How Rational is Our World?

Most of us likely have a friend who is mightily proud of his rationality and rejects, for example, the idea that the wiles of advertisers work on him. Justin Smith thinks our friend lacks introspection, because the rationality of persons, institutions, and even systems of thinking, all have an irrational flipside. This is the thesis of Smith’s timely Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. America has offered a case in point.

We were told by the technocratic elites that emerge from and run our universities—by science!—that failure to practice social distancing endangered ourselves, our family, and our neighbours. When small-business owners objected, they were excoriated. Imagine their astonishment when those elites across America celebrated mass protests against the ghastly death of George Floyd. What did the science say again? En masse, this same elite then expounded the theory that white people have invisible structures of malice in their minds which, though observable neither by an MRI nor by introspection, nonetheless systematically generate disgusting behavior. Custodians of the refinement of the arts and sciences, universities, and the elites they produce appear to peddle myths as much as illuminate facts.

Smith is surprised by none of this. Human history, he says, exhibits “an eternally fixed balance of problem solving and problem creating.” His is a Manichean worldview. The book opens with a clever example. Likely a legend, an ancient story runs that Hippasus, a Pythagorean, leaked what the mathematical sect had demanded be kept secret: the existence of irrational numbers. Pythagoreans had discovered that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the square’s side. If that measurement has no determinate value, then how could number be the source of discrete things in the world?

The tale runs that Hippasus was drowned by mathematicians for revealing the irrationalism at the world’s root. In Smith’s gloss, the story reveals that “rationality and brutality, then, are the twin poles of human history, and each new innovation—weapons from bones, the control of fire, writing, gunpowder, the internet—adds to the stockpiles of each.”

The book goes on as it begins, peppered with examples to show reason’s flipside of irrationality. The basic idea of the book is brilliant, but its problem is the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants quality of the argument. Not only are the examples not fully worked up, but serious opposition to the book’s thesis is never engaged.

Drowning someone surely relies more on brute strength than intellectual capability, but is it necessarily irrational for a sect to preserve its standing and stop leaks, even by violence? National security services do something analogous all the time, if we are to believe our James Bond movies or HBO’s Homeland. If Queen and country are of consummate value, they are quite logical to defend. The book offers all manner of human peculiarities and follies—it’s a fun read—but no clarity on the exact attributes making something irrational. Lots of examples of madness are given, but oddly, psychoanalysis, which tries to make mental illness intelligible, is nowhere discussed. 

Some readers will grow weary of all the examples of irrational sayings and policies of President Trump. Some of these are damaging to the author. We are told about “the new phenomenon of Trumpism-Putinism,” an “announcement of the end, or at least the life-threatening crisis, of liberal democracy.” The approach of these two men to domestic politics is not remotely the same, but if the point is that anti-globalism is irrational, this is never explained. Smith does not seem to know, or maybe just does not care, that assessing the validity of great power nationalism is the central preoccupation of the best minds in international relations today. Smith does not discuss Aleksandr Dugin, author of the sophisticated Fourth Political Theory and one of the intellectuals behind Russian foreign relations.

Smith proposes that the best humans can do in a life where reason bottoms out pretty quickly is to maintain order through the repetition of rituals. 

Social movements, Smith argues, show a dialectical movement “from commitment to an ideal, to the discovery within the movement of an ineradicable strain of something antithetical to that ideal, to, finally, descent into that opposite thing.” Logically, what he describes is a change from the univocity of an ideal to the equivocity of the disintegration of that ideal, but there is a third logical possibility: analogy. 

He gives the well-known example of the killing that opens Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A Neanderthal type discovers the power of a bone to kill an animal. An image is offered of the problem of scarcity arrested by technology. In the blink of an eye, a different image is offered: the bone is used to kill another protohuman. Smith wants us to see in this scene an ideal immediately shattering. What should unify, fragments. This is the dialectical movement of univocity to equivocity.

As Ursula Le Guin points out, that opening scene does not really ring true. It is highly likely that the first technology was a bag: you cannot get far in life if you have to carry foraged food in one hand whilst the other is picking things. The humble bag and the pockets in our clothes might not rank high amongst our most cherished ideals, but they build community most effectively. We bring food home to the family in supermarket bags, we carry our lunch to work in a bag, and Smith takes his books to lecture in a bag. Life is sometimes the drama of a contested ideal, but mostly it is a humble ambling along of sharing. There is a reason a massive luxury market in handbags exists. Markets are not dialectical: they are places of mimicry where analogies between concepts (products) and desires are negotiated. Designers fretting over the stylization of pockets might seem silly, but they are tracking a crucial middle ground where community flourishes. 

Smith’s examples are not convincingly filled out. But a more important problem is that rival accounts of intelligibility are skipped over. Leibniz figures in the book as the great rationalist. He reports Leibniz as arguing that the best way to deal with conflict is to steer clear of drama and just calculate the various permutations and offer a crystal-clear computation as the logical resolution. Smith has published a volume on Leibniz so he knows full-well that Leibniz was a diplomat (amongst many other things), that his political writings are full of subtleties about the problems of power, and that his metaphysical works imagine a world of entities all reflecting one another as an infinity of mirrors gloriously decorating the cosmos. And so he must also know what I assume was a parlor trick Leibniz would pull to amuse Europe’s elite at dinner parties. In his Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz challenges anyone to take a pencil, close eyes, and randomly put dots on a page. Leibniz relays that no matter how random the dots, he can plot an equation and show that the dots connect in a mathematical order. I do not know if the mathematical genius could do this, but I assume he could. The point is that Smith, if he is to disprove the rational view of the world, needs to show us why Leibniz’s and others’ arguments, which show intelligibility running all through reality, are not convincing. 

There is a nice illustration of Leibniz’s party trick in the TV series Homeland which drives home the high stakes theoretical arguments about rationality can have. Carrie (Claire Danes), a CIA operative, has been tipped off by an Iraqi man about to be executed that an American soldier has been turned. Days later a US Marine is busted out of captivity after a tip-off. The Marine had been missing for 8 years and Carrie believes he must be the turncoat. She notices his fingers twitch at the press briefings. She is sure it is a code sent through the TV news to his handlers. Langley reports back that the twitching fingers follow no known code: sometimes twitching is just twitching. It turns out later that Carrie was right: he signals his on-going adoption of Islamism by imitating the movement of fingers across Muslim prayer beads. What seemed to be movement without rhyme or reason in fact had an algorithm, prayer. National security, life and death, depends on whether Leibniz or Justin Smith is right about reality’s ultimate intelligibility.  

The closing section of the book, “In Loving Repetition,” touches on something deep and illuminating. The phrase comes from a Catholic poet, Les Murray, and helps Smith make sense of something he at first found puzzling. A frequent visitor to the Balkans, Smith had found peculiar the region’s elaborate rituals of commemorating their dead. He proposes that the best humans can do in a life where reason bottoms out pretty quickly is to maintain order through the repetition of rituals. Of course, he assures us that these rituals are ultimately meaningless and there is no reason to be part of a church. The rather playful character of rituals nonetheless brings a degree of serenity to lives otherwise unhinged by irrationality. With a nod to the ancestral that would warm the heart of Burke, the book thereby ends on an oddly conservative, but bereft, note. Teaching at the University of Paris, Smith must be aware of Roger Caillois’s exploration of the logic of play. I wish, again, that Smith had addressed the challenge that all things—even games of chance—have a logic.

Irrationality is a serious subject. For this book to be compelling, it needs fewer quips about Donald Trump and a much heftier dose of metaphysics.

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