The struggle between faith and reason has been waged in earnest for six hundred years now, and it’s far from over. The people convinced global warming is a hoax would have been at right home cheering Galileo’s persecution. The only difference is that Galileo’s truth was unwelcome to the Roman Catholic Church, whereas James Hansen’s truth is unwelcome to the Church of Big Oil.
Oh, and also that the Church of Big Oil hasn’t threatened to burn climate scientists at the stake — yet.
Reason is an essential tool for thwarting selfish and stupid approaches to the human condition. Its origins trace back to controlling fire, crafting weapons, and cooking food, but in the modern sense it began some 2500 years ago when Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others revolutionized the way humans think about themselves and society.
That starburst didn’t last, but its embers smoldered for centuries until Europeans rediscovered their philosophical heritage. The Renaissance and then the Enlightenment gave new life to science and logic, the gifts inside seagoing Europe’s nasty package of colonialism and exploitation.
We have welcomed the products of reason (usually in the form of technology), but because humans are emotional creatures who think rather than thinking creatures who feel, we continue to resist reason itself. Reasoning (as opposed to rationalizing) is often regarded as hard and unnecessary. Also, in the universe’s version of Rock-Paper-Scissors, reason cuts faith — and faith buttresses authoritarian institutions.
Resistance to reason may even be hardwired. In a fascinating New Yorker article earlier this year, Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, argues that “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” All of us understand what those problems are; as Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.” Kolbert cites studies indicating that reasoning evolved to help us win arguments with tribemates, not to align our understanding with empirical evidence.
Rapid technological advance creates yet another problem: we think we know more than we do. As society grows ever more complex, each of us understands less of what makes the whole function. For instance, most of us can’t explain in detail how a computer, an automobile, or even a toilet works. And we don’t care as long as they do what they’re supposed to. But if pressed, we’d explain anyway, and be fairly confident we got it right.
When resistance to reason and the assumption of knowledge combine, we get pompous know-nothings leading ignorant hordes. We readily see that dynamic in groups we dislike — climate change deniers top my list — but it’s a universal phenomenon. Anti-vaxxers and cell-towerphobes, for instance, tend to come from my side of the political spectrum.
Kolbert may have found a solution, although she’s not optimistic about it. The cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach conducted a study in which they challenged subjects to work through the consequences of their passionate political positions. Inevitably the subjects ran into trouble — and their views moderated somewhat. Writes Kolbert, “Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we — or our friends or the pundits on CNN — spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views.”
I share her pessimism. As she points out in the article, confirmation bias is powerful. And as someone who spends a lot of time around lawyers, I’m also aware of how human it is to value winning over being right.
(For a quick summary of Sloman and Fernbach’s research, see this recent article by them in the New York Times.)