A Western Light

This last week fallen-world-news brought word of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Reasoning in such a world is a small flame. It burns bright and it cannot be extinguished. It can, however, be ignored.

The ability of humans to reason is Promethean. This is the sentence that started this series of posts exploring the human ability to reason. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind that we might find warmth and comfort in the great dark of the silent, star filled night. For his gift Prometheus was condemned to eternal torture by Zeus; forever chained to a rock while day in and day out an eagle devours his liver. The eagle with its razor sharp sight is said to feast on the organ that cleans the blood. In the twilight language of symbolism and myth this situates the classical etymology of Prometheus as “forethought” as that which is associated with life itself, for the blood is life. The ancient myth does not shy away from teaching that forethought while allowing us to see far is also that which brings suffering. Who would deny it is so among those who have studied the ongoing ecocides? Looking into the future and seeing a die-off due to the ecological ignorance of our society is quite exquisitely depressing.

The difficulty of such a fundamental shift in the assessment of one of society’s most fundamental cornerstones should not be underestimated. That careful reasoning is now delivering news about a horror filled future is fueling a resurgence in the irrational. It is not hard to sense that there is an ill wind blowing through our days of late. It is not hard to sense where the fault lines are hiding or to sense their rumblings. I am reminded of Carl Jung’s premonition of the start of WWI.

The modern world inherits many of its defining characteristics from the Age of the Enlightenment when human reasoning was held up as the road less traveled, the one trustworthy guidepost through the thickets of superstition, religious fanaticism and its accompanying endless warfare. Thinkers dared to dream of a day in which universal education would spread the light of the enlightenment across all the classes of society. The greatest artistic achievements and the loftiest philosophies were thought to soon enrich the lives of the working poor as much as they had the non-working rich. Governments would no longer be ruled by religious institutions and the vagaries of dogmatic disputes but instead would create a secular space in which all peoples could live and worship as they see fit.

All of this is such obvious history we in the west rarely take the time to appreciate the uniqueness of our inheritance. How hard is it really to work carefully through the ethical questions each of us are confronted with? All the religions of the world are in basic agreement about what it means to live a good human life. They teach that one should not lie, steal, kill, use reproductive urges to harm others, and to not become so intoxicated that you forget the first four. Every one of these items can be defended on the basis of human dignity without the need to have recourse to any potentially divisive religious assertions.

Where the dark impulses rule, this simple agenda of grounding an ethical life in reasonable considerations comes to seem too restrictive. In bloodlust comes the hunger to hurt others, to make them pay for the hurt you suffer, to force your will upon their flesh and gain, for a moment, a sense that you are in control. The simple ethical principles grounded in reason cannot be twisted to justify murder and mayhem, so societies the world over and throughout history have succumbed to temptations to believe those pied pipers that pipe the tune the people want to hear: you alone are sacred and special and the other threatens you: “God says kill them.”

Is this not the other face of religion? One of the many virtues of the Bible is how blatant this other face of religion is described, with a jealous and angry god exterminating one society after another. The same is found on the battlefields of the Bhagavad Gita, in the stories of the Greek’s Ares and the Roman’s Mars and of course in the tales of Mohammed and the Jihad as seen in the news last week. The history of the last century puts paid to any hope that secular movements would be protected from such deviations. The Communist gulag and the Nazi death camps made clear that these eruptions of collective psychosis do not need explicitly religious breeding grounds.

Now that we have a model for what reasoning actually is, it is possible to find a nuanced position for this uniquely powerful cognitive capacity. It is not a savior nor is it a beguiling devil in disguise. Reason is an unshakable witness to what is real and true about being human in this world, a presence deep within the body-mind of what is real and true and what is not. As has been mentioned before it is not something you can fool or force to behave as you would wish but retains a degree of autonomy. Life lives us. The full experience of the “really real” is bigger than reason alone but it does not contradict reason, which is the beauty of it. Faith, at least in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, is said to be supra-rational, not infra-rational.

