Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 12, 2015

Reason resurrected from reductionism

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 12, 2015

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,–not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?–
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!

Mark Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

Jonathan Haidt, an honorable man, has caused Chris Bellavita, they are all honorable men, to doubt his long-held affection for — even worship of — Reason.  According to some readings of Haidt, the scripture, liturgy and authority of Reason is unveiled as deadly delusion.

I disagree. Rather, in the apparent death of their god they can find Reason resurrected, clarified, and even more capable.

I am not sure how Chris has viewed Reason.  But Jonathan has been prolific on the topic.  Haidt was apparently raised to understand reason as highly individualized and, if its liturgy was accurately observed, producing demonstrably dogmatic outcomes.

Consider Plato’s allegory of the cave: detach it from all the rest of the Dialogues and the whole pre-Socratic context. Haidt’s highly reductionist reason is achieved through the individual’s painful  ascent to the light and direct encounter with reality; which among other gifts, brings the enlightened to a state of patronizing disdain:

He would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?… Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? (The Republic, Book VII, Socrates to Glaucon)

Haidt has found this reason, which he long studied, attempted to master and live-out, to be a profound hypocrisy.  He has rejected it.

Haidt_social intuition model

Above is a visualization of Haidt’s alternative to reason, the Social Intuitionist Model, from a 2001 journal article entitled The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  Please envision many other participants in the social process (B, C, D, etc.) and step through all six steps as outlined. Imagine a maze (or, I would argue, labyrinth) of interconnections.

Don’t miss Haidt’s comments in the fine print, “Two additional links are hypothesized to occur less frequently: (5) the reasoned judgment link and (6) the private reflection link.”  Less frequent, perhaps, but in these links reason has been reclaimed from calcified post-Enlightenment reductionism.  This is the crucial opportunity for self-critique, critical thinking, and creativity.

For too long, too many have presumed that our social reality could be functionally framed as some Newtonian system of cause-and-effect.  This has always been a mechanistic fallacy that fails to embrace the fundamentally affective character of human experience and relationships.  It mistakes sense-making as meaning-making.  There are overlaps, but meaning requires much more than “fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data.”  Meaning may be data-informed, it is almost never data-driven.

In links 5 and 6 Haidt restores the potential of reason inasmuch as reason is anchored in community, in relationships, and in beliefs, intuitions, heuristics and prejudices. Links 5 and 6 will often be subversive to all these predispositions. Greater objectivity is possible.  But it is absolutely delusional to perceive reason can exclude the subjective. Meaning is — finally — humanistic, not algorithmic. Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.  Reason is to discern a possible path, a working hypothesis for how we can — together — engage our common context.

Reason does not reject the possibility of individual enlightenment or personal expertise.  But neither does reason grant any innate privilege to such possibilities. Aquinas wrote, “Reason in man is rather as God in the world.”  Must I be so explicit as to emphasize both reason and God are encountered in love and relationship?

If you know Shakespeare, who is the more reasonable: Brutus or Mark Antony?  I strongly perceive it is the latter.  Brutus depends too much on his own logic, his own analysis, his own strength. He becomes trapped in isolated self-contradiction.  Mark Antony engages the crowd.  He begins by acknowledging vulnerability.  He argues from feeling.  It is through this feeling that he reasons.  We see — even better, we feel — him thinking aloud with us. (First Plebeian: “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.”)

The famous eulogy is often played as cynical manipulation.  This is not the only, nor best option. Read it again and imagine Mark Antony afraid, uncertain, but finding just enough courage to give voice to his intuition, to his judgment, and as the crowd listens and responds positively to this reasoning with them, to press further than he imagined when first he began.

Worship of fallaciously reductionist reason has seriously complicated homeland security.  The national security priestly class has assumed ecclesiastical authority.  A temple-centric policy and strategy apparatus has sometimes presumed to know and impose dogma.  Acknowledging uncertainty and vulnerability can be branded as weakness or heresy.  Projecting competence and confidence, regardless of inner doubts, has become a too often unexamined habit.  Like Brutus we have trapped ourselves, even betrayed ourselves.

If the prior 844 words have fairly heard Chris Bellavita (and Jonathan Haidt) and if my response, especially where I disagree, honors the dignity of my antagonists and acknowledges the possibility I may be wrong, then I have exercised reason.  If by starting with a Shakespeare quote and continuing with Plato and Aquinas, as well as Haidt, I have effectively dissuaded others from engaging with me, then I have acted unreasonably.  To the extent I invite and involve others, I am a creature of reason.  To the extent my rhetoric or actions reject a relationship with others, I am being unreasonable.

