To call a movement “reactionary” carries denotations of backwards, repressive ideas. It first found usage in the aftermath of the French Revolution, in reference to those who supported the monarchical Ancien Régime. But all reactionary movements share a fundamental problem in their predisposition towards overcorrection. Who could argue that the “Age of Faith” had not created terrible problems—and “problems” puts it mildly. Yet the Enlightenment fell to the same proclivity. It did not merely assert the importance of logic and critical thought; Enlightenment writers posited Science as the best, or even the only, way of knowing. Today, much of primitivism suffers from an equal and opposite reactionary movement, as the Romantic movement did in an earlier reaction to the Enlightenment. At the risk of falling prey to that same trend, this provides an opportunity to make an important counter-point: why we need critical thought.
I accept Wilhelm Reich’s orgonomy, Charles Fort’s rains of frogs, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic fields, Halton Arp’s astronomy, and all kinds of alternative science. I think UFO’s are a hoax by fairies, and I’m not joking. What I’m getting at is a style of thinking that utterly rejects closure, that keeps looking beyond with the persistence of water flowing downhill.
More recently, Aaron at Village Blog wrote a fairly hurtful post aimed at attacking me personally, from which I’ve taken the title for this post, where he takes me to task for thinking critically. He repeats much of what Ran says, noting:
Of course combat seems to be the very nature of academic debate. It doesn’t surprise me that academic methods are destructive since academia’s first priority is to reinforce the hierarchy and it’s values (including separation from self, community and land), and this means avoiding communal style collaboration. I remember a lecturer at architecture school who taught design in a genuine collaborative environment - he was universally reviled by the other lecturers.
Never mind that academia provides nearly the only enclave of the gift economy remaining in modern civilization, the very enclave that inspired the free software movement; that kind of thinking would look for disconfirmation, for problems with our thoughts, rather than simply looking for confirmation. That would require critical thought. Critical thought asks what we can find wrong in our thought patterns. It can feel difficult to subject ourselves to that level of scrutiny, and when we do so, we might find that fascinating ideas (like morphic fields, or UFO’s, or the so-called “9/11 Truth Movement”) can’t hold up. We might even decide that the fault lies with critical thought itself, because we really, really wish that such a thing could stand up. Critical thought feels like hard work, and it often feels better to simply forego it. Aaron says he feels right at home at Ran’s site, but feels trepadation every time he visits Anthropik, “in fear of what new calamity I will encounter there.” He wonders, “How would it be if the debate could be effective without having to be so damned ‘robust’”?
Ran has often used the terms “scout” and “cartographer” to grasp at this difference. On the now-defunct IshCon forums, Chuck once posted “The Parable of The Gatekeeper and the Cartographers.” The parable seems particularly apt here. Ran readily admits, ” I often say that I’m a scout, not a cartographer, and that’s why! When it gets that technical, I lose interest and move on to something new.” That has great value. Ran has called me a cartographer, and I think that just might fit me. Ran often acts as my “Gatekeeper,” to use the terms from Chuck’s parable. Ran’s writing gives me things to think about, and ultimately, things to write about and explore. But that doesn’t mean that I always agree with him. After all, as a scout, Ran finds new leads; as a cartographer, I follow them up and see where they go. Sometimes, a path that looks promising at the outset ends up wrapping back on itself and going nowhere. He lacks the patience to follow every idea he has to its conclusion, and that poses no problem. With so many ideas, we need scouts like Ran to find those leads, to look at things a little differently, to keep coming up with new, fresh ideas.
Critical thought draws the line that divides scouts like Ran from cartographers. Cartographers begin their work where scouts end theirs. They follow up on those leads, chart them, and find out where they go. Scouts have big imaginations; cartographers feel inspired by those imaginations, but they also keep a respect for critical thought. They want to know where those imaginings lead. If I act as a cartographer, that happens only because I apply critical thought, and follow the implications of ideas set forth by scouts like Ran.