Those ethical guidelines known the world over? Those are the teachings that naturally arise when one looks upon other life forms with compassion. Compassion is the most rational response to a completely interdependent world full of unique, impermanent yet sensate beings. Why? Because it entails what is most powerful about our experience. The most intimate knowing you have of the world will be found in the interface between your feelings and the thoughts that accompany them as they encounter the world. Assuming the same experience, with all its emotional impact, is what the person in front of you also experiences is the sign of human maturity. We call those who cannot understand others to be as legitimately conscious and sensitive as themselves psychopaths and sociopaths. They lack what cognitive science call the theory of mind; the working hypothesis that others minds are the same as one’s own. Acts of violence, in war or otherwise, all share a fundamental disregard for this ground of being.

Indulge me for a moment if you would and allow a few overly simplistic generalizations. In eastern cultures there has been a tendency to dismiss the power of reasoning a bit too easily. There is an iconoclastic bursting forth of paradoxes we find refreshing but in less skilled hands has led to tossing reason out instead of carefully laying it down before that which is bigger. Generally the eastern cultures have valued the aesthetic sense with art and ritual playing important roles; they are not hounded by the Faustian hunger to know we see characterizing western cultures. The western world has gone the other extreme and dismissed dreams, mysticisms and all other manifestations of mind except those that can be reduced to reasoning about measurable properties as without value, meaning or importance. They are without value for the workplace, without meaning for discussions among the scientific intelligentsia and without importance within many of our theologies.

Properly appraising the ability to reason must lie somewhere between these two extremes. This is what the model we have been discussing these last few posts helps me with. It is reason that guides us when we discover how to build a bridge that will not collapse or how washing your hands before performing surgery benefits the patient. There are countless daily tasks necessary for survival and wellbeing, each of which is made more effective and powerful due to having been carefully thought about and addressed with an artifact of ingenuity. Many of our taken for granted features of the modern environment are the result of centuries of careful reasonings that were built up generation after generation. We should appreciate just how much hard work goes into engineering. The slide rules are often unruly, the elegant algorithms lose their shine in the real code running all our devices and the tolerances for error have become so small meeting their strictures is an unending chore.  To be awake to the reality of our world as it really is today needs to include this understanding so we can remain grateful for the infrastructure we enjoy and the many benefits of technology, even while we remain critical of it.

On the other hand reasoning is notoriously unable to deliver the goods when the questions being asked are about existential meaning; the ultimate purpose of the love and suffering experienced by our human nervous systems. Scientific explanations of depression do not lift depression. Scientific explanations of evolution do not comfort a bereaved widow.

For these features of our human experience the arts are more appropriate. There are reasons the heart knows that reason is not aware of, to paraphrase Pascal. The passionate embrace of lovers is captured, somewhat, in the alternating swelling and gentle breezes of musical expression, the grief of the lovers parted by death is addressed through the tragedies of the stage and screen more directly than by a research paper on molecular biology. In the beauty of form and color the sculpture’s gifts bring us a grace of understanding that reaches a place of feelings running much deeper than the calculations of reasoning – running into those places where blood is thicker than water, where the painful feasting on the liver continues.

The foresight reason grants us is couched in probability. Shrouded in uncertainty the future remains ever new. Still, we are not blind; we grope our way forward with the light of evidence. Reason allows us to be sure of something, as sure as we can be. Ask an engineer what pressure a given piece of steel can withstand and they will answer with a high degree of confidence, plus or minus a bit of course. In the world of feel-good mass entertainment and the lax, anything-goes cultural milieu it nurtures, it is important not to lose sight of this ability of careful reasoning to grant us a high degree of confidence. It aids the contemplative to maintain their individual diligence against the madness around them. It also aids cutting through the BS and the wishy-washy smoke screens deliberately created around the ecological truth of our time.

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