I look forward to Part 2.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 12, 2015 @ 1:27 am

“Worship of fallaciously reductionist reason has seriously complicated homeland security. The national security priestly class has assumed ecclesiastical authority. A temple-centric policy and strategy apparatus has sometimes presumed to know and impose dogma.”

Get down to brass tacks…or, in other words, examples please.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 12, 2015 @ 1:33 am

I should note that the request is for clarification, not objection.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 12, 2015 @ 3:26 am

Arnold: Three examples:

The setting: Private and public decisionmakers are exercising a complex event, designed to discover previously unrecognized consequences. Private sector participants are working through how their pieces might be impacted and respond. Expression of ecclesiastical authority: A White House official — uninvited, actually explicitly contrary to instructions — intervenes to, essentially, explain how everything has already been anticipated, everything will be under control because of the exquisite plans emerging from the NRF and other bits of alphabet soup. The claim was patently incredible, but served to signal the private sector this was not a serious process. (There is a redemptive rest of the story, but that goes beyond your question.)

The setting: Mostly public sector decisionmakers are in a workshop attempting to engage a novel complex problem. Lots of unknowns, lots of — almost certainly — unsolvable problems. Minds are opening. Creativity is beginning to percolate. Strategic issues are being engaged. Expression of dogma: A man in a uniform uses his role as a small group rapporteur to “translate” the entire issue into the Incident Command System framework. This was not quite as absurd as the first example, but it had a similar impact in terms of suppressing the exercise of reason.

The setting: Mayor’s office in one of the nation’s largest city. Considering possible catastrophic event, policy and regulations are under development by professional staff. Someone suggests stakeholder discussions to avoid unintended consequences. Expression of Priestly Privilege: She is told that would undermine authority and independence of the process. Stakeholders can be consulted, “once we know what needs to be done.”

To abstract the examples (more directly than in my post): First, there is a desire to project authority and control in a way that excludes the meaningful participation of others. Second, there is a default to expert processes that too often obscure rather than elucidate core issues… and discourage those who are not process-geeks from involvement. I perceive in these and many other cases a presumption that “reason” is a domain for either subject-matter or process experts, rather than a more open social process.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 12, 2015 @ 5:23 am

Arnold: Another response — and apology and invitation. I am an officially “old man”. As such I am nostalgic and a bit self-indulgent. I regret — as the old are inclined to do — the passing of a once widely shared (if also, admittedly, elitist) literary patrimony. It was once possible to make a sly reference to the Bible or Homer (not Simpson) or Shakespeare or Plato or some other dead white European male and to assume many would “hear” the reference with a huge collection of cultural “hypertexts”, giving the reference much deeper and wider resonance. Such references were once generous openings. I am just old enough — and was culturally isolated enough — to know this pleasure. The patrimony was in swift decline even as I graduated from college. Now rather than an opening, it can be, I suppose, merely a pretentious, off-putting, even exclusionary device. This is not an issue that requires “philosophical chops”. This is an issue open to any aspirationally honest, self-aware and self-correcting person. I regret my literary references have suggested otherwise. Boy, one regret after another.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 12, 2015 @ 9:55 am

WOW! Interesting thread and comments!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 12, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

No regrets required. My statement was just an of-the-cuff, self-deprecatory way to open my post. I’ve been in enough work situations that have made me realize my lack of a “classical” education. But that is also an issue of my own making, since after high school I could have broadened my own reading/interests beyond those I choose – science, political science, history, etc.

Though I think you’re right in terms of changing cultural touchstones – elite or not.

Your point makes me think that one of the interesting differences between homeland and national security is the wider variety of lenses through which one can analyze or consider homeland security. Even as more issues are securitized, like climate change and humanitarian disasters, they are still tied to traditional levers of national power. Homeland security doesn’t have traditional levers, though it certainly has different tribes.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 13, 2015 @ 10:43 am

Stumbled across while doing something entirely unrelated to this blog… and barely to homeland security:

The Reasonable Person, New York Law Review, May 2012

The authors set out two legal frameworks for the standard of “reasonable”: normative and positive. The whole piece is probably more helpful to our discussion than any de-contextualized bit. But here are the set-up distinctions:

The so called Hand formula is a normative definition of reasonableness. The standard is predetermined by a particular normative commitment— namely, cost efficiency—regardless of the prevailing perception in the relevant society. According to this formula, a person’s conduct is deemed unreasonable if he or she did not take cost-effective precautions, even if no one would consider these precautions necessary under the circumstances. And the conduct is deemed reasonable if it is cost-effective, even if no one truly believes it to be reasonable.


