Reason is for Stabbing

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For readers curious about my the lack of new posts over the last month,  the answer is easy: I recently relocated to Cambodia, and have focused my efforts on establishing things here instead of on writing. Hopefully posting will improve a bit over the next few weeks as things become more settled down on my end. 

In the meantime, I want to elevate a comment left by Lynn Rees on the post Of Words and Weaponsto a post in its own right. Long time readers will recognize Lynn as a long time commentator here at the Stage; those with even longer memories might remember his now defunct blog, the Committee of Public Safety, one of the highlights of the old “strategy sphere.” Lynn writes with a sharp wit and an allusive style (the following post casually alludes to everything from Star Trek series tropes to Aztec mythology) that remains entertaining even if you don’t catch every reference.

In the ‘Words and Weapons’ post I argued that ‘signaling theory’ developed by economists and evolutionary psychologists shares many features with traditional Marxist theory. The logic they use is different, but both theories are weaponized in political debate for an identical purpose: to discredit an argument by reducing it to the identity of the person making it. Rees suggests that this is not an exclusive Marxian tick. Drawing on the argumentative theory of reason presented by Dan Sperber and Hugio Mercier, Rees argues that these rhetorical tricks are actually a fundamental part of human behavior.

But I will let him explain it—his exposition is far more entertaining than any summary I could write up in its place:

I toy here briefly with another dead German, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz cast war, at least in the philosophic sense that Marx and Engels later aggressively mired themselves in, as the continuation of politics by other means, inferred as politics continued with extreme prejudice by violent means. What Uncle Carl meant by this has been competitively elaborated on. I will not summarize any such elaboration here since I’m a random Internet wingnut armed only with some badly aging rhetorical flourishes. 

To start at the beginning, most of nature is in an absolute pickle. A violent, sour not-so-kosher dill pickle. Some fly under the radar as (sometimes literally) lone wolves. Some find strength in numbers, sometimes as a ravening murder-death-kill horde (e.g. wolves…again), some times as herds with plenty of spare cannon fodder. 

Humans natively seem to glom into small little cliques. Within those cliques, factions form. In the press of tooth and claw, factions can mean life or they could mean death. One faction may be right, one faction may be wrong, with the possible outcome ranging from wounded feelings to mass murder-death-kill. This is the raw primordial ooze of human politics, the extra-carbony peanut butter from which everything more complex is forged and eaten as part of a complete meal. 

As goes politics, goes war. Clausewitz, correctly, in my less than humble opinion, argued that the most important thing in war is first to be very strong and then at the decisive point.  

I will clumsily extrapolate from Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier‘s argumentative theory of reason that the point of human reason is not the high order of pursuing truth as Enlightenment groupie might claim. The focus of human reason is winning arguments, first by being strong and then at the decisive point

If reason was purely about abstract truth, there would be no kings being strangled with the entrails of priests. Diderot would greet us from 1750 with “Live long and prosper”, his fingers split into a Vulcan salute. Vulcans aren’t people: they’re a plot device. Reason is stabby at its core: the supposed mind-emotion split that the Enlightenment hammed up non-stop is nonsense. It is the sharp wry eyebrow of Voltaire facing off against the flabby, jello-like sentiment of Rousseau. Rousseau and Voltaire aren’t anti-matter opposites, threatening to destroy the human cosmos in one catastrophic burst: they’re plot devices, meant to move us uncomfortably in our chairs and maybe switch to that new Star Wars novel instead of these moderately distressing Frenchmen. 

I feel like Sperber has a point here, though I may just be another American finding spiritual completeness with a Frenchman. Like Rousseau or Voltaire, Sperber is helpfully French for those so inclined to such things. 

Returning to my badly chewed and regurgitated extrapolation of Sperber, one of the great follies of our time is the myopic denouncing of certain human mental tics or heuristics as “biases”. Foremost among the denounced is “confirmation bias.” If we were engaged in that crusade for pure truth, freed like Spock by the mere lifting of one quizzical eyebrow, than confirmation would be very, very inconvenient. 

