Monday, February 6, 2012

The Struggle for Rationality

Gaia's Daughter commented on the last post, and I was in the process of responding when I realized I had a new post on my hands.  Her second comment (read the first, too):

"Okay, my last comment was really depressing so I thought I might amend it a bit. I do think that circumstances may force Truth upon us sooner rather than later . . . the day of 'no other alternatives' may be closer than we think. I also believe that there are a lot of exceptional people out there planting those seeds for a better future -- a future that may surprise us."

 Gaia's- lots of things there I totally agree with; in fact I'd probably intensify most of them.  Your "People for the most part are not really rational beings -", for example, is wildly optimistic.   :-) And boy, am I not kidding.

   The vast majority of humans operate their entire lives on exactly the same mental levels as all the other species on the globe; we simply react to the environment around them.  Even the most enlightened and and aware of us mostly run on auto-pilot; and the illusion that our actions are based on "reason" is exactly that- illusion.  There are vast tomes written on this subject, which we reasoning people read, groan over, and ignore.  A good place to start investigating is the classic "Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds."  And I will again say, with no kidding whatsoever, boy, was MacKay ever an optimist. And you will note, from the date of the work, that this is hardly a new conversation.

   There is, however, a spark of rationality in our species.  We are aware that logic and reason exist.  And we know they can be useful.  History is almost our only real tool for demonstrating this, but its arguments are forceful.  The slow, painful, and intentional invention of Science being my best example.

  Persons striving for Rationality, like you and me, observed that the "knowledge" belonging to the human race, which we use for making life or death decisions of all kinds, was in fact an utter rag-bag of nonsense.  Aristotle, for example, propagated the most absurd information (geese grow from barnacles) as absolute fact- and these facts were accepted as gospel, for centuries.

  The founders of Science first - noticed that.  I will point out that "noticing" is an incredible achievement, and far from easy or simple.  It amounts to my statement yesterday that I spend most of my time trying to see - what is the problem.

  Then astonishingly, the Founders of Science did something second: they sought to do something about the problem.  I will point out here that they probably did not make a rational choice to pursue this huge problem.  It was more likely motivated by other animal drives.  But pursue they did; until the pursuit took on its own life, becoming a cultural force of its own.  The result; which took hundreds of years and hundreds of human minds to refine; is the Scientific Method.  It is now tightly formulated, in several places, most accessibly and neatly (to my mind) in Koch's Postulates.  Understand- the refining of the Method is not finished; and a huge number of people who make their living as "scientists" in fact do not follow the Method.  Many don't truly understand it; and like all tools in the universe it can be abused.  But.  Used carefully; the Scientific Method is an algorithm for Truth.  It can, and does, distinguish between illusion and components of Objective Reality.   (If you're one of those who dispute the existence of objective reality, you might as well leave now.  You will gain no traction here.  I believe on Gravity.)

Alas- here is where we are stuck.  We have a tool we can use to discover Truth.  But we became philosophically sidetracked when the vast majority of educated persons, putatively trained to rational thought, made the irrational and generally unstated assumption that Truth = Good; or more usefully and less commonly put, Truth = Wisdom.  We have, I will firmly state, abundant evidence that those equations are invalid.

  May I state it this way?  I have noticed that - our collections of Truths, or Knowledge now validated by Science, are assumed to operate also as Wisdom.  But in fact- we have a useless rag-bag of collective Wisdom.  Exactly equal to Aristotelian Knowledge.

  What we need is another collective effort to establish the equivalent of the Scientific Method; but it needs to be a method that will return Wisdom; valid, reproducible, objective, operable.

  Recall that it took hundreds of years and hundreds of minds to sort the Scientific Method out of the tangle of mental processes that preceded it.  Ignore for the moment that it's still only a tiny minority of human minds that actually use or comprehend Science- remember that that tiny minority, and Science, have utterly and irrevocably altered the world.  Acknowledged or not, the power of the Scientific Method is irrefutable.

