A Nonfiction Book by O.G. Rose
Belonging Again (Part 16)
Can rationality bring us together?
Could rationality unify and stabilize us, enabling us to “belong again?” This is the arguably the hope of the Enlightenment, the spirit of which still lives with us today. I believe many of us can’t help but think that if we could just get people to “be rational” (which unfortunately often just means “think like us”), the country would be saved. There can be a notion lurking in the back of American minds (for example) that if people in Syria were just rational, there would be no civil war, that if people in Britain were to cease being ideologues, Brexit could have been stopped, and so on. Favoring democracy, believing in the power of education, we’re simply trained to believe that knowledge and intellect could save the world. And certainly, an irrational, Pluralistic world is one that will be full of civil strife and lack “quiet certainty,” but does it follow that a rational, Pluralistic world will be saved from itself? If everyone were to simply “become more rational,” would tensions mitigate, and we all find it easier to “belong?”
I’m not so sure.
I agree that rationality is important: after all, I’ve argued that philosophical training is of the utmost importance for our Pluralistic Age and for the achievement of a “substantive democracy.” However, the problem is that rationality alone will not provide our civilization with unity or “belonging,” though rationality is necessary for the creation of a “substantive democracy” and the finding of “middle grounds” between different communities of different “first principles.” This is because a person’s rationality is relative to what a person believes is true, as argued in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose. If I believe it is going to rain today and bring an umbrella with me, even if it doesn’t rain, I still acted rationally. I was wrong, but “right” and “rational” are not similes: conflating these has been incredibly costly for our civilization, for it leads me to necessarily conclude that those who don’t think like me are “irrational” (for I must think they are “wrong”) and hence those with whom I cannot reason. Consequently, the only option for changing those I disagree with is the power, the legal force of the State — totalitarian.
What defines rationality for me is what I believe is true — my “first principles.” As argued throughout The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy, rationality isn’t really that by which I determine my “first principles,” for that is ground upon which the structure of rationality is built: rationality is possible after “first principles” are accepted and absorbed. Yes, a person can change “first principles,” but though rationality and argument may contribute to a person making this kind of change, I don’t believe it is the primary reason: imagination, experiences, and emotions play a bigger role in how a person defines “being true” (a fuller explanation of why can be found in “The Truth isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose). Again, I think cultivating rationality is important for our Pluralistic Age, but what will help us is a very particular kind of rationality, which I suppose I would just call “critical thinking”: a self-skepticism that is profoundly empathetic (the kind of thinking that Hannah Arendt claimed is necessary for stopping “the banality of evil,” as discussed earlier).
Though necessary like the State, the reason rationality cannot unify us (as someone like Jürgen Habermas may dream) is because what constitutes “being rational” is relative to what people believe constitutes “being true,” and a person’s “truth” is basically a person’s “first principles.” People who ascribe to different “first principles” are precisely those who cannot be rational in the same way: to tell the two groups to “be rational” in order to unify them and achieve democratic agreement is often precisely to tell them to think in a manner that makes unity and democratic agreement more unlikely. Rationality alone — as opposed to the empathetic “critical thinking” that can help us find “middle grounds” between “first principles” (not to say “critical thinking” will necessarily be enough either) — can only lead to unity insomuch as it leads one group or both to give up their “first principles” for another set of fundamental axioms, which is likely to be for the groups a complete overturning of their identities and worldviews. Such action can problematically make rationality totalitarian and oppressive.
Like the State forcing people to change who they fundamentally are in the name of “tolerance,” so demands for people to “critically think” can be like claims for people to “be tolerant,” insomuch as the demands seek to achieve a unity and “peace” that can actually oppress those under it and generate existential anxiety (that could manifest in movements like Brexit). The only kind of unity rationality alone can achieve is a totalitarian one, and this is the kind of unity that is likely to shatter quickly. Additionally, it is deeply unlikely that rationality will actually succeed in making people abandon their “first principles,” precisely because it isn’t so much rationality by which we come to ascribe to “first principles,” and precisely because “first principles” are against which our rationality is defined as itself. Unity by rationality seems impossible, and even if it were possible, the unity would be oppressive and fragile.
Rationality can only unify people who share “first principles,” but the fact it can unify people at all does make rationality seem like a potential answer to our problem of “belonging” (and indeed, it can help and is arguably necessary, for “irrationality” will worsen our plight). Though not everyone who shares “first principles” is necessarily rational, if they were all to become rational, their “first principles” would necessarily lead them to the same, general conclusions. Hence, cultivating rationality can indeed help establish unity in a civilization in which everyone shares “first principles,” but in our Pluralistic Age, rationality alone will only help unify members of a community; it will not unify communities. Yes, rationality can lessen the probability of internal conflict within a group and even help people feel like they belong in it (reducing the probability of revolution, for people don’t tend to revolt against what makes them feel at rest), but not so much between communities. Rationality benefits communities internally, but it is far less useful regarding relations between communities. Problematically, this suggests that rationality could actually contribute to and worsen cults, “conspiracy theories,” and the like, but that is a topic which will be examined in “On Conspiracies and Pandora’s Rationality” by O.G. Rose.
As Conyers warned, if the State reduces the power and authority of groups, the probability communities will even be able to enable members with rationality to feel “belonging” will lessen, for the “first principles” grounding and (internally) legitimizing that rationality will weaken. If the State were to legally force everyone to ascribe to the same “first principles,” then rationality could potentially unify a people, but this is precisely when totalitarianism would prevail and “the shooting would likely begin,” to allude to Hunter. Perhaps rationality had a greater chance to unify us in the past when societies were more “bundled” and entailed more “totality” of ideology, but this is no longer the world we live in. Now, rationality alone can only help situate people “with-in” their groups and potentially isolate groups from one another, and there is no guarantee rationality will now even be able to help groups understand why they are increasingly isolated and unable to understand the minds of those who think differently from them. Rationality has always been “relationally” weak, but now it may also be weakening “internally.”
