Laugh and Learn

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's great to have Blogger back. In my six and a half years of blogging, that's the longest outage I've ever seen. That's not a complaint: I've experienced less reliability from vital services, such as electricity, than that, before. I thank the staff at Blogger for straightening things out and my readers for their patience.

On with an abbreviated version of what I'd been thinking about posting this morning...

Generally, I devote Friday posts to things I enjoy, and today is no exception, although it will look a lot like a "regular" post. What I am enjoying about the below passage, as well as the article it comes from, is the fact that it has helped me understand a question I've been grappling with for some time. One aspect of the problem concerns the phenomenon of rationalism, which I blogged on briefly earlier in the week as I considered Noam Chomsky's views on the Islamist atrocities of 2001 as an example of the phenomenon.

To cut to the chase: The following two paragraphs, taken from an article titled, "The Monomania of an Anti-American Prophet," describe very well both the thought process/defense mechanism/method of self-delusion employed by rationalists and an appropriate reaction to its output by someone not afflicted:

And what is [Chomsky's] main thesis? As the catalogue above indicates, it is this. In every historical episode in which the Americans have projected state power, the overall death toll must be laid at Washington’s door; and, moreover, should be treated as an intended (or at least predictable) consequence of American leaders who are either full-blown murderers or so recklessly indifferent to human life as to be morally indistinguishable from them. Chomsky's entire career as a commentator on foreign affairs consists of building this catalogue in his mind -- a catalogue that he rattles off with an idiot savant's precision at the drop of a hat, and to which, apparently, Osama bin Laden's death now has been added. Nowhere is there any indication that this list-maker pays much attention to the opposite side of the ledger -- the millions upon millions of lives saved, either from death or slavery at the hands of totalitarian forces, in the fight against the Soviet Union and the more modern Islamist threat.

Nor does he seem to pay any regard to the freedom won in these struggles -- freedom that allows people like him, and crackpot conspiracy theorists as well, to shout bloody murder at their government without any fear that SEAL Team 6 will invade the MIT campus and carry his body away. [minor format edits, bold added]
This, I submit, is a textbook description of a rationalist "in the wild," as it were. (If you disagree with me, I'd be very interested in hearing from you.) I had a good laugh once I read the second paragraph: How many times have I heard some elaborate theory, backed with hoards of data -- with holes in it so large one could drive a truck through them?

I am not that familiar with Chomsky, but I would hardly be surprised to learn that he could even "answer" Jonathan Kay's observation that he is free to spout nonsense about his own country. (A few token dissidents like himself allow evil American officials to pretend that freedom of speech exists, perhaps?) As I noted in my earlier post, Chomsky has had about a decade to cherry-pick "facts" to support his conceit that the United States is the epitome of evil, and, as Kay indicates, he has an impressive (to people untrained or poorly-trained in rational thought, anyway), systematized "explanation" for everything.

But there's just one problem: Ordinary people can see right through what Chomsky says, as the second paragraph shows. (The commonality of rationalists in academia gives rise in this way to popular stereotypes of college professors as having all kinds of esoteric knowledge, but no common sense.)

But while ordinary people can see through rationalistic conclusions at first glance, many -- like Chomsky's acolytes -- can fall for them, or at least find themselves unable to answer them if they start spending time thinking about them. There are multiple reasons for this. Here are just a few... If a rationalist is involved in a specialized area, laymen will not necessarily have the training to properly evaluate what he says about his area, or whether it really fits his argument. Young people, without much life experience, can be so snowed under by the blizzard of "facts" the rationalist marshals in "support" of his argument, that they become too overwhelmed to mount a reply. (See the earlier post for why I'm using scare quotes here.) A philosophical reason is that people can accept a wrong premise in the rationalist's argument, due to sloppiness or lack of proper academic training, and try to answer the rationalist on his own arbitrary terms.

I find this very interesting, and it has implications for cultural activism above and beyond the problems that having to overcome one's own rationalism can have for understanding a proper philosophy -- or anything else, for that matter. How does one properly communicate an idea that deserves wider attention? How does one best answer a rationalistic argument that sounds impressive to many who, although they aren't professional intellectuals, are basically rational? How does one spot rationalism quickly, or distinguish it from conscious deception? These are the kinds of questions considering good examples of rationalism can help answer.

-- CAV

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