07 December 2010

Can you punch yourself in the face hard enough to break your nose?

If you stop and think about that for a while, I bet it would be difficult to come up with a scenario where such an action may seem reasonable.

On the other hand, imagine your hand is mangled up and trapped in some farm machinery, you’ve left the mobile in the cab, no one will be coming to look for you before it’s too late. There’s a hacksaw in the toolkit – which you can reach - and if you can summon courage out of insane desperation and use it, you could save your life.

What makes the difference between these two situations is that there is no justification for the first action, but there is for the second. Both involve harming yourself, but one action is reasonable, given the circumstance, while the other is not. To do either, reason must overide emotion, which it can do, even though emotion is much older and more primal in evolutionary terms than is reason.

Being a relative newcomer on the scene, reason is a bit sluggish, it’s hard work and it’s better if someone else does the slog. It likes duvet days. We often prefer to get our reasons all packaged up, ready to heat and serve piping hot. Many of the meals have already been served up anyway by our parents, for survival reasons: DON’T TOUCH THAT SNAKE! RUN FROM THAT ANIMAL! CATCH AND EAT THAT ONE! So we are used to accepting ready made reason from authority because it’s a useful shortcut that has survival value.

We also accept it from our culture, from our elders, from religion and so on, and build it all into a nice solid edifice of sacred values – not sacred in the religious sense of that word - but more in the sense of things that are so important and precious to us, so bound up with our sense of identity, of who we are, that to challenge them may well evoke an aggressive or even violent response.

I think this why it is diffult to make progress in resolving intractable conflicts. Both sides are defending what they see as their ‘sacred values’ - which lie deeper than what the dispute may appear to be about superficially. Scott Atran describes this well in this book. Such conflicts are not amenable to rational discourse.

The dispute between the religious and rationalist/skeptik mindset is of this nature. Rationalists tend not to trust their senses as a satisfactory method of determining truth. Science tells them, (and can demonstrate), that their perception of the world is a very limited mental construct or model of the real, packaged up in a way that enables humans to operate, survive and reproduce in the world. What truth, what reality is - says science - needs constant tinkering with the model, needs constant re-framing, testing, experimentation designed to rule out the bias of our senses (which we must then interpret with our senses!), then more testing when a bunch more data comes in.

The religionist also does not trust their senses because authority tells them how reality is. It is fixed, certain and immutable, and to back it up, they have scripture and may have had experiences, or may have interpreted experiences, in such a way which confirms their point of view.

Both see their position as having reason and being reasonable. Both may (or may not), be desirous of similar outcomes, but find themselves unable to get beyond the dictates of their ‘sacred values’ and limitations of theoretical and impersonal debate (esp in cyberspace), to the human underneath. It’s like a debate between Aristotle and Rousseau:

A: It’s obvious innit?
R: Leave it owt, mate.
A: Get some nous, and stop being shrill.
R: Nous causes cancer, dunnit?

………………oh dear. It's almost tempting to share Rousseau's view that the world would be better off without reason and language and everything that flows from it. We don't seem equipped to handle it properly. Reason is most difficult to deal with when furnished with attitude, and some weapons.