The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that “[w]e apply the standards which guide the great mass of mankind in determining what is proper conduct of an individual under all the circumstances.”11 The standard, therefore, is the level of care that would be exercised under the same or similar circumstances by “the great mass of mankind”—that is, the “generally accepted standard.” This is a positive definition of reasonableness, in the sense that it derives from reality rather than from morality. According to this test, a person’s conduct is deemed unreasonable if people actually consider it so, even if that conduct is cost-effective. And it is deemed reasonable if people (or a certain portion of them) believe the conduct to be so, even if it is not cost-effective.

Comment by Jeff Kaliner

March 14, 2015 @ 5:00 pm


I appreciate this post. I believe this is truly big picture HS thinking on a variety of different levels.

Just a few questions, thoughts and a quote:

To me, your examples of applying reason without context (a form of reductionism) to HS problems are spot on.

And if this is in fact problematic, what does it mean that as Haidt suggests:

“Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationship among parts), but WEIRD [Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic] people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object)?

In other words, what implications does weltanschauung have when WEIRD security professionals are trying to address security problems at every level (from Fallujah to Ferguson)?

(I think Ramo does a nice job of addressing the question in his book Age of the Unthinkable).

Are WEIRD security professionals at a disadvantage because of a Western worship of reason?

I have also lived the IC example. IC will solve every complex problem…until it doesn’t.

Using a HS exercise to explore the interdependent nature of response partners and how decisions, communications and actions affect the other is critical. As I know all too well, the impulse to quickly resolve these types of ambiguous conversations is real and powerful.

However, I would argue that we need to continue to advocate to HS professionals as to why it is valuable to embrace inherently ambiguous conversations (without quickly resolving them with a perceived solution) and, even more so, how to have them.

That would require an understanding of the difference between a WEIRD world view and a more holistic one. Not saying one is better than the other. Only saying that each has a place at the table and the ability to distinguish and consider each (in relationship to perceived problems) is necessary and important.

As an aside, I am currently reading Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse.

He has a great quote about distinguishing between training and education that I think is appropriate to this conversation. It’s a little convoluted but I think it is worth deciphering:

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be
prepared for surprise is to be educated.

Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.

Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education
continues an unfinished past into the future.”

An argument as to why Incident Command “training” may have out lived some it’s value at this point in the HS conversation?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 15, 2015 @ 5:57 am


Thanks. Your quotes remind me of several others. Aristotle argues — see his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics — that technicians know what must be done, while architects know why it must be done. As a result, architects can create, while technicians only re-create. In his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig makes some similar observations. Reason becomes the process by which we answer the why question.

Homeland security as a discipline especially oriented to surprises would, it seems to me, benefit from more potential creativity. So we ought more often ask why questions.

I am interested in what Chris writes next. He may read Haidt (and others) as suggesting Aristotle’s distinction to be so rare that we ought to mostly proceed assuming an absence of reason. I am more inclined to perceive that my attempts at reason should recognize our shared intuitive proclivities (merely a more affirmative way of saying the same thing?). To be reasonable, I must acknowledge — even better, understand — the beliefs, intuitions, and such of myself and my peers.

You ask how we can encourage more non-reductionist reason in homeland security (and more broadly). Here I am still working to understand why there seems to be such an attraction to reductionist reason and its delusions. My current hypothesis involves a wide-spread desire for certainty. Sometimes I blame systems engineering. Sometimes I blame a misapplication of Newtonian physics. Sometimes I blame a defense reaction to the velocity of change. In any case, I perceive — probably intuit — that a desire for certainty is the false god and source of hubris at the core of several social conundrums.

Paradoxically, I am certain that accepting the persistence of uncertainty is a much more productive path.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 15, 2015 @ 7:52 am

From the conclusion of the young — 28 year old — Abraham Lincoln’s remarks to other young men in Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.–Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON. Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Comment by Max G

March 22, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

I’m left to concur with Haidt that the rider serves the elephant on the question of moral reasoning.

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