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Reason and Evidence: False Dichotomies

July 7, 2016

The world of today is different from the world of 100 years ago. Geographically, politically, culturally, scientifically, and in many other ways too. Different does not always mean better, nor does it always mean worse. It just means different. Obviously, there is a natural anthropocentric bias for our current society as being “best”, for it is “our” society. But this bias is being confuted with some generic idea of steady progress of society in all ways and in all manners from year to year. Technological progress aids this illusion, among other things.

One difference that is not better, I would say, is the standards of reason and evidence used in discussions among people. We have much more come to rely on emotional appeals, not just as an adjunct to a good reason, but as the reason itself for holding a view or belief. We have become more likely to try and ostracize someone who holds views we do not like or find offensive, and much more likely to appeal to some authority or expert, and class this as in itself “evidence”. As if the correct answer to a riddle or problem, is simply a matter of following directions to the respected authoritative source of evidence, and then accepting this view blindly with no attempt to apply your own critical faculties of reason to it, or questioning or debating with this viewpoint.

Reasons for holding views have become much more fickle and changeable, and we see intellectual fads that come and go all the time. Yet people still hold and defend views with an avid passion. They just defend them more often with poor arguments, appeals to authority, attempts at ridicule, attacks on the people who hold the opposing view, rather than on their arguments.

All of this shows us that rationality is not something guaranteed to us by some safe and secure logical procedure, or by some infallible source of evidence. The error of logical positivism was to imagine it had supplied both of these. It felt science, through verification theory of meaning was an infallible source of evidence, and it felt that logical procedures of understanding could all be reduced to safe and secure, (but null and void) tautologies or conventional agreements.

On both fronts it was wrong, on both fronts it failed. Yet despite this theoretical failure, we seem to be largely living in a world now that takes these views as successful for practical purposes. Conventions are accepted because they are convenient, and this itself is a tautology. The snake eats its own tail, and happily continues so far, till it runs out of its own body to feed off.

Instead of this sad state of affairs we need to appreciate again that reason and rationality is not guaranteed to us, it is not a faculty that simply needs to be allowed freedom to express itself. It is a complex set of values and practices maintained only by a community of people with an active interest in preserving those values for future generations. We are the source of reason, not some isolatable part of our mind, or isolatable set of procedures to follow. We either continue the discussion in a reasonable way, or we revert to appeals to authority, when such appeals can only ever end in the use of forced consent when people refuse to agree.

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