The Modern Myth of Reason (Part I)

Spock: “Emotional, isn’t she?”

Sarek: “She has always been so.”

Spock “Indeed. Why did you marry her?”

Sarek: “It seemed the logical thing to do at the time.”

— Star Trek (Journey to Babel, original series)

While we in the modern world (at least where I live) ostensibly value reason and logic. It’s hard to find anyone who would assert that thinking logically and reasonably is not the best way to set one’s course. Even the uneducated generally hold to the idea of common sense, which would seem to be no more than deductive reasoning that is not overly complex. Yet, every day, we encounter behavior that is, at best, logically inexplicable, and often crosses the threshold into the absurd, ridiculous and incomprehensible. A nation the size of New Jersey attacks the United States. That makes as much sense as a rabbit charging a wolf pack. A thirteen-year-old is expelled from school for a year for playing with a 3″ laser pointer because it is shaped like a gun. Thank goodness, now the school is safe. Nova Scotia bans perfume in public places. Peter Townsend is arrested for child pornography. Dilbert readers would agree that the comic strips are a fairly accurate representation of American business. No, not a parody, the real thing, except of course the evil human resource director and the consultant bent on world domination are not, at least on the surface, cats or dogs. Was Spock right about humans? Is our ridiculous behavior the result of our illogical emotional nature? Or is it something else?

Are things really as goofy as they seem? Perhaps goofiness stands out from its surroundings like brightly colored parrots in a flock of pigeons. Or maybe perceived goofiness is the result of hindsight. Perhaps if we look deeper, there really is a logical explanation (it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the information available). Although there is probably some truth in both of these assertions, I suspect that they do not get to the root cause. Rather, the answer is inherent in the way that we apply logic to problems. All that logic really does is manipulate facts to derive other facts. Facts are supposed to represent truth, but of course what we call facts are really assertions. To say that Fact 1 implies Fact 2, is really to say that if Assertion 1 is true then Assertion 2 is true, but only within the boundaries of the logical system being applied, which is really only an imperfect model of the real world. Homer Simpson said (and I paraphrase here), “Facts! Don’t talk to me about facts. You can prove anything with facts.” The real problem isn’t flawed logic, but rather the application of correct logic to incorrect assertions combined with a few other factors including Murphy’s Law and insidious self-interest. The processes and disciplines of science are designed to drive out these factors. The everyday notion of common sense leaves the door wide open for them. Decision-making in business seems to require them.

The notion of “the big lie” suggests that people expect small lies (hyperbole, exaggeration, coloring the truth) but not the big lie and are therefore vulnerable to it. I had a boss once who, at the beginning of a negotiation, started the discussion with the statement, “Before we start, I want to make one thing clear. We do not have you by the balls!” But of course we did. Nonetheless, nobody challenged his assertion and it became an assumption. Logic prevailed and we were the hands down winners.

I suspect that humans, even those who are not firmly seated in the socket, are pretty good at recognizing fallacious deductive reasoning, but not at all adept at recognizing flawed assumptions. I think this is because people often don’t understand or stop to think about the difference between beliefs and facts. Furthermore, I don’t think this is necessarily a fundamental flaw in the mechanisms of the human mind. I believe it is a cultural phenomenon, born of the necessity of deception for the purpose of maintaining the institutions we value. First of all, there is the notion of faith, which depending on one’s personal beliefs may have a place in spiritual life. But culturally, the notion of faith extends far beyond the realm of the spiritual. Faith in God extends naturally to faith in the Church and its leaders, who are after all, historically, the predecessors of political leaders, teachers, government and all sorts of authority figures. Even those who rail against authority are generally not anarchists, but rather simply reject one authority in favor of another. We are taught to apply deductive reasoning within the constraints of the assumptions that we are given by those in authority.

Copyright 2003, Mark Fetherolf

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