Nov 9, 2008

Asymmetrical Debate?

[This question arose on Study Groups for Objectivists in discussions of Yaron Brook's and Onkar Ghate's insightful "Cultural Movements: Creating Change" lectures (available on the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, under the headings Participate/Activism).]

Here is a problem for students of the history of ideas, intellectual history, or cultural history: Reason is difficult and rare, but mysticism--in all its many forms--is easy and common. How can reason ever win?

Reason is difficult because it requires effort to be aware, to define a problem, to select a method, to persist in seeking information, to check the results for contradictions with already-held knowledge, and so forth. Mysticism is easy. If it is subjectivist, ideas are whatever the mystic wants them to be, regardless of facts. If it is intrinsicist, ideas simply arrive, either from the subconscious as intuition or from God as revelation.

In debate between advocates of reason and mystics, those who support reason do research, think about their results, formulate answers to essential questions, consider the nature of their audience, and so forth. Mystics need only blurt out whatever they feel.

Consider a contemporary example. In general, the conservative and leftist enemies of a culture of reason are mystics of one sort or another. They do not offer reasoned arguments. If I say I am pro-choice on abortion, a conservative may show me a picture of a dead fetus. A picture is not an argument, that is, not a reasoned process leading from facts to conclusions. It is an appeal to emotion. If I am to win the debate (held before a worthy audience) then I may need to go through a step-by-step argument identifying the problem underlying my opponent's last statement and offering a solution. My conservative opponent, if typical, next responds by screaming that I am a baby-killer. This is mysticism vs. reasoning--in debate.

(Intellectually, no debate is possible between mystics and advocates of reason, but socially such debates occur frequently before audiences that are, one hopes, at least mixed: Some members of the audience are at least implicitly advocates of reason but may not yet agree with a particular pro-reason position on a particular issue.)

Consider another contemporary example. You try to explain a principle of economics--that state interference (aggression) in the home-finance marketplace has long-term destructive consequences--and why. Your opponent responds with a bizarre false-dichotomy based on unspoken hints of egalitarianism and altruism: "But we are just using this bailout as a way of protecting Main Street against Wall Street!" You then must (1) determine what he is talking about in reality, if anything; (2) prepare your conclusions in terms and in a form that a rational but ill-informed audience listening to the debate would understand; and (3) offer an objective alternative based on principles you want to disseminate.

At first sight, the odds seem stacked against advocates of reason ever winning in their struggles with mystics. Yet, advocates of reason have won issue after issue, in some places and in some times. How can that be true when the odds against them seem so high?

I do not have a fully integrated answer to this problem yet, but I can suggest elements. First is the fact that in some societies there have been enough decision-makers and decision-influencers who were rational enough (in most areas of their lives) that advocates of reason and its products had a chance to win enough support, or even merely acquiescence, to at least make progress. Galileo lived in Italy. His ideas were censored there, but he managed to smuggle his writings out to lands where they met an eager audience. Perhaps the political fragmentation of Europe--from the Greeks up to the European Union--usually provided a refuge somewhere for advocates of reason.

Second is the fact--at least in Western culture--that rational people creating rational products have always had an effect far beyond their public numbers. Think again of Galileo. On the short-term he lost in his struggle with the Church in Italy in the mid-1600s. But his ideas ultimately did win wide acceptance among intellectuals. His ideas were presumably persuasive to dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of often nameless individuals in the following decades. In this manner, Galileo's ideas won. The people advocates of reason need to reach are not only the tiny number of Galileos and their peers, but also the thousands (out of millions) of rational individuals who will integrate and propagate, if not originate, rational ideas. An advocate of reason does not need to reach everyone or even a majority.

Only a few people set the direction of a culture. If advocates of reason can persuade, or even just neutralize, half of those people, then the advocates of reason can start making cultural changes within one generation. I have seen this process of changing the views of the powerful minority happen in business. On a committee of twelve people, two to four people either directly make the decisions or influence decision-making. Most of the others on the committee swivel their heads back and forth as each debater in turn presents his case pro or con.

