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If Reason Dies, So Goes Civilization

By       Message Robert S. Becker     Permalink
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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.

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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?

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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)


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For a decade, Robert S. Becker's rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, messaging and frameworks, now featured author at OpEdNews, Nation of Change and RSN. He appears regularly at Dissident Voice, with credits (more...)

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