Rant Against (What We Wrongly Call) “Reason”

January 12, 2010 at 11:55 pm (By Amba)

Leon Wieseltier:

[I]n this culture of perfect intellectual confidence [...] everything is sooner or later penetrated and unmasked—this culture of explanation, in which all the ancient problems are either solved or scorned, and every obscurity of human life, every fog and every cloud, is just a research paper away from satisfactory clarification. There is no riddle of existence that cannot be resolved, or robbed of its sting, in a David Brooks column. We are lucid now, and efficient; we are the quickest studies who ever lived. We throw no shadows. We know how things really work. We have the definite measure of everything. (Happiness, for example, is defined for us by social science; is an objective of public policy). Even as we cozily admit our fallibility, we exempt nothing from our brilliance. We dispel inwardness with our analysis of it. Hurriedly and without any suspicion that precious things are being driven away, we march smartly through all the pains and all the perplexities, and we call this dream of transparency, this aspiration to control, this denial of finitude, reason.

But it’s not, he goes on to say:  “Reason is more provisional, more modest, more patient.” Read on.  The occasion is the evisceration of late Philip Roth:  “All mastery, no mystery.”

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31 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    Clever people have a hard time saying “I’m bored,” or even worse, “I’m boring.” Thus, they blame the world for the ‘fact’ that everything is now known.

    Don’t be clever; be Wily E. Coyote once in awhile, and let the world flatten you.

  2. realpc said,

    “There is no riddle of existence that cannot be resolved, or robbed of its sting …. We are lucid now, and efficient …. We know how things really work. We have the definite measure of everything.”

    That is not true; that is entirely a myth. If it were true that reason had solved all those mysteries, then I could sympathize with rants against reason, or the over-use of reason. But reason, and science, have actually led us into ever-deepening mysteries.

    I think when people complain about an over-emphasis on reason and science in our society, it’s because they are non-scienists who have bought the materialist mythology.

    I agree that reason and science are very limited and that there is infinitely more to life and to our minds. But it is not reason and science that take the mystery out of life. Nothing takes the mystery out of life.

    The materialist mythology is a collection of “nothing but” stories. Thunder is not the gods speaking,;it is nothing but the sound made by lightening, which is nothing but electricity. For example.

    And so we have “explained” thunder — it can’t possibly ALSO be the gods speaking. Never mind that no one knows what electricity is. The explanation has ruled out any possibility of mystery, according to the myth.

    And after we “explained” thunder, the assumption was that EVERYTHING would turn out to be “nothing but” something “physical” or “natural.” Never mind that no one knows what the words “physical” or “natural’ mean.

    I really think it’s too bad to blame science and reason for the sterility of our current mythology. They didn’t do it! They have not actually done very much.

    What is remarkable about our civilization is its technology, its ability to create, which is very different from an ability to explain. We are not good at explaining or understanding, we are great at building and creating.

    And the social sciences are even more helpless than the physical sciences when it comes to explaining. Psychologists, for example, do not understand human nature.

    It’s fun to wonder about all these things and we can improve our understandings of life in small ways. But the main thing we learn, if we really strain our reason to its limits, is how limited our rational understanding is and will always be.

    I love reason and science and I don’t like it when they are seen as the enemy of life and mystery and poetry. I think that only happens when they are mistaken for the current political materialist movement, which tries to pretend it is the force of reason.

  3. amba12 said,

    I think that Wieseltier is not complaining that we have explained too much, but that some think we can, or will be able to, explain everything. Explanations are presented AS IF mystery has been banished. At bottom that’s a superstition like any other, meant to comfort children afraid of the dark. Of course such explanations as we have can, and must, coexist with mystery and even deepen it.

    And so we have “explained” thunder

    I think the funniest example of this that I ever saw was some scientists — at Harvard, if I’m not mistaken — claiming that they’d “explained” dreams. Apparently bursts of nerve impulses are fired from somewhere in the brainstem, and that causes dreaming. What does that explain?? How is it possible that a dream can be profoundly revealing, helpful and personally meaningful? The scientists seemed to have wished all that away. It’s just random, and we wishfully read meaning into a bunch of random nonsense. With another part of the same brain that generated the so-called “random nonsense.”