In summary, I do see that reasoned presentations can indeed win support from rational members of one's audience, even in a "debate" against a mystic--but only in a culture already accepting a philosophy of reason to some extent; and only over the long term, which is the time required to analyze problems, develop solutions, figure out the best way to present the solutions, and actually make one's case to the intended audience (narrow or broad).

As a long-term student of history, I would love to have the time to investigate at least one case of such a victory: Galileo's ideas on astronomy, Darwin's ideas on evolution, Locke's ideas on politics, the idea of freedom of speech, or others.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith


Richard said...

Hi Burgess,

We definitely have the Enlightenment on our side. When I find myself in discussions with religious and milder Leftists, most try to appeal to reason, however faulty their reasoning.

The Enlightenment was sparked by Aquinas, fanned by Bacon and then fueled by such less notable men as William of Baskerville and too many others to mention. At first the fuel consisted of little twigs. Some, such as you have named (Galileo), really added good fuel wood to the fire, while some (faulty ones) added green wood that smoked and went out. Nonetheless, the fire grew over the ensuing five centuries, until reason was the gas furnace of the Industrial Revolution.

In spite of Kant, Reason itself has not died out. Even he tried to use reason, though to wipe it out.

Save for such set backs as Greenspan throwing Rand "under the bus", or Muslims beating us to it, &/or Obama achieving more destruction than we could imagine, the Second Renaissance is probably going to begin within this century.. That entails 1/5-1/6th of the time required for the first.

As a teacher I am pleased that I, as a small dry twig, was able to add a number of young people to that goal. Two of my students are now active with The Undercurrent, and at least one has made a couple of excellent contributions to HBL.

I gained a pretty negative reputation as an Objectivist at the private school, and became disgusted with the "drooling beast" that always seemed to be fighting me. Nonetheless, the owner of the school remarked, two years after I quit, that the standards I once set had clearly ceased to influence the other staff. He observed that they had lost their sense of restraint. They felt free to advocate ideas he knew were wrong but, because he was not among the students, he could not combat. Even the student body acted with a lower standard of decency.

My point is that we have more effect than we realize, simply by using reason and not backing down. Hopefully, my next venture will serve me better, while achieving similar results.

Peter Murphy said...

Mr. Laughlin –

Contrasting reason and mysticism based on their differing amounts of cognitive effort required is useful in evaluating the battle and prospects for a predominantly rational culture. And it is certainly true that mysticism is easy (at first) - like taking drugs!

Contrasting reason and mysticism based on their respective rarity and commonality, however, does not seem very useful to this evaluation.

First, it seems incorrect to summarize, “that reasoned presentations can indeed win support from rational members of one’s audience …only… in a culture already accepting a philosophy of reason somewhat.” What if there was no reason other than the presenter’s in the entire culture to begin with? In such a case, there could be no audience members who already accepted reason, and we’d then have the historical question of how the presenter gained reason in the first place. There seems to be a circularity or fallacious begging of the question here as to just how a rational position arises historically in human thought and discourse.

And that leads to the broader reservation I have about the evaluation, “the odds seem stacked against advocates of reason ever winning in their struggles with mystics.” It seems overly simplistic to limit the criteria for calculating such odds merely to the quantities (rarity/commonality) of individuals in the two camps and/or to one person’s, like Galileo’s, ability to “smuggle” rational ideas to more “eager” foreign audiences.

As Ayn Rand wrote in “What Can One Do?,” “History is made by minorities—or, more precisely, history is made by intellectual movements, which are created by minorities. Who belongs to these minorities? Anyone who is able and willing actively to concern himself with intellectual issues. Here, it is not quantity, but quality that counts (the quality—and consistency—of the ideas one is advocating).”

The ultimate minority is the individual, reason takes place in an active individual mind, and the owner of that mind has to choose to reason. Some early individual men had to choose to commence the development of reasoning once upon a time when there were neither ANY others in the culture “already accepting reason” nor ANY foreign cultures “already accepting a philosophy of reason somewhat” that could be smuggled inbound.

Each of Rand’s four novels shows a different tactic by which a single reasoning individual successfully challenges the status quo, and two of those works show the creation of an entirely new culture starting with a single individual. Coupled with the facts of her own life, including post-mortem rising sales of her books, I can’t conceive of a more compelling body of evidence for how the “odds of winning” strongly favor reasoning quality over the quantity of individuals who reason.

