Sunday, October 21, 2007

TRUE reason can offend a LOT of people

The problem with saying that I live my life by reason (or, at least, that I always attempt to apply reason, common sense, rationality to all philosophical problems) is that almost everyone will say that they believe the exact same thing about themselves! Ask a moderately intelligent creationist (yes, I know what an oxymoron that would appear on the surface) how he feels about "reason" or "rationality" and he will probably expound on their virtues. In addition, there are also a lot of other folks who share most of my primary positions and yet don’t fully apply reason to their stance. They arrived at a similar political/philosophical place to my own but it was not exclusively a result of rational thought. I have a small handful of examples.

The environment is a major concern for most reasonable people. Good stewardship of our planet should be all of our concerns. And yet, how many are willing to thoroughly examine the use of nuclear energy as a possible source of fuel for society? It might not be the best way to go. But, then again, it may be. It, at the very least, must be carefully but completely considered. Those in the environmental movement who adamantly refuse to bring the issue to the table, can hardly be said to employ rational thought. Another issue here is the magnitude of the danger from global warming and pollution we face. No reasonable person can deny the fact of global warming or that it can have disastrous effects on our planet. But the key word in the previous sentence was “can” – as opposed to “will”. Science is in consensus about what is going on with anthropic global warming. There is not complete agreement on “how soon” or “how bad”, in regards to the effects. That said, more and more scientific evidence is mounting that should spur us in to actions that should far exceed our concerns about terrorists or any other human matter at this time.

Most reasonable people agree on a woman’s right to choose concerning her body and the future (or non-future) of her pregnancy. While it is a very reasonable position that mere conception does not equal human life, does this mean that there is no moral issue, particularly as the pregnancy progresses to late term? A blastocyst is not a person. But can we say the same for a fetus in the 8th month? While one may still claim “life starts at birth”, it becomes somewhat problematic when one considers that at this point a cesarean operation would result in a human being. To say there is no moral issue here is to deny the use of reason. Also, consider the man’s right to choose. While rational thought leads us to say that no man should be able to cause a woman to have a child against her will, regardless of his desires for a child, there is every reason to think he should have something to say about being a father. A reasoned approach would be to say that if a woman (who can freely choose abortion) chooses to bring her pregnancy to full term, the man should be able to insist on aborting his fatherhood. Proponents of abortion rights suddenly loose their acute reasoning abilities when this obvious point is made.

Reason quickly reveals that the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq is misguided (at the very least). Anti-war critics rightly protest our military actions there (and worry with good reason about future similar ventures in Iran or elsewhere). But does this mean that we scorn those who advocate the use of violence as one of the tools against terrorism? A reasoned debate would discuss the use of military forces, directed at specific terrorist targets located in various locations around the world. Common sense should lead to the fact that attacking nations and attempting to install democracy (particularly on the faulty grounds of an imagined link to terrorist networks and an equally fallacious claim of nuclear intentions) can not be a viable way to combat terrorist groups; but planned violence directed against those who would themselves do violence based on their religious beliefs must be considered. Sloganeering "Peace" is not a well reasoned position on terrorism.

Science as relates to human nature has been a hotbed for philosophical debate over the last century and figures to continue into the future. There is no cause to fear what science can tell us about ourselves; as individuals or as groups. The fact is (as every reasonable person knows), we are evolved. And we evolved as species, races and sexes in a multitude of ways. As fair minded people, we want equality for ourselves and others. This is a highly reasonable goal for cognitive creatures evolved in a network of reciprocal altruism. But it defies reason to think that equality means there are no innate differences in races and sexes. While many people are deeply satisfied with research such as that shows biological linkage to sexual preference, some of these same people revile studies that demonstrate a genetic component in intelligence, emotions, and physical abilities. It is an unjustified fear which permits the rejection of science selectively in cases where it is thought science encourages racism or sexism. Science can tell us things about how the real universe is, but not what we should do about it. The fact of our differences is completely unrelated to our intellectual decision to treat everyone equally. All behaviors are on a continuum. Reason teaches that while Group Y may have more of a propensity towards some ability or behavior, anyone from Group X might be much further along that continuum than the average member of Group Y. The only reasonable solution is to treat all the same. One thing that would defy reason, common-sense and rational thinking, would be the denial of innate human nature and the grand variety it entails.

The four examples I gave could be greatly expanded upon. Nearly everyone thinks of themselves as striving to be rational thinkers. Certainly it is a major goal for those of us who are of the secular humanist community. But only by forcing ourselves to set aside our pet convictions and continue to explore with open minds all sides of any issue will we be privy to the wisdom gleaned from true reason. I have no doubt that some who think of themselves as rationalists will be offended one or more of the propositions above. But to ignore this warning, in favor of uninspected world-views, would be to open us to the same disdain we reserve for the so-called "reason" of a creationist.


EnoNomi said...

Interesting and thought provoking article.

You bring up an intriguing point about the rights of either parent in deciding to abort their role. I think there are also other factors that need to be weighed in a rational discussion such as rights of the child, once the child has become an actual separate individual, and rights of the community being impacted if either parents decide to abort their role. I agree such complicated issues should be discussed and debated in a more rational and less emotional realm. Perhaps then we could actually see consensus building in the media and politics instead of just polarizing dribble.

Unknown said...

Great post, John.

We don't live in a utopia and probably never will, so no matter what we decide as a society there are going to be times when we're choosing "the lesser of two evils."

