Terrorism and other Inhumanities

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Having a blog is like having a second dick: the more fun you have with it, the more people will think you’re a wanker.

So the Globe and Mail featured yet another essay (this one by John Allemang) extolling the humanities as a kind of critical thinking factory. Apparently its no coincidence that terror suspects tend to have science and technical backgrounds.

Human brains are rationalization machines. We begin with our conclusions when we rationalize. We start with a claim which we then try to justify after the fact with cherry-picked ‘evidence.’ This, of course, is the precise opposite of reasoning, where we use evidence to determine our conclusions. In other words, rationalization is the bane of any critical thinking worthy of the name. Given our hardwired tendency to game ambiguities for confirmation’s sake, you could say that our penchant for rationalization is THE barrier to critical thinking. No matter how ludicrous our beliefs, we inevitably find some way to confirm them.

Humans have a genius for post hoc self-justification. During my recent vacation I couldn’t help but notice the way my buddy’s three year old would continually swap through rationales every time he got busted breaking this or that rule. In fact, he did this so regularly that I couldn’t help but think that the real developmental point of ‘being a bad boy’ was to simply hone and explore his rationalization skills, rather than simply ‘challenge parental boundaries’ as the child development experts claim. For social and linguistic animals like humans, the importance of rationalization simply cannot be overstated. The sad fact of the matter is that nothing gets you laid quite like bullshit.

Rationalization starts almost as soon as language does. And the better we are at it, the better we are at getting by, let alone getting away with murder. Important stuff.

So if we were to train our children how to be the best rationalizers possible, what might we do?

Well, first, we would teach them how to clearly articulate the claim to be rationalized. Given the importance of priming listeners, we might even teach them how to frame their ‘argument’ with some introductory rhetoric. Then we would teach them how to adduce (using cherry-picking resources such as the library and the internet) and to articulate, not just their justifications, but their justifications for their justifications. Rationalization, after all, works better when it’s layered. We could teach them how to prioritize these post hoc justifications, always reminding them to save the most potent one for last to maximize their rationalization’s psychological impact. Then, we might teach them how to conclude the whole self-confirming exercise with some more me-so-right rhetoric. Some kind of concluding paragraph.

We would teach them, in other words, how to write a college essay.

This is what the humanities do: they take our rough and ready penchant for duping ourselves and refine into something articulate and efficient. Not only do they train us how to fool ourselves more effectively, they have the temerity to call this critical thinking! They churn out generations of trained rationalizers, and give each of them an official ‘critical thinker’ badge that they can use to alienate their highschool dropout relatives at Christmas–because we all know that the Authority that flatters is the Authority that is never questioned.

I’m not saying that criticality doesn’t leak through here and there. The ability to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes,’ to frame one’s own time in historical context, and the like–these are undoubtedly important ‘skills’ to possess. But they are not in ‘critical’ in and of themselves. Absent any real appreciation of the ways we game ambiguities to our cognitive advantage, they are far more likely to be yoked to the rationalization cart than otherwise. To make us better bullshitters.

Speaking of which, I should make clear the radicality of the view I’m advocating here. Every paper, every article, damn near every damn thing I read or hear–my own stuff included–I see as bullshit rationalization, as various attempts to dress up abject guesses as divine revelation. I think that the research, considered in sum, more than supports this ugly and unflattering claim.

And this is why I find the claim that the problem of terrorism requires more liberal arts education out and out preposterous. What the problem of terrorism requires is an education system that teaches people how to reason, not how to rationalize, that answers to the sorry fact of the human cognitive condition, not the flattering myth.