Of reason and realism

Laurie Penny writes on Longreads:

Remember the U.S. presidential debates of 2016? Remember how the entire liberal establishment thought Hillary Clinton had won, mainly because she made actual points, rather than shambling around the stage shouting about Muslims? What’s the one line from those debates that everyone remembers now? It’s “Nasty Woman.” What’s the visual? It’s Trump literally skulking around Hillary, dominating her with his body. It’s theatre. And right now the bad actors are winning.

This paragraph is on point. Many left-liberal intellectuals frequently pen opinions, editorials and commentaries for the popular press and assume, by the self-assessed weight of their arguments, that the conservative, right-wing reader must be convinced of the superiority of the authors’ philosophies and switch sides. This never happens. Specifically, it doesn’t happen 90% of the time because the authors aren’t good writers, and the ensuing back-and-forth swiftly descends into semantics. And it doesn’t happen 10% of the time because the bhakt reading the article isn’t there for the points. You can write and write and write but – as Penny proves – the theatre of fascism will always overtake the finest discussion of ideas.

I’m neither a scientist nor a philosopher, but I have often wondered if ideas from scientific realism can help make sense of the empirical information we have. It is possible the liberal intellectual assumes her audience will behave, at the individual level at least, the way she herself does; this is a reasonable assumption that we all make in our day-to-day lives: for example, we excuse a friend’s anger in a moment of frustration because we rationalise it away based on lessons we have learnt from our own experiences. Similarly, the author presumes that, since she believes she can be swayed by reason, the reader will be swayed, too, and the author’s commitment to reason becomes – in the author’s mind, at least – a common platform upon which writer and reader will stage their debate. However, the flaw in this worldview is that the bhakt is, almost by definition, inimical to reason (irrespective of whether he is in all aspects of his life unreasonable) and does not mount the stage with the same aspirations.

Now, scientific realism (in its semantic interpretation) holds that science’s claims about scientific entities – “objects, events, processes, properties and relations” (source) – should be taken literally, as if they correspond to the actual natural universe itself instead of to a natural universe we perceive with our senses. The significance of this statement is better illustrated by a counter-example: anti-realists would contend that if we cannot see electrons with the naked eye, then science’s claims about their existence don’t pertain to their actual existence but instead provide ways to instrumentalise the claims to aid our interactions with observable entities, such as an electric fan.

Similarly, the liberal intellectual behaves like an anti-realist, seeking to explain deviant social phenomena in terms she can understand and rejecting what she cannot observe herself instead of, and like a realist might, allowing ideas that don’t conform to her worldview to exist on their own terms, outside the realm of her scholarship and trivialised because their rules don’t submit to the logic of hers.

Acknowledgement as in the latter case is important to enable meaningful engagement, such as it is willing to look beyond the identity and aspirations of one’s own group. More importantly, classifying what is beyond one’s didactic reach as fictions – even useful fictions, as the committed anti-realist might – is flawed the same way scientism prizes an economic logic at the cost of morals and ethics. The belief that there may be other ways to make informed choices but that they will ultimately have to be subsumed within one’s worldview prevents oneself from a) designing appropriate policies to govern them; b) expanding one’s own library of knowledge to include what could well be a legitimate alternative, and c) acknowledging the strength of the alternative on its terms instead of addressing it as a primitive form of one’s own politics.

So unable to see beyond her own allegiance to reason, the scholar assumes constantly that it can and will triumph, while her diminished sense of the external world prevents her from acknowledging a different set of motivations for people on the ‘other side’. Over time, the left-liberal collective begins to reject and ignore their existence altogether, dismissing their motivations and sensibilities with counterparts that the individual rooted in the primacy of logic, reason and civility can actually assimilate. This way, the left-liberal group keeps up its mindless performance of engaging with the right when in fact it is not engaging at all.

I don’t present all of this as criticism, however, because the primary function of an intellectual creature is to intellectualise, in whatever form: through speech, essays, dramatisation, etc. The act of intellectualisation, in turn, presumes that one’s interlocutor is capable of receiving knowledge so organised and assimilating it themselves. Without this caveat, intellectualism becomes solipsistic and free speech, insofar as it seeks opportunities to change minds and set society on the path of enlightenment, becomes purposeless. So while there are people who are willing to reason and debate and argue, they must do so; but where people resort to whataboutery, shooting-the-messenger and ad hominem, reason alone – if at all – will not hope to succeed.