There are very few issues (if any) that are black and white and there are consequences to our actions. Part of our role as rationalists should be to understand the flaws and consequences of our personal beliefs and understand why we think one option is better than another (or 5 other options as it's not usually two options).

The Exterminator said...

Evo, you said: A reasoned approach would be to say that if a woman (who can freely choose abortion) chooses to bring her pregnancy to full term, the man should be able to insist on aborting his fatherhood. Proponents of abortion rights suddenly loose their acute reasoning abilities when this obvious point is made.

In what way is the example above a "reasoned" approach? The father cannot abort his fatherhood because nature doesn't work that way. That's the reasoned approach. Your approach is legalistic, but not reasoned.

John Evo said...


I'd rather not give a full reply to this until I understand your complaint better.

So, to clarify my position - Abortion is a choice that only the potential mother can make. The father-to-be has nothing to say about it according to most laws (and certainly not in the minds of most feminists). I'm fine with this.

According to most of these same people, a man should not have the right to opt out in any sense. I believe it is reasonable to provide the same opportunity to a male that you provide to a female. He can not (in the sense of nature, opt out of being a father). Yes, it is a legal distinction of not being a father. Why is it that you feel this view is not a reasoned view? Can we not use reason in dealing with legalities?

In this aspect, to be clear, I'm not dealing with the moral issue of abortion. I do believe there is a moral issue and common-sense would dictate that we not pretend there is not, but that I gave two abortion related examples of the use of reason and this one that you have highlighted was not meant to tackle the morality issue.

I'm probably misunderstanding your dissent. Please clarify when you get a chance.

John Evo said...

I've re-read the entire paragraph and I think I do understand the problem.

You are perhaps getting hung-up on my phrase "abort his fatherhood". If I tell you I invented that concept and that all I'm saying is - just as a woman can decide that she doesn't want the baby, so should the man be able to (without forcing an abortion) - would we then have an understanding?

The Exterminator said...

Well, after your response to the abortion thing, I had to ask myself what bothered me so much about this post and inspired an almost instanteous negative reaction. I'll get to that a few paragraphs down.

My first complaint is that you're using "reason" as a vague word. To go back to the example: I can see, from a legal viewpoint, that your argument about a father is "reasoned." However, it's not "reason"able to suggest that a father-to-be is coequal with a mother-to-be in the biological sense. So, since both of us could use "reason" to arrive at different conclusions -- which is not necessarily to say that our conclusions would be different if we were discussing this issue over a beer -- I think you need to use another example or another word.

So let's take another example from your post. You and I can make the usual arguments, which are so fucking obvious to us, that the entire Iraq endeavor is un"reason"able. To me, the war's supporters are completely full of crap and always have been. However, I think it's possible to make a reasoned argument in favor of the war -- although you and I might not accept it as "reason"able.

So maybe reason is relative. Maybe there are many instances in which reason can support two opposing viewpoints. Or three, four, or more. I think your post acknowledges this, but you're not satisfied.

OK, to finally get to my point, the thing that gnawed at me when I read this originally: Yes, there are many ways to use one's reason. I wholeheartedly agree that we should all force ourselves "to set aside our pet convictions and continue to explore with open minds all sides of any issue." (Nicely put, by the way.) I'm just not convinced that there's any such thing as true reason, as opposed to false reason. Oh, there's non-reason, which is what all religionists must ultimately resort to when scientific evidence fails them; we call that faith. But is there true reason? That phrase makes me shudder. It smacks so much of totalitarian thinking that it zapped my subconscious and made me post a trivial comment before I even knew why I was disturbed by what I'd read.

John Evo said...

Yes. I see what you are saying. I agreed with it even before you said it.

I guess my idea of "true" reason is not so much that it delivers an absolute and unalterable result, but by it's very nature (much like science) is falsifiable and therefore subject to continued tests (mind experiments on the part of the practitioner of reason). Also, when on practices my notion of “true” reason, one would not just take it up to point "C" by way of "A" and "B", even if "C" was where you trying to get to. True reason, again like science, would continue to operate by taking any given proposition up to new levels (maybe even ones you had no interest in going to originally).

“True” reason may even be a redundancy (and perhaps THAT is what irks you… I’m not speaking for you; just a guess). But it was just my way of clarifying what I think one has to do with reason if you really want to embrace it.

Wow. This is all too philosophical for me. I think I'll stick to science and politics. Watch the Sean B. Carroll video!

The Exterminator said...

You know, John, I think we actually agree. Is either one of us surprised?

I was just uncomfortable with the phraseology "true ... anything." Sounded too much like "true believer" to me.

By the way, I look forward to watching the Evo-Devo video, although I can't do it right now. (I'm determined to finish Lamb before I go to sleep. I can't wait to find out whether the hero gets nailed in the end.)

Kellygorski said...

My response parallels Ordinary Girl's. Ugh. I hate when people beat me to the expression of my own opinion.

I'm going to sulk now.

John Evo said...

"You know, John, I think we actually agree. Is either one of us surprised?"

No. And I'm not surprised that you brought up a valid challenge. That's the heart of the Exterminator. You're a gadfly! And you forced me to think about what I wrote and clarify it.

John Evo said...

OG (and Kelly)!

I think your opinions might reflect a more softly worded version of Exterminator's. I hope my response to him also helps to clarify the issue of "black and white" - particularly my line that begins "I guess my idea of "true" reason is not so much that it delivers an absolute and unalterable result,"