What about unity by “critical thinking” instead of rationality? Would that make a difference, considering the emphasis on “empathy?” Certainly, “critical thinking” is invaluable for stabilizing the State and our Pluralistic Age, and in Cosmopolitans being increasingly “toward” the State, this will help us feel at “rest.” But “critical thinking” cannot erase Pluralism — the empathetic way of thinking exists and is needed precisely because there is Pluralism — it is more managerial than a solution (even if necessarily so). Additionally, “critical thinking” isn’t so much an “overturning” of “first principles” as it is an examining of one’s own “first principles” in light of alternative “first principles”: it doesn’t erase “first principles” so much as it modifies them (especially if “the map is indestructible,” as discussed in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose). This is indeed valuable, but not enough by itself to address the challenges of Pluralism.
“Could ‘critical thinking’ lead us all into sharing the same ‘first principles?’ ” — that’s the essential question, I think. In other words, can we “critically think” ourselves into “belonging?” If so, then it would be possible for us to be unified by rationality without a totalitarian State. To determine if this was possible, we would have to determine if being a master at “critical thinking” would be for a person to believe “first principles set x,” which would be to ask if there was a single set of “first principles” that mastering “critical thinking” would necessarily lead “any given person” to ascribing to and absorbing? Even if there was, it doesn’t seem likely that “critical thinking” could lead society to that ultimate and singular set of “first principles” (or imagination, emotions, etc. for that matter). This is because “critical thinking,” like rationality, needs a “truth” and/or “first principles” in order to be itself: I cannot think critically of nothing; to be a critique of how thought structures nothing “toward” me is to not be a critique of thought.¹ I require a truth to begin my “critical thinking” from and relative to, and hence, in the act of “critical thinking,” I can never be without “first principles.” Yes, “critical thinking” can help us decide upon, accept, and even move between “first principles” much more than can rationality, but it too cannot start from nowhere lest it lack any substance out of which to be itself (and furthermore there’s no such thing as a person who believes nothing or “from” nothing: even if creation ex nihilo is somehow possible, rationalitas ex nihilo is not).
So be it — let’s ask the questions another way: “Will mastering ‘critical thinking’ necessarily lead people to modifying their ‘first principles’ to the point where all the ‘first principles’ are (practically) the same?” If not, “critical thinking” cannot unify us any better than can rationality. Well, to start, it’s not a given that all “first principles” are equally able to be modified and/or “bridged” to an “ultimate set” of unifying “first premises” (that we haven’t even established exist yet), and, unfortunately, it’s doubtful that it’s even possible for us to know if all “first principles” are so capable and equal. To move from “first principles set c” to “first principles set d” (“toward” “ultimate set z”) is to move to a new truth that potentially negates the conclusions of earlier “critical thinking” (though not necessarily), hence ironically negating the findings justifying the move (thus making it rational to “go back” and deconstruct all progress). Also, it is only possible for me to jump from one set of “first principles” to another via gradual modification of my starting axioms, and if I were to start from axioms that cannot ever be bridged via gradual modifications to the ultimate set of “first principles” (assuming they exist), then it is not possible for me to be guided by “critical thinking” to the axioms which could potentially unify the world (though perhaps I can get “closer” to unification than had I not “critically thought” at all). At this point, stuck, according to my rationality and truth, I must necessarily exist separate from everyone else, forever making unity impossible (assuming my way of thought never dies out, though it may).²
We should take a moment here to note the dangers of believing that all “first principles” can be bridged to an ultimate, unifying set of “first principles” (something that might be unknowable), mainly because we will all naturally think our “first principals” are the “first principles” upon which all should be unified, stabilized, and “belong.” This is arguably the kind of thinking that leads to Colonialism, Inquisitions, and their moralization. If we believe that our “first principles” are the truest, and we also believe that everyone can be reasoned/bridged into those “first principles,” then it becomes our moral and rational duty to even force people to make the “jump” into absorbing our “first principles.” If people of a third world nation lack the intelligence (according to us) to reason themselves into our axioms (which are naturally “the first principles”), then it becomes our moral and justified duty (according to our standards) to force them into accepting those principles, even if they don’t understand what we are forcing them to accept. In this act, thanks to our premises, we are not aggressive and cruel, but to ourselves benevolent like a doctor who may tell patients what they don’t want to hear but nevertheless need to hear.
Perhaps we’re not always wrong to impose a certain intellectual/moral order upon a society — perhaps it is right to stop a nation that practices slavery even if that nation believes slavery is moral and doesn’t understand why it isn’t — and I don’t want to claim here that everything that ever resulted from “force” is bad. Here, I only want to acknowledge the risks of thinking “all first principles can be bridged to the first principles,” and to also point out that a democracy that fails to become a “substantive democracy” is one that could entail a kind of “internal Colonialization” between the disagreeing groups. The democracy will be filled with efforts of Liberals trying to impose their “first principles” over Conservatives, of Pro-Lifers over Pro-Choicers, Shiites over Sufis, and the like — all hoping to win elections precisely in order to use the State to “legally force along” the “internal Colonialization” that favors them, ever-increasing the likelihood that “the shooting begins.”
But the question still hangs — “Can ‘critical thinking’ give us ‘rest?’ ” — so let us examine it further.
¹Unless that is I’m critiquing “nothing” ontologically, which is hence to critique the “appearance of nothing” and/or “relative nothing” (between dimensions) versus the actually of it (an impossibility).
²And even if one day a world unified by “critical thinking” was achieved, there is no guarantee it would last any longer than a generation.