If we’re being attacked by Star Wars fans, wielding vintage collectible light sabers with a meaningful, and threatening, glint in their eyes, the abstract pursuit of truth is the first casualty. The enemy is upon us, we know they’re wrong, and we have no time for anything except raising our equally vintage Classic Trek phasers in defense of all that is right. As motion-tracked VOOM! VOOM! clashes with mono-audio PEW! PEW!, we have to act quickly, we have to act as one, and we have to show those pointy-headed fakers who the real superfans here are. There are no Picards in foxholes, only Kirks

In the principles strongly-worded advice of war, confirmation bias is concentration of force. It is first, being very strong in argument and focus, and then at that decisive point. While economy of effort, another heuristic of war, says you shouldn’t put all your phases in the backpack of one red shirt, and economy of effort, when projected into the realm of reason and argumentation, rhymes with a full and frank exchange of diverse views in a safe space, holding back on the tactical nuts and bolts level when you’re at the jugular of that decisive point and feeling very strong is nuts. 

Where does this leave Mr. Greer’s broader point, about a line of evil acidic drool dribbling from Marx’s black lips down to our own time, infecting the Public Thing and rotting it from within? As an aspiring servant of Jesus Christ, I believe in more than Marx’s abstract people as material calculators tallying up themselves as the sum of their class biases. There are souls there and they are being refined in and by a troubled mortality. If the sharp principles of Clausewitz don’t dominate the heavens, they certainly rule this fallen realm. Mortality is cruelty and is refined by nothing but Christ and Him Crucified. Moreover, mortality is worse than cruelty: it is limited. Man, clothed for this limited season in human flesh, will have to choose, and in his choice be frustrated when he can have any choice he wants as long as its colored pitch. Sometimes the choice will be unpleasant. As it was said of old, so it is now: things are always at their darkest before they become completely black. 

Some choice. 

One silver lining: human violence is expensive. It was expensive in blood and lives at the dawn of human history, with mortality rates as high as 20%, judging by some estimates, and it has only gotten expensive with increasingly stabby things that sometimes go KABLOOEY!!! As a corollary, the superset of human violence, politics has also gotten more expensive. The shift from clique to chiefdom to kingdom to empire to Trumpdom has gotten pricier and pricier. It demands more and more limited resources, especially the limited resources found between your two ears. The human brain must seek out efficiencies, and in an age when big is cheap, it must seek out economies of scale in thinking. 

While it seems to be inevitable that violence will come, violence comes in spurts and dribbles and burns itself out without a ready supply of fresh victims to feed Left-Handed Hummingbird. We are all not condemned to live in our own little Tlaxcalas, a sort of game preserve for predators set aside by society to keep themselves sharpened and stocked with fresh hearts. We have spaces where we can and, indeed, must, engage with others even if they’re dressed like a bad Alec Guinness impersonator. And we can’t always phaser them into nanoparticles, however emotionally satisfying that might be. You can stab it with your pointy ears but you just can’t kill the beast. 

I agree with Mr. Greer that the quality of dialog is declining in Western society at large. Look at all those creepy Jedi wannabes with their tawdry Lucasfilm bling if you don’t believe me. Like most human disputes, in the eyes of later generations most of what we debate now is the equivalent of counting how many Guelfs and Ghibellines can dance together on the head of a pin without stabbing each other. 

However, as with most human disputes, these debates are consequential. History is cumulative and it accumulates virtuous and vicious consequences altogether. Such is mortality. One of the great epics of literature is Dante’s Divine Comedy. One of the passive-aggressive thrills that Dante got out of his versifying was burning his political enemies one by one in increasingly vicious ways while Dante and Virgil descended into the Inferno. And what were the provincial political squabbles Dante made immortal? Guelphs and Ghibellines. You may not understand the intricacies of papal claims vs imperial claims. You may never crawl on you knees at Canossa in the snow. However, you can understand the visceral thrill of seeing your enemy’s entrails repeatedly unwound with a corkscrew even across seven or so centuries. To be political is to be human. 

