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.

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