Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Voice of Reason Versus Mystic Music: A Review of “Answers for Aristotle”

Book Cover of Massimo Pigliucci

Reason is like a well-respected friendly neighbor: I will have him over for a chat, enjoy his company and love to have coffee with him, but I sure do not want him to stay over permanently. I appreciate and enjoy the craftiness of rationality, this useful and progressive methodology the origins of which can be traced to the cradle of Western thought and civilization: the ancient Greeks.

Once upon a time there was a man called Socrates who roamed the streets and confused everyone with a harmless seeming but malicious glee. He did not even care about putting down anything in writing and preferred to lay down his life for truth than be perceived as a life-long exiled liar. Certainly, the more earnest Plato was seduced by his mentor's philosophizing and engraved and enshrined those thoughts in permanent writing.

Both of these philosophers have given philosophy its general method: the unwavering and rigorous scrutiny of logic. What I like best from Socrates, however, is not his rationality or his famous elenchus but the playfulness with which he approaches life and with it philosophy. When it comes to Plato, on the other hand, I prefer his wild flights of fancy more than his logical arguments.

Strangely enough, Aristotle leaves me cold despite certain funny (by modern standards of course) theories about rain drops aiming to return to the center of the earth. Although I have deep respect for him, as a somewhat precursor of scientific knowledge and investigation, he lacks the nutty wittiness of his ancestral originators of Western thought. If I had to pick my favorite fact about Aristotle I would say it would be his function as the tutor of Alexander the Great, and what a great job he did indeed!

So that might explain my ambivalent approach to the book Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life by Massimo Pigliucci. The ambivalence comes only from my own hesitation to fully and wholeheartedly embrace reason and rationality the way Pigliucci does; it is certainly not a criticism of the book, which is indeed well-written, well researched and of considerable value.

There are facts in this book that will not only make you smile but teach you about how to approach life. And Pigliucci touches upon pretty much everything one has to deal with in everyday life, be it the issue of losing weight, of finding lasting friendships and partners or even deeper philosophical questions of what makes us human and what roles culture and religion play in our lives.

His book sheds light on important facets and questions of your existence and can help and guide you in many ways. For example, you will see the link between willpower and sugar levels in your blood, the relationship between threat perception and conservative ideology (!) and how and why gossip exists analyzed through an evolutionary lens. There are numerous delightful and tasty bits that will not only be fodder for interesting and erudite conversation at home or work but can change your whole outlook on life.

All of these ideas are accentuated by the combo approach of sci-phi, the delicious double down of science and philosophy. It comes from a person who loves and has clearly thought about both disciplines and wants to combine them in a balanced manner. In fact, both virtue and rationality are like muscles; they need constant use or workout to be in good shape or working order, and they will lead to a happier and more satisfying life expressed in Aristotle's quest for eudaimonia (more about this in a following post as it deserves its own spotlight).

And yes, I fully agree with Pigliucci that there is not enough rationality in the human soul. In fact, science is the most reliable path to understanding physical phenomena and towards advancing technology, especially in fields like medicine. We ought to follow the voice of reason more than we do; we would spare ourselves a lot of pain and suffering to each other, ourselves and our planet if we did so more often. And three times jubilant yeses to all of that.

But there is a vacant spot there that reason cannot fill; an ache that it cannot heal; a hunger that cannot be satisfied with the remnants of rationality. Pigliucci walks a tightrope on various issues. He is at times the voice of humility itself – science does not know for sure and this is why new theories will have to come along and adjust and refine our findings.

At other times, however, he bashes anything and lashes out at everything that is even remotely spiritual and related to religion, which, if I am not incorrect in my interpretation, he delegates to a simple world of fantasy and make-believe, a card-house world of a misfiring brain. (Something along the lines of if one person has an imaginary friend, he is considered insane; if millions around the world do it, it is called religion.)

But I want to make clear that I am not objecting to his method nor his findings. I embrace evolution; I acknowledge significant advances in neurobiology and psychology; yet at the same time I cannot shed my belief in astrology, the supernatural and God (not necessarily in that particular order). All of this is irreverently brushed off as “pseudoscience” but I guess I could take at least some comfort in the following fact: better pseudo than no science at all.

Let me clarify my point (if there is one at all). We need to use reason in our daily life to make sense of the world. Or rather, we use reason because it is the reasonable thing to do and, more often than not, it is indeed the appropriate tool. Yet sometimes we get trapped in our reasoning and simply rationalize that our own understanding of logic and reason adequately represents the world "out" there, that we can actually understand and make sense of the world around us.

In reality, however, this particular world of ours and our existence in it tend to elude sense and logic and often border on nonsense and the absurd, i.e. our existence on this planet, the meaning and purpose of our lives and quantum mechanics. Rationality may be the best method, but it has its own caveats and pitfalls.

Reason tends to conveniently gloss over or ignore other ways of making sense of an ambiguous world and believes that its perspective is the best and most grounded way of looking at the world due to its binary lens of “P” versus “not P.” It may be a good and strong approach, but that still does not make it the truly “right” one.

We tend to evaluate arguments on the grounds of logic. There is either a right or a wrong way. And the right way is the one that has the strongest reasons for its support and the least amount of contradictions. This is most helpful when it comes to decision-making. You do not want to be swayed by irrationality and should focus on the strongest logical building blocks that lead you to the sagest final outcome possible.

Pigliucci shows us that contrary to our common belief the “gut instinct” is not the best method to adopt when it comes to important decisions. Gut feelings are evolutionary by-products that help us make decisions under pressure and time constraints, but at other times, when we are given time to reflect and sleep over it, the rational decision is the best one to adopt. This is not only limited to matters of business, but applies also to love and marriage.

Had I followed this advice I would have been a completely different person now: I would not have met my wife and not had my son. The decision that led to my meeting her was purely irrational and nothing but undiluted and crystal-clear gut feeling or intuition.

I accepted a job in a foreign country that paid less than the minimum wage in Canada at which time I was under pressure of paying back my enormous student loan debts. From a fiscal and rational point of view, this was not only a disastrous decision but it was rather bordering on financial ruin and suicide, let alone madness. In reality, it was the best “mistake” I have ever made.

This leads me to another fact about reason: It always wants to be right, and it is terrified of being wrong. Emotions are neither; they simply are. It is our rationality again that labels them and considers certain feelings as good and productive, while others such as anger and envy are seen as not only counterproductive but even dangerous (though they obviously do have their own benefits too). Yet regardless of being positive or negative, they are still feelings nonetheless and, more often than not, they remain beyond the scrutiny and reach of the voice of reason.

To return to our book of discussion here: I accept its premises, but discard its conclusion. Not because they are flawed. If I had fully embraced rationality (or if I had a little more sense in me!), it would be a dream to write a book like this one that contains wisdom and humor and that touches on a wide range of human life and experience (similar to this blog, only better).

But it is because his approach is missing something, a je-ne-sais-quoi, that mysterious element that reason cannot ever get a clear glimpse of since it is closed to the gates of logic and that science cannot address and touch.

Science with the aid of philosophy sure comes close, but sorry, I still prefer to hold onto my legal and constitutional right of holding onto "wrong" opinions, my personal right to be be seen as wrong by those who listen predominantly to the heady left-sided voice of reason instead of humming and dancing to the right-sided tune of the mystic and divine heart.

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