The mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros has written a useful account of “seven tactics for denying the truth”: Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture. (PDF here.)
It’s a good summary of how people maintain their views when they don’t have an argument and don’t want to change what they think. In many cases—like the specific case it’s dealing with—it’s probably all that needs to be said. Life is difficult though. If you’re trying to outline an overall way of life, instead of just trying to get rid of something obviously bad, the situation becomes complicated:
- Group belief isn’t all bad, since two heads are better than one.
- Hesitancy in adopting new views is useful. Existing views normally form a system that we don’t really understand as a whole but nonetheless works at least somewhat. That makes change somewhat of a gamble.
- Acceptance of authority has something to be said for it. Milgram-type experiments show the highest levels of compliance in East Asia, almost equal levels in Northern and Western Europe, and substantially lower levels in the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, life is usually better—less violent and more civilized overall—in the former areas, although there are episodes of catastrophic violence and irrationality there also.
- Following arguments where they seem to lead isn’t always the way to go in practical matters. Traditional methods of building weren’t produced by argument. Modernism in contrast won partly because of the prestige of revolutionary change and partly because of arguments that seemed impressive but could not take the whole situation into account because arguments never do.
- As the piece suggests, the blindness of professional cliques is a source of error. On the other hand data and argument need to be limited if professional standards are to apply and inquiry is to be put on a common and easily-evaluated basis. Science for example wants to look at repeatable measurements by trained observers. That’s a very productive approach, but not everything we have to deal with can be dealt with that way. As the discussion of Thomas Kuhn suggests, not even science is strictly scientific. That’s not because it retains irrationalities that could be done away with, it’s because of how it functions.
The limitations on the applicability of the piece make the description of the ways thought and discussion go wrong all the more frightening. It’s not as if there were just a few problems that can be gotten rid of because they are extraneous to how human thought normally works. Disconnection from reality is a constant danger for us.
Life in accordance with reason involves forms of good judgment that can’t be systematized. We can be more rational than we are, and part of the process is recognizing and rejecting pathologies, but constructive thought—deciding what we should actually do and believe—is endlessly difficult. It’s more an art than a science, or rather something more disorderly yet.
In the end, the question is how to realize the good, beautiful and true, or at a social level how to have an intellectual, moral, and artistic culture that works as well as possible. Here are some things I think are needed:
- Acceptance of the role of tradition. We all have impressions, perceptions, insights, and so on. We accumulate those things individually through experience and socially through tradition. As a result, to deal intelligently with something that’s at all complex is to deal with it from the standpoint of some tradition.
- Recognition that tradition is not about itself. It’s about the good, beautiful, and true, which are not simply traditional. We accept tradition because it’s the way those things, which we can’t do without but can never fully grasp, become available to us. So it has authority but it’s not absolute. It needs to be applied with awareness of its spirit and ultimate goal.
- We also need an elite to provide leadership in resolving various conflicts and adjusting traditional practices and understandings to new conditions and further experience. The elite has to be attached to the traditions of the community whose elite they are and accept those traditions and their implicit goals as authoritative for themselves. They too have an authority that is far from absolute and in fact depends largely on general consent.
- So how to keep everything more or less together and in balance—the individual, the social, the universal, the free, the authoritative, the rationally demonstrable, the intuitively sensed, etc., etc., etc.? Once again, tradition is a big part of the answer. The beliefs and practices that make up a tradition or culture form a functional system that includes hierarchical principles and ultimate commitments that allow it to have its own way of resolving internal conflicts and adapting to changing circumstances.
- That functional system also is not about itself but needs some external reference point that is concrete enough to be taken seriously as real. The reference point must nonetheless be understood as transcendent, so we can’t fully grasp it, and possessing absolute validity as a standard of the good, beautiful, and true. I think that means you need God. Without God the good, beautiful, and true are no longer part of the structure of reality and become arbitrary human constructions that can be redefined to be anything at all. The will to power becomes the final reality for us. Hence modernist architecture—among other atrocities.