Bill Hulet Editor

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Why Rationality is Important

This morning I had the unpleasant experience of spending a half hour listening to a Guelph candidate in the federal election. I won't go into details, but I haven't heard such a dense avalanche of total nonsense for a very, very long time. It got me thinking about how tremendously fragile a democracy can be.

People naively assume that all you need for a functioning democracy are relatively fair elections. But if you've really thought about it, that's the end result of developing several foundational cultural norms such as freedom of speech, the rule of law, a vigorous free press, and such. When I was listening to this Niagara of idiocy I got increasingly agitated because it was obvious that this fellow's campaign seems to be based on the principle of undermining and destroying at least one of them: the commitment to anchor policy on facts by using logic. 


Most people don't think about the relationship between philosophy and science, and, democracy. But I believe that it wasn't just a coincidence that ancient Athenian participatory democracy flourished during the time of the great Greek philosophers, or, that modern liberal democracy came into being during the time of the European scientific enlightenment.

If you read Plato I think you get evidence of this relationship by considering the reoccurring theme of the disagreement between Socrates and the Sophists, or, between philosophy and rhetoric.

Philosophy is based on the premise that there are rules that one should follow in conversations that allow you to gain new information about the world. I think modern people often forget what a tremendously radical idea this really was. Just about every other society in the world at that time was based upon tradition, religious authority, and, brute force. People believed what they believed primarily because they had always believed it, because the priest told them, or, because if they said anything different---bad things would happen to them.

But something unprecedented happened in Greece---and Athens in particular. A space opened up in society that allowed people to ask the "unpleasant questions" that would usually result in getting the crap beaten out of you (or worse) anywhere else. As a result, the city state became a place where brilliant thinkers from all over the Mediterranean came to live. And they met and talked with each other, which allowed them to sharpen their insights.

I don't know much about ancient Athenian democracy, but it seems clear to me that there had to be a relationship between the philosophers and the assembly, because both are based on the idea that truth emerges from a conversation between people.

Plato. A Roman copy from a portrait made at the time of the philosopher's death.
Made by the sculptor Silanion. From the Boehringer Collection.
Image c/o the Wiki Commons

Unfortunately, at the same time that people like Heraclitus, Thales, Plato, Socrates, and, Aristotle were trying to work out the way to tell a good argument from a bad one, there was also a counter-current of people who were figuring out the best way to confuse the public in order to get what they wanted.

Probably the most infamous example was one of Socrates' students: Alcibiades. He sought to build his political career by promoting an unnecessary adventure that involved invading Sicily. The result was a catastrophic defeat that involved the annihilation of the cream of the Athenian military. It never recovered, and eventually Athens was conquered by Sparta. And the Athenian citizens lost their democracy.

Philosophy survived, primarily because it was excellent training for members of the elite who would then go on to study rhetoric. With democracy totally discredited---because it seemed to invariably result in demagogues like Alcibiades being put into power---the paragon of societies became Republics, like Rome. These were oligarchies:  societies where power resided in a wealthy elite. Politics and voting still occurred---which meant that rhetoric was considered an essential part of an ambitious man's education. But never again would butchers, bakers, stone masons, and, the guys who pulled an oar in a war galley have a say in how their society was run---at least until modern times.


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Liberal democracy (the modern form) arose during a similar period of philosophical exuberance. Only the driver for this wasn't logic, but rather science. The European enlightenment was driven by the "new learning" that came from people like Galileo, Newton, and so on. The tremendous growth in human knowledge that grew out of the scientific method emboldened philosophers to look at their societies in much the same way that the experimental method had dramatically changed people's understanding of astronomy, physics, medicine, chemistry, and so on.

These people ceased to look towards some divine basis for government and were instead "empiricists". This was the idea that human society could be studied just like any other part of the world around us. And that we could use the insights that arise from that investigation could be used to improve how we make collective decisions.

John Locke. Line drawing by Crovonrosso.
Image c/o the Wiki Commons.

One of the great fathers of Enlightenment political theory was John Locke who said
"whatever I write, as soon as I discover it not to be true, my hand shall be the forwardest to throw it into the fire." 
This is totally at odds with rhetoric, which is used not to find the truth, but rather to "score points", convince people, and, amass power.


This gets me back to the noxious individual I had to listen to this morning. I suspect that he genuinely believes what he said. But if he does, it's because he's expended very little effort in trying to find out if what he says is actually true. That is especially pathetic because we live currently live in an age when it is so incredibly easy for a person to find the facts about most contentious issues.

Just to give one tiny example. When asked about whether or not his party is in favour of the pipeline to the West coast, our stalwart candidate said "Alberta is the engine driving the Canadian economy". I'm not suggesting that he invented this idea, but he was certainly helping to spread it. And this is something that it is very easy to "truth-test". It took me about a minute to use Google to look up the Gross Domestic Product of Ontario ($728 billion), Quebec ($338 billion) and Alberta ($335 billion) in 2018. Indeed adding together all the numbers for all the provinces and territories, it turns out that the Alberta GDP only comes to about 17% of the total Canadian economy.  So in actual fact Alberta isn't "the engine driving the Canadian economy" by any stretch of the imagination---. (Repeating this statement over and over and over and over again simply doesn't make it so.) 

The problem with this guy isn't that he's wrong. It's that if you point out that he is wrong, he won't change what he says. He certainly won't be like John Locke and "be the forwardest to throw it into the fire". That's because he isn't interested in finding the truth, but rather in pushing his agenda.


And that's tremendously dangerous in a democracy. If enough politicians, journalists, and, voters stop caring about whether something a politician says is actually true, then we start edging towards the bad old world where everything gets decided on the basis of money and brute force.

That's the thing about democracy. All societies have to figure out how how to make decisions and divide up scarce resources. Throughout most of human history this has been done through tradition or brute force. What is unique about both ancient Athens and modern liberal democracies like Canada is that---at least in principle---they do it by having an honest and open debate between different points of view. The idea is that this conversation is the best way for truth to assert itself and that the general opinion of the mass of citizens usually comes to---if not the best, at least a "good enough" decision.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Sometimes people temporarily lose their way and become overwhelmed by their emotions---both individually and collectively. When they do, fast-talking, "slick Willies" can use rhetoric to bamboozle them into voting against their best interests. That's how ancient Athens ended up sending their fleet off to it's destruction. It's also how the people of Germany pissed-away the Weimar Republic. It's also how Canada could sleep walk its way into a climate catastrophe.

It looks to me---from what I've seen in the last decade or so---that many politicians are trying transition from making the best logical, evidence-based argument to instead creating rhetorical appeals to people's emotions. That's why truth seems to be so much less important than "truthiness" today. It's also why the lies seem so much more brazen. People often aren't ashamed when you catch them fibbing---and many just ignore you if you point out an error. They just keep repeating the same bullshit over and over again, because telling bullshit is what they are all about.

The problem with emotions is that they are dangerous beasts. They need to be tamed and kept under control. We've seen where the politics of emotions can lead people---and it's a dark, dark place. That's what made the 20th century the time of enormous wars. Let's hope that we can collectively step back from this time of delusional politics and find some "new enlightenment" that can inform our political institutions.


Furthermore, I say onto you the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!