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The brain behind Republican strategy

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hen I listen to the bickering in Congress over raising the debt ceiling, I'm tempted to succumb to "misology." In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, Socrates warned us not to "become misologues " There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse."

The GOP has stubbornly committed to policies that are proven failures over three decades. As conservative columnist David Brooks said recently, Republicans "have no economic theory worthy of the name."

What tempts me to misology is the continuing failure of reasonable discourse, of established facts and logic, to influence most politicians and voters.

Republicans threaten to make our country default on its financial obligations and precipitate an economic crisis. They are, as Brooks put it, "willing to stain their nation's honor" rather than accept the slightest tax increase on wealthy Americans.

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Democrats lack the courage to forcefully denounce the GOP agenda. Their complaints seem like passionless invocations of values they and their president are willing to abandon, as long as the surrender is gradual.

American voters seem caught up in the irrationality of the moment, resigned to letting politicians damage their nation's future. There is a great paradox here, one that reflects a dangerous aspect of human nature.

The recent history of our species is full of reasonable discourse that has led to great scientific and technological prowess.

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But it is also a history of massive violence and cruelty, global warfare and genocide.

Human moral and political progress lags far behind that of science and technology.

Why can't reasonable discourse prevail there too? After all, we're the only rational animals, right? Some nonhuman animals can use very rudimentary tools, and some can communicate in ways that resemble language. Yet there is such a chasm between them and us! Consider our art, our cityscapes and gleaming technological civilization.

Five million years ago, there was an ancestral species common to us and apes.

But the hairier and smaller-brained hominid species linking us to this ancestor are extinct. So we see ourselves at a great remove from apes, as if we were spirits shoe-horned into animal bodies.

But our minds really are embodied in mammalian brains. That's why the faces of kittens and puppies as well as human infants arouse nurturing feelings in us.

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As the early mammalian brain evolved in a human direction, nature didn't discard behaviors and strategies that helped our ancestral species survive. Instead, it refined them by giving the brain further capacities, such as language and thought.

The older mammalian strategies and behaviors are still there, wired into the tissues that make up what brain science calls the limbic system -- a part of our brain heavily involved in emotional experience and behavior.

That's why we so often talk about what we do in dead metaphors for fighting/fleeing, eating/drinking and sex.

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I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. I also am a regular columnist for The Danville Advocate-Messenger,the local paper in what was my home town (I now live in Connecticut. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically (more...)
 

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