It’s years now since I stopped believing in what we ordinarily call rational debate. It’s really an ideal that screws us at the very point we give up to its credibility. Most people really don’t enter into argument with much desire for mutual understanding. We are too damned scared of each other for that, though this is not the only reason. Argument easily becomes another way to become top dog, or get oneself fed at one establishment zoo or another. We all know there are reasons not to call the boss the cunt we think he or she has become, yet lose this perspective faster than a whore drops her knickers when someone is using the “objective voice” on us, thinking we are only fit material to scrape off his or her shoes. Real justice requires more open dialogue and honesty with each other than we are taught in the politesse and etiquette we soak up as manners.
It’s not paranoid suspicion of others or a self sure of corruption that I would encourage. We need a society in which honesty matters and which can believe in itself and whatever institutions it needs. We need rational argument because we otherwise commit ourselves to madness or strategic wit with the sword or whatever this has become. Argument needs to recognise something about itself as a human product and what has been done with it in our history. It is easy and commonplace to pretend rationality and there have been many dread regimes of truth. We live evading the conclusion that we do not follow where the evidence leads and that argument is as much about suppressing what could be known as it is concerned with the best truth we could express.
I didn’t want to be an academic and it is now a profession as shameful as any gang of lawyers could make. Disability forced it on me. This has let me enjoy a condition in which I have read too much and suffer disappointment in seeing ideas ground down under greed and pretence. Argument needs to be trusted by those not much good at it and broadly it is not, rightly in some senses as reason alone cannot defend itself against banditry and its own abuses. To believe in reason is to believe in something most of us will never be much good at. This has tended our thinking to systems of ‘guardians’ , usually some kind of elite grouping of a gold class allegedly capable of acting in a disinterested or holy manner. This is bunk.
It is possible to discover a great many learned arguments and about cultures very different from the one we all soak up by accident of birth. Even to dream up an imagination or work damned hard to have one. Most of us don’t get the chance and I doubt our education systems are about this. Education’s ancient meaning is ‘to make like a Duke’ and nobility has a violent and disgusting real history we should not want to emulate. Crass communist experiments have, of course, established their own nobilities. The whole spirit of Orwell’s Animal Farm broken by the simple ruse of creating a standing army of thugs through Napoleon’s raising of the puppies. Communism quickly became state capitalism and if we rightly begin to see capitalism as an evil, we should wonder why there is so little capital about for us to organise lives we experience as free and meaningful.
Mao’s mad dream, according to biographies, was to exchange Chinese wheat for a navy to make China great again. The mad reality of the West’s capitalism is to use economics as war by other means so as to maintain top dog status through financial plenty that ensures technological and hence military superiority. Such is the propaganda about us that I grew up myself expecting to be a warrior, dreaming of killing Krauts and Japs. Violence, other than in restricted fields of cricket and rugby appals me, other than in protecting myself and others from bullies. If we could dream a decent peaceful society into existence, there would be no point if this just made us the slaves of some mad religious cult who did not give up the arms’ race. We may want a tough, properly equipped police force to deal with the quite dreadful problems caused by hooligan criminal elements, but we don’t want to live in a police state. We need to accept complexity such as this into our thinking. Essentially, this is about bringing sensible considerations of human nature into our thinking, though this need not constrain what human nature might become. Much written on human nature is polemic.
I read much as an academic on achieving personal states in which knowledge and objectivity allow reason. This is not all tosh but most of it is daft and asserts a highly unobjective superiority to be hidden in mannered style. It is the case we soak up whole wads of nonsense in the societies that form us. C.H. Waddington termed this COWDUNG (the conventional wisdom of dominant groups). There is a need for subjective review to gain some freedom from this. Descartes is not a bad start, but we need reality testing, demonstration and some kind of ideal speech situation to give reason its proper go. New technologies present new potentials in this, though currently the Internet is letting us down.
The big problem is that we all want to be smart. The evidence is, more or less, that most of us aren’t smart and all of us aren’t some of the time. Most battles of wits are engaged by unarmed opponents. Worse, a little knowledge is dangerous and the state of all of us with regard to most subjects is little knowledge. The fervent creationist will wisely assert the lack of transitional fossils shows Darwin was wrong, but won’t listen when we tell of or even show him the many examples that have been found in the last 150 years. Bishop Usher may tell us the world was created in 4004 BC, complete with fossil record and memories. A passingly interesting thought experiment perhaps, but of no other use in reason. We all nod when some politician wags ‘it’s the economy stupid’, but the penny that nearly all of us know more or less nothing of economics does not drop, or that of the ignorance in which we vote.
I can tell you of a trip to the edge of the universe, experienced as about 28 of our years. My story would be scientifically correct, assuming relativity theories are and some recent thinking on dark energy. Of course, I know of no way to build the bubble to do relativity travel in. We could come back too, though the Earth would not be here, all the billions of years later, in which we had aged only 56 years. I can only write fiction on this theoretical reality.
I once thought a better and communicable theory of knowledge would be the way forward to praxis, reasonably informed practice, of evidence-based practice. These days I have a lower goal. The key is in an ability to recognise how skilled we have become in incompetence.