Saturday, July 27, 2013

...mortale, risus capax

            So clearly, from my last post, you can tell I have sympathy for a definition of reason which is more social, less individualistic.  Interestingly, a friend of mine pointed out that, in his experience, when good reasoning happens on an individual level, it mimics the argumentative format that Sperber and Mercier theorized.  So when my friend does sit by himself, trying to reason things out, he almost imagines other interlocutors poking holes in his arguments, asking questions, taking his ideas apart; and then he either defends his theories against their counterpoints, or tries another strategy altogether.  While this might all take place in his head, it is clearly modeled on real social interactions.
El sueño de la razón produce monstruos,
Francisco Goya, Museo del Prado.
            I suspect that our friend Reason, just to the right, is not such a social creature.  In fact, were it not for his creeping and feathered (and interesting-looking, I might add!) friends, we might even guess he was lonely.  But I think Goya has captured the Cartesian view of reason quite well.  Solitary, masculine, and once it admits of a moment of human weakness, disaster seeps in around the edges.
            But really, this is a post about Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, I swear.
            To recap:  we have, in the fourth section/journey of the book, the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.  The Houyhnhnms are talking horses, while the Yahoos are apparently human, but lacking in linguistic capabilities.  Gulliver's first encounter with the Yahoos disturbs him, to say the least:
            At last I beheld several animals in a field, and one or two of the same kind sitting in trees.  Their shape was very singular and deformed, which a little discomposed me, so that I lay down behind a thicket to observe them better...Their heads and breasts were covered with a thick hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had beards like goats, and a long ridge of hair down their backs and the fore-parts of their legs and feet, but the rest of their bodies were bare, so that I might see their skins, which were of a brown buff colour.  They had no tails, nor any hair at all on their buttocks, except about the anus; which, I presume, nature had placed there to defend them as they sat on the ground; for this posture they used, as well as lying down, and often stood on their hind feet...The females were not so large as the males; they had long lank hair on their heads, but none on their faces, nor any thing more than a sort of down on the rest of their bodies, except about the anus, and pudenda.  Their dugs hung between their fore-feet, and often reached almost to the ground as they walked.  The hair of both sexes was of several colours, brown, red, black, and yellow.  Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy (Swift 207).
            And later,
            By what I could discover, the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals, their capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens.  Yet I am of opinion this defect ariseth chiefly from a perverse, restive disposition.  For they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful.  They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and by consequence, insolent, abject, and cruel.  *ahem*  It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity (Swift 249).
            Contrast this with Gulliver's descriptions of the Houyhnhnms, whose very name, albeit in their own language, means "perfection of nature":
            As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it.  Neither is reason among them a point problematical as with us, where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of the questions; but strikes you with immediate conviction; as it must needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by passion and interest.  I remember it was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms (Swift 251).
            And just one more very important example:
            If they can avoid casualties, they die only of old age, and are buried in the obscurest places that can be found, their friends and relations expressing neither joy nor grief at their departure...I remember my master having once made an appointment with a friend and his family to come to his house upon some affair of importance, on the day fixed the mistress and her two children came very late; she made two excuses, first for her husband, who, as she said, happened that very morning to shnuwnh [that is, die]...Her excuse for not coming sooner was that her husband dying late in the morning, she was a good while consulting her servants about a convenient place where his body should be laid; and I observed she behaved herself at our house as cheerfully as the rest, and she died about three months after (Swift 258).

            Okay, now it's going to maybe feel like this is a u-turn, but bear with me.
            I'm currently reading a book by the late neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain, entitled The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.  I could say many, many things both inspired and enraged by Shlain's various assertions, but here is not the place to get into the pros and cons of his premise.  He does, however, use an image I currently cannot get out of my head, and I couldn't figure out how to perfectly replicate it without just quoting it outright.  Shlain describes how the Israelites, while Moses was away conversing with Yahweh, built the golden calf.  Moses comes down off Mount Sinai to discover them worshipping the idol:
            Enraged that his feckless charges had reverted to the worship of an image — a practice that Yahweh had expressly forbidden — Moses raised his arm as if to strike, and the stone tablets clattered to the ground and shattered.  Furious, Moses destroyed the golden calf, rebuked Aaron, and reprimanded the people.  When the Hebrews' first written words confronted their last image, the resulting collision destroyed them both.  The allegorical conflict between word and image could not have been more dramatically expressed (Shlain 100).

