The Age of Bad Reasons

LettersToHannahby Jeremy Egerer7/17/16
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. • (853 views)

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25 Responses to The Age of Bad Reasons

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Welcome Jeremy to our family of prescient geniuses and brights. Well, we don’t really think of ourselves that way. Perhaps we are a candle in the darkness. But Jeremy has given me permission to post any and all of his articles. That is very generous of him. I particularly liked this one.

    I suspect he is more libertarian than is my preference. But he shows much non-libertarian sense in this particular article In fact, I haven’t read a better treatment of the subject that is this concise.

    Now…here’s my problem. I’m only a one-man band. I’ve had several kind people say “Go ahead and publish whatever you want.” And I just don’t have the time to read through everyone’s stuff. If someone wishes to assist, they could read through a few of Jeremy’s essays at Letters to Hannah and send me links to a few gems.

    And for those who have given me carte blanche permission in the past to publish their stuff, all I can say is you need to explicitly send me something. Send me something every week or month. But I just don’t have time to read through people’s archives. This one-man band may beat a loud drum from time to time, but I can’t march down every literary alley.

    But I do mean to have the best of the best here. Welcome, Jeremy.

    • Jeremy says:

      Thank you, and good to be here! I’ll send you some of my personal favorites and see what you think — and looking forward to reading the other things you post!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I was just reading your review of the movie, “God’s Not Dead.” Whether you are religious or not is immaterial to me in regards to movie reviews. A lot of these Christian movies are somewhat insufferable. I haven’t seen this one in particular but it sounds the type — and me being a Kevin Sorbo fan from his “Legendary Journey” days. He sounds like a great guy but great guys can still produce (or act in) schmaltz.

        From your review:

        In short, it has the feel that God is more of a public campaign than a spiritual reality;

        I’m not a joiner by nature, so it’s always been a bit of a turn-off to me that “God” often seemed little more than a cultural factor. And much of religion could be people “faking it.” It’s not considered cricket to say so. But that could be the case. How else can so many Christians be for Trump, for example?

        Right now I’m a Sinatratarian. I believe in God but question if that has any real relevance to my life. God seems as distant as the Federal government used to be in the days of John Quincy Adams. And yet I don’t bash religion because I’m no longer (as) angry at God, which is what much of atheism is about (including, of course, being a cultural clique with conceits of having Really Great and Superior Thoughts).

        When one has chipped off the arrogance, atheism has no place for a human being. Even so, I get a kick out of someone puncturing these sometimes horrible Christian films. I might post that one and get a discussion going…and give me a reason to watch it.

  2. SkepticalCynic SkepticalCynic says:

    I have no idea what this man is trying to get me to understand, none. BUT, I get his last sentence and must agree with him on it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I thought this was pretty clear:

      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.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Reason is a very general term with multiple meanings. It can refer to why we do tihins (and bad reasons can lead to bad actions). It can refer to thinking as opposed to emoting, though the quality of our reasoning isn’t guaranteed. (Too many today seem to have a poor grasp of basic logc — e.g., Elizabeth Warren aka Blonde Squaw With Empty Head, explaining why she considers herself an Indian or why the creators of businesses owe everything to the rest of us).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think Jeremy articulated a truth rarely hear. In essence, it’s not a case of reason vs. emotion. It’s a matter of which emotions (desires, goals, etc.) that are reasonable and good. Perhaps only hardcore Ayn Randians think that human beings can be, and ought to be, a complete emotionless Mr. Spock.

      Reason, of course, as the “brights” use it means “We don’t believe in no religious hocus-pocus. We are reality-based in science,” says those who believe in global warming.

      What I say is that “reason” is a technique, but it’s not a goal unto itself. Hitler used ample “reason” to put masses of Jews in railway cars and transport them to concentration camps. It was, to some extent, a triumph of logistics (reason).

      Of course, reasonableness (a general calmness and lack of murderous zealousness) is an *attitude* that one very much ought to adopt. And when deciding which policies or goals we should have (as a person, a family unit, a business, a local government, etc.), a forthright consideration of actual facts should be taken into account (which we could call “reason”). We might want to fly to the moon, but do we have enough gas to do so?

      Liberals (and libertarians) want to fly to the moon. But they often don’t care if there is enough gas in the tank to get you there. For all those spouting the importance of “reason,” so many use it (as the left does “science”) as a way to try to anoint their own arguments as somehow inherently valid. But mere conceit is not “reason.”