    I have a recurring dream that there’s an abandoned, sealed-off part of my house where a tribe of feral cats — scruffy and fiercely capable — take care of themselves and each other and reproduce. They are a threat to the “official” cats because they may carry diseases, so I try, often in vain, to keep them separate.

    Once, the leader of that pack, the one who most took care of the rest, was an actual (but in reality, I think, deceased) female cat of mine named Emmet, always called Emmy. She was a gentle cat with a kind of gray-and-pink, muted tortoiseshell coloration. Only in the dream she was human-sized. And when I thought about it I realized that “Emmy” is also M-E.

    I could never have come up with that.

  4. Rod said,

    I read the review from which that quote was taken last night. The point of it seemed to be that Roth was more interested in showing off his intellect (or maybe his erudition) than in letting his characters speak with authentic voices. I don’t know. I haven’t read enough of Roth to judge whether he was intellectually pretentious. But, I think the reviewer is.

  5. amba12 said,

    Ha! I like that quote, but he certainly does overwrite. (Takes one to know one . . .)

  6. realpc said,

    “Explanations are presented AS IF mystery has been banished. At bottom that’s a superstition like any other, meant to comfort children afraid of the dark.”

    That’s right.

    “I think that Wieseltier is not complaining that we have explained too much, but that some think we can, or will be able to, explain everything. ”

    Maybe he figured it goes without saying that we haven’t explained much, and it’s just a myth of our culture that we have, or will soon. He didn’t bother to say that, or I didn’t notice him saying that. So I thought he was buying the myth.

    Yes I had heard about that dream theory and wasn’t that ridiculous. But they were very serious and honestly thought they had explained dreams.

    Sometimes it feels strange to be part of a culture where I just don’t buy a lot of the prevailing mythology. No matter how religious or spiritual people are now days, they still usually trust mainstream science and medicine, with its materialist mythology.

    By the way, recently I heard of a neuroscientist whose research is going beyond materialism, even though he is mainstream and calls himself a “materialist.” Did you ever hear of Persinger, who invented the “god helmet?” He also found evidence for ESP.

  7. amba12 said,

    Never mind him — Jeff Schwartz (whom I helped with a book), Mario Beauregard, Henry Stapp and others are active neo-dualists who believe the mind is not reducible to the brain. This is being seen by ID proponents as the next front in the war against materialism. It’s a real problem for conventional neurologists, because they CANNOT explain consciousness. Follow the links, this is hot stuff.

  8. amba12 said,

    While neural activity of a certain kind is a necessary condition for every manifestation of consciousness, from the lightest sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self, it is neither a sufficient condition of it, nor, still less, is it identical with it. If it were identical, then we would be left with the insuperable problem of explaining how intracranial nerve impulses, which are material events, could “reach out” to extracranial objects in order to be “of” or “about” them. Straightforward physical causation explains how light from an object brings about events in the occipital cortex. No such explanation is available as to how those neural events are “about” the physical object. Biophysical science explains how the light gets in but not how the gaze looks out.

    This is a superb article,

  9. realpc said,

    I don’t know, to me that kind of philosophical speculation goes in dizzy circles. I mean, we would have to agree what is meant by the word “consciousness” first. I don’t think the materialists care too much if we can explain consciousness or not, because they think it’s a kind of illusion anyway. They could answer those objections by saying a robot could do all that stuff without having any consciousness. What materialists do not acknowledge is that robots can’t do much at all, and they can’t do anything requiring intention (everything is pre-programmed).

    So very often I think the philosophical arguments against materialism are unconvincing. And they are certainly not convincing to the materialists. That is why I usually look for scientific evidence instead. The quantum “woo” factor is becoming a real threat to materialism, and is going beyond empty speculation.

    But I will follow all your links.

  10. amba12 said,

    Henry Stapp is a quantum physicist.

  11. Icepick said,

    It’s a real problem for conventional neurologists, because they CANNOT explain consciousness.

