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Don't Expect Much Progress From Our Species
Only a small fraction of humanity is capable of rational thought, let alone rational behavior, in any given historical era. This must have been true for the precivilized era as well as now, or humanity would be much more advanced than it is today. But, you say, we live in a scientific age. Men have walked on the moon, explored the ocean depths, built skyscrapers, and deciphered the human genome. However, it does not follow that a larger percentage of human kind is now capable of consistent rational thought, let alone creative application of scientific thinking to the problems of human existence.
For the time being let us just consider the so called “First World”; that is, those countries where the economies are information and/or manufacturing based, and most people have easy access to the various media and standardized education. (There is in fact, good evidence so called “primitive” peoples exhibit greater ability to think rationally than their civilized cousins, and non-culturally biased tests reveal a higher average IQ in many primitive societies, where the daily struggle to subsist involves more interaction with both the natural world and society, and less repetitive or rote behavior. In short, we create civilization to make it easier both physically and mentally for individuals to survive).
Take, for example, that universal sign of a truly advanced society, the computer. A large percentage, certainly a majority of the population, can fairly competently operate a computer to complete assigned tasks at work, or for recreation or managing the check book and so on at home. This, for the most part, does not take any application of scientific methodology or much creative effort. For the most part we memorize the key stroke patterns that manipulate the software to accomplish the task at hand. One simply is taught or teaches oneself to operate the computer in the same fashion one learns any other existing body of knowledge. More mental effort is required to actually create new software or to program computers to execute tasks they have never done before, and far fewer have these skills. Those researchers who invented the underlying operating systems are an order of magnitude rarer yet. The same progression is similar for the actual hardware of the computer. Many thousands of persons are employed manufacturing the machines who know nothing other than their own small part in the activity - perhaps soldering on a component, or operating a machine which manufactures a particular chip. Far fewer are the engineers who design the components themselves, or the manufacturing processes which are necessary to create the computer. Only a handful of researchers understand the electrical complexities and theory that make this whole technology possible.
The above example could be applied to virtually any technology currently in use in the advanced nations. In the beginning of any new technology a few researchers using rational thought and scientific methods are able to observe and describe mathematically a phenomenon, while other small groups of researchers and inventors are able to apply the new knowledge to creating the new basic technology. These rational methods work whether one is describing advances in metallurgy, chemistry, biology, the organization of electronic circuits, or most any other human endeavour. By the time the technology is in general use by the society the vast majority of people utilizing it have no knowledge and no need for the knowledge of the principles or details behind the useful new tool. Even in demanding fields, such as medicine, this applies. In the medical field the great majority of doctors practice according to knowledge gained from their experiences and apprenticeship in hospitals, universities and medical centers. A much smaller percentage of medical researchers invent new procedures or expand our knowledge of the functioning or healing of the body.
This must also have been the case in pre-history. Archeological investigations show primitive cultures made and utilized the same tools and sets of tools for thousands of years with very few changes. We can identify different cultures by their tool kits. It must have been rare for a stone chipper to have departed from the time honored traditions of his predecessors, just as it is uncommon today for a technician to redesign a tool that seems adequate. But an even greater force acting on the individual is the relative conservatism of human societies. Although it has been shown numerous times the QWERTY letter arrangement on most keyboards is not the most efficient, people still use it as it is about the only keyboard style offered. Attempts over the years to launch more ergonomically elegant keyboards have not had much success.
We suspect the relative percentage of humans capable of sustaining rational inquiry must be relatively constant over the ages. Even so, only with sufficient leisure and the will to persist (many times in the face of violent opposition) will such an individual discover a new principle, law of nature, or make discoveries leading to important technological advances.
If technological progress is more rapid and we are making more new discoveries in scientific fields these days than in previous years it is only because of the increase in population, not the increase in the percentage of humans predisposed to rational methods of inquiry.
Given the above what then can we - must we do as a society to encourage those among us with such abilities, and to allow a larger percentage of border line personalities to develop into critical, skeptical, and rational citizens? People in all societies are always quick to adopt and adapt foreign or new technologies with obvious immediate benefit. A primitive tribesman will not hesitate to exchange his bare feet for tennis shoes or manufactured sandals, or slip on a T-shirt. A more “advanced” society may reject both in favor of traditional dress but still adopt the use of the automobile and electricity, which will then force the group to learn the skills needed to maintain and eventually produce the new technology, eventually changing the society in profound, often unpredictable ways. Generally, humans are much less willing to change their beliefs, customs, and world views.
Because of the inherent dominance of irrationality in human thought processes and behavior we believe it is unrealistic to expect large numbers of people in any society to adopt points of view or habits of thinking similar to history’s great progressive philosophers, scientists, and humanists. After all, in spite of the general improvement of the human condition the last few hundred years in some geographical areas (as a result of progressive measures adopted because of the influence of Renaissance and Enlightenment era thinkers, and the decline of the church’s influence), recent polls still indicate people overwhelmingly still subscribe to supernatural beliefs. Indeed most modern peoples still profess a strong belief in an afterlife, various gods, ghosts, djinns, and other assorted supernatural phenomena. When a huge proportion of educated Americans profess to see a significance in the miraculous appearance of the face of Jesus or Mary in a pattern of tree bark or firmly believe gods impregnate Earthly women in order to produce a half-man half-god to save the world, it is hard to see how we will ever convince a majority of mankind to live with the uncertainty necessary for a rational world view. Some recent insightful thinkers such as Jung and Campbell have argued such beliefs are a result of the actual structure of human consciousness and therefore of the human brain. In an effort to make sense of reality the human mind naturally organizes perceived phenomena into certain repeating patterns. Whatever the reason, strong irrational belief systems have hitherto been the most dependable way to organize and control the masses.
In any case a few people in any age seem to have the unique ability to observe with less cultural filtering, and it is to these we address our thoughts. It remains to be seen whether Homo sapiens will soon become extinct or evolve into a less violent, superstitious, and self-destructive species, but the secular humanist takes the positive view that humans at least have a potential, as evidenced by the continual production of a few rational individuals in each generation. If we can inspire even one young person to question, think more rationally, and challenge the forces of superstitious belief and dogma which surround us, it is worth the effort!