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I understand that multiculturalists have been stunned to find that their college students don’t condemn the Holocaust. After all, Hitler may have had a reason for doing it. And if you read Julius Streicher’s conversations with Dr. Gilbert, you find that indeed they did. Demented reasons, but reasons all the same.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’ve heard about that Holocaust non-condemnation thing amongst college students. I have no idea how widespread that is. Anyone know? Is it the typical Leftist anti-Semitism propelling that? That would be ironic since even when mosts Jews roll over so far Left — to the point of discarding their authentic religion and substituting Leftism — they still can’t buy a break. Maybe they’re supporting the wrong people.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Professors have also been unhappy to learn that their PC students are sympathetic to the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War — after all, they were the rebels against the authorities (although, actually, it was a civil war within the authorities). That has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Its not the loss of logic, as Spock said in one episode of Star Trek where his Vulcan logic was impaired, “logic is a flower growing in the meadow, that smells bad”. Our friends on the progressive side believe that feelings are the same as logic. That is why arguing with them constitutes self-abuse. The only option is to defeat them, at every opportunity in any way. At the polls with votes, and when they instigate violence respond with overwhelming violence.

      This is where conservatives often fail. Progressives understand that there is only one winner and will do anything for victory. Conservatives will parse their response. It is time to realize that progressives mean to destroy our culture in any method possible.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Our friends on the progressive side believe that feelings are the same as logic. That is why arguing with them constitutes self-abuse.

        Steve, a common conservative idea is that conservatives are guided by reason (or principles) and liberals by emotion.

        I’m going to agree with Jeremy here and say that this is a false dichotomy. I just prefer the warm-fuzzy emotions of god, guns, country, Constitution, family, self-reliance, business, and things such as that. I know people (and believe me, I’m not one of them….I’d never do anything so girlish) who get a tear in their eye when, at the end of the Star Spangled Banner, the jet planes fly over. (It was just a speck of dust, I swear.)

        Liberals simply get the warm-fuzzies for stupid, inane, impractical, or just plain destructive things. Anyone can be indoctrinated into getting warm-fuzzies for bad things. Nine hundred people at Jonestown (some of them forced, as I understand, but by no means all) drank the kool-aid.

        Muslims blow themselves up for the “feelings” that influence them. There’s no escaping feelings, nor should we try to. But it’s a complex mix. When conservatives say that the left is more driven by “feelings” what I think they are saying (using clumsy and inexact language) is that liberals are more prone to dishonest and manipulative propaganda.

        Who doesn’t feel sympathy and compassion when they see a child who is handicapped in some way? You do. I do. It’s a good thing to feel this way. But if some leftist ass-wipe rolls a cripple up on stage in a wheelchair and then says, “We need to spend 50 billion more on welfare or else you hate grandma,” that’s when other things but mere emotion need to guide us.

        History. Experience. Wisdom. Measuring costs. Awareness of unintended consequences. Awareness of the pitfalls of human nature. Awareness of the inherent corruption of politics and politicians. All of these a conservative keeps in mind so that they are not carried away by demagogues.

        Regarding the rest of what you wrote, I couldn’t agree more. We on the right (or just anyone who opposes the domestic Communists who hide under various names) need to fight back. We need to be activists. We need to be community organizers. We need to do less of finding fifty ways to parse an argument (paralysis by analysis) and actually do something. By all means. Let’s do our homework so that our principles are sound and so deeply embedded that we can act and react without having to parse things fifty ways and thus paralyze ourselves. I think you make a great point in this regard, Steve. Patrick Henry did not say “Give me liberty or give me something pretty near that, as long as we aren’t impinging on anyone’s rights and don’t offend anyone.”

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Steve, a common conservative idea is that conservatives are guided by reason (or principles) and liberals by emotion.

          Do not forget the very important point of experience.

          In fact, reason left to itself often goes off on insane tangents. Why? Because all reason starts with an assumption. And human assumptions, unless they are very well grounded in human experience, i.e. history and an understanding of human nature, are apt to be simply based on emotion i.e. are purely theoretical and can be dangerous. This is particularly the case with the assumptions of the Left. One thinks of Rousseau.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          Basic libertarianism boils down to: don’t hurt people and don’t steal their stuff.

          If we could limit decisions to the elements of these concepts, which are well defined in the 10 commandments with implementation in the bill of rights and the constitution. The problem with progressives is that they cause pain and suffering with the idea that government is the source of all blessings. The sad outcome is that you and I are compelled to support someone else life style; this is called theft. The morality of the action is not changed just because the government is the middle-man.

          To accomplish this goal the progressive will, lie, defraud, steal, murder and incite like-minded minds full of mush to do the same.

          I have reserved you a place in Galt’s Gulch anytime you are ready

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I agree with not hurting people or stealing their stuff. The devil, as always, is in the details. You can’t have a society without government. You can’t have government without taxation. At one point does taxation become a kind of stealing? Clearly it does.