We need both. We need imagination, or critical thought simply shuts us down and leads us into stagnation. By the same token, we need critical thought, as well; without that, we accept whatever we might imagine uncritically. I’ve already mentioned some prime examples of the kinds of things we end up believing when we neglect critical thought: things like morphic fields, or UFO’s, or the so-called “9/11 Truth Movement.” Ran himself has illustrated for us where this can eventually lead recently, commenting on the 9/11 attacks: “There is no such thing as what really happened. The 9/11 operation is like quantum physics: so shifty and weird that it can only be resolved by abandoning the concept of objective truth.” Of course, it seems patently obvious what happened: 19 angry Arabs with box-cutters, and the huge, gaping holes in security that complexity makes inevitable. But that hardly “feels” right, given the magnitude of the effect, as easily as we might believe the cause. I’ll not rehash the same tired arguments here about the melting point of steel, or the supposed “free-fall” of the twin towers—you can find those arguments elsewhere in far greater detail than I can provide here, and for those unconvinced, another round of repeating the evidence will hardly change any minds—but the illustration here, with a fellow as intelligent and engaged as Ran, exactly where we end up when we abandon robust, critical thought, as Aaron wishes. We end up with many of the same problems that Robert Anton Wilson argued the verb “to be” gives us, in his essay, “Towards Understanding E-Prime“: we “begin the insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish.”
According to Scott Peck, author of The Different Drum, all truth has an inherently paradoxical quality. That kind of meaningless double-talk can hardly lead anywhere good. Paradox does not herald truth; it highlights precisely where the problems in our thinking patterns lay. Look at the development of Christian theology: the paradox of salvation by good works versus salvation by faith would never exist had Christianity greater respect for critical thought. Chief among the problems that weighed down Christianity by the end of the “Age of Faith,” requiring the Enlightenment, one finds that same “insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish.” It may seem difficult to remember today, but Christian theology actually has a rich philosophical tradition. But different ideas, made by entirely different people, all became accepted as “the Word of the Lord.” Christians could not repeal scripture, no matter how little sense it made. When the early Christians compiled their Bible, they made no pretense about it as the literal word of G-d; that would not come about until the American Fundamentalist movement in the nineteenth century. They knew they had simply collected a number of important works, none of them divine in origin, and they knew they all reflected the opinions of different respected religious leaders. But in time, as the Bible became codified and increasingly difficult to question, both salvation by good works and salvation by faith, both with their separate Biblical bases, became matters of dogma, and so dogma developed a paradoxical nature. The two doctrines contradicted one another; yet both, coming from the Bible and reflected in church law, must “be true.” From thence came the “mysteries of faith,” and how we cannot understand the paradoxical nature of divinity.
Such meaningless double-talk has always provided the last bulwark of those too committed to their ideas to change their minds, who would rather the rest of us simply fall silent and do as they tell us. Truth has a paradoxical quality only when the “truth” you try to promote follows from a hopeless mish-mash of unexamined assumptions, outright biases, and lazy, uncritical thought. When we think critically, paradox tells us where we need to focus our attention; it highlights where we have accepted something too readily, something that we should never have accepted in the first place.
Ran’s work as a scout differs from my own, but I still respect what he does greatly. Aaron’s essay asks for execution of all the cartographers. We don’t need them—who needs maps, anyway? Doesn’t filling in the map just mean we have less to explore? Who does that cartographer think he “is,” telling me a mountain stands over there? I want a lake there!
As I said from the beginning, we find this strain of thought in most reactionary movements. The Enlightenment did not simply correct for the “mysteries of faith” that Christianity had introduced; it went farther, overreacting and putting forward a new religion, wherein Science stood as the best, or even the only way of knowing. No, we can hardly call science itself a religion, but science can make no claims for its own pre-eminence or exclusive claim to knowledge. Such claims seem inherently unscientific. We can certainly call those claims a religion, because they do not follow from evidence the way science itself does; they simply constitute assertions of faith.
