Reason: four classics

While reading through an earlier post, it occurred to me that it might have relevance to today’s political drama. So I tracked down a few essays and put a contemporary spin on the year-old post. And while I’m on the dangerous topic of politics, I predict this Thursday’s debate will be canceled by an October surprise (albeit perhaps a day early). The surprise might be a family crisis for Sarah Palin (as if her family isn’t, by definition, a crisis), or perhaps something bigger. And maybe the debate will proceed on schedule, the McCain/Palin ticket hoping they can just let windbag Biden repeatedly stick his foot firmly down his throat. But if the debate proceeds on schedule and Palin actually sneaks a word or two in, I’m betting the McCain campaign will spend the entire week in damage control.


Reason arose in Greece about 25 centuries ago, and is perhaps best known from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato (ca. 428-348 BC) uses the conversations of Socrates to pose and explore questions in considerable detail. Although many of the issues and associated conversations seem unsophisticated to contemporary readers, these initial attempts to employ logic to study the natural world and the role of humans in the world are remarkable precisely because they were the unprecedented. The contributions of ancient Greece to the material worldview that characterizes modernity cannot be overstated; that so many of the contributions came from Athens, a city that never exceeded 250,000 residents, is simply astonishing.
Although the ancient Greeks laid the foundation for modernity, few bricks were added to the structure for nearly two millennia. During the early seventeenth century, the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the deconstructionist René Descartes (1596-1650) ushered in the Enlightenment, thereby triggering a flurry of construction to the edifice of knowledge. Almost overnight it became clear that the world was a material one that could be observed and quantified by all who dared think and observe. Nature obeyed rules and humans were big-brained animals capable of discovering and describing those rules.
Thus, the Enlightenment eroded the role of authority as a source of knowledge. In the wake of Giordano Bruno’s heinous execution by the Catholic Church, Bacon recanted earlier statements in which he denied the Ptolemaic view that Earth was the center of the universe. But the erosion of authority that began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and the Church was increasingly marginalized as a source of knowledge.
David Hume (1711-1776), in his initial written piece of philosophy, presented a compelling case against miracles, hence against religion: “Of Miracles” was published in 1748 as an essay in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understandings. This essay should be required reading for anybody interested in understanding reason and religion. Considering the ludicrous religious statements coming every recent U.S. President and every recent presidential candidate, it should be required reading for them, too.
Shortly before Charles Darwin formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection in the Origin of Species (1859), Schopenhauer (1788-1860) used Plato-like dialog to question the basis of religion in his well-known essay, “Religion: A Dialogue.” Can you imagine such a nuanced and reasonable debate between candidates for political office in our burgeoning theocracy?
Notably influenced by Schopenhauer and writing shortly after publication of Darwin’s dangerous idea, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) vociferously spread the word about God’s death (probably unaware that Max Stirner had declared the death of God shortly after Nietzsche’s birth in his 1845 book, The Ego and Its Own). Nietzsche predicted Reason would overwhelm worldviews based on mysticism, a prediction that turned out to be hopelessly optimistic. As S. Jonathan Singer concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live. Singer likely did not know he was echoing Schopenhauer, although Schopenhauer’s use of dialog in his essay clearly indicates he knew he was echoing Plato in reaching the same conclusion. In any event, the absence of reason on the campaign trail represents a distinct and disturbing departure from reality, though it closely matches the ten percent figure given by Plato and Singer. Are the candidates pandering to the public, hence satisfying our obvious desire to be lied to? Or do they really lack the ability to discern fantasy from reality?
Which is worse?
Nietzsche expressed his views on Christianity early and often in his writings, most popularly with Thus Spoke Zarathustra; I recommend that classic book and, for the condensed version of Nietzsche’s view, The Antichrist (the latter, which probably should have been titled The Anti-Christian, represents Nietzsche’s views on God particularly clearly and vehemently, and if you’re short on time, I recommend sections 1-9, 29-39, and 47-49). The Antichrist was intended to be shockingly blasphemous, but it cogently makes many important points and articulates them vividly. The Antichrist is an excellent and strident follow-up to Schopenhauer’s thoughtful essay.
To further muddy Nietzsche’s clarity, be sure to read the 1953 essay published in Look magazine by Bertrand Russell (1903-1959):”What is an agnostic?” Russell was the world’s last philosopher of significance, and his views superbly reflect reality. The birth of postmodernism often is traced to 1960, the year after Russell’s death. I don’t think it’s causal.
Collectively, these four essays illustrate the capacity for, and importance of, Reason. Reason is the basis for understanding the material world. As such, it serves as the foundation upon which we can understand and practice conservation of species and cultures. That is, we can conserve the last remaining shards of nature only through description and understanding rooted in reality. Or, of course, by bringing down the entire world’s industrial economy. The latter seems a lot more likely than application of reason to the issue.
Mysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for conserving nature. Ultimately, I suspect it will prove inadequate for saving humanity as well. Although we could blame the lying clowns who represent us, the politicians merely reflect the populace, and therefore contemporary zeitgeist. Like it or not, the politicians we elect are six flights below the lowest common denominator in large part because we cannot reason our way up the stairs.

