How to live in accordance with reason?

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.

13 thoughts on “How to live in accordance with reason?”

  1. Mirror
    I skimmed the PDF for the seven techniques. They are interesting, but there is a meta assumption that the questioner is always right. I mean, those are great observations but did the authors apply the techniques to themselves and every belief they hold. There is a lot of talk of evolved brains in the doc. Did they throughly investigate the origins of the species, or did they just adopt that belief on the authority of their professors. Departing from that orthodoxy will get you fired. Do they get the log out of their own eye first?
    It would be interesting how the authors respond to any sustained reasonable challenge to their world view.

    • The piece doesn’t cover the whole field
      I agree that reductive descriptions of thought processes (“it’s a stupid response we’re stuck with today because the cavemen had this issue with mastodons”) mostly apply where there is something basically and obviously wrong with the opposing view. That kind of situation is not unknown, so it seemed a useful list, and the author wouldn’t have been able to compile it if he hadn’t had a lot of experience dealing with really bad arguments that just wouldn’t go away. (He shows elsewhere that in the particular case he’s dealing with, modernist and post-modernist architecture, he can respond to objections and present constructive alternatives.)

      The point of my comment, of course, was that tendencies that give rise to pathologies are also necessary to productive intelligent thought, and that’s one reason productive intelligent thought is difficult and constantly risks going off the rails.

  2. Hierarchies overthrown
    Your summary of what you believe are some necessary conditions for realizing the good, beautiful and true, implies an almost total rejection of practical politics in modern times, I think.

    Before the role of tradition could be accepted at least among thoughtful people, a number of very secure hierarchies would have to be deposed and replaced by an intellectual elite sympathetic to your understandings. In other words, you’re calling for a moral revolution or perhaps – which amounts to the same thing – a Christian Renaissance.

    This is unlikely to happen without terrible violence.

    • Times change
      That’s true if the established order remains self-confident and functional. It would be like trying to get rid of the communists in 1950 instead of 40 years later. What has to be done now is to show that there are better ways of life and thought that can gather force as consequences of the basic flaws of liberalism accumulate.

  3. Tradition has no traction
    Half a century after Oakeshott, tradition has no traction – because tradition has changed so much and modern time horizons are so shortened that we treat something like ‘diversity’ asif it were a venerable tradition rather than a recent and geographically-isolated fashion.

    This could be covered by reversing the order of your points. Any validity of tradition is underwritten by God, and by the worship of God – so that we should be bound by traditions based on devotion – and only by such traditions.

    Of course this does not make tradition uncontested – it is not an alogorithm for establishing true-tradition, but it does give a focus to the discovery of true tradition.

    In particular, tradition is based on hierarchy of authority. If we have a broadly accepted hierarchy of authority – evn if it is merely a hierarchy of weightings to authority – then where authorities disagree we have a way of sorting between them.

    (I am thinking here of the way in which Fr. Seraphim Rose proceeds in trying to establish the correct traditions within Orthodoxy in a book like Blessed Augustine, or Soul after Death.)

    • I don’t agree that tradition
      I don’t agree that tradition has no traction today. In theory that’s true, and the theory determines what intelligent educated people say and think they believe when they’re trying to discuss things seriously, so it determines public policy etc.

      Still, society and human beings do function in all their aspects, at least somewhat and after a fashion. That couldn’t be so without tradition, including preliberal and nonliberal tradition. No matter how sick a man is he wouldn’t be alive at all unless a huge complex of extremely complicated interlocking systems were functioning. That’s true at the physical level and also at the intellectual, social etc. level. Depravity is never close to complete.

      For that reason what’s needed is to give the huge mass of things that constitutes human life in society a different basic tendency so that the normal workings of thought and action will tend to order instead of further disorder them. That of course brings in my final points (God and functional hierarchy), which I agree are the key to the whole problem. The reason they’re at the end of course is that the presentation tries to start with recognitions readily available to the puzzled man of today and build on them.

      • Progressivism is pre-immunized against tradition
        Society has been in rapid transition for such a long time that some traditions are certainly part of the problem rather than a potenital solution – some traditions problems only become apparent after they take full effect, which may take a couple of generations. How to tell which?

        But in general I find the appeal to tradition has been subverted, because people are pre-immunized against an appeal to tradition – after all progressivism won against tradition, it evolved to deal with this argument.

        (As you know) my feeling is that the current disorder can only be overthrown by 1. an appeal to common sense (which is more or less fascism) – this being a temporary solution at best, or 2. by being built up from a religious basis (more or less theocracy – in which case it would be experienced as a radical imposition of unfamiliar practices).