            Here is my idea:  When we combine the supposedly "Cartesian" (but really Platonic and everything after) version of ourselves as individually rational, with our desirous, needy animal nature, we get...well, a destructive collision called Lemuel Gulliver.  Or called Terra Leigh Bell.  Or called Friedrich Nietzsche or Richard Wagner or pick a name from your contacts list.
            Shlain's image gave me this idea not only because it demonstrates the way two different human aspects can explosively destroy one another, but it made me realize the moment when the two aspects were created as two different aspects.  Note that Moses catches the Hebrews worshipping an image, "a practice that Yahweh had expressly forbidden," but the Hebrew people didn't know that yet because they hadn't read the bloody Ten Commandments yet, had they?  I don't have the energy to get into a discussion of the history of Judaism, but my point is that the Law itself created the divide between word and image, between abstract juridical theory, and the almost desperate need humans have of envisionable deities and powers.
            I keep mentioning Plato because I don't like for us to think of the problems of modernity as recent seedings; this problem is old, by our standards.  Human beings have believed themselves divided ever since they became aware that they could be divided.  We've conceived of ourselves as "having" (note the division already in our language) a thinking, intellectual aspect which can and will come to the most accurate conclusions possible if given the chance, and another aspect which is, as Swift puts it, "mingled, obscured, or discoloured by passion and interest."
            I won't get into why I truly believe that humanity is doomed; it seems fairly obvious that our belief in the salvific power of war and technology hasn't done much more than create an unsustainable population just waiting to be wiped out by the next Black Death.  Or nuclear/chemical/biological warfare.  Or zombies.
            What I will say is I think that I'm not entirely imagining these connections and implications in Swift's work.  Obviously I'm taking it in my own direction, but note what happens when Gulliver tries to emulate the Houyhnhnms, his paragons of abstract reasoning.  Remember that the Houyhnhnms don't grieve when one of their own dies, even if it be a husband or wife or parent or child.  First off, I think it's questionable that Swift even meant this as a sincere ideal.  It sounds like another one of his ways of demonstrating the folly of an ideal, by making Gulliver set up something clearly preposterous as good and meet for humans.
            But secondly, and perhaps more darkly, observe the kind of person — either human or equine — that Lemuel Gulliver has become by the time he is forced to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms.  In preparation for his departure,
            I finished a sort of Indian canoe, but much larger, covering it with the skins of Yahoos well stitched together, with hempen threads of my own making.  My sail was likewise composed of the skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick (Swift 265).
            That's right folks; in that pretty picture from last time, that sail is stitched together with the skins of "Yahoo" infants.  Since Gulliver accepts (though with chagrin) that he is himself a Yahoo, I think we could accurately say that the sail is made from the skins of human infants.  Gulliver has so much lost empathy for the animal-like beings he resembles most physically, and he has aspired so much to become one of the rational animals he resembles most spiritually, that he now feels comfortable using dead babies to make his sail, and "stopping all the chinks [of the canoe] with Yahoos' tallow" (Swift 265).
            Lemuel Gulliver is the collision we get when we combine the rationale with the mortale.  Homo est animal rationale, mortale, et risus capax.  Man is an animal rational, mortal, and capable of laughter.  It's nice of Swift to remember the Laughter part, because sometimes the Creepy gets a bit much.  Or wait; that Laughter makes the Creepy that much creepier, doesn't it now?

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2010.  Print.
Shlain, Leonard.  The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: the Conflict Between Word and Image.  New York:  Penguin/Compass, 1998.  Print.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

homo est animal rationale...

Lemuel Gulliver, sailing in despair away from the land of the Houyhnhnm's.
Artwork by Chris Riddell, © 2004, Candlewick Press.