Comments 16

  • Guy —
    Didn’t Nietzche play linebacker for the Green Bay Packers? My favorite philosopher was Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears, who said — “Hit ’em again, hit ’em again, harder, harder.”
    On a personal note, not long ago a friend who is a raptor biologist asked me when I was going to write a book. I said, “Grainger, what kind of book should I write?” He said maybe I should write a “stream of consciousness” work. So, I started on chapter one this weekend and already have a title and a draft of Chapter One. The title will )tentatively) be: “The Life of a Hated Man”. I would say that I have pissed off many people in all sort of fields of endeavor because of my propensity to explore all sides of things and refute myths, such as the myth that falconers saved the peregrine falcon, that the U.S. is the paradigm of justice, truth and democracy, that technology will save mankind, that wildlife science equates to conservation, and so on and so forth. My experience has been that openly questioning agendas incites hatred and I incited a lot of it and still seem to be able to do so effortlessly…
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • But vindication is here.
    Great fun in the stock stock today. Historic day–see history being made at CNBC.

  • left wing
    right wing
    dead duck
    Several years ago I was out trapping and banding raptors in a rural setting and a guy came walking along as I was banding a red-tailed hawk. I invited him to take a look at the bird and watch its release, and after all that was done he stuck around and talked current events with me. The fellow begged me to listen to KPFA radio, the Berkeley-based Pacifica station. So, I did and I liked it at first. But the more and the longer I listened, I began to realize that I was listening to the opposite version of Limbaugh and Hannity and that crowd. Either side is great at pointing out the hypocricy and foibles of their opponents, and both sides are harshly sensitive to ethical lapses of the other side. On both sides the on-air broadcasters consider themselves to be “journalists”.
    I have almost gotten to the point where I can’t stand to listen to Amy Goodman and Democracy Now any more. Not only is Amy biased towards a particular agenda, but she is a piss poor on air broadcaster. She can hardly speak English fluently, with the constant placing of emphasis inappropiately . Her interview technique instead of asking penetrating questions is to just say, “Talk about…” She is usually safe in so doing because almost all of her guests are people who share her common agenda. If she manages to get someone of the opposite agenda on air, she is likely to practice ambush journalism, such as when she got Alan Greenspan on and started challenging him with her favored guest Naomi Klein, who obviously had written a book Greenspan never heard of and who he thus could not converse intelligently with.
    Now, the Left is for the most part uncritically supporting Obama and has little room for providing alternate views of McKinney, Nader, etc. There seems to be little recognitoin that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are more alike than different and are both the lame wings of a dead duck, or at least a critically ill duck called USA politics.
    Maybe the voters are waking up a bit, but they are woefully uninformed and lacking in motivation to really seek the truth and act on it. The political process in the U.S. has become totally bastardized into superficiality, sound bites and illusion of substance. I am totally flabbergasted that Barack Obama impresses anybody. He is about as authentic as Mr. Magoo. Sarah Palin is almost like a female Steven Colbert. That would be very funny if it was not so serious. McCain is so dangerous that he almost makes Obama look authentic.
    Sometimes I wonder how our country fell so far so fast. But then I realize that Ronald Reagan got elected and was very popular, though he had Alzheimer’s brain damage from Day One. A hillbilly with a swollen cigar named Bill Clinton got elected by claiming to be a Democrat while outmaneuvering the Republicans around their right side. Californians gleefully elected an action hero as governator and Minnesota elected a professional wrestler. Now Minnesota may elect a no-longer-funny left wing political comedian as Senator. California may recall the Governator like they did his predecessor.
    EnergyBulletin.Net had an article about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a brilliant (in some ways) Wall Street risk analyst who wrote a popular book about Black Swans. Unfortunately, Taleb is dead wrong in claiming the current financial chaos is a totally unpredictable, unimaginable Black Swan. Just ask Kunstler or even Colin Campbell or Heinberg. Some informed people have been waiting for this situation to reach fruition for years and wondering what took it so long. Black Swan? I don’t think so! It’s more like a fattened goose that finally popped.
    Tomorrow will be interesting, I think. Will N. Pelosi continue her “leadership” in Bill Clinton-style of aiding the hybrid left/right/left agenda? The Bible says you can’t tame a cricodile and a zebra cannot lose its stripes (I think) and Pelosi will do as she is programmed to do. So I would not be too surprised to see a bailout after all and a rise in the Dow Jones to drag this out a while longer as the election gets closer and closer…
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • If “Reality” is really important, then one might look into the VajraChedika Sutra (The Diamond Sutra – or more properly, the Diamond Cutter Sutra). One can Google for various English downloadable versions; one site is http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/prajparagen2.pdf (Incidentally also known as the PrajnaParamita Sutra).
    I have always had a tough time trying to explain to others that acknowledgment of a deity cannot be non-sectarian; two of the six philosophic schools of Hinduism, all of Buddhism and Jainiam are non – theistic. Acknowledging a deity is establishing a form of religion in preference to or in exclusion of others.