        • Tradition’s part of a complex
          I agree that a simple appeal to tradition wouldn’t work. You also need arguments why rationalism doesn’t work and tradition is a necessary part of a general scheme that can give us something better and more sensible than we have now. The problem is multifaceted and multilevel and the response must be so as well.

          The response I suggest in the entry starts with common sense and ends with God and therefore a transformation of understandings that have become customary and so appear commonsensical. So you’re right that it could easily be seen as revolutionary, because it would kick out some things that now seem commonsensical to most people.

          It is better seen as traditionalist. Everything’s got a tradition, and liberal modernity is a problem because it’s the publicly dominant tradition. Nonetheless, (i) it’s opposed to the authority of tradition as such and so undercuts itself as a tradition, and (ii) its results are visibly catastrophic–it’s been around for more than a couple generations by now–so from the standpoint of the overall Western tradition of which it’s part it can only be judged an unfortunate deviation. So a reflective traditionalist would reject it. And the worse its results get the more likely it becomes that other people will reject it too.

          • The problem is complex, the response must be simple
            “The problem is multifaceted and multilevel and the response must be so as well.”

            My feeling is that if the response ‘must be’ multifaceted and multilevel, then there will be no response – or, at least, the response will be ineffective. And this is indeed the probable future.

            If there is to be an effective (or even partially-effective) response it must be simple and immediately comprehensible. Simple responses are indeed simplistic, but that is the nature of politics, in my opinion.

            Complexity in policy is – de facto – either a distraction or merely self-contradictory, rather than truly complex.

          • Takes all kinds
            Liberalism is not simply politics narrowly construed. Different people do different things in different fields of life. The triumph of liberal modernity involved philosophers, scientists, artists, legal thinkers, journalists, pedagogues, statesmen, jurists, civil servants, men of business, and so on, all dealing with their own issues in their own way but in accordance with a common basic and often merely implicit understanding. I’d expect whatever replaces it to arise and achieve dominance the same way.

          • Clarification
            It’s not clear to me what bgc and I agree on and don’t agree on. Anyway, it seems to me that:

            • There is One Necessary Thing, a reorientation of loyalty and understanding toward God.
            • How the ONT comes about and what happens when it arrives is a complicated matter involving all aspects of human life.
            • “All aspects” includes understanding as well as loyalty. Faith involves the whole man, and man is a rational animal. That’s why Saint Paul makes lots of arguments, Saint John includes the metaphysical stuff about the Word, Saint Thomas Aquinas is a Doctor of the Church, etc.
            • Saying that reason and intellectual stuff matters doesn’t mean everything gets planned in advance and it doesn’t mean the present intellectual class is going to do anything very useful. There’s no overall plan, but it’s helpful for people to think about what’s involved and comment on it. That’s an intellectual activity, and the better and more intelligently it’s done the better. It was a Big Deal when Augustine, the number one intellectual of the time, converted. People who find comments worthwhile can make use of them in their own efforts.
            • We have no way of knowing how or when any of this stuff is going to have an effect. Bubbles can burst and things can look very different overnight. The reason bubbles exist after all is that no one can imagine that whatever line of thought they’re based on (“houses only go up in value,” “equal freedom is a possible and the only correct basis for social order”) has limitations.
  4. Spontaneous Order
    This is an interesting discussion. I haven’t any trenchant observations to make about tradition as such. But your expectation that whatever replaces the current intellectual consensus which is hostile to traditional modes of understanding, suggests what you have in mind is the evolution of a spontaneous order.

    As I’ve no doubt you know and may have written about, Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order is usually understood to relate to the market economy. However, an order arising spontaneously, analogous to Hayek’s insight, might be assumed in the renewal of tradition, I think.

    • Hayek and renewal
      Hayek has some very worthwhile things to say about tradition. The stuff he says about how spontaneous order reflects the local and implicit knowledge of society as a whole applies there as well as in the case of the market.

      Social order is certainly spontaneous in the sense that it can’t be planned out in any basic way. For one thing intellectual consensus has to be based on what people think is most real and that kind of consideration precedes all planning so it can’t be planned itself. Still, there’s an element of allegiance and moral orientation involved and those things involve intention.

      Maybe bgc’s point is that it’s that element that is the One Necessary Thing. If so I don’t disagree but getting there and what happens after you get there is a complicated story that a lot of people doing different things for different reasons have to take part in. I suppose I’d add, in connection with your comment on spontaneous order and bgc’s on politics, that allegiance and orientation can’t be planned and are prepolitical rather than political.


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