The Realm of Reason

By Dmitry Orlov

Our species’ hypertrophied linguistic abilities have allowed us to create entire systems composed of elements that we either cannot directly observe or cannot observe at all: mathematics, physics, ideologies, theologies, economies, democracies, technocracies and the like, which manipulate abstractions – symbols and relationships between symbols – rather than the concrete, messy, non-atomistic entities that have specific spatial and temporal extents and that constitute reality for all species. There is a continuum between products of pure thought, like chess or mathematics, sciences which produce theories that can be tested by repeatable direct experiment, like physics and chemistry, and the rest – political science, economics, sociology and the like – which are a hodgepodge of iffy assumptions and similarly iffy statistical techniques. Perfectly formal systems of thought, like logic and mathematics, seem the most rigorous, and have served as the guiding light for all other forms of thinking. But there’s a problem.

The problem is that formal systems don’t work. They have internal consistency, to be sure, and they can do all sorts of amusing tricks, but they don’t map onto reality in a way that isn’t essentially an act of violence. When mapped onto real life, formal systems of thought self-destruct, destroy nature, or, most commonly, both. Wherever we look we see systems that we have contrived run against limits of their own making: Burning fossil fuels causes global warming; plastics decay and produce endocrine disruptors; industrial agriculture depletes aquifers and destroys topsoil; and so on. We are already sitting on a mountain of guaranteed negative outcomes – political, environmental, ecological, economic – and every day those of us who still have a job go to work to pile that mountain a little bit higher.

Although this phenomenon can be observed by anyone who cares to see it, those who have observed it have always laid blame for it on the limitations and the flaws of the systems, never on the limitations and the flaws of the human ability to think and to reason. For some un-reason, we feel that our ability to reason is limitless and infinitely perfectible. Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns. It is yet to be persuasively argued that the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity. Perhaps the argument would have to be made recursively: The faculty in question is so flawed that it is incapable of seeing its own flaws.

This article originally appeared on Adbusters.org.


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6 Responses to The Realm of Reason

  1. Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns.

    Nobody? Not true. The Bhagavat has addressed the limitations of reason, jnana, when not coupled with the experience of transcendence. And how jnana alone in fact eventually gets in the way of actual knowledge.

  2. Yes, I don’t think he was factoring in the Bhagavat (or a number of other “people”) in his statement. But within the circle of bodies that he is referring to (the overwhelming portion of society), it is a good point to make.

    • The thing is, jnana alone is essencially negative (as the author discovers here), but the drive for a more morally charged jnana, so to speak, does not mean such drive is a good thing either. Indeed, its very possibly a furthering of the negative. In other words, when it comes to reason without any trace of bhakti, there isn’t a good jnana but only bad in the sense that although at times it may seem progressive, it falls into circular thinking – samsara. Thus so called deeper reasoaning such as the one in this article may even pose a distraction in the great scheme of collective spiritual progression. And so rather it may NOT be a good point to make after all but in fact an indication that yet again the opportunity for breaking out of the problem was missed: someone who reasons this far and yet reasons so only because of not having gotten himself acquainted with the fact that the very question he is posing does not need to be made in the first place, well we can only call this an opportunity missed, at best.

  3. It baffles me how modern philosophers and scientists fail to see the limitations of logic in defining a meaningful existence. Glad to see this point is begin made by someone inside the community!

    • I think limitations in logic have been acknowledged by many, but empirical evidence backed by a logical mathematical model ( logical positivism) is what people like to believe in to some extent. Empirical evidence has the final say.

  4. Limitations of the reason based system of thought do not really translate into the alternatives being superior. The author does not even suggest any alternatives. And his assertion that reason based ‘formal’ systems don’t work because they cause ‘violence’ is completely bogus and unproven in any way.
    It would have been a lot easier to prove that religion based systems of thought cause violence, using the history of Abrahamic religions as the platform of evidence.

    I would say that POOR or simplistic reasoning creates problems such as environmental damage due to industrial activity, not the application of reason and logic in general.

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