            And you can’t have a society without the coercion of laws. Is it “hurting people” to fine or imprison people for behavior deemed destructive and evil? Libertarians tend to jump right to their generalizations without worrying about the details.

            And in order to have a society, there will be norms and shared ideas and values. It can’t be helped. E Pluribus Unum. There will be some compulsion to support a general lifestyle. We certainly would have no problem (or should have no problem) compelling Muslims to adopt our liberalized open type of society that values individual liberty and frown upon barbaric codes such as Sharia.

            Libertarians, however, tend to run right to their generalizations which can work only inside one’s mind but never in the real world. The real world is messier. A central dynamic of American-style political philosophy is the tension between the need for order vs. individual liberty. These two are always in tension. Complete “liberty” according to libertarians is little different from anarchy. We don’t want that. Neither do we want a totalitarian state where every bloody thing is already mapped out for us, which is where we are going now.

            There’s a thing that libertarians simply don’t understand. Fire is necessary. You simply don’t want to sit too close to it, nor do you want to be too far away from it in order to gather the necessary protection of its warmth. Simplistic dogma, of course, can promise a sort of Utopian vision wherein such complicated realities are ignored by being dissolved with a stroke of a rhetorical pen.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              You are correct that many faux libertarians are utopians with little sense and most of what they say is nonsense.

              I consider myself and my libertarian friends to be rational libertarians. None of us want the complete elimination of government, however, we do expect government to confine itself to the duties assigned by the Constitution. We demand the right to defend ourselves with whatever weapons we are most able to use.

              We expect the government and the courts to enforce the statute of frauds and contracts between adults. Occam’s law is the most salient example common sense.

              We are comfortable with the laws you choose to pass, but we reserve the right to break those laws when they infringe on our liberty, and if caught to suffer the consequences. However, you have to catch me first.

              This is a part of the long conversation dating back to Magna Carta, perhaps even Moses communing with G-d in the wilderness. We may differ on how much liberty is correct, but I think we agree that the trend over the last 50 years is to take our natural rights from us.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Milton Friedman once offered a bit of sympathy to the anarchists, since that’s the direction we need to go — though we want to stop going there well short of where they do.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                We are comfortable with the laws you choose to pass, but we reserve the right to break those laws when they infringe on our liberty…

                Most laws infringe on liberty to some extent. Do we want 12 years olds being able to drink alcohol and drive on the highway? Libertarian ideology glosses over the surface of the realities of life.

                It’s no *if* in regards to restraint, but how much, for what reason, and how it is administered. I tend toward as little as possible with the individual assuming upon himself both the risks and the rewards. But that idea is not an absolute.

                About such parameters of “if,” “how much,” and “how it is administered” we should be able to have a deep and meaningful discussion. But if the whole equation is simplified into “infringement of liberty” then that’s a non-starter and why many (such as myself) do not take libertarian ideas seriously. Much of libertarianism seems to be the product of a youth cult with dreamy visions and little practical and constructive application.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I believe the episode you’re citing is the farce “I, Mudd”, in which the Enterprise crew used illogic to suppress a group of robots (basically, Jack Williamson’s Humanoids by another name), so we can’t be sure that this represented Spock’s real view. I would use the “very logical” reasoning of T’Pring in “Amok Time” as a better example of the limits of logic.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          Tim, I am not enough of a trekie to remember the particular episode, however, yes it was a farce with everything turned around, very much like life in the 21st century America. Spock has more real battle dealing with the constraints of logic and the expansion of emotion.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The only option is to defeat them, at every opportunity in any way. At the polls with votes, and when they instigate violence respond with overwhelming violence.

        I couldn’t agree with you more and wish “well-intentioned” people would wake up to this. While conservatives talk and try to show “reasonableness” the Left continues marching.

        • Tom Riehl Tom Riehl says:

          I believe in brevity, KFZ. Yes. Overwhelming violence. We know how to do it. Obama said to bring a gun to a knife fight, well we need to bring a neutron bomb. Get rid of the malignant biomass and save the infrastructure for worthy humans.

    • Rosalys says:

      “e.g., Elizabeth Warren aka Blonde Squaw With Empty Head…”

      Or how about “Chief Spreading Bull?” (I can’t take credit for that gem; I saw it on FB meme.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        My older brother and I were watching Longmire (which includes lot of Indians) the other day and we thought about what our Indian names should be. I chose “Running Bear” as sort of a double-entendre. He said that name was already taken. I said, “Then how about ‘Chief Running Buck Naked?’”

        No, I’m not a streaker. But I am a joker. Honest Injun’. So, what’s your Indian name?

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Well, I could take “He Who Yawns”, but that’s already been taken (we know him more commonly as Geronimo), so perhaps “Sleepy Bear” (I don’t sleep well at night, for a variety of reasons).

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