            I sometimes wonder if people think the only place Gulliver went was Lilliput.  It seems odd to me that the last voyage Gulliver ventures — to the land of the Houyhnhnms, the talking horses — should get so little press.  So just to be clear, Lemuel Gulliver went on four major journeys, three of which I've written about already:
            1)  Lilliput, and its sister island Blefusco, where the people are approximately 6 inches tall;
            2)  Brobdingnag, land of giants;
            3)  a trip to Laputa, as well as Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan; and
            4)  the country of the Houyhnhnms, the subject of today's post.  I should note that, while I tried desperately to rein things in so I could do a single post on reason, it was to no avail.  This post is mostly about what we mean when we talk about "reason," and the next one will focus more on Gulliver's Travels itself, and what I think Swift is up to.

            As mentioned above, the Houyhnhnms are a race of talking horses, but importantly they are supremely rational.  For once, thank heavens, the scholarly consensus agrees with the author’s obvious intent:  Part 4 is about reason, and the Houyhnhnms represent reason itself.
            But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, a brief rundown of the scenario:
            There are two major species in the land that Gulliver calls the country of the Houyhnhnms.  There are the Houyhnhnms, and then there are the Yahoos*.  The Yahoos are human, or humanoid, depending on how you look at it.  Their bodies resemble ours perfectly, except that they are hairier and they remain naked.  They are, however, clearly irrational, extremely violent, and quite filthy.  The Houyhnhnms, lovely, clean, thoughtful horse-like animals that they are, once they see Gulliver naked, are horrified to see how clearly he physically is a Yahoo.  But they remain puzzled as to how his mental capacities can so closely resemble their own.  Eventually, in a decision whose wisdom is obvious when you are dealing with just one "What is it?," but whose resemblance to the many expulsions of the Jews over the course of Europe's history renders it disturbing to say the least, Gulliver is told to leave.  He may, of course, opt to live with the "other" Yahoos of the island, but while his reasoning capabilities are impressive to the Houyhnhnms, he may not continue to live in their own intelligent midst.  After all, what is he?

