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The death of reason

I’ve been reading a book, The Suicide of Reason, about the tendency of multicultural consumerist liberalism to disarm itself in the face of Islam. The problem the author sees is quite simple: in the West we’re into what he calls reason—that is, we view orderly satisfaction of individual preferences as the highest goal. In the Islamic world they’re into what he calls tribalism, fanaticism and the law of the jungle, which means they think there are considerations that trump individual self-interest. The result is that we’re unable to fight off the Muslims or even (because of our increasingly radical individualism) recognize them as an enemy.

The author’s conclusion is that we need some tribalism, fanaticism and law of the jungle of our own, just enough to maintain our ability to put individual self-interest first. It’s the classic neoconservative version of the culture war: liberalism does itself in, so let’s stick some traditional discipline into it and justify the discipline by pointing out that it’ll put the system of everybody doing what he feels like doing on a more reliable footing.

It’s hard to see how the strategy could work. If the discipline or fanaticism or whatever is a bad thing from the standpoint of the self-interested individual, how are you going to get people to buy into it in a society that treats individual self-interest as the highest human goal?

The basic problem, I think, is that you can’t discuss such problems without discussing what it is to live a good life, and the scientistic view of reason I point to in the last entry, which the author shares on the whole, makes that kind of discussion impossible. A good life is a life according to reason, but identifying reason with observation, measurement, model-building, formal logic, and means-ends rationality makes it impossible to say what it is to act reasonably. If reality, including human conduct, is simply motions in space, then it’s hard to see why one set of motions is more reasonable than another. The notion of reason becomes arbitrary, and therefore not a notion of reason at all.

Thus, the author identifies reason variously with the outlook of a cooly rational arm’s-length capitalist dealer, and with the net effect of physiological reactions inculcated by the shaming code that came by chance to be characteristic of our society. Why bother striving for reason if it’s that and no more? And if it’s viewed that way, how is it going to serve as a reliable basis for intelligent cooperation?