By Theodore James Paul
For most of the world, reminiscing about the past fifteen months does not come with great feelings of nostalgia. The exponential onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic has forever altered the trajectory of modern history. It has removed loved ones from our lives, ruined livelihoods, and ravaged economies everywhere. Elsewhere, a reawakening of civil rights protests brought resurged attention to the racism that is still painfully prevalent in many corners of society. And worldwide, NASA analysis confirmed that the previous annum tied a record for being the hottest year ever.
There is little surprise then, that anticipation for the latest New Year was at a universal all-time high. Never in living memory has our species had to solve so many defining problems at once: from containing and getting the deadly coronavirus disease under control, to tackling racial injustices, to meaningfully addressing the creeping juggernaut that is climate change.
Alas, to a concerned onlooker, the takeoff into the very first days and weeks of the twenty-first-year of this twenty-first-century has appeared to be turbulent. A requiem for evidence-based argumentation and cogent conversation that has materialized in recent years still continues to be sung in 2021, manifesting as a cacophony of post-factual admonishment and cultus affirmation.
The pervasive erosion of basic facts and the elevation of “alternative” ones in their place has resulted in an atmosphere of dangerous distrust towards crucial democratic institutions, including the media, governmental authority, and the scientific method. Worrying social behaviours are once again rearing their ugly heads back into daylight.
For example, the unilateral “cancellation” of any particular individual or entity with diametric worldviews perceived to be immoral (irrespective of context or their actual intent) and the evangelical subscription to delusional cults by significant swaths of people have never been more prevalent. These issues are bolstered by a running theme of deeply constituted misinformation that is still in vogue and is, perhaps inextricably, still being perpetuated by social media.
It is a fact that false information proliferates online much more rapidly than the truth. This fact, in concert with the rise of social media’s algorithmic-based influence, makes it easier to comprehend the growing spawn of incredulous ideas and irrational thinking, but less so their prolonged and unwelcome stay in contemporary dialogue. Yet much like the infamously seductive song of the Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey, the current requiem for objectivity has proven to be equally as alluring.
But all hope is not lost. We must be reminded that there is another form of wax for our ears; orchestrating a healthier harmony is possible if the diverse, disagreeing voices of society courageously come together and collectively compose a renewed symphony of rational, dispassionate discourse. The divisive dissonance we have been accustomed to hearing can indeed be tuned out.
To revoke this requiem, we must resurrect reason.
At this very moment in time, reason is an invaluable instrument. Its razor-sharp clarity completely and competently cuts through fallacy. It reminds us that making and believing arguments based on faith alone is a regression towards Bronze Age thinking when human civilization was in its infancy and idle myths were commonplace. Reason is the antithesis of, and the antidote for, zealously worshipping dogmatic ideas with religious devotion. Quite simply, it rejects anything that lacks sufficient evidence.
Evidence must matter today, but it also has to be treated with great care. When alleged proof presented before us is irrelevant, equivocal, incomplete, biased, conspiratorial, or suspect, or can only be explained by performing acrobatic leaps of logic, it should never be above prudent scrutiny. Fantastical claims without any proof at all must further be challenged, regardless of the preconceived aura of credibility associated with who makes them or what office they hold. Moreover, drawing hasty conclusions prior to having any shred of supporting evidence must also be unacceptable. This is at its best, unreasonable and at its worst, fecklessly contemptible.
Furthermore, reason reminds us to be mindful of the truth that even those we ideologically oppose can have valid arguments. Sometimes, they may even be right. When they are, it is vital to accept them as such; otherwise, the attainment of a more agreeable dialogue will remain impossibly difficult. Using any of the myriad logical fallacies to attain this end goal, like appealing to emotion or aiming ad hominem attacks at the authors of opposing arguments, are foolish strategies that can only be renounced with reason.
A reasonable person must also humbly acknowledge flaws in their own arguments, even when it may be publicly painful to do so. In addition, they have to willfully denounce hysterical and radical behaviour from within their own ideological camps. Cults of personality are not unipolar phenomena unique to only one political extreme – they pervasively exist on both ends of the spectrum. Admitting this truth is profoundly liberating because it frees up ample space for the good-faith dialogue that is a prerequisite for the détente in hyper-partisan gridlock moving forward.
The repugnantly deranged doctrines of QAnon and alt-right ultranationalism born from the extreme right as well as the bearable destruction of property, scorn of law enforcement, support for Antifa, and a morally panicked, virtue signalling religion of “wokeness” on the extreme left are both highly toxic problems dividing society and corroding democracy throughout the world.