Faction is natural. It is the very air we breath. Confirmation bias is only a bug when its our bias that isn’t being confirmed. And there are affordable economy-sized forms of confirmation bias and there are expensive luxury-brand forms. The more expensive forms usually involve very pointy confirmations with a bias toward piercing parts of the body with a demonstrated lack of tolerance for being stabbed. So human history has evolved, been led, and lazily drifted away from things that get stabby real quick. Things like legitimacy and, as Mr. Greer has discoursed on at length, asabiya, are other ways to let a busy mind catch a few winks while awaiting the charge of the light saber brigade. They have become more popular because they keep stabbiness to a happy minimum and they keep things from getting pricey (and stabby) too quick. 

Keep calm. Carry on. Ignore that chap with the light saber. 

Most of the people you disagree with are not willfully sitting there calculating how to annoy you with every passing second. Mortality is limited and things have to get on with things. To this extent, Marx may have glimpsed a truth from afar: we are made up of many politically biased beliefs that run much of our thinking as if we were automata. Whether these arise from whirling dialectical dances of class consciousness is something I’m not woke enough to speculate upon. Marx, after all, had a very heavy beard: all that facial hair must count for something.  

But most of the people on The Other Side sincerely believe what they spout. Some stand there, political calculators at the ready, but even then most of them probably only grasp the political calculus through a glass darkly. They don’t believe what they believe because they’re doggedly intent on being wrong. Most of the time they’re trying to avoid committing a crime worse than being wrong: being expensive. 

Things will break down and get stabby eventually. The devil is abroad in the land and in the hearts of men spreading contention. He laughs as you tie yourselves in knots and knots of your self-woven flaxen threads. But, unless you are reckless to the point of civilizational suicide, a not unknown condition by the way, most of the time you back off the edge of the precipice and most of the time you can even scramble up the cliff face. We are in a secular downturn and things might get Antietam level stabby before long: sometimes human knowledge sadly but wearily advances one funeral at a time. But it is not unique to us, however special our snowflakiness is and it is not uniquely Marxist, though Marx is a creepy looking dude with a demonstrated penchant for attracting the wrong fanbase. The fault lies not within our dead Commies but within ourselves. Sometimes it’s not even a fault.

So put down those light sabers and back slowly away.

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One Comment

Wow. It might be considered trite to leave an observation triggered by only a part of that, but here goes.

Caveat, I've never been strong on the real distinction between Reason and Logic. For this purpose , I will regard them as effectively the same.

Star Trek writers made great hay out of the supreme Logic of the Vulcans, but rarely presented it as actual logic. They always either showed it as a) the Religion of the Vulcans, encrusted with as much mysticism as the Dao or the Path, and as much ritual as Catholicism; or b) as the name given to sentimentality. And then once in a while they would contradict themselves.

In the episode "The Galileo Seven", the shuttle has crashed and Spock is in command. The story is a parable about logic versus emotion, on one level. But when Spock and others clash over using force to intimidate some dangerous local creatures, Spock comments that he is "frequently appalled by the low regard… Earthmen have for life". McCoy retorts, "well, we're practical about it." McCoy's "practical" is not synonymous with Logical or Rational, but it is in closer orbit than Spock's sentiment.

Later, they clash again over leaving a body behind because it will add useless weight to the damaged shuttle. McCoy, more typically, argues for not leaving a man behind and indicates not everything is about Logic. Spock replies that "attaining a desired goal always is." That sounded like an actual application of logic, arguably one of the few in the entire history of Star Trek.

Occasionally I set myself or a colleague a parlour game- what would be a purely logical/rational goal or end? Does even survival meet that test?