Reason, taken on its own, will turn to dogma.
John Ralston Saul, On Equillibrium
If you watch even a bit of cable TV news - 20 minutes will do the trick - you might conclude that society is going to hell in a hand basket. After all, everyone is arguing ferociously all the time, and there’s little, if any, evidence of respect for contrary points of view.
Unraveling this non-stop emotional hysteria begins with recognizing that what you’re witnessing isn’t really an argument. It isn’t an argument because reason, when it’s operating with its wings fully spread, is never pure or absolutely certain about what it espouses. Purity and certainty like to present themselves as reasonable, but their reason is the narrow, absolute sort that gets constructed inside of an ideological bubble: a bubble that refers only to itself for definitions of truth. If you tell everyone that your whistle prevents elephants from coming to the neighborhood and then you blow it and no elephants come, you are right, aren’t you? No elephants came, just like you said.
The profound irrationality of “instrumental reason” treats things as if they are free-standing, unconnected to a broader universe. Such irrationality can quickly become frightening. How? Because it constructs narrow, mechanistic solutions to complex problems, explained by the underlying ideology, and then proceeds to evangelically foist its solutions upon the world. It sees truth as the province of believers only; it does not argue, it dictates. Life is presented as a predestined affair leading to a pure, utopian outcome. Believers, free from the doubt that real thinking entails, are also free to engage the world with emotionalized fervor. In doing so they may look like they’re arguing with other people, but that is not what they’re doing.
What they’re doing is putting forward a desperate, fear-based defense of rigid points of view that desire only one thing: the defeat of a perceived opponent. This is the focus underlying the hysteria of cable news pundits and - make no mistake about it - it is successfully stopping the world in its tracks. Ideological fervor uses instrumental reason, hysterical emotion, and selective “facts” that support systems born in isolation chambers: self-referential huddles where ideas are bulked up and caffeinated by like-mindedness; rationality that is detached from qualities such as ethics, imagination, intuition, common sense, and memory.
When reason is our servant rather than our master, however, it keeps all those qualities close at hand. It is proportionate, balanced. It engages in arguments not to win, but to give serious consideration to things. It uses emotion to energize a perspective, but stops short of desperate, hysterical attacks based on beliefs. Opposing perspectives are not viewed as threats because a person is solid enough inside himself to recognize that the “certainty” he carries about his point of view is a delusion - as is anyone’s certainty. There is a recognition that ideas incubated inside one’s head are starting points in need of worldly testing, not end points requiring implementation.
Yesterday at the Ashland film festival I saw a very moving film, Chasing Ice. The film chronicled the efforts of photographer James Balog to photographically capture the disintegrating glaciers around our globe, taking pictures of this process in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and Montana. Balog began his project with the reasonable approach of the scientific method: he situated cameras (an extraordinarily difficult task in such harsh and unstable environments) so as to photograph the same scene from the same angle in 15 or so spots in each of these geographical areas. The idea was a simple one: provide the world with a time lapse, evidential window into the phenomena of melting ice. Doing so would demonstrate the scale and the speed with which these frozen behemoths are “calving”. Such a demonstration would hopefully pierce our collective conscience enough to recognize that, when it comes to globally significant events such as climate change, we need to argue not from the cocoon of ideological certainly but from a platform that recognizes our interdependence, our ethical responsibilities, and our immense destructive power.
What makes a film such as Chasing Ice so powerful is not just the scientific reasonableness Balog employs - that is merely his starting point.
So he starts with science, but doesn’t limit himself to it. That start begins with an acknowledgement he made twenty years ago that he was, in fact, a climate sceptic. He was unable - or perhaps unwilling, as many of us today still are - to grasp the vast destructive power of human beings. When he finally embraced the notion that not only do we possess such power but we employ it with regularity, he chose to bring the consequences of this to our attention not just through science but in a way that we, as humans, would most likely be able to respond to such information if we were ever to do anything about it: through art. The stunning beauty of the ice he captures on his camera - even when that ice is collapsing into the sea -grabs our imagination. It awakens our ethical sense. It stirs our memory, reminding us of all the ways we have, in our past, been so destructive. It enables qualities such as common sense and intuition to have their say alongside of reason. It does so in balance with reason, so that whatever actions we take emerge from the fullest possible expression of our human capacities.
Those of you who have read the excellent book On Equillibrium by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul will recognize these qualities. Saul explores their relationship and importance in detail in his book, suggesting that each of these qualities in harmony with the others is essential if our decision-making process is to rise to a level where it can face the complexity embedded in the types of problems we now face. Can we move beyond the narrow application of various sorts of instrumental reasoning that lies at the foundation of ideological thinking? “There are two excesses” the mathematician and theologian Pascal once said, “reason excluded and only reason allowed.”
If we are to move beyond the hysterical, entrenched narrowness we see in so many corridors of power and influence in the world, we would be well advised to do so by employing Saul's roadmap of balanced human qualities. Doing so might well revive the sense of the sacred so glaringly absent when ideologies run the show. How we might recapture that sense will be explored in part two of this post.