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After reading your essay which I reckon, posits the tenet, "we'd be better off if we thought more rationally", I'm compelled to comment that "consistent rational thought" may have destructive qualities worthy of contemplation. I'd add that "creative application of scientific thinking" and "standardized education" are full of their own superstitions, albeit more obfuscated than say, some creative shaman-dude sucking on quartz to make it rain.

I'm glad you added quotes to "advanced nations." One of the more destructive effects of unbalanced science-thought (which many of us were fed as the new religion..remember Mr. Wizard..and that whole moon-landing expenditure?), is that if the rational thought brought "rational methods" i.e. technology, well then we should certainly implement them (more like monetize and market them these days - Hiroshima and Iraq being more violent versions). I've taught in schools that have used technology in ways that is pretty friggen' exploitive..and this is of children..done by technocrats that apparently took 'standardized education' at its face value.

I also don't think "most any other human endeavour" can be just tagged on to "advances in metallurgy, chemistry, biology, the organization of electronic circuits" - the capacity for joy and community solidarity come to mind.

Rather, a dialectical relationship, between the living reality, and the historical reasoning, might be a better basis for peaceful liberty. (Maybe 'appropriate progress' is a topic worthy of consideration.)

As for what to do with those that just like to think a lot..It seems to me that this 'platform' that we're using right here ain't bad..not to say it can mend a broken heart or anything..

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading some more of your ideas. Mahalo.

Rational Thinking About Rational Thinking

Thanks for your very perspicacious comments, whoever you are.
Of course humans are not entirely rational creatures (we are not so different from our other mammalian and reptilian cousins), and you are right that science particularly, or any sort of new understanding of our world does not automatically guarantee the wise utilization of such knowledge. I mean to argue in favor of the scientific method in its broadest sense - not some narrow definition (which is often enough taught in our schools). A perfect example of the approach I am describing is the life of Charles Darwin. After his great works on evolution he spent the rest of his life applying critical thinking to more detailed problems. His study of earth worms is still a near perfect example of this type of reasoning(with much practical good for farmers and ecologists). Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell come to mind; two men whose lives and brilliant critical contributions are pretty well passed over in our schools. Of course you are familiar with Howard Zinn's criticisms of American education as mostly mythic invention... but I digress...
More to your point: if the same critical and skeptical reasoning were applied to human happiness, contentment, and fulfillment, it seems to me the results would be better than uncritical acceptance of superstition and religion, which are often enough merely methods of controlling human groups. Yes, we need humane, flexible, and just methods of organizing human societies, but these methods should be based on real understanding of human nature, not quackery, or the mistaken interpretation and manipulation of mythic metaphor.
When we remove speculation about the afterlife and such, we are left with the obvious conclusion that human happiness in the here-and-now should be the goals - not pleasing some god or preparing for some better future after death.
I should also add I am in agreement with Campbell and others that the human species cannot function without myth and ritual, but these powerful ideas are best left to the artists rather than the priests... and we are all of us artists if the system and society does not crush the basic urge...