But now we see an equal-and-opposite reactionary movement, resembling the Romantic movement that preceded it in many ways. Aaron goes on to highlight some of the problems he sees in critical thought, and why he believes it does not offer a valid or useful tool for understanding.
Where I’m going with this is that I believe that the academic method is a very flawed way of chasing the truth, not just because it zeroes in on the details and loses the big picture but also because it uses combat as a debating method.
Whilst it’s true that an argument that can withstand immense criticism must be a good one, the war-like nature of the debate puts the proponent of any new idea immediately on the back foot and they have to ‘dig themselves in’ to withstand the assault.
It’s a real waste of time and energy in it’s own right but also because the proponent of an idea is the person in the best place to be critiquing it - after all, who else knows it so well. I know this is a strange idea for our culture, I’m expecting most people will be pretty sceptical of it and I would be too if I hadn’t observed Ran doing this very thing in some of his writing.
It seems telling that in backing up his hurtful assertion that, “In all honesty I don’t think that Jason values the relationship as much as the need to win a debate,” Aaron points to public disagreements with my friends, namely, Ran Prieur and Toby Hemenway. To show how I don’t value relationships over winning debates, he points to people with whom I still have cordial, friendly and supportive relationships. Doesn’t that seem like Aaron has missed something?
Debate provides an excellent means by which to hone ideas and sharpen them; if we still have the same ideas at the end, we’ve still learned new angles, new edges, and new facets of them by having them tested. Even better, the debate may have changed our minds, and given us new ideas. To learn that an idea cannot stand scrutiny in a debate makes things far easier than to pursue that idea for years, only to fall victim, again, to “the insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish.” I have followed both paths; the latter, perhaps most costly with Daniel Quinn’s conflation of horticulture and agriculture. That simple conflation cost me years of confusion as I ran in circles (hence the passion with which I now argue for their distinction).
But ultimately, Aaron’s objections come to fruition only if we act in very juvenile, even infantile, ways. In my family, we cultivated the debate almost like a sport. It had no malice in it, no personal aggrievement. We knew that our ideas did not define us. Ideas do not tell us who we “are”. We have ideas; we let them go, and we get new ones. They come to us, and they leave. How could a debate ever become a personal grudge match? Aaron cites times that I called Toby’s argument “dodgy,” or when I referred to Ran’s “loopy logic,” and from that says that I insult and attack. He writes:
I don’t have or want a problem with Jason, I gain immensely from his writing and there is far more to be gained from keeping the peace – but not at any cost. His behaviour errs on the destructive side at times and I’m hoping he will get the opportunity to see that sometime. It’s true that I wasn’t a lot different ten years ago so there’s hope for everyone.
But I never insulted, or attacked, or destroyed anyone with whom I have a relationship. I did not call Ran loopy; I did not call Toby dodgy. We talked about ideas, not people. We can describe ideas in any number of ways, but nothing said of an idea could ever constitute an insult, because we have ideas, they do not define us. Thus, the unspoken premise of Aaron’s argument seems to assume an extremely juvenile attitude that cannot distinguish between ideas and the people who think them.
We can and must question our ideas. Our ideas can lead us into very bad places, if we let them. But they can also open new doors and new possibilities. Critical thought offers us a means of distinguishing between those ideas that empower us, and those that diminish us; those that hold up to scrutiny, and those that don’t. We should remember the fun and sport of contesting ideas; Ran’s demeanor shows clearly how much he loves to think and explore new possibilities. Done well, critical thought and debate can fill the same purpose. We should have the maturity to debate as fiercely as we do joyfully, a sport of the mind that sharpens us and reveals which of our ideas strengthen us the most.
I think Willem Larsen put it best when he wrote that logic and critical thought give us a tool for understanding our world. Not our only tool, nor our best tool, but a good tool, a powerful tool, and a useful tool. We should not feel afraid to use it. It can help us greatly. Neither should we mistake it for our only tool. We should use it when appropriate, and when we finish with it, we should thank it for its help and put it back in our toolbox.