The Defeat of Reason

A pair of book reviews, tied together by a common argument.
People are gullible. Humans can be duped by liars and conned by frauds; manipulated by rhetoric and beguiled by self-regard; browbeaten, cajoled, seduced, intimidated, flattered, wheedled, inveigled, and ensnared. In this respect, humans are unique in the animal kingdom.

Aristotle emphasizes another characteristic. Humans alone, he tells us, have logos: reason. Man, according to the Stoics, is zoön logikon, the reasoning animal. But on reflection, the first set of characteristics arises from the second. It is only because we reason and think and use language that we can be hoodwinked.

Not only can people be led astray, most people are. If the devout Christian is right, then committed Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and atheists are wrong. When so many groups disagree, the majority must be mistaken. And if the majority is misguided on just this one topic, then almost everyone must be mistaken on some issues of great importance. This is a hard lesson to learn, because it is paradoxical to accept one’s own folly. You cannot at the same time believe something and recognize that you are a mug to believe it.
The review goes on to treat high matters of physics and philosophy.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis regarded other religions, and even atheism, as not 100% wrong, but as less true than Christianity. He regarded it as impossible that the wisest people over generations could not understand anything, or that God had revealed nothing to them.

It is a minor correction to the thought expressed, which is otherwise quite valuable.

Grim said...

This is a difference between Lewis and Plato, on the one hand, and the author of this review and the Anglo American philosophers he cites. Logic speaks of things that are either true or false. To say that something is more true is nonsensical in their tradition.

My sense is that Plato and Lewis are right. But of course, believing that could make me the mug.

MikeD said...

The problem with discussing whether any complex belief system is "true" or "false" as a whole is that in symbolic logic and set theory if any element of a complex statement is false, then the entirety is false. Now this works very well for simple concepts, such as "all X's are Y". But think about Catholicism (I use it as an example, because it is the religion I am most familiar with). The Catholic Church's doctrine cannot be "summed up" in a few sentences and contain all the elements of Catholic doctrine. Yes, you can keep it short, but to do so, you must leave out elements of the whole. Now imagine one part of that whole is false. By the rules of logic, the whole belief system would be false.

It doesn't have to be something big (like the intercession of the Saints, or one of the Sacraments), but something small. Imagine that Catholic doctrine is incorrect about the composition of the host wafer needing to be only unleavened bread (I literally know congregations where people refused to take Eucharist because it wasn't the wafer). Okay, not a huge deal, but important to some (clearly). Now, according to pure logic, that would mean that everything else in Catholicism could be "true", but that because that one element is false that the whole religion is "false".

That may work well for mathematical structures, proofs, and even computer programs. In fact, it is essential to them. But the human experience proves that life is not binary. Yes, some things (especially on the small scale) may be so, but large complex systems are not so easily judged. "The exception that proves the rule" is a nonsensical statement in logic, but our lives are filled with such things. It's one of the reasons I object to attempting to apply mathematical, binary logic to things like language. "This statement is false" is an irreconcilable paradox in mathematics. But yet we can read that statement and come to grips with it, for it is only words on a page. Language is not math, though we use language to discuss math. Life is not logic, though we may use logic to help us describe life.

Tom said...

Well, with something as complex as religion, I don't think the way to look at it is as a single proposition, but rather a set of propositions. The "more / less true" evaluation is not, then of the whole, but rather "more of this religion's propositions are true" and "fewer of this religion's propositions are true."

E.g., Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all propose that there is one God. This is one proposition, and if it's true, then all of them got that right. However, Islam and Judaism do not accept the Christian view of the nature of God (the Trinity). If God is a Trinity, then Christianity has two propositions correct while Islam and Judaism only have one. This is how we would say that Christianity is "more true" than the other two. (I believe Catholics use the term "the fullness of the faith" to describe this idea.)

It's not a truth evaluation of false = 0, true = 1, and "more true" is = 0.8, for example.

I don't know very much at all about formal logic, so I'd like to ask. Imagine we're grading a test with 100 discrete questions. I imagine that formal logic could tell us about each one of those problems. If the student answered the question with a true statement, he gets it right. Could formal logic give you a meaningful grade for the whole?

MikeD said...

"Grading" would not be something that logic would give you. It could tell you the true/false about each element, and you could construct logical statements based upon those elements (e.g. "Every student that answered question 1 through 5 correctly also got question 7 correct", could be evaluated as a true/false, or "one student answered all questions correctly" could be evaluated). But it would not tell you anything like "a majority of students understood the material". I think when we attach a judgment to a statement (did the student understand the material), logic can't really answer that. It can tell you that the student answered the majority of questions correctly, but it cannot draw judgments from that determination.

So in essence, "more true" and "less true" could be tested by true false statements (i.e. Religion A received more "true" results than religion B"), but for "is Religion A 'true'", logic is really of no help.

Grim said...

'Grading' is also not what Plato or Lewis were aiming at anyway. Think of the Cave analogy from Plato's Republic. We're all trapped in a cave, watching a shadow play on the wall, but the real world is outside the cave. (This is similar to the 'seen through a glass, darkly' verse from the Bible.)

Grading like you're talking about is going to be a percentage of accuracy in describing the shadow play. Our beliefs are 100% true if and only if they accurately describe what we have seen on the walls; our predictions are accurate if and only if they correctly predict what will come to be in the shadow play.

What Plato and Lewis are talking about by 'more real' is getting up out of the cave, or seeing things directly and face-to-face. Those things are real in a way that nothing we encounter in the ordinary world is real; they are more real. It's not that they are a few percentage points more accurate (or 'more real') -- it is that they are categorically a different kind of real, and that the things we ordinarily speak of as 'real' draw their being from those more-real things.

Tom said...

Thanks, Mike. That makes sense.

Yeah, Grim, that's one of the things about philosophy that has always confused me a bit. I am thinking 'true/false' as epistemology, but you seem to have switched to ontology. How is 'more true' in your first comment connected with 'more real' is your second?

In the abstract, I can understand 'more real' in terms of intensity. More painful / less painful is something I think we all understand. I can imagine 'more real / less real' I suppose.

Grim said...

The answer to your question, Tom, is that 'more true' ends up not being univocal (to use the technical philosophical term, which I think you'll know from theology). In a way it's right to say that things that are real in the 'out of the cave' sense are also 'more true' than anything in the shadow play; but in another way, we really mean that the things in the shadow play aren't capable of attaining to truth in the same way. It really ends up meaning something different. The same word is not said in one voice.

We run into the issue with God's goodness, or even God's existence, in Christian theology. Is God good? Certainly. When you say that God is good, do you mean that he is good like a person is good? No; God defines goodness, he doesn't just sometimes attain to it.