  That's what I'm asking of you all.  Gaia's Daughter- your thinking shows me you are on the path.  You're finding it depressing.  So do I; but realize you are in the same place as the scientific thinkers in the 11th Century- struggling through millennia of mental murk.  

   And I'm afraid I must add a depressing observation of my own, re: your comment  "I do think that circumstances may force Truth upon us sooner rather than later . . . the day of 'no other alternatives' may be closer than we think. "   Alas, the astonishing durability of delusional systems is broadly demonstrated, historically.  The US Wall Street Stock Markets being a case in point- there's no shred of rationality anywhere; yet it keeps going.  

   We can all see, very clearly, that the path humanity is currently on cannot endure, and is deeply unjust in many ways; but I'm beginning to suspect it can keep going, in robust zombie mode, for a long time.  Change may not be able to depend on collapse; likewise collapse might not enforce change.  If we want a healthy, just planet, we may have to find new ways.

  It is not easy- to see where no one has seen before.  I doubt that one mind can do it all.

  But we need to try.  And why should we not start here?


   And, another "tsk-tsk!" from the New York Times today, with a story of Truth inserted into the system and ignored, leading to disaster.  Do read it.  And the fate of the poor fellow who tried to make the system work; expected it to; trusted it to.  This is our reality- across the board.  Not the exception.  Yet the great majority of us still come out of higher education, and find this surprising and counter-intuitive.  
   Then we get depressed about it, and withdraw (I'm not an exception.)  

   What we need to do, is find a new way to engage the problem.  Entirely new.  The "Occupy" people are on the right track- they have no stated agenda- because they are smart enough to know they do not know what is needed.  

   Like the invention of Science- progress on problems of this magnitude come very slowly and in tiny pieces.  Put it on your list.


knutty knitter said...

I keep getting these schizophrenic flashes. One minute I reading doom and gloom, the next I'm making dinner as normal. So what is real?

I suspect both are but there needs to be something to bring it all together and - like the occupiers - I don't have much of a clue what that is yet. Maybe we all just sink back into the wild again ever so slowly. I want there to be more to it than that but more of what??

viv in nz

Lauren said...

Thanks for the reality check Greenpa.

KF said...

I suspect that there is a multi-pronged problem regarding giving The Truth some treads. One is that human irrationality bit that you have already discussed. Another is the tendency for people to run on autopilot simply because it requires a certain amount of energy to tread water and live every day as we do now in a system that is accustomed to taking as much out of us as it can, much less swim against the current to where we want to go, and I'll be the first to admit that people (myself included) don't always have the additional energy to overcome delta-h and catalysts are few and far between. But also, even when individuals see The Truth, there isn't always a clear path forward from where we are to where we should/could/want to be as an outcome. Even if we individually see that where we are now isn't right/good/wise living, the Scientific Method doesn't always provide the vision and guidance and direction to create from new cloth (or even recycled/repurposed cloth) a system that is right/good/wise. And being human, people can be guaranteed to not agree on what that would be. So my individual steps are in some ways counterbalanced by another's steps in different directions (which is partly why the system is stable in the current state anyways) such that the only way to move the system from one state of being to another seems to require some sort of non-linear disturbance that dramatically shifts the entire system to a new place of stability (ie - a "crisis" in economic and political terms).

Adam said...

This is a little off-topic, but I hope you'll find a few minutes do answer this question. I'm a journalist for the largest polish biotechnology journal on-line. At the moment I'm working on an article about green energy and our dependance on fossil fuels. As you live completely independant for 30 years - and I know you are "man of your words" so could you please write me back with the answer for the following questions: What are our chances to become independent from fossil fuels and the lobby of big energy companies? Are the "green technologies" advanced enough to replace "traditional" energy sources? Why is it so hard to force any "green initiatives" on larger scale? I'd be very gratefull if you could help me by sending you commentary on this subject.

Kind regards,
globsite (_put_AT_here) gmail (dot) com

Greenpa said...

Adam- those are excellent questions; lucidly stated- but boy, the answers I can offer are not short. :-)

I'll get you a reply of some kind in the next couple days; most likely this will wind up the next post here-