by Jeremy Egerer 7/17/16
When a magazine like The Atlantic asks its readers whether they think reason or emotions are currently dominating the public discourse, I’m worried to see what the response is. Not only because I have very little faith in the people who are giving the answer, but because I have very little faith in the quality of the question.
The most important thing to start with is that we can’t reason without our emotions, because without our emotions, we can’t have a reason to reason. There’s no good reason to steer clear of anything that doesn’t upset us, and there’s no good reason to attempt anything that doesn’t attract us (unless it’s a means to another end that does). The whole of our lives is based on emotions like sadness and lust and disgust; and the question we really ought to be asking isn’t whether reason or emotion is better, but whether one reason is better than another for the way we indulge our emotions.
Few people who use the word reason in the current sense (and I refer specifically to people like Neil Degrasse Tyson, who know everything about science and apparently nothing about the humanity of scientists) are aware that there is no such thing as pure reason, except in an ideal sense used primarily by logicians and especially by bad philosophers (and here I’m referring to Kant*). Reason, after all, is an ordering of multiple desires and an organized attempt at getting them, which means there are good reasons and bad reasons; and reasons that are useful for some people and very painful for others; and some that are good for almost all of us (think the laws of nature), and some that are good for only a few (think a government of crony capitalism). And the funny thing about the whole matter which our Men of Reason have failed to understand is that the only way to reason with someone is by giving him your reasons and hoping he’ll listen. You can never make him reasonable by asking him to be A Reasonable Man, because asking everyone to be reasonable isn’t actually asking everyone to be reasonable. It’s asking them to have your reasons, and to be interested only in your interests.
And this leads us into the other thing that’s so comical about the reasoner’s call to reason: that he automatically assumes that (in his own sense) he’s being reasonable. He believes so strongly in his beliefs, that aside from the question of religion, he rarely questions whether he’s basing any reasons on blind faith and willful assumptions; and he has so much faith in himself, that he really believes that if only the rest of mankind were to be reasonable, they would all instantly agree with all of his ideas. We have bad news for him. Every baby is an atheist, the Catholic Schoolmen of the Middle Ages were obnoxiously logical, Neil Degrasse Tyson is actually fallible, everyone begins knowing nothing, none of us ever knows everything**, our future selves will disagree with our current selves on some issues, all of us are biased in some way or another, and each of us is prone to violating our consciences. The ideal of reasoning, that we can 1) learn abstract principles from our past and use them to wisely plan our futures, and 2) balance them with any contradictory principles and interests, and 3) actually carry our principles out against any unforeseen obstacles or the possibility of personal weakness is a beautiful ideal, and one worth struggling for — but it has almost always been only an ideal. And the only thing that has gotten in the way of it is the people who thought of it in the first place.
The problem with the modern era isn’t that we feel too strongly, but that we think too lowly about our feelings, and too highly of our ability to reason. And I think this because of the following reasons. Our “men of reason” are not our men of manly feeling and passion, and our men of manly feeling and passion are not our “men of reason.” We believe that having access to information is the same thing as having wisdom. We frequently refuse to confirm our theories in historical precedents, and we laugh at holding timeless problems up to the written scrutiny of the ancients. We confuse nice ideas with good ideas. We confound newer things with better things. We judge men not by what they can do, but rather by what they permit. We believe too easily in our teachers and professors; we refuse to really listen to the arguments of our enemies; and we think that scientists and statisticians can tell us more about ourselves than ourselves. We live in an age of faith — even if our faith is in the faithlessness of atheism. We worship at the altar of our fallible and sexless wonks. We live in social superstructures theorized in books that few of us have read and even fewer understand. We make fun of the Dark Ages and never wonder why we also don’t have a Cicero. We laugh at The Inquisition, and then jail heretics because they won’t admit to the thirtieth gender.
We called the eighteenth century The Age of Reason, and now most Americans are too dumb to read eighteenth-century books, too boring to appreciate our great-grandparents’ rhetoric, and too effeminate to feel the sentiments of our ancestors. And we ask ourselves, in light of the above, whether this means that reason or emotion is winning. I’d say, regardless of what the editors at The Atlantic believe, that reason is winning — and that we got where we are because we picked all the wrong reasons.
Jeremy blogs at Letters to Hannah. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. • (504 views)