    No, this is not a real problem for neurologists. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more. It means the brain and consciousness are even larger onions than once thought. Bigger onion, more layers, more cool stuff to learn.

    It’s like the problems of dark matter and dark energy in cosmology – it’s a problem in the sense that it needs to be solved if we wish to improve our understanding of the Universe. But anyone working in the field looks at it as the chance to learn something else – and of course, perhaps win a Nobel Prize and gain a certain kind of immortality. (Pythagoras is much more famous than any Greek playwright, Newton will be remembered long after all the writers of his era have been relegated to the dusty back halls of academe.) Personally I suspect that the problem of dark matter and dark energy have to do with an imperfect understanding of the geometry of the Universe – I suspect they aren’t really there at all – merely artifacts of present models. No doubt I’m wrong – but probably everyone else is, too! Hopefully I’ll live long enough to know if they figure that out. And no doubt there will be new things to learn after that.

  12. amba12 said,

    I suspect they aren’t really there at all – merely artifacts of present models. Yes, that’s one real possibility!

    It’s amazing that any of us can even get their brains around this stuff a little bit.

  13. realpc said,

    “It’s amazing that any of us can even get their brains around this stuff a little bit.”

    No one can, it’s just part of the materialist mythology.

  14. realpc said,

    “Henry Stapp is a quantum physicist.”

    I know but it can still be philosophical speculation. I just prefer it when someone shows that one person’s brain reacts when you shine a light in a different person’s eyes, demonstrating that our brains can communicate without any sensory information. Persinger supposedly showed something like that. He does lots of research, but I don’t know if the ESP stuff gets any mainstream publicity. I just heard about him recently, from a paranormal blog.

  15. amba12 said,

    No one can, it’s just part of the materialist mythology.

    Mathematicians and quantum physicists do have a bit of a clue.

  16. realpc said,

    “Mathematicians and quantum physicists do have a bit of a clue.”

    Those are descriptions, not explanations. As fascinating as descriptions may be, they are still not what they claim to be.

  17. realpc said,

    Notice how the New Scientist article ends:

    [This nasty mind-virus piggybacks on reasonable worries]

    [That is the voice of mainstream academia. Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?]

    The ID controversy is completely misunderstood, as usual. The general public is assumed to be idiots who deny evolution.

    And then:

    [What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".]

    Oh heavens, how can the smart scientists ever educate the hopelessly idiotic public? Just because they don’t know exactly how the brain is able to modify itself, the idiots jump straight to the superstitious conclusion that the brain doesn’t equal the mind.

    That is how all the philosophical speculation goes over with materialist scientists. And nothing the Discovery Institute says is ever believed, partly because the DI does say a lot of idiotic, and obviously political, things.

    Materialist science also dismisses all of parapsychology without even looking at it. But that would have to change if the weird results are coming from a mainstream “materialist” researcher, like Persinger.

  18. amba12 said,

    Those are descriptions, not explanations.

    It amazes me that a human brain can even find terms to attempt to describe a 14.7(?)-billion-year-old universe.

  19. amba12 said,

    Can you find a link to Persinger’s recent work? Don’t make me do it, please, I have a deadline bearing down on me.

    Yes, that article is a perfect example of the closed mind of materialist scientists. It presents the information about Schwartz et. al. only to say how dangerous to enlightenment it is.

    Religious people may also be looking at the universe with a premature agenda — they want to jump to the conclusion that yes, there is a Biblical God. But I really don’t see how anyone can contemplate the purposeful digital code that is DNA and rule out there ever being any intelligence either within or behind it. That doesn’t mean that we have imagined such an intelligence, and the ways it might work, correctly. My constantly repeated contention is that we are going to make discoveries that blow both science, so far, and religion, so far, out of the water.

  20. realpc said,

    “Can you find a link to Persinger’s recent work? Don’t make me do it, please, I have a deadline bearing down on me.”

    Yes of course. I’m at work now but I will look tonight. I have been searching every night, but it isn’t that easy because his ESP research seems to be ignored by mainstream media. I only heard of it because of a paranormal website, which found it at Skeptico, a not-very-skeptical website. I think I had bookmarked something last night, though.