  • a stunning paradox regarding Obama
    Donald Rumsfeld spoke once of “Old Europe” vs. “New Europe”. I introduce the concept of “Old America” (OA) vs. “New America” (NA). To me, OA represents the American status quo and its mythology, including the stratification of power based on wealth and privilege, the desire of the little guy to move up and attain wealth as a signal and symbol of success, the belief that America uniquely stands among nations as a force for good, truth and democracy in the world, etc. NA represents Americans who see the hypocrisy and falseness of all the above and want change that they can believe in — sort of Howard Zinn’s America.
    Barack Obama sits right in the middle. He has a Harvard education and a law degree. He placed himself right in the middle of the system, not a revolutionary but a manipulator of the system from the inside. Barack Obama wanted reform, not revolution, and he aligned himself with powerful monied interests in a mainstream political party to attain power for himself. Perhaps his strategy has been to attain power and then let it trickle down to his supporters, like trickle down economics is alleged to do.
    Barack’s supporters, New America, want change that is tantamount to revolutionary change from the perspective of Old America. They want redistribution of wealth in the form of universal health care, full rights for women, end to imperialism and militarism,
    reigning in and downsizing defense spending, recognition that “terrorists” are often victims of American hegemony and power plays deserving of a hearing ear and justice, and a fraternal brotherhood of nations. They want peace, not endless war and they want equal rights and opportunities for all.
    It is very interesting to think about the political/military/economic strategies of OA as expressed in published documents by the Project for the New American Century a few years ago, because I see them playing out now in internal American politics as Michael Ruppert has obliquiely noted in a posting today on his blog. PNAC postulated a strategy of global dominance with the U.S. maintaining so much power in military and economic terms that it was not only stronger than the rest of the world, but determined to forever prevent serious, powerful rivals from emerging. The Bush Doctrine of Preemptive Warfare was a by-product of this mentality. Before Iraq gets strong enough to attack us, we take out their weapons of mass destruction. Before Venezuela harms us economically, we stage a secret coup d’etat and install friendly leadership, and so on and so forth.
    The PNAC plans have failed because of all sorts of problems with the ability of any one nation to rule the world, even the “armed to the teeth” USA. And the USA had slowly, but surely evolved into an inferior, crumbling unsustainable empire based largely on fantasy wealth utterly dependent on outside financing of its wars and gradually collapsing imperial infrastructure. And the rest of the world began to understand that in the age of Peak Oil and a mentality of endless U.S. world domination that each of them, including our historic friends had better watch their backs because Americans could turn on a friend in an instant (remember how France quickly became an “enemy” for failing to support the war of conquest in Iraq at its onset and all things French, including slices fried potatoes were despised and given new names).
    So, with Peak Oil, massive fiscal corruption and finally liquidation of the assets of empire, Barack Obama comes along and wants to be President. He knows full well that OA is trying desperately to salvage all the monetary assets still at play within the system. Barack Obama is willing to help the bailout for the sake fo OA. And OA is desperately trying to seize all those assets, not only for themselves, but to keep wealth and power out of the hands of New America. That was a fundamental concept of the foreign policy of PNAC, now part of the internal U.S. working policy of OA as the empire fades and crumbles. It is critically important to OA to keep NA from emerging from the ruins of itself and instituting change that the lowly citizens of NA can believe in and benefit from moving forward. The Golden Rule, their spriritual philsophy remains in play: “He who has the gold makes the rules” and OA wants to keep the gold for themselves forever.
    So, Michael Ruppert went on the record today and stating that the Republicans are trying to sink the American economy altogether so that when Barack Obama wins this election in a landslide, the event will coincide with the final collapse of the American economy, which no president will be able to rebuild. Thus, the collapse will be forever associated with the election of a black president of the U.S.
    To me, the paradoxes in all of this are stunning. Obama is a black man who rejects the black agenda in order to get elected, and his opponents are using his superficial features to destroy his supporters, who he is bamboozling in order to attain power with the status quo.. Obama wants to be part of OA, is likely to be elected by a bamboozled NA, and then the country ruined because OA will have nothing to do with him and would rather bring down the country rather than turn it over in workable form to NA.
    Of course, there is much more that could be said. The self-imposed self-stratification of Old America by wealth accumulation means that OA must implode when there are no longer enough resources to support all. The Golden Rule will remain in effect and the lower echelons of OA will become part of NA pending little issues like food shortages, dieoffs, global warming calamities, and the like. What OA and NA have in common is the failure to realize that both are nonsustainable ecologically and economically and both are doomed, but in slightly different ways. And Barack Obama uniquely is a catalyst for the failure of both.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • a pretty good description of the “Not Quite New America”:
    see:
    http://www.strike-the-root.com/82/votlucka/votlucka4.html
    in short, too much comfort and materialism to promote real idealism/revolution — yet…
    submitted by Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Thanks for the excellent link, Stan

