Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Death of Reason

Sometimes I fear that reason, as a goal of society and humanity, is dying.

I'm not a philosopher or a student of philosophy, so I'm no expert, but I think it's clear that some of our great historical thinkers -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others -- valued reason as a tool for navigating the questions of existence. Approaching issues from a reasonable, thinking perspective, with the ability to gather and weigh evidence and come to enlightened conclusions, helped society evolve from European feudalism to a more egalitarian model. It shaped our nation and our ideals.

Nowadays, there seems to be a worldwide backlash against this approach. We see it in the deniers of evolution, the so-called "family values" crusaders, the home schoolers, the evangelical Christians, the radical Islamists, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Faith, and fighting to the death for faith, has replaced a reasonable worldview for much of the planet's population and many of its leaders.

This isn't entirely new. The Scopes monkey trial took place nearly a century ago, and there have always been elements of society that denied the reasonable, rational approach. But I think there was once a respect for the great thinkers, the scientists and philosophers who advanced ideas about our origins and destinations. Now they are mocked, ridiculed, criticized as anti-God or anti-Bible, or labeled blasphemers or heretics.

When I was in school the word "heretic" seemed so antiquated -- something associated with the Inquisition. Now we see it used all the time by religious fanatics.

I've said it before -- I am not anti-religion. But I am definitely anti-extremism. I think the planet is drifting toward a more extremist existence, and away from moderation and reason. Why this is, I'm not sure -- I think it's grounded in overpopulation and a primal need to fight for turf. We're the proverbial rats in a cage.

People often muse about the death of empires, and whether the United States is in its descendancy as a world power. If we are, I think this is why. We're abandoning sensible, reasonable approaches to issues and to each other, and wallowing instead in extremist faith-based arguments that can only hinder our scientific, social and political progress.

(Photo: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.)


  1. I wonder if debate in schools has fallen out of popularity? I always thought that was such good preparation for life, which is full of situations without clear-cut choices.

    As a society I think we've become spoiled and used to having our own way, whether it's reasonable or not. On too many occasions people have relied on weapons instead of words to resolve their difficulties.

    Very thought-provoking post, even if it reminds us what a sad state we're in.

  2. I agree Steve. An example...This morning I was talking with Kristen about how unfortunate it was that the Space Shuttle program never realized its potential, that it was always dependent on big antiquated external fuel tanks and boosters, and that the dream of a true take-off and re-entry vehicle was never really realized by NASA. Remember when we were in junior high, and the promise of the Space Shuttle seemed so immense? We never really developed that promise past the technology of the initial launches. Instead we squandered gobs of cash on military actions all over the globe. Now we're reverting back to Titan rockets to get stuff into space. Talk about regression!

    I'm not super space program supporter man, but it is a good example of how our potential as a nation has been sidetracked by stupid and costly decisions.

  3. Here's what I think. I believe we leaned way too heavily into our faith in reason and in that way became completely unbalanced so that we decided to reject mystery altogether, in our pursuit of reason.

    Now we are retreating from that extreme which is a good thing, if you ask me.

    Jefferson wrote beautiful words and about reason and thinking, but in fact he owned slaves, denigrated women and in general did NOT walk his talk. Have you read "American Sphinx" by Joseph Ellis? It's a biography of Jefferson. That dude was NOT reasonable. Whoa!!

  4. Reya: Jefferson was a flawed human being, for sure, but his ideals were reasonable. What I'm lamenting is the loss of reason as a social goal. It was once held in high regard (if not always achieved) and is now smirked at by people who think they have a better answer.

    Utah: The space program in general is a disappointment -- all that optimism and scientific gain, come essentially to a standstill. But I'm not sure the shuttle was ever all it was cracked up to be. I've heard criticism that the shuttle program was a way for NASA to commercialize space. The agency figured it could make money hauling satellites into and out of orbit, conducting experiments for private clients, etc., and decided that was worthier than trying to send more astronauts to the moon or beyond. But I guess we still have some science for science's sake -- the Hubble telescope, for example, and our Mars probes.

    Barbara: We certainly are spoiled! Sorry for the downer post. Guess I was feeling cynical this morning. :)

  5. We are mired in a swamp of accommodation to every idea, no matter how silly, antiquated or superstitious.