Last Thursday Phil Palin argued optimistically that the resolution of the DHS budget problem was a “triumph of reason.” As usual, he gave several elegant, and if one did not look too carefully, compelling justifications for his conclusion.
I think Phil was fundamentally wrong. In my opinion what we saw in the budget dance was the triumph of power. The forces that wanted to reverse Obama’s immigration policy were too weak to overcome the Congressional forces that wanted to move on to something else.
I saw no evidence to suggest Reason (yes, I know it’s capitalized) had anything to do with it.
Unless you want to say that Power creates its own reason, its own truth.
I don’t think that’s where Palin was going.
The problem I have with Reason is its unquestioned normative dominance.
I know I’m being unreasonable when I complain about Palin’s triumph of reason simply by asserting another reason.
I know, however, if I acknowledge I’m being unreasonable, I can be forgiven – because I’m being reasonable again.
That’s the game.
“We are still living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest,” wrote Andre Breton in 1924. But he was being surrealistically silly, and therefore easy to ignore.
I don’t think reason has much to do with homeland security – at least not the interesting bits of homeland security.
Yes, it plays a role in many aspects of the scientific and administrative parts of security.
But when it comes to policy, politics, or strategy, not so much.
I run the risk here of trying to use reason to construct an argument about the limits of reason in homeland security. That path leads to a Kafkaesque madness that I’ll pretend — for now —is not attractive.
I’ll defer for the time being to the general argument about the “rationalist delusion” developed by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. (The excerpts come from pages 103-108.)
A delusion is “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”
Reason gets to decide what’s a delusion and what isn’t. How cool is that?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods…, or [for the new atheists] that brings us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods…. [It is] a claim that the rational caste (philosophers and scientists [and people who write on blogs]) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.”
Where did we in the west learn about the pre-eminent value of being reasonable? Look to the philosophers, scientists and educators for that.
But Reason gave us the internet and the iWatch and pharmaceuticals and abundant food and airplanes and so on — say the philosophers and scientists and educators. So reason’s got to be a good thing.
These Reason Advocates “believe reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”
So reason not only makes the trains run on time (if that still happens), it’s also the cause of good behavior.
Haidt reports, tangentially, on one experiment designed to test the assumption that moral philosophers – people who spend a lot of time reasoning about doing the right thing – might behave better than other people.
Turned out they do not.
One conclusion from the study Haidt describes: “[Academic] books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.”
The argument is a longer one than I am summarizing here. But Haidt’s conclusion is succinct:
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.”
In at least the social and political domains, we tend not to use reason to search for the truth. Instead, says the evidence Haidt offers, our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… ‘skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views’.”
Reasoning, says Haidt, is “more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason for reaching the conclusion.
“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”
Test the claim for yourself. In the following story by Peter Baker, which comes first your conclusion or your reasoning?
The fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.
In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”…
The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.
“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”
As someone whose religion was — and may still be — Reason, I was not easily convinced by the arguments summarized by Haidt (and other behavioral economists and psychologists). Eventually, however, his reasons and evidence have become increasingly persuasive to me. (Yes, I see Kafka’s irony again.) I believe Haidt is correct asserting the worship of Reason blinds as much as it enlightens.
What to do about this, especially in homeland security?
Haidt – and others – have ideas about how to manage the delusion enabled by Reason.
I’ll save that for another post.