Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Reason within the limits of reason alone

I'm wrecking the point of having comments by posting on every possible turn in the conversation, I suppose, but Philalethes raises another good point: what is reason, and when is it "reasonable"?

Simply stated, I would say that reason is the terms of discourse to which all agree. The scope is broad, but has its boundaries; and, for the most part, like pornography, we can't define it, but we know it when we see it (discarding, of course, arguments that discussions of theology or religion cannot be reasonable).

When we appeal to such terms of discourse, we are appealing in part to the elimination of contradictions. "Up" cannot simultaneously refer to "down"; "black"cannot also refer to "white"; and so on. Which runs us up against Philalethes' other observation: that "our" opponents in many a political (or religious) discussion, don't even reason by their own definition of the term (i.e., it is "reasonable" to assert that the earth is only 6000 years old, or whatever), but revel in irrationality. And this is certainly true: here is a hypothetical as an example.

I've never had the chance to do this, but if you could confront a Christian fundamentalist, a devout believer in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, and that every word therein is literally true (and inherently correct, i.e., non-contradictory), the shot to the solar plexus would seem to be the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. They are absolutely irreconcilable.

In both stories, Jesus is born in Bethlehem: but for Matthew, that is because that's where his parents live. In Luke, they travel to Bethlehem when Mary is pregnant, because of the Roman census. Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, later return to Nazareth, where he grows up. No mention of Herod, or a flight to Egypt.

But in Matthew, Jesus lives in Bethlehem until he's about two years old. That's when the Magi arrive, Herod learns of the boy's birth, and the Holy Family flees to Egypt to avoid the massacre of the innocents. They return to live in Nazareth to stay out from under the nose of Herod's son, after the old king's death.

Now there are enough silences in the stories for many literalists to reconcile the differences. Shepherds could have visited the child on his birth night, and the magi come later; Matthew could record the flight to Egypt while Luke records the dedication in the Temple; and so on. It takes a lot to twist these strands together, but I've seen it done.

However, why was Jesus born in Bethlehem, and why did he come from Nazareth? The explanations simply cannot be reconciled. Either they lived there, or the census forced them there. And he grew up in Nazareth because that's really where his parents lived, or because of Herod. It is either/ or; it cannot be both/and. But if Christian fundamentalism was so easily undone, if this thread alone would be enough to unravel the tapestry of inerrancy and literalism they have woven since the 19th century, Christian fundamentlism would never have lasted this long.

How do they do it? Obviously by loosening the standards for consistency and reasoning enough to let such matters slip through. Does that mean "they" are completely without reason? No. But it means what is sacred will not be sullied by simple problems of consistency. "Reason" will always give way to what is "holy." Every group has something sacred to its identity, something holy that must be kept pure. Which is an observation, more than a critique. No group stands so far outside of human existence as to be exempt from this fundamental necessity. Finding out what is truly worth preserving is hard work, indeed. Existentialism considers it the creation of the self, even the establishment of the world one lives in. Quite a responsibility; and the issue really is, have we done the work? If we haven't, who are we to complain about "them"?

The other issue is: is politics all about getting "them" to reason like "us"? Or is it about the implementation of governmental power? An issue quite different from either morality or rationality (although not wholly divorced from either).

Or is that killing the conversation before it gets started?

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