Friday, June 1, 2007

Thinking about Human Reason

Al Gore has a new book out which he has ironically called The Assault on Reason. Okay, maybe he isn't being ironic, at least not intentionally.

And I've just now alienated a great number of people, many of whom would likely now regard me as a conservative, a capitalist - perhaps even a fascist - simply because I do not consider someone who ignores or fabricates scientific facts for political or ideological ends a credible witness or someone even qualified to use such an important term as "reason." Is it reasonable to create or incite panic for political ends, even if those ends seem to be morally right? Is it reasonable to ignore the facts - or even the lack of facts - about global warming, even if the end result is that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Is it reasonable to put aside rational exploration? Is it reasonable to think that ends justify means?

For the past several hundred years, human reason and rational science - empiricism - has been the dominant Western ethos. We are trained to think rationally, scientifically about the world and humanity's place within it. There are rules governing what nature can and cannot do: nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum; gravity exists; 2 plus 2 is always 4. Then there are rules about how to properly inquire about nature: we must experiment, document and be able to reproduce the experiment. Empiricism demands a totality of relevant facts. If relevant data is missing, the conclusion can be incorrect and misleading.

After centuries of use, the scientific method should be second nature to us, should it not? As a civilization and a culture you would think that we would not accept anything without examining the science. After all, we were all willing to set aside God when science raised its head and told us that, rationally speaking, He did not exist and so should be laid to rest. A culture that does that, that willingly executes its god on the strength of rational empiricism, must truly love reason and science.

But that's the point. We aren't scientific beings and we don't love science. We don't care about bing reasonable or rational. As we've always been as a species, we simply agree with what we find agreeable. If science can "liberate" us from the confines of theology and morality, we suddenly find ourselves in love with science and proclaiming ourselves the most reasonable of people. If science gets in the way of our own personally agendas, however, we with shocking speed find ourselves abandoning our new, second love and proclaiming that science is not, I'm sorry to say, the final measure of all things. How can it possibly be that, when what it tells us is so clearly what we do not want to hear?

And that's why The Assault on Reason is an ironic title, because reason and scientific examination are far removed from Al Gore's political concerns. The science upon which An Inconvenient Truth is based is only half of the story. He has chosen to ignore and alienate a large segment of the scientific community that has deep reservations about the conclusions he is drawing. Instead of promoting scientific inquiry, Al Gore is pushing ahead with shaky science, calling to us with messianic ferocity to change our lives and live according to his own moral standards, which, by the way, is more than he himself is willing to do (just do a quick Google search for Al Gore's house to see what I mean).

Some interesting links:

Doomsday Called Off. A CBC produced documentary focused on the science Al Gore typically ignores. Available on YouTube. A great site that focuses of debunking... well, junk science. Global Warming comes up a lot.

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