I don’t pretend to understand everything. I try not to speak much on the Affordable Care Act because I don’t fully understand the nuances of the law or of the issues surrounding healthcare in general. I try not to speak on immigration issues because I recognize the complexity of the situation and the mutual need to uphold the rule of law, and the moral imperative to demonstrate mercy.
One of the reasons I only post here occasionally is precisely because I do not wish to speak on a topic until I feel that I grasp it. I also want to be able to defend my position through academic rigor – citations, not from other opinion blogs but from reliable sources. This makes it difficult for me to have an answer, because even when I am sure for myself, I know the limits of my own perceptions and am loathe to convince someone based purely on an appeal to my own sensibilities.
Someone said something to me once that resonated with this generation – and bothered me profoundly. They said that emotion is far more important than reason. I think what they meant was that reason and logic could not justify compassion and love, which are independently important – reason and logic cannot reveal God, nor can they bring us peace. These are valid concerns, and there is precedent for this complaint against reason. But there is something else that I think they meant, and that was that they did not have the tools to use reason and logic. My generation certainly does not.
Basic critical thinking is not taught in schools as a subject in itself. Logic is an elective in liberal arts programs. At some point, fallacy became acceptable in discourse. This is evident in much of public discourse, but also in the way we talk. We discuss topics as they resonate with us. “For me, this is et cetera,” or, “I feel like this or that.” The postmodern rejection of absolute truth separate from our experience or perception permeates all that we do.
I want to defend reason – not as a great revealer of truth, nor as a replacement for emotion and instinct. Instead, I want to argue that reason presents us with things that are make sense of what we cannot know. They present us with solid ground from which we can make sense of our emotions, or the complexities of the world, or the horrors of humanity and nature that we are unable to comprehend. Much like a mentally ill person may cope better understanding their illness – knowing that auditory hallucinations are a product of their ailing mind, rather than actual demons speaking to them – we are able to organize and regulate ourselves if we are grounded in some kind of reality. So reason keeps us grounded in things that are indisputable.
Reason allows us to correct wayward emotion. Emotion is highly subjective – reason, when properly applied, is limited but objective. We may feel strongly about being punished for a crime while still understanding that we have objectively acted wrongly. We may feel strongly about acquiring some object but understand though our reason and mathematical acuity that we cannot afford to buy the object of our desire. So reason keeps us from mistaking our subjective feelings for objective reality.
But the greatest benefit that reason has – and one that I would urge you to consider – is that reason keeps us humble. When properly applied, reason teaches us the plethora of variables at play when we consider complex programs. We know from Lorenz and Mandelbrot – the fathers of Chaos Theory – that complex systems are inherently unpredictable. Even apparently simple systems become chaotic after a few iterations. How unpredictable must the movements, thoughts, impulses, fear and anger of billions of humans be? Politics is deeply complex. A reasonable person must be humble approaching such a system – there may not be a simple answer. Reason teaches us that we are limited, and if you watch yourself carefully, reason will teach you how often you are wrong. And a little humility goes a long way.
I think the loss of critical thinking and logic is greatly damaging to our society. It has certainly led to questionable decisions on every level of our republic. The belief that emotion and feeling must take unfettered precedence over reason is inherently dangerous – it breeds fantasy, and arrogance. And while reason cannot provide us with the answers we need to survive as a society, perhaps a critical and equal application of both – tempered with humility – could mend some of our wounds.