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September 17, 2017

Reason with Prose, Not Poetry

Filed under: Cognitive Science,reason — Razib Khan @ 7:15 am


One of the insights of the excellent book The Enigma of Reason is that “reason” isn’t some disembodied analytic faculty, but part of a broader cognitive toolkit. And, it doesn’t really have the catbird seat we like to think. This is pretty obvious to many people; at least when it comes to the “reasons” of those with whom they disagree. And some of the basic propositions were explicated rather well by David Hume over 200 years ago.

But if you conceive of reason as a form of argumentation aimed at those who don’t agree with you, then in many cases dense and stolid may be superior to poetic and stirring. If you are looking for reasons to entertain or consider views with which you disagree you need a good argument to chew on. Reasons to align with countervailing intuitions.

To give a concrete example, most people seem to admit that Adolf Hitler was a stirring orator. But I’m pretty sure that few modern Neo-Nazis were immediately converted by watching his speeches. If you don’t already believe in his propositions Hitler’s speeches just seem sinister.

That’s an extreme example of course. But it gets at the point. The conservative thinker William F. Buckley was often praised for his command of the English language, but I know that many liberals find his prose pretentious and tedious. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pieces elicit almost orgasmic praise from liberal public intellectuals, but non-liberals often judge that he’s simply indulged.

My point here is that reasoned and dense discourse, which nonetheless maintains clarity, may not persuade in one sitting through force of argumentation. But it is far more likely to push the needle with someone who begins at sharp contradiction with the core propositions. In contrast, sermons convince those who are already primed to be carried up the heights. Sermons don’t really make cogent points, because they already take for granted you agree on the points.

Addendum: Please note that the above applies to the small proportion of the population fixated on the necessity of reasoned arguments. Most people are convinced by social cues of what is, and isn’t, acceptable for their ingroup. Basically, the audience that I’m talking about here are the sorts which read political magazines rather than listen to talk radio or watch Samatha Bee. If they are religious they are the sorts who actually read the Nicene creed and attempt to understand the Athanasian formula.

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