  • I would just add that after you finish Hume’s essay “Of Miracles”, read On The Immortality of the Soul. Includes hilarious beginning and ending bits designed to throw off lazy censors.
    And not to quibble, but as I read Nietzsche, I don’t see in him much of an advocate of reason. Rather like yourself, I think, he despaired of man’s ability to reason his way out of his various dilemmas. Crucially, however – this didn’t make him into a pessimist. Now there’s the crux of it for you, I think.

  • Hollerr
    Whatsup fellaz?
    I have a question thats been on my mind for a while.. What is acai berry?
    I keep seeing commercials on tv and advertisements on the web so im finally starting to get interested.
    I guess its some fruit that is extremly healthy for you and your skin?
    I wouldnt mind losing a few pounds so i kind of want to buy acai berry .. so if any
    of you know any good places that would be awesome!
    I also saw it was featured on OPRAH so maybe there is some truth to this lol.

  • Make sure to check the rel tag on comments before adding acai berry comments that do not relate to the topic.

  • Of course my favorite is Charles Darwin. Always classic.

  • Unfortunately Obama isn’t really bringing much change, though obviously each president is different and so is their views. Anyway, to answer one of the questions posed by original post. People want to hear lies, even if they are well aware that it’s a lie, that’s still what they want to hear. As such the dandidates (and politicians in general) are faced with a fun choice of telling lies (complete or partial) or tell the truth, of course no one wants to hear the truth so telling it will have a negative on the amount of votes towards that candidate.

  • Pretty impressive article you have written about. I think we need to take a step back and look at the damage we’ve done to the planet before we continue on this path.

  • Nice description about politics. Keep post more articles like that.

  • very insightful post.. keep posting