Whatever happened to the age of reason?
Perhaps it never really took hold. It seems that more than ever, the world abounds in mumbo-jumbo. Supermarket horoscope scrolls, I’m told, sell in the millions every month. The “psychic” reading people are making truckloads of cash. There’s a guy on TV — he draws millions of viewers every week — who can call up your dead loved ones on his psychic hot line to the Great Beyond. We’ve got Jesus hanging out in star-forging nebulas millions of light years across. And the Virgin just last week showed up in a mangled tree stump in New Jersey (no kidding). That’s not to mention Crystal healing, angel sightings, “creationism” (i.e. anti-evolutionism), UFO abductions, homeopathic medicine (I don’t care how many of you homeopathic “physicians” are out there – it’s still hogwash), or Dianetics.
Not much progress since the trial of Socrates, or Galileo, or the Scopes “monkey” trial, or the O.J. trial for that matter.
But what concerns me generally is the decline of reason and logic. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of the societal movement away from secularism toward the new “spiritualism” (translation: hocus pocus in the form of apocalyptic novels, televangelism, “trendy” religions, revivalist freak shows and mercantile “Christian rock” bands). Or maybe the grim harvest of circular post-modern “reasoning” (which posits that everything we think we know is a “social construct” based on “class-based shared belief systems”) has resulted in –you guessed it– the societal conclusion that empiricism is an illusion and that all reality is relative to the observer.
Or it could be the media in general, which in attempting to appear “unbiased” (impossible to do but possible to appear to do) has convinced us all that no matter what the story, there are two sides with absolutely equivalent arguments for or against. So there’s no reason to try to figure out what’s “right” or “wrong” or “legal” because it all depends on your world view and political persuasion.
But no matter the cause, the result is that no one appears to be sure of anything anymore, unless you count the fanatics. As Yeats put it in describing his own era of political chaos:
“The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
And it’s just as true today. There is no safe harbor. Nowadays even the scientific journals aren’t sure of their facts. The New England Journal of Medicine now requests its contributors disclose their financial interests so that readers may discover those which intersect with their research. The “entrepreneurial” scientist, like the now-familiar entrepreneurial politician, cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
Do facts not exist? Can we not at least agree on some facts? Can we say nothing beyond “A is A” without a rebuttal from someone of competing interests or “beliefs”? A while back I wrote a little musing on how we know what we know, concluding that we really know very little, but that dealt mainly with moral philosophy and theoretical science, which are murky areas at best. What I’m talking about here is true empiricism and recorded phenomena.
When we expect a debate to settle a matter, it is fruitfully conducted only upon a foundation of perceived truth, or a set of underlying assumptions that inform the outcome. One of those assumptions is that both parties seek the truth, and that the truth, however contradictory to one’s preconceived notions or personal “stake,” must be acknowledged when it is discovered. For example, we may debate the value or advisability of particular environmental laws. But for the debate to produce a valuable decision for society at large, it must proceed from the assumption, acknowledged by both sides, that the environment should in fact be protected. Otherwise, one may argue for a position under the assumption that the environment is irrelevant to the immediate needs of industry, an assumption which presupposes that no law protecting the earth is defensible if it causes any inconvenience whatsoever to industry.
We may debate whether to go to war, but we should agree that war is the choice of last resort in defense of our borders, and as a non-imperialist society we do not initiate wars for the sake of occupying other countries.
We may debate the legality of an election, but we should agree that our leaders must be lawfully elected.
We may debate how best to protect the country, but we should agree that human and civil rights, which are inherent and not granted by the state, cannot be rescinded by the state.
We may debate how best to manage the government, but we should agree that a government “of the people” serving a free society is not allowed to operate in secret or without the consent of the governed.
And so on…
I must honestly say that I do not believe such debates take place at the higher levels of this society. Interests – and interest groups – are too entrenched. Power bases are too powerful. Battle lines are too firmly drawn, and the casualty of truth is regarded by patriots on both sides as an “acceptable loss.”
Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but to today’s “winners,” winning is all that matters.
Just ask O.J.