or down, nor ever confirming otherwise. Species-saving humility surfaces to know we spin through a backwater of space, altogether enhancing our modest magnificence.

However belatedly, reason and science will continue to exile our worst superstitions, logical fallacies and cognitive biases -- the sort dragged out to defend creationism claptrap, climate denial, unregulated guns, or free market perfection. It is reason, and research, that exposes smoking as poison, lead as dangerous, or shoddy food production that threatens health and welfare. Let us rejoice at absurd follies long behind us, like misreading comets, plagues or eruptions as divine punishment. The dynamic of cause and effect, however complex, answers to reason, just as obscure "mysteries" (like electricity or radiation) help cure disease.

All in all, those of us who benefit from modern life (longer, healthier life-spans, better food and housing, superior transport, inexhaustible entertainment) should thank, before any transcendent beings, gutsy, human brainpower. Not just logic and precision informing method but imaginative brilliance that trumps regressive leaps of faith. That rationality is open to misuse does not invalidate its power, especially to defeat modern superstitions, whether dumb denials, elaborate conspiracy thinking or dismal jeremiads.

Progress Plods Ahead

Before writing off today's status quo as beyond redemption, compare modern bondage to prior, painful, literal subjections. Though murderous genocide makes more headlines, zealots kill fewer neighbors per Steven Pinker's hard numbers than earlier times, especially about which invisible deity deserves prayers. Sure, we can indict modern injustices but let us also acknowledge how much routine, horrendous past abuses are dead and buried.

Today's dominant belief systems are noxious -- national exceptionalism, the myth of endless material progress, the calculated blindness of "us vs. them" -- but what about smug white supremacy, entrenched slavery, genocidal manifest destiny, or inquisitions that damned or killed non-believers? That enduring, well-heeled anti-intellectualism persists is no small challenge, but its persistence does not end the age of reason. I welcome moronic opponents, whether climate denials, evolution-haters, or Obamacare distorters, who strangle their own credibility with lies, distortion and propaganda.

If Not Rationality, What?

No, reason cannot lock in ultimate meaning, nor justify God's existence, nor rationalize gruesome tragedies. But contradiction-aware thinking, honoring articulation, logic, and tested empiricism, civilizes discourse. Reason does not deliver fixed truth, nor claims to encompass reality. And yet, per Carlos Ruiz Zafón, "It's impossible to initiate a rational dialogue with some one about beliefs and concepts if he has not acquired them through reason. It doesn't matter whether we are looking at God, race, or national pride."

It turns out you have to understand, then honor reason to embrace its glory. Reason is a skill-set cultivated by centuries of human thought that redeems itself by refusing perfect alignment with "what's out there." Or deep inside. Whereas faith relishes comforting absolutes, reason reveres only the absolute need to doubt nearly everything, then seek clearer insights and explanations.  

Old maps conceded that beyond our knowledge: "here be dragons."  Well, dragons emerge as monsters of irrationality or opportunities for reason to blaze forth. Thus even theologians link reason with virtue, per Aquinas, declaring we only have "free choice to the extent" we are rational. That, despite Oscar Wilde's caution, "Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason." Or this from Erich Fromm, "The history of man is a graveyard of great cultures that came to catastrophic ends because of their incapacity for planned, rational, voluntary reaction to challenge." In the end Lars von Triet captures what truly threatens the world we know: "If one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart."

(Article changed on April 24, 2014 at 15:28)

 

Educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English) Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. From '92-02 he did marketing (more...)
 

