September 27, 2002

rationality meltdown

I was having trouble. I had a sour look on my face. I don’t like being told I don’t know anything, and that anything I know is lies, lies, lies. What’s more, it was logic, my fine friend of so many years, that was telling me this.

“Dane, how are you doing with this stuff?’ asked the professor. ‘Have you taken any philosophy classes before?’

“Umm… I’m a philosophy minor.”

“Oh, good. What classes have you taken?”

“Problems of Philosophy, Birth of Modern Philosophy, 19th and 20th Century Philosophy and I’m currently enrolled in Philosophy of Language.

“Oh good. Philosophy of Language will definitely come in handy later in the semester when we start discussing cognitive science.”

“Yeah, we’re reading Steven Pinker right now. It’s really interesting stuff, how thought isn’t confined to language and how humans have an innate understanding of grammar.’

“Oh, Pinker. Yes, later in the semester we’ll talk about why everything he said is completely wrong.”

“Fuck you.”

Yesterday I narrowly avoided a complete meltdown of my faculties for logic and reason.

All this time, all the weblogs, all the reading… and the conclusion I finally came to was that I have learned nothing about reason. Oh, I’ve been reading droves of well-orchestrated arguments, but that’s all they are. I have been swindled by the bard with the silver tongue. Oh, the words of James Lileks and Steven Den Beste and Glenn Reynolds all seem to appeal to my grasp of reason, but that is merely my emotional response. Emotions can deceive.

Descartes had a metaphysical breakdown in his 20’s, where he was unsure that the world actually existed the way it appeared. “It could be that I’m being decieved by an evil genuis this entire time. The common-sense perception of reality may be completely wrong.” Descartes eventually came up with a tight little rational proof that gave him back the world and help him co-develop calculus. Good move, that one.

My destruction is epistemological. I can’t weave any deft proofs to pull myself out of this mire, as any of those proofs would need to be based on rationality, which is currently hissing and spitting beneath my feet like an angry tectonic rift.

On Tuesday it was mentioned that theists and atheists both have committed horrible rational blunders in claiming proof of their claims. Even the atheist makes claims that he knows something that cannot possibly be known. He says he has enough evidence from behind the curtain to show that a short bald man couldn’t possibly be throwing levers back there. However, the truly rational being, all real men, must declare agnosticism and claim no knowledge or evidence for or against the argument.

Ok. I’m fine with that. I’ve been haunting the atheist/agnostic line for nearly ten years now, and I appreciate that logic has finally made the decision for me. Take away my non-god. I can deal in spiritual ambiguity.

But what do you do when you discover that your even your capacity for reason isn’t sufficient to make sound arguments and arrive at truthful conclusions?

Here’s Pinker. Pinker is a great writer. Pinker sounds good and logical. Here’s why Pinker’s wrong. Now Pinker is publishing another book to argue he’s right again. Science is a binary star system with both suns spiraling into each other. “This sun is true.” “No, this sun is true.” They’re always in opposition, always contrary. They can’t both be true, and yet it’s getting to the point where each star’s existence appears as justified as the other.

I’m suddenly drowning in a world of definideums and definiens, ostensive and nominal definitions, provisos and pragmatic vindications. I used to think I knew how to properly use my noggin, but truth just got much more complicated.

So then I ponder: Is a half-baked understanding of logic worse than not using logic at all? If I appear completely non-logical at least I don’t put on the pretensions of seeming like I know what I’m talking about. If I argue like a foaming idiot, then I’m a foaming idiot. If I argue like a deft philosopher and my grounds of logic are flawed, I’m still a foaming idiot.

But what of when I argue as a foaming idiot but with the rational appeal of a deft philosopher? Have I rightly persuaded the masses of my views? It would appear that a flawed use of logic could be infinitely more dangerous than not using it at all, as it gives the argument an authority that it may not deserve. I consider myself a fairly rational person and I’ve managed to cook up some thoughtful arguments, but with my obvious lack of knowledge of the actual structures behind rationality, I have no right making the claims I do.

The world would be better off if I admit I have no idea what the crap I’m talking about and shut up.

But will I follow my own advice?

Hardly. It’s too much fun sticking red hot pokers in the eyes of idiotarians. I’ll commit my fallacies in the name of logic, not because I think I’m definitely right, but because I’m having a good time doing it. I am a punditry cowboy, lassoing up words and shooting the bad guys.

This week’s Statesman is out. Draw.

“The world would be better off if I admit I have no idea what the crap I’m talking about and shut up.”
I find I have a grand ol’ time if I admit the first openly and then continue to talk anyway. Far better to at least admit it…
Proudly a foaming idiot,