    “My constantly repeated contention is that we are going to make discoveries that blow both science, so far, and religion, so far, out of the water.”

    Yes I have always thought that also. The materialists won’t listen to anything until there is hard evidence. And then, of course, they’ll just change their definition of “matter” or “nature” to accommodate the new reality.

  21. amba12 said,

    Even at the subatomic level, the concept of “matter” gets pretty dicey. Is matter that which has mass? But then it is completely dependent for its coherence on components that do not have mass, or appreciable mass . . .

  22. realpc said,

    There is no definition of “matter, ” or of “nature.” The words are used without concern for what they could possibly mean. In alternative science, everything is ultimately made out of information, or intelligence. That makes sense intuitively, agrees with the parapsychology research, and with human experiences in all times and places.”

    The only problem with the everything-is-intelligence theory is that mainstream academic science doesn’t like it. Why don’t they like it? I think there are a lot of reasons, such as needing to feel completely separate from religious “superstition.”

  23. amba12 said,

    It needs to be testable, and the paranormal tends to be somewhat elusive and inconsistent, because it depends on conditions that can’t be standardized.

    But really, just think of the many times you think of someone you haven’t thought of in months or years, and soon after the phone rings and it’s them.

  24. realpc said,

    ” think of the many times you think of someone you haven’t thought of in months or years, and soon after the phone rings and it’s them.”

    Not just that. Life is full of meaning and lessons and reasons, if you are looking at it that way. There is synchronicity all around us if we happen to be paying attention.

    “paranormal tends to be somewhat elusive and inconsistent, because it depends on conditions that can’t be standardized.”

    Certain things can’t be controlled when you are experimenting on Mind. But I think the main problem is the field became unpopular ,so modern technology has not been applied very much. Persinger has been doing that though. Gary Schwartz has been for a long time, but I guess can’t get any mainstream attention. Also Dean Radin.

    I don’t know how much replication there has been. It’s impossible to tell because alternative science has its own journals and there is no mainstream acknowledgement, apparently.

    Also, I don’t devote that much time to it, but wish I could know more about what exactly is going on.

  25. Icepick said,

    Those are descriptions, not explanations. As fascinating as descriptions may be, they are still not what they claim to be.

    Do you even know what mathematicians do? Do you know what we (or I guess just ‘they’ after all these years) actually study, and what it means? For that matter for the last centruy the physicists have been dealing with stuff far stranger than anything I have ever heard described by any mystic, or psychic, or ‘alternative’ science type. Find me anything from the paranormal that is as strange as a Bose-Einstein Condensate.

  26. realpc said,

    I can’t figure out what your point is Icepick. Physicists are finding incomprehensible strange things, that are even stranger than the paranormal. And so we are supposed to what? Stop believing in the paranormal because it isn’t strange enough?

  27. realpc said,

    Oh I just realized — an Icepick always has a point.

  28. realpc said,

    And Amba, when we notice all those strangely meaningful things going on in our lives, the materialists are quick to reassure us that it’s just our feeble little brains playing tricks on us. Nature, in its blind stupidity, has programmed us to see meaning everywhere, when really it’s all dumb chance.

  29. realpc said,

    Amba,

    This is the link to the Skeptiko interview with Personger: http://www.skeptiko.com/michael-persinger-discovers-telepathic-link/. He tries hard to sound like a mainstream materialist, but if you read the whole interview (it isn’t long) you find out that he is not a materialist according to any reasonable definition of the word.

    For example, the interviewer asks:

    “If you do seem to be kind of leaning in the direction of saying that there might be other ways that consciousness interacts with other consciousness, you know, the telepathy thing with the light flashing, then are you open to the possibility that maybe the physical structure of our brain is more of a transceiver than the agent that creates consciousness, as some people have suggested. Is that on the table for you, or…”

    (So he’s asking if Persinger is open to a totally non-materialist theory of brain and mind, the kind of thing Sheldrake believes.)

    Persing’ers answer:

    “Absolutely. The idea that the brain, of course, is a source of all experiences because the brain, obviously if you terminate it you don’t have experiences, but the counter hypothesis – actually it’s not even counter, it’s a parallel hypothesis – that the brain is microstructured. This infinitesimal, complex pattern, is microstructured so that it can serve as a substrate for electromagnetic patterns.”