From their inception, ideas of this nature have to be unanimously acknowledged for what they are – a sort of radioactive kryptonite to social progress – or else they risk becoming obfuscated and taken less seriously. Without any acknowledgement, problematic ideas get relegated to fester in a dungeon of echo chambers. Hence, calling out a problem is the most effective path for rising to any great challenge because it allows us to talk about them in clear, dispassionate ways.
Reason also teaches us to be more wise and forbearing, as it is not always useful to apply it absolutely. It must know its place and be patiently pursued. Despite not being considered objectively reasonable to sit so close to a fire that you breathe its smoke, sometimes the necessity of staying warm takes priority. Thus, there are certain instances when reason must show restraint and wisely prioritize desirable outcomes over potentially contentious practices.
Finally, once reason is learned, it has an unparalleled capacity to build upon itself. In calculus, it is known that the indefinite integral of the natural logarithmic function is equivalent to x ln(x) – x + c. This fascinating identity is agnostic to any preconceived creed and will remain true across all space and time.
In order to prove it, one must first understand the fundamental theorem of calculus and then incrementally add to their base knowledge until they can perform the ingenious integrating technique known as “integration by parts.” The corollary to this idea is that reason operates in an identical way, precisely because mathematics and reason are two expressions of the same logical language. Just as knowledge of mathematics can scale upwards, so too can reason.
It is worth emphasizing that an ongoing war of other ideas has now stretched into the early months of this year. Although there are varying and separate reasons to explain the existence of bad ones, one main cause evidently stems from a deterioration of reliable access to good information. Granted, the virtual agora that social media has provided us with to discuss and exchange said information is one that is unquestionably flawed, but not irrevocably so.
This is exactly why carefully competent and intellectually honest people are needed at the helm to remedy this particular issue. We cannot possibly hope to be steered to the solid ground of practical solutions without the winds of intelligent, evidence-based discussion powering us there. Reason is the beacon of light that will allow us to navigate out from the dark and noisy abyss of misinformation.
Solving twenty-first-century problems will require every tool that enables us to capitalize on the accumulated knowledge that twenty-first-century progress has privileged us with. Having lucid, bipartisan conversations freed from the chains of unreason is necessary to abolish systemic prejudices, arrest runaway climate change, and vanquish COVID-19 via responsible masking and mass vaccinating.
The same reasoning goes for preparing for the next pandemic, restoring trust in the sciences and respecting expertise, addressing biodiversity extinction, cleaning plastic pollution, eviscerating conspiracy theories, defeating domestic terrorism, conquering populism, securing comprehensive data privacy, adequately closing wealth gaps, accelerating nuclear non-proliferation, ethically confining artificial intelligence, or reaching unique solutions for any of the other important issues that the future will inevitably force us to confront.
The most ideal instrument for articulating our most instrumental ideas is reason, and we can start reclaiming it as an ally in our lives through several different avenues. First, it is of paramount importance to actively read and critically reflect upon a diversity of sources outside the realm of social media before arriving at any particular belief.
Second, we should endeavour to restructure the education system so higher value is assigned to the STEM subjects, and equivalent airtime is given to secular philosophies like deism, agnosticism, or atheism as they encourage free-thinking, open-mindedness, and teach us to question our assumptions.
Third, it is strongly recommended to poise oneself for an inherently unreasonable world by enhancing personal equanimity and self-awareness through the artful practice of meditation and mindfulness. Fourth, we must relearn how to actively listen to one another so differences of opinion can be tolerated, and common ground can be found.
In the year 2021, when the intentions of those who sit at the round table of reason are sincerely impartial and the core tenets intrinsic to reason elaborated above – humility, wisdom, patience, scalability – are virtuously sought, then only good things can spring from dispassionate, rational conversation. Now this is good reason to be hopeful, for reason is the most powerful tool in the armamentarium of hope.
We must not be afraid to wield it audaciously.
Ted holds an MIA degree from Europe’s oldest school dedicated to the study of international affairs, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and an engineering degree from the University of Waterloo. Interested in global climate and energy policy, Ted is mindful of the most urgent and complex issues of our time yet remains passionate about working tirelessly to find the best solutions. He is inspired by worldly free-thinkers and proponents of reasoned conversation alike and loves snowboarding deep lines down the face of any mountain.
Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash
* xln(x) – x + c
This article is written in a way that is incredibly inaccessible and you advocating that “carefully competent and intellectually honest people are needed at the helm to remedy” our societal problems is directly insulting the people directly affected by said societal problems. Also, QAnon and ultranationalism is not comparable to extreme left ideologies because one of them leads to violence directed towards minorities and an insurrection on the US capital while the other advocates for no more police brutality and the liberation of the oppressed. Finally, sensible “center-right” politics directly hurt workers, minorities, and women; why, in any way, would I mindfully listen or work with them?