Monday, February 28, 2011

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”*

Tibor R. Machan

In basic reasoning courses one learns that certain ways of thinking are fallacious, others are sound. Sadly, most students don’t actually remember much of what they learn here because these courses are taught too early in their college years, just at the time they are still celebrating no longer being in high school. (Yes, for nearly two years many students pay hardly any attention to their studies, having been incarcerated in school for 12 years prior to entering college!)

Had they been educated about reasoning well versus badly, they might catch some of the howlers committed by members of the media (or anyone else). As a case in point, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Bill O’Reilly during the 2000 presidential election, when the mess in Florida with those hanging chads was going down. In his ponderous and pompous manner, which apparently many people welcome for some reason, O’Reilly announced in the middle of his coverage of the events that journalistic objectivity is a total myth, that everyone is biased, including him. And not just when they are voicing their particular viewpoint. Also, when they report on facts.

Now here is a good case of muddled and fallacious reasoning. It is inconsistent for a journalist to both make a report about journalism--e.g., that it is always biased--while also claiming that all such reports are biased, which is to say unreliable, distorted, one-sided, partisan or subjective. If the latter were true, than the former could not be treated as also true since it would also fall victim to distortion or bias. And why would anyone trust a journalist who distorts the facts he is supposed to be reporting to us? We could find something far more productive to do.

More generally, any kind of corruption in a profession, such as journalism, cannot be inherent. If it were, no distinction between distorted and dependable reporting could be identified. At least the possibility of credible reporting must exist. It’s like food--not all of it could be poisonous; nor could we all be sick all the time. These pairs of concepts, like poisonous versus healthy, corrupt versus honest, biased versus objective, etc., and so forth are meaningful only if both were possible. Just one of them on its own makes no sense. Like beginning versus end, or up versus down--they make sense only when paired.

Anyway, quite a few people get tripped up by forgetting these and many other elementary points of human reasoning. They will accept the idea, for example, that all human thought is fallacious; that everyone is always lying; that our minds are innately defective, etc. None of this could be so, in part because then these reports about us would themselves be unreliable since we made them with our human minds (and our human minds, remember, always distort everything, etc., etc.).

Why is there so much of this sort of babbling about when it is so flawed? (Another infamous case in point is “All property is theft” since theft presupposes the existence of untainted property.) One reason is that a great many people are misanthropes. They are very eager to demean humanity, to put it down as something worthless or inherently flawed. So they attack our most vital faculty, the human mind. (Maybe in fact they are projecting!)

The most prominent example of this is a certain version of the idea of original sin, in the form that states that human beings are basically and thoroughly sinful from the git-go. (If all it means is that human beings are capable of being wicked, well that’s no news!) Another source is the famous and famously misunderstood idea the comes to us from Socrates, the main character of all those great Platonic dialogues. Socrates is supposed to have said, if Plato is to be believed, that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing (and that no one who thinks he is wise is really wise, including he).

These are very paradoxical claims to make and, most probably, their point is ironic not literal. They could be one approach to keeping hubris in check, making sure no one takes himself too seriously, no one gets carried away with his or her cleverness. This is also where the idea “sophistry” comes from, of cleverness masquerading as wisdom. Sophists in Plato’s time where those who pretended to be wise but in fact merely exhibited technical skill in argumentation, a bit like attorneys are reputed to do.

It would be nice if all those hours of sitting in basic reasoning classes actually left their mark on all students. But since you can become a famous anchor on TV while committing lacunae galore, I suppose many fail to see the benefit from it.

*Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.

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