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Finding reason in an unreasonable world

What do you say in response to a theory of things that is simplified to the point of absurdity: that asserts that existence is an illusion, or physical objects do not exist, or language is all a rhetorical power-game, or mathematical objects are only physiological states of someone’s brain? Some possibilities:

  • Argument. It’s illuminating to argue such points a couple of times, but it gets old because the issues are so overarching that everything becomes grist for the mill. Also, odd theories energize people. It’s the same problem as with global conspiracy theories.
  • The Doctor Johnson approach. If Bishop Berkeley claims material objects don’t exist, kick a rock as a refutation. From Bishop B.’s standpoint the refutation misses the point, but from Doctor J.’s it reinforces his sense that the point is well worth missing.
  • The go-along-with-the-gag approach. Almost anything can be reformulated in almost any terms. You don’t see why you should do something because life is all an illusion anyway? Well just have an illusion of doing it.

    The reformulation game grows tiresome. Also, it really does matter to us what’s real, so the reformulations won’t be altogether satisfying. It might be possible to reformulate ethics on the assumption that minds other than my own don’t exist, but there would be something missing.

  • The take-him-at-his-word-approach. You say all language is a move in a rhetorical power game or purely the outcome of a physiological process? I don’t care what you’re trying to pull off or what the state of your brain chemistry is, I got my own issues, so I’ll ignore you. Similarly, Doctor Johnson suggested that if someone really believes that morality is simply a flatus vocis, when he’s been visiting us we should count our spoons.
  • The just-a-stage-he’s-going-through approach, a.k.a. the indulgent-mom approach. Say “yes dear” and assume the guy will grow out of it.

    That often works. The common-sense language that people fall into when they speak about the events of daily life corresponds to a common-sense view of what’s real. It saves effort to assume common-sense ontology as true, so most people eventually give up the struggle to maintain metaphysical purity.

    One problem with that approach is the willed artificiality of the way people speak today. Bureaucrats and experts speak in a sort of mechanized way that can increase the power and exactitude of what they say, but at the cost of limiting what it can deal with. If a way of speaking has power people try to extend it beyond its proper domain. Depending on circumstances, they may try to substitute rhetoric for mathematics or the reverse. And depending on how we are ruled they may carry their point. The view that gender is a social construction, because gender roles don’t have the universality and exactitude of particle physics, may actually become official doctrine.

  • The ignore-it-so-it-goes-away approach. In the end that’s usually the practical answer, since life must go on, but often it doesn’t go away, at least not soon enough. You can’t reform the world, though.

There’s no sure-fire cure for the problem. Intelligence can’t refute stupidity from the standpoint of stupidity, and in any case stupidity is a universal human condition. None of us escapes completely. The best you can do is aspire to reason in your own case, discuss things reasonably with reasonable people, hold to what’s good, present the occasional argument when the mood strikes you, and hope better ways of thinking catch on. It’s not a perfect world, there aren’t always adults in charge, and people do what they want, so we’re not always going to get things as we would like them to be.