So perhaps the proper “asymmetrical” context to hold when calculating the odds for winning a predominantly pro-reason culture is the context that is ultimately and fundamentally the most powerful and favorable to reason: reality versus fantasy! When holding intransigently to reality through effort and consistency, those on the side of reality always have every long-term advantage.

They also have an inestimably powerful short-term advantage. While it’s true that “mystics need only blurt out whatever they feel,” any implication of the mystic thereby having it easier would be wrong; it’s never easier to set one’s subconscious mind at war with itself and external reality like the mystic does. That is a daily, life-long war than cannot be won.

Given the nature of the subconscious – with its automatic functions for storing and retrieving information which reality requires be in logical hierarchies and contexts – the fog of disconnects, compartmentalizations, and contradictions which the mystic forces upon his subconscious filing system ultimately subverts his entire emotional apparatus and his self esteem. He becomes increasingly mercurial or despondent, neurotic, and feeble in dealing with ever more basic requirements of living. For an interesting study in how this operates within a culture, see “The Psycho-epistemology of The Arab World,” by Edwin Locke.

So although reason requires far more effort, its crusaders in any cultural battle gain an inestimably powerful short-term advantage – strength of character – including the confidence and courage which only a devotion to reality like Galileo’s can have!

Burgess Laughlin said...

[One fact of communication--face to face or on the internet--is that often a lot of back and forth is required. Misunderstandings are frequent when the two parties don't know each other and don't have a background of common suppositions. One can only start and move forward with the process.]

My responses may be slow in coming, and they may appear in piecemeal fashion.

First, if there is any doubt in the reader's mind that I used the term "smuggle" correctly, I ask the reader to investigate the circumstances of Galileo's life. I cannot at the moment find an exact source (possibly in Randall's Career of Philosophy, which I no longer have in my library), but I do recall reading very specifically that Galileo knew, in his last years, as his illness grew, that his manuscripts were secretly on their way to the Lowlands, where (unlike Italy) printers were eager to print his works and sell them to eager audiences. He could not do so in Italy.

My memories are not proof. To avoid doing an inordinate amount of research for this small but pregnant point, I would refer the reader to such works as Stillman Drake, Galileo: Pioneer Scientist. In the Preface, on pp. xvi-xvii, Drake lists a chronology of key events in Galileo's life relevant to his work as a physicist. On p. xvi, Drake notes about Galileo:

"1630 Visits Rome for licensing of Dialogue on the Tides; Pope requires that tides be removed from title of book . . . ."

1635 Learns that Inquisition forbids his printing any book; attempts to find printer in France or Germany.

1636 L. Elzevir agrees to print Two New Sciences in Holland. . . .

1642 Dies . . . ."

These points made by Drake illustrate my position that the success of attempts at dissemination of rational ideas in one culture relative to another depends not only on the objectivity of the speaker's ideas but also on the nature of the culture (the extent and intensity of the rationality of his audience) in which the disseminator is speaking. Rationality, like all existents, is measurable, and measures of it should be used by disseminators in deciding where they will speak.

To deny the importance of the nature of the culture to which one is speaking (how many rational people there are in it, and to what degree they are rational) would be to deny one of the three essential elements in communication: the nature of the audience. (The other two essential elements for communication are the nature of the speaker--for example, his consistency-- and the nature of the message itself, e.g., is it clearly written, fully substantiated, written in terms the audience already understands sufficiently, and so forth.)

In summary, such a denial would be a rejection of the law of identity as applied to to one or more of the links in the chain of communication.

For example, the existence of licensing, especially by a supreme religious figure prior to publication, is an indicator of the degree of irrationality in a culture. The degree (I said "somewhat") of rationality in a culture matters for predicting success.

I am not Pollyanna. I do not believe that merely being consistent, courageous, and so forth, is enough to justify me in believing that I can be equally successful in any culture--e.g., the USA today vs. the Congo today or Nazi Germany in 1938 (or even 1928).

I would expect that John Galt--to use him as an illustration, not a proof--chose to operate in the USA, not in the looters' state of Mexico, for a central reason. He had a much more receptive audience in the USA already.