FOR most of human history the world has been understood by humans through the prism of mythology, superstition, magic and gods. Some would argue that it still is. But the Enlightenment was supposed to change all that, or at least some thought that tempering it with it with a bit of reason wouldn’t be such a bad idea. As D’Alambert wrote in response to Rousseau’s attack on science and rationality ‘even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even further from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it’. And, further, that ‘vice would remain with us, and we have ignorance in addition’.
But this idea of at least trying to deploy a little more rationality, even if humans are not always very good at it, has proved to be surprisingly controversial. Typically, opponents of the Enlightenment set up a strawman fallacy by characterizing it as placing the God of Reason above all else and then proceeding to knock it down. But true rationalists are acutely aware of how fragile and precarious it is; how easy it is to succumb to our cognitive bias and sink into our social political comfort zones and echo chambers – and mythology.
Intriguingly, Steven Pinker in his book Rationality acknowledges that no matter how desirable rationality may be, it is not the natural human way. He writes: “We children of the Enlightenment embrace the radical creed of universal realism: we hold that all our beliefs should fall within the reality mindset.”
However, Pinker argues, those who give credence to this creed are the ‘weird ones’. And he adds: “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated. And for all the conquests of the reality mindset, the mythology mindset still occupies swathes of territory in the landscape of mainstream belief.” As one example, he writes that more than ‘two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s saviour one will be damned to eternal torment in hell’.
And when the so-called New Atheists – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Higgins and Richard Dawkins – dared to argue robustly that belief in ‘God fell outside the sphere of testable reality’ they became targets of some quite vicious attacks, not only from religious people but from mainstream intellectuals as well. Pinker also has an interesting take on the Trump administration: “The brazen lies and inconsistencies of Trumpian post-truth can be seen as an attempt to claim political discourse for the law of mythology rather than the land of reality.”
As you may have gathered by now Pinker is here to praise reason, not to bury it. Interestingly, he does not believe in progress – at least not as teleological force. He writes: “Progress is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.” And the explanation, according to Pinker, is rationality. “When humans set themselves the goal of improving the welfare of their fellows (as opposed to other dubious pursuits like glory or redemption), and apply their ingenuity to institutions that pool it with others, they occasionally succeed.” And when the successes take note of the failures, the benefits can accumulate, and we call the big picture progress.”
Rationality also has a role to play in moral progress, according to Pinker. “My greatest surprise in making sense of moral progress is how many times in history the first domino was a reasoned argument.” Eventually, after going viral, the conclusion would embed itself in society ‘erasing the tracks of the arguments that brought it there’. For example, a logical argument was required, and provided by the French theologian Sebastian Castellio, against the religious intolerance of John Calvin and the practice of burning heretics at the stake. Today, it just seems obvious, just as it seems obvious, to most people at least, that slavery is wrong. But it was Frederick Douglass, himself born into slavery, who used the rules of logic to demolish the case for slavery.
In essence, then, while rationality isn’t a universal panacea, it does have a universal appeal that transcends our individual concerns. As Pinker writes: “Our ability to eke increments of well-being out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends on grasping the impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.”
And interestingly, from the perspective of Salisbury Democracy Alliance, he argues that while elections ‘can bring out the worst in reasoning’, representative government ‘could be supplemented with deliberative democracy, such as panels of citizens tasked with recommending a policy’.
So, let’s hear it for that fragile capability humans have for reason. It may not be our natural habitat but it is for this very reason that it needs to be nurtured like the most exotic and rarest of plants.