Re: Rational Thinking About Rational Thinking

First off, thanks for the new word, "perspicacious." (After I calmed down about being told I have sweaty comments, I looked it up and felt better..) As for who I am, well, digitally-wise anyway, perhaps I can pimp my foray into blogdom:

Your points are well-taken. To be sure, I may have had scientific reductionism in mind and I gather that you are talking about reasoning that transcends that. Also, I'm a little clearer on your skepticism as directed at organized religion. Still, I think Jung talked about the Logos (masculine) as antipodal to the Eros (feminine) qualities of human nature, and while I tend to not peel the mythic onion in epistemological frenzy, that notion does somehow resonate with me - logic would seem to need to balance with that other.. living principle. Sorry - I know that lacks sound logical derives more from experiential ..musing, which is another method for human understanding. Thanks for indulging me.

this is Jay, by the way.

I think there's good points there.

I would suggest this: We're getting to the point between those who know fucking nothing--I mean really nothing--and those who have some abilities--this gulf is getting to be so wide that there may well be a very pronounced de-coupling of the two groups. Now, this would indeed be interesting. We've got on our hands a situation where the "rational" knowledgeable capable thinking elite possess such a vastly larger skill set--those of us in that group should ask ourselves--what do we need those other folks for?

Not to get Ayn Rand on you, but really--if you read the news you understand pinhead rule the world. Some of them are powerful, and rich, but they're still basically ignorant shitheads. Maybe it's time that "Apollo Shrugged."

A gulf between, the masses of dumbshits and, "rational knowledgeable capable thinking elite" is a false dichotomous view. I don't think it accurately defines the structure of who are helping, and who are fucking it up. That nice young man who followed his edu-science determined dreams of studying hard so he could fly jets comes to mind. As does the "dumbshit" farmer-guy who happened to have said nice man's cluster bomb drop on his house. Who belonged to which side of the gulf?

Also for the sake of clarity, I'd think it isn't for "personal reasons" that people are side-lined in the process. In fact, I'd think it's for institutional reasons. Those desiring to cut the bullshit and get to work, necessarily end up questioning the legitimacy of institutions. That's unacceptable in these centralized institutions - opposition must be squelched.

If humanity is the common ground with which to cultivate liberating participation, then the sensibility and innate intellect of humans musn't be downgraded by disproportionate attention to the "rational thinking" and the rest. As such, I'd think the educational task is to deny the sectarianism of "dumbshits versus the rational". Communication is the key and it has been used to divide and conquer for a long time. Our systems of schooling have played a very significant part in this. Unfortunately, iatrogenic (stupefying) education, as a subject any public policy dialog, is "off the table." The folks who get to talk are either way compromised "hedgehogs", on the tit of their institution..or they're homesteaders that are not invited to the meeting. Any true hope (distinct from slogans) would seem to come from a radical reform of our schools, if not doing away with them. The idea that we need to get more kids using computers, broadband at that, so we can "compete globally" illustrates it pretty well.

We see what we allow ourselves to see

I enjoyed reading your essay, and have great regard for diverse viewpoints. Why do you address this essay "to those with less culteral filtering" while the words are painted with dogmatic rationalist, Western, homeocentric ideology? By culteral filtering, what exactly do you mean?
Just as the masses used revelation as means for knowing truth, rational methods of thinking are the prevailing methods of knowing in Western societies today. That which cannot be proven by Science's laws is not considered real. The idea of an individual ego that exists alone, seperated from its surroundings by skin from air is central to the widely held fear of death. And where would our prized branch of science, psychology, be without belief in the psyche? no ego= no fear of death of something that never existed in the first place.
Science itself used to be called Natural Philosophy, a set of ideas of how reality might be. Now it is taken as absoulute, the limitless range for human knowledge is shortened to fit within its laws. What cannot be rationally explained is devalued and eventually becomes obsolete. Living breathing humans are reduced to objects, commodities, or consuming receptacles. People leave their traditions, severing primary relationships to the land by accepting shoes and teeshirts to join the Coca-Cola tribe, because there are no other tribes allowed. All variety is destroyed in the name of bullshit.

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