            So there is your crash course in the plot of the last quarter of the book.  The bulk of that section is taken up by Gulliver’s rapturous descriptions of the supreme reasonable-ness and sanity of the Houyhnhnms' way of life and thought.  For example:
            I remember in frequent discourses with my master [the Grey Horse] concerning the nature of manhood in other parts of the world, having occasion to talk of lying and false representation, it was with much difficulty that he comprehended what I meant, although he had otherwise a most acute judgement.  For he argued thus:  that the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now if any one said the thing which was not, these ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance, for I am led to believe a thing black when it is white, and short when it is long.  And these were all the notions he had concerning that faculty of lying, so perfectly well understood among human creatures (Swift 223).
            In myriad ways, from diet to self-governance, the Houyhnhnms are exemplars of reason.  Oh, but wait...  What is reason again?
            Reason is one of those faculties that turns into smoke once you look at it too closely.  We talk about it as though we all knew what it was, but it seems obvious this isn’t the case.  After all, isn’t “it” somehow supposed to lead us to the “right” answer?  But when does reason ever do this?  Many atheists I've met are fond of labeling theists as irrational, but this is at least as true or false for atheists.  There are indeed many strange-sounding religious theories out there, with much circular reasoning, but I’ve encountered just as many atheists extrapolating from their experience, say, with a wicked pastor or religious family, to the idea that is no god.  And this can’t possibly be considered rational.  Or can it?
            The cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have proposed what I think is a useful theory of reason, which is the argumentative theory of reasoning.  Mercier explains the more popular view:
            Current philosophy and psychology are dominated by what can be called a classical, or ‘Cartesian’ view of reasoning. Even though this view goes back at least to some classical Greek philosophers, its most famous exposition is probably in Descartes. Put plainly, it’s the idea that the role of reasoning is to critically examine our beliefs so as to discard wrong-headed ones and thus create more reliable beliefs—knowledge. This knowledge is in turn supposed to help us make better decisions. This view is hard to reconcile with a wealth of evidence amassed by modern psychology. Tversky and Kahneman (and many others) have demonstrated the failures of reasoning in decision making. Johnson-Laird and Evans (and, again, many others) have shown how fallible reasoning can be. Others have shown that sometimes reasoning too much can make us worse off: it can unduly increase self-confidence, allow us to maintain erroneous beliefs, create distorted, polarized beliefs and enable us to violate our own moral intuitions by finding handy excuses. Sperber claimed that the full import of these results has not been properly gauged since most people still seem to agree, or at least fail to question, the classical, Cartesian assumptions.
            In contrast, in Sperber and Mercier's theory, reason is a tool meant less for individuals and more for social groups:
            The theory Dan Sperber suggested—the argumentative theory of reasoning—proposes that instead of having a purely individual function, reasoning has a social and, more specifically, argumentative function. The function of reasoning would be to find and evaluate reasons in dialogic contexts—more plainly, to argue with others. Here’s a very quick summary of the evolutionary rationale behind this theory. Communication is hugely important for humans, and there is good reason to believe that this has been the case throughout our evolution, as different types of collaborative—and therefore communicative—activities already played a big role in our ancestors’ lives (hunting, collecting, raising children, etc.). However, for communication to be possible, listeners have to have ways to discriminate reliable, trustworthy information from potentially dangerous information—otherwise speakers would be wont to abuse them through lies and deception. Listeners must have mechanisms of epistemic vigilance. One way listeners and speakers can improve the reliability of communication is through arguments. The speaker gives a reason to accept a given conclusion. The listener can then evaluate this reason to decide whether she should accept the conclusion. In both cases, they have used reasoning—to find and evaluate a reason respectively. If reasoning does its job properly, communication has been improved: a true conclusion is more likely to be supported by good arguments, and therefore accepted, thereby making both the speaker—who managed to convince the listener—and the listener—who acquired a potentially valuable piece of information—better off. 
            I like this theory.  I like this theory very much.  This theory makes total and complete sense to me, and I'm sure that the members of my philosophy discussion group would enjoy its convenient justification for our habit of regularly getting together to yell drunkenly at one another about everything from primatology to atheism to theories of morality.  Sperber and Mercier's theory is great.  Sperber and Mercier's theory is the closest to what feels like a true explanation of reason I've ever heard.
            But the problem is that we've been operating with the Cartesian definition for hundreds of years.  Thousands, if you count Plato (which I would).  And ideas don't just go away.  They have shaped and insinuated themselves, and made things equally beautiful and hideous.  Sperber and Mercier make an apt comparison:  teaching the so-called Cartesian view has been done as though someone had decided that "hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that."  This walking on our hands may be wildly inefficient given our anatomy, but after hundreds of years you acquire a few cultural artifacts, not to mention a near-idolatrous worship of those who have a knack for walking on their hands.  They're called professors and scientists and theologians and businessmen.
            I think that Sperber and Mercier are probably right about how reasoning actually evolved, and what its function can and should be.  But while science may be able to tell us those things, it isn't much help when trying to understand the history of culture, and all that charming, awkward baggage it's given us.

*  Incidentally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jonathan Swift invented the word "Yahoo."

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2010.  Print.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


            I'm working on the last couple of posts for Gulliver's Travels, but I also wanted to let people know about the subscription chicklets in the lower right hand corner of the blog.  I was having problems figuring out what the problem was with the feedburner subscription setup, but I think it's straightened out now.  My apologies to those subscribers who were interested enough in my blog to subscribe, and then weren't getting any content.  That was mostly due to my lack of knowledge.  It should be all set now, with both the option to subscribe in a reader or via e-mail.  If you did subscribe before, I had to delete those in order to set things to rights, so you'll need to re-subscribe.  The plus side is, you should actually get the posts now.
            And you should subscribe soon, because shortly there will be fascinating information coming your way!  Haven't you always wondered what reason is?  Or, more pointedly, if there even is such a thing?  Don't we all?!  Also, what does reason have to do with talking horses, non-talking humans, and the expulsions of the Jews from Europe?
            I know!  I can't wait either.  If only I could quit my job and provide you with answers to questions as fascinating as these, full-time...