Retreat from reason

Professor Elizabeth Rata warns about the retreat from reason:

‘Critical times as a species’. These are extreme words, made more powerful recently by their author, Sir Peter Gluckman. Such language is usually, and rightly, used for climate matters so given the strength of his words we need to ask what on earth is going on with our social world.

A surge in an ongoing spat with academic colleagues provides a perfect example of the subversion of knowledge and its replacement by the ideological isms that Gluckman spoke of. These are the ideologies that strengthen in-groups, that draw on the culture of folk knowledges to justify their claims to truth.

Modern society had found another way to understand what it is to be human. We have, in only a few hundred years, developed a new language of reason, one replacing in-group beliefs, one enabling us to communicate across historical and cultural differences, one which has made democracy possible.

Reasoned communication is the way across the divide of difference. It requires leaving the past and its animosities behind. But this is very difficult. The past gives us a sense of security and belonging. The institutions of modern society which unite us don’t have the same pulling power as the rallying cries of the isms. No wonder ethnic nationalisms, nativisms, and populisms with their ‘us not you’ and ‘our culture not yours’ are winning out. Unexamined belief is more satisfying than reason – and its easier.

Those isms might unite people who fit the label, but they divide groups from the whole by focusing on differences rather than our common humanity.

But back to the spat. The names aren’t important although I must confess to being one of the parties. It’s a spat that would be of no interest whatsoever if it didn’t neatly capture the anti-knowledge movement of our times. What’s more, it shows how the ‘isms’ are now in the university, the very institution that should give us trust in knowledge. So what’s going on? In May, the Waikato Journal of Education will publish a superb example of anti-knowledge. It’s not very kind to me but that’s OK. I happily accepted the invitation to respond to the article using it as an opportunity to write about what has happened to knowledge. Surely this is the conversation that Gluckman wants – using reason as the conduit for engagement across difference. Unfortunately the conversation can’t happen. Why not?

For reasoned conversation to occur there needs to be agreement about reason itself. The premise informing all modern knowledge is that there is a reality which exists independently of us, the ‘knowers’. What’s more, we can know this reality.

Our intellectual activity is how we seek the truth of the natural and social worlds. Belief isn’t enough. But what happens when the premise of objective knowledge is rejected, when we say that the world is not independent of the person who knows it, and that we can’t use reason to understand it? This is the case with the article in the Waikato journal. For the authors there is an unbreakable knower-knowledge tie. They insist that there is no independent knowledge for us to share universally, that how we know something is always tied to who we are, and who we are comes from our culture. But without the idea of universal knowledge which is beyond culture we are doomed to talk past each other.

This sort of thinking – or should that be feeling? – takes us back centuries to when beliefs rather than facts held sway.

The knowledge spat used to surface in university circles (think the late Professor Peter Munz’s critique of Linda Smith’s book about indigenous methodologies), though less so now that cultural ‘ways of knowing’ are accepted, even by such august bodies as the New Zealand Royal Society. The Society should know better of course but the belief that knowledge belongs to the knower is a premise of the new dominant ideologies; of ethnic nationalisms, nativisms and populism, and the Society has succumbed.

We no longer trust in reasoned knowledge. Gluckman says: ideas are not contested civilly, people are attacked, falsehoods multiply. He’s right. The current era of enlightened reason may well be over unless we recognise what is happening. Reasoned conversation is needed more than ever, but when knowledge is tied to the knowing group, universal reason no longer allows us to converse across groups. By abandoning reason we are endangering our future as a species. We are certainly abandoning what makes democracy possible. Given that the knowledge-knower belief now underpins New Zealand’s localised curriculum our retreat from the idea of universal knowledge will be accelerated. Our educational institutions are the first to fall. Others will follow.

This is alarming.

Educational institutions, universities in particular, should be places where ideas can be debated, questioned and tested; where arguments should be well thought out, be using and settled by, reason and facts.

They should be active in advancing knowledge based on research and science, not belief.

If they are not they are no better than the sad places on social media where arguments degenerate into personal abuse, where feelings matter more than facts and emotion is a substitute for reason.

9 Responses to Retreat from reason

  1. adamsmith1922 says:

    Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    This is very concerning, but unfortunately not that surprising. It is another example of how reason and knowledge are being replaced by emotion. It seems that in some respects we are abandoning rational thoughts for fairytales

  2. adamsmith1922 says:

    Agree with the Professor wholeheartedly.
    On the political front we have politicians who ignore science and dsdain facts. Vague platitudes are their reasons.i

  3. Tom Hunter says:

    Ah! It has arrived in NZ from the USA. Post-modernism and it’s take on “truth” and “reality”. I always say you should follow things in the USA, because they will arrive here sooner or later.