    In general, Persinger’s statements are not exactly straightforward and it seems like he is trying to live in two opposing worlds. But the interviewer does seem to bring out the fact that Persinger is leaning out towards the alternative fringe. But that fringe may be slowly becoming mainstream and acceptable. Hopefully.

    The journal for that stuff is NeuroQuantology. The materialists keep saying that quantum physics has no relevance to the macro levels of reality, and that it’s all a lot of Deepok Chopra pseudoscientific woo. But actually they are finding evidence that quantum physics, with its weirdness, can be relevant to our macro world.

  30. Icepick said,

    I can’t figure out what your point is Icepick. Physicists are finding incomprehensible strange things, that are even stranger than the paranormal. And so we are supposed to what? Stop believing in the paranormal because it isn’t strange enough?

    Real, it’s not even worth arguing about. When you talk about the materialists you sound like hippies cvomplaining that ‘the man is keeping us down’ while so stoned out of their minds they can’t even find the door. You claim scientists say that material is everything, yet I have never actually met a scientist who believes that they understand what ‘material’ is. The physicists have figured out more than any other branch of science, and when it comes to ‘matter’ they can’t even figure out what the hell it’s made of. And that doesn’t even include the more exotic stuff.

    (Nor does it include the rather disturbing idea that our enitre Universe is nothing more than a computer simulation – a modern variation on the idea that we’re nothing but some god’s dream. I don’t entirely buy it, though. How did the programmers come up with a truly random number generator?)

    Yet all I hear from you is that the materialists are suppressing the great Sheldrake. If he’s so damned correct, you and the other spiritualist anti-materialist determinists (your 6:53 comment indicates that you do not accept that coincidence can actually occur in any meaningful sense) can get together, raise the money, and hire some out-of-work PhDs from the hard sciences to conduct decent experiments. If the work is correct, it will eventually win out.

    But that’s never going to happen. I have read arguments in favor of the paranormal from decades before I was born, and they all claimed there were experiments that ‘proved’ the existence one such phenomenon or another. Decades have rolled by, but nothing has ever come from it. Not one conclusive study, not one workable (much less useful) hypothesis has been documented. And the only reason for that is because ‘the man’ is suppressing it? I call BS.

    Science won’t stop. It gives birth to and eats its own all the time. Everything from N-rays to Lysenkoism have come and gone, theories have been laughed out of the academy only to become the accepted norm as more evidence came forth. (Continental drift, anyone?) Something theories have come into, gone out of, and then returned to style as hypothesis have been refined and new evidenced has been examined. Even the most revered theories have been cast aside when better instruments and experiments have indicated they were wrong, or at best approximations of a deeper reality. (Thus Einstein’s theories of gravity replace Newton’s equations.)

    So if your claims (apparently widely shared) are true, then put up or shut up.

  31. realpc said,

    Icepick your reaction is entirely emotional. You feel threatened for some reason and you react with personal attacks. You seem to have no idea whatsoever what I believe or think about any aspect of science.

    “Decades have rolled by, but nothing has ever come from it. Not one conclusive study, not one workable (much less useful) hypothesis has been documented. ”

    I provided a link to an interview with Persinger, which you must have ignored.

    And why does it get you so upset to think that Sheldrake, or Persinger, could have found evidence for ESP? There is no scientific reason to think our brains must be walled off and cannot receive wireless information. Our radios and cell phones have no trouble with it. What is there about the idea of ESP that gets you , and atheists in general, so worked up?

    You obviously feel that if any paranormal phenomena were demonstrated that would somehow shoot holes in science. Why? Scientists are supposed to be open-minded and accepting of evidence, whether it fits their preconceptions or not.

    And it doesn’t mean I’m a hippie or anti-science just because I understand enough about human nature to know that people form tribes and mythologies. These mythologies — and the “new atheism” is one of them — are not related to science or evidence. They are myths that satisfy a tribe’s need to feel certain and superior.

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