A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

In this light, let me point to blogger P.Z. Myers, author of Pharyngula (on my blogroll). He came to my attention as a religious skeptic, though not one of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. His notoriety rests mainly on arguing from science and reason that creationism (a/k/a intelligent design) is complete bunk and neither science nor intelligent, but his attention turns to mainstream culture as well. Myers has taken special umbrage at Jordan Peterson for — gasp — being wrong about some details of evolutionary biology used to support his intellectual projects, and more recently, Peterson’s claim of being an evolutionary biologist (even claiming to be an evolutionary psychologist would be spurious, but Peterson clearly goes too far, dunno why). I absolutely believe Myers, a professor of biology; he has the credentials and science chops to make his criticisms stick. He also writes and reasons well and keeps relatively current with events. However, he strays from correction of scientific error into interpretation of newsbits, memes of the days, politics, and popular entertainments. He reminds me strongly of Ben Shapiro: both piss on nearly everyone reflexively and only rarely break to offer praise. (That characteristic might describe me, too, but I don’t write hit pieces or promote myself as an arbiter of truth.) Myers links periodically to others calling out Peterson, offers commentary, and demonstrates that he, too, is not above snark and bias.

I believe Myers far more than I believe Peterson. However, when dissecting cultural matters, Myers misses what most animates ideas: compelling narrative. In this regard, Peterson’s massive popularity comes partly from the fact that his mixture of myth, religion, psychology, and self-help is a potent call to awakening in oneself greatness. Other than getting rich or killed in service of the U.S. war machine, young folks today have few aspirational models. Peterson fills that void handily, especially for young men whose fathers fail to instill positive values (or are simply absent). Inaccuracy of some of Peterson’s details and spurious claims simply don’t matter. His message resonates. In contrast, the values on offer from Myers are reason and dull accuracy (especially as known through science), which like mere measurement are rather inert and unactionable. Who cares only about being right? Missing from correctness are high moral values such as heroism or forbearance. Moreover, narrative moves people through beauty and emotion. Science seems to most folks value neutral; only a few ecstatics see in science the same beauty readily available within the humanities and fine arts. So when Myers takes aim at creationism, or more broadly religion, he is attacking a foundational aspect of culture from the perspective of science and comes across like an intolerant scold. Religious belief may be factually wrong, just as denial of evolution is dumb, but arguing someone out of his or her cherished belief is foolish if not downright cruel.

At least once, Myers came straight out and admitted that real cultural analysis (specifically, cinema critique) made him see stories with a fresh eye. No surprise there. Indeed, narrative is decidedly not a series of factually true or false statements. He also links to Lindsay Ellis, whose YouTube videos interpret culture delivered not just through cinema but other storytelling media. Here’s her recent collaboration (ongoing, I presume) with PBS on literature. She’s remarkably nonjudgmental and thorough, telling the “story” of culture and ideas far better than can be had in just about any science classroom or textbook.

I sensed the dichotomy between the sciences and humanities back in high school, though only dimly. It was time to choose a college major, and the safer choice was either math or computer science (the latter just then emerging as a consumer option). Who knows what I might have done in life had I followed that path. Instead, I went into the fine arts, majoring instead in music performance and music education, which I’ve not regretted. Music is largely abstract, but a finer example of human expression cannot be found (base examples are present, too, as in all the arts). In hindsight, it wasn’t ever really much of a dilemma. I was always going to go with my heart no matter what my head said. Everyone faces those basic options, and most choose with their hearts because feelings, however inaccurate or irrational, are more important than facts. Reason suffers severe disadvantages compared to the strong shaping forces of culture.

Maybe I’ve come to the end of this series of posts on the frailty of reason. Don’t know yet.

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