    Here’s a 2018 article on the meltdown at Evergreen University in the US. The guy under attack in this case is Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biology professor – anf a Bernie Sander’s supporting “progressive”. Didn’t save him from the mob. In that piece are several of his Tweets describing a follow-up visit to Evergreen by a supposedly civil liberties supporting lawyer – who argued for deplatforming speakers and that the benchmark for deciding can ony be those people who have a history of facing oppression.

    Yes, a constitutional scholar, brought to campus by Evergreen’s administration, really did make that argument out loud. And his answer got vigorous applause from the audience

  4. Tom Hunter says:

    Oh – and a documentary film has been produced about the whole thing – The Hunted Individual.

    The good news is that the Evergreen university President, George Bridges, who allowed all this to happen, may be about to get fired. Sadly it probably won’t be for attitude to free speech, but that enrollments and budgets have collapsed at Evergreen since the incidents of 2017. Two quotes are relevant to your thread. The first here:

    Part two of the film focuses on Professor Naima Lowe who was teaching many of the students who took over the campus. According to Bret Weinstein, Lowe was the person who was pushing the idea that the extremely liberal school was a hotbed of white supremacy.

    When asked for examples of this in action, Lowe reportedly said, “To ask for evidence of racism is racism with a capital R.”

    Could you get anymore anti-reason than that?

    That particular line was aimed directly at Weinstein during a staff meeting in front of other professors and president George Bridges. When Weinstein objected to being characterized as a racist, he was told that a staff meeting was not the place to defend himself from such accusations. He said that was fine and asked where the proper place was. Naima Lowe replied that he shouldn’t expect there to be any place to dispute her accusation. And everyone in the room, including George Bridges, said nothing.

    The accusation is sufficient. The second quote is from Weinstein, as he observes:

    “I keep being invited to talk about free speech on college campuses and every time I’m invited I make the same point…this isn’t about free speech and this is only tangentially about college campuses.

    This is about a breakdown in the basic logic of civilization and it’s spreading. College campuses may be the first dramatic battle but of course, this is going to find its way to the courts. It’s already found its way into the tech sector. It’s going to find its way to the highest levels of governance if we’re not careful. And it actually does jeopardize the ability of civilization to continue to function.”

    Of course the laugh is that he will continue to vote for Left-wingers like Bernie Sanders, as if that will stop this. It’s Weinstein’s side of the ideological fence that is at the heart of this insanity, and they won’t stop with him.

  5. Roj Blake says:

    Ele, please do not let this Hunter fellow ride roughshod over your informative and entertaining blog. Veteran invited him in to No Minister and all he does is take giant dumps on the carpet.

    For Hunter, The Cold War never ended and Joe McCarthy is about to declare Trump innocent.

    This is an important debate to be had, but Hunter’s argumentum ad labelum is not the way to go about it.

  6. Tom Hunter says:

    Downticks eh? Roj Blake is obviously around, as usual. Having fun over at The Inquiring Mind Roj? AdamSmith hasn’t yet figured out how much you’re against him in every respect except Trump.

    Oh well, guess he’ll just need more encounters with the likes of you/Judge Holden/Naima Lowe to get the message. If even a left-winger like Weinstein can figure it out then there’s hope for most – aside from haters like you of course.

  7. homepaddock says:

    Roj – I’ve only ever blocked one commenter. I accept any comments as long as people don’t defame anyone or get personally abusive. If you disagree with Tom, counter what he says with reason rather than trying to silence him.

  8. Tom Hunter says:

    Well you see, Roj is trying it on again here because it worked so well over at The Inquiring Mind blog where he said the following:

    Adam, please don’t encourage this horrid piece of slime that has infested No Minister to also infest your esteemed blog.

    Hunter has been outed as a Russian troll and Trump stooge, his opinions thus carry the weight of RT and the stench of Putin.

    And Adam seemed to believe all that and simply dumped my response to Roj.

    Fairly typical behaviour from a Far Leftist: if you can’t argue then just silence people. It works at Leftie blogs so Roj must have been tickled pink that he could pull the same stunt on Adam.

  9. Andrei says:

    The current era of enlightened reason may well be over…

    Did it ever exist?

    There have always been profound thinkers in society and it has not been uncommon for them to come to bad ends at the hands of powers that be…

    Socrates comes to mind as does Antoine Lavoisier (at the height of the so called age of enlightenment, irony abounds)

    There have always been mob driven “moral panics” and crazynesses

    The human condition is such is that we act from a position of highly limited knowledge and our reasoning is always based on axioms that are unprovable.

    And if the axioms we use are dud then the world view we build from them will be dud.

    But good axioms build a humane society and the technologies that make enrich our lives.

    “Deplatforming” people who express opinions that challenge the prevailing wisdom is a sign that people are not confident in their belief system.

    Trying to understand what they are saying and debating ideas on their merits is the way of progress.

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