Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Post-Reason Age

I spent most of my formative years in rural Indiana, so i have no illusions that the end of the 20th century was a golden age of reason. It's not that the people in rural Indiana were stupid, it's simply that there was no real motivation to explore ideas like biological evolution, the causes of sexual orientation, the separation of church and state, or global climate change. These things require a critical degree of cultural heterogeneity to be worthy of discussion, which is why they tend to play out on a national level.

Still, as a kid and a young adult i was able to believe that intellectual people in intellectual pursuits would converge over time toward reason. I was, as some might put it these days, part of "the reality-based community". That's not to say that i thought the rational approach would ever become popular. I doubt that the majority of humanity will ever accept Darwinian natural selection as the explanation for the origin of species; because frankly it's a difficult concept to understand and most folks won't make the effort. Many (a majority?) believe that the US is a Christian nation and that Biblical text can be applied, however selectively, to support their political beliefs. I know that no matter how much proof is presented, and no matter how credible the presenters, there's a vast segment of the population that will not accept the anthropogenic origin of climate change at least until the hardships caused by ignoring the problem start to outweigh the hardships of addressing it.

I've clung to the idea for decades now that none of that mattered because rational explanations are not subject to popular vote. This idea is naive and elitist, and ignores history. Reason can go by the wayside with dire consequences for relatively long periods of time (the Dark Ages) or for relatively short times (Nazi Germany); but obviously there is no constant, consistent progression of rational thought. I won't go so far as to claim that we're on the cusp of a new dark age, but there are some signs that the future is going to be a bit rocky for Western culture:
  • The idea that reason-based explanations are inherently evil because they detract from the faith-based explanations is gaining prominence (which, i guess, is sort of the definition of fundamentalism). This also manifests itself in greater religious exclusivity (i.e., you can't be a Catholic/Baptist/Anglican unless you believe X).
  • There's a sense that economic progress for the middle class has peaked, and that the decline is in part due to a push by the elite to promote globalization for their own economic benefit.
  • We've got a new enemy whose key differences arise from religious and cultural differences, rather than from political ideology (and we're willing to spend ourselves into economic distress to prove we're right).
  • Other parts of the world are better prepared to take advantage of the information-based economy.
  • There really is a large and sincere community of people who believe that faith will overcome reason, and they are now politically active and powerful.
  • Adam Sandler
  • Lots of nationalist sentiment, with outrage directed at "activist" judges and moderate politicians who factor the rest of the world into decision making.
Whether or not this stuff constitutes a problem depends on perspective. I think it does because it will tend to make the US less economically prosperous and less culturally tolerant (there are good reasons why i left rural Indiana after all). For others, these things aren't problems at all, but key steps on the road to paradise.

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