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Faith, rigid ideology, Biblical literalism, mystic... by Robert S. Becker on Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 at 1:00:00 PM
Rationality  should though be  valued eq... by Mark Sashine on Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 at 2:07:34 PM
I was careful not to anoint reason or users of rea... by Robert S. Becker on Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 at 11:15:24 PM
This is a Romanesque view- that way  Ancient ... by Mark Sashine on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 9:15:49 AM
I think you mean in the Roman style.  "Romane... by Robert S. Becker on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 11:34:07 AM
Is reason a collective act or an individual act?He... by Charles Roll on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 2:35:18 AM
There are many variables including chance that wil... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 11:32:22 AM
the "rationality" of collective suicide is a contr... by Charles Roll on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 1:59:42 AM
Eisenhower nixed the US plan to bomb Russia in the... by Charles Roll on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 2:59:57 AM
Yes. I understand this much now. Reason would have... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 8:21:56 AM
Decision making (how to address, then act against ... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 10:25:54 AM
Extremely well written article and points made.Per... by Daniel Geery on Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 at 2:58:54 PM
Thanks for appreciating the writing.  Some we... by Robert S. Becker on Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 at 11:12:19 PM
Robert,    I appreciate your taking... by Mark Whittington on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 12:15:26 AM
DNA may not be a matter of chance but a strange se... by Robert S. Becker on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 12:39:07 PM
Robert, you are a deep thinker.  I am not equ... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 3:40:53 AM
Thanks for the compliment on writing, no easy task... by Robert S. Becker on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 12:25:59 PM
One thing I must say is this.  I have always ... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 1:57:04 PM
A Good and useful comment this. (Pragmatic respons... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:12:08 PM
Hmmm....  Emotion such as wanting to feel you... by Philip Pease on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 12:48:51 PM
The baby cries; the adult responds appropriately. ... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 2:07:11 PM
Where did I outlaw emotion or other less rational ... by Robert S. Becker on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 2:50:40 PM
The atomic bomb was a brilliant achievement of sci... by Philip Pease on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 7:01:25 PM
"The atomic bomb was a brilliant achievement of sc... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:32:57 AM
I don't see a conflict and for me you confuse diff... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 10:33:29 AM
"The atomic bomb was a brilliant achievement of sc... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 4:07:16 PM
Ooops! Correction.""...and using it to achieve vic... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 4:14:09 PM
If no war is reasonable, then your sense of morali... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 6:25:09 PM
Good points Robert. I believe self defense is reas... by Daniel Penisten on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 3:31:17 PM
Robert? I don't think you "outlawed emotion" at al... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:54:34 PM
Excuse my sensitivity but I spend more hours than ... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 6:17:24 PM
I doubt that we're far apart when I offer a slight... by Jim Arnold on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 7:26:27 PM
You suggest "Maybe reason is best thought of as th... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:44:37 AM
We could denigrate tool-making by thinking of exam... by Jim Arnold on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 7:39:36 AM
It appears he is saying this is the best we can do... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 8:29:08 AM
Our Pal Palsimon wrote here:"It appears he is sayi... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 5:07:22 PM
Well Daniel I came to terms with religion in my yo... by Pal Palsimon on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 6:22:33 AM
I am afraid you only got half of my position, elev... by Robert S. Becker on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 9:55:02 AM
Robert I have come to realize I will never complet... by Pal Palsimon on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 12:49:09 AM
"Never" is a long time and you are too modest. Thi... by Robert S. Becker on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 12:40:37 PM
..."not from reason but something less logical, li... by Pal Palsimon on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 4:26:09 AM
Good morning Pal.You have shared: "...I was only t... by Daniel Penisten on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 1:34:38 PM
See my post above to Robert, and now I seem, I thi... by Pal Palsimon on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 4:29:37 AM
Guess the Machiavelli post   was somethi... by Pal Palsimon on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 4:46:54 AM
Pal writes: "I was just exasperated about how many... by Daniel Penisten on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 1:44:56 PM
Don't know what I was saying here. Of course we al... by Pal Palsimon on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 6:44:23 AM
Yes. "Spirals". They appear to be circles from cer... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 4:28:46 PM
Whew! Well said. This comment took me to a new...e... by Daniel Penisten on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 4:17:44 PM
 "It's impossible to initiate a rational dia... by Derryl Hermanutz on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 8:16:42 PM
Yes. These are good reasons why our laws must be w... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Apr 24, 2014 at 8:34:16 PM
"David Hume wrote, "Reason is, and ought only to b... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:23:35 AM
If one looks at human nature one finds humans are ... by Philip Pease on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 11:35:13 AM
"Mr Becker thinks it is the lack of reasoning/thin... by Robert S. Becker on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 11:29:13 PM
Excellent, on point, great Hume quote that's remin... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 11:18:01 AM
Well Robert Becker, I told you I would become conf... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:45:31 AM
Some sage somewhere must have said that "confusion... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 11:02:41 AM
Jon Stewart with philosophic intonations on irrati... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Apr 25, 2014 at 11:44:51 AM
noun: reason; 1. a cause, explanation, o... by Daniel Penisten on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 2:53:22 PM
At some point I was thinking I knew so much law fr... by Pal Palsimon on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 3:10:49 PM
I have this nagging feeling that "logic" lacks "so... by Daniel Penisten on Sunday, Apr 27, 2014 at 12:19:33 AM
Rationality is the quality or state of being reas... by Daniel Penisten on Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 2:54:43 PM