Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Brooks, Kerosene Firefighter

David Brooks' editorial from April 7th's New York Times simply tries to do too many things.

Brooks is successful when he examines developments in psychology, but he falls on his face when he tries to extrapolate the broader implications he has presented in the first sections of the article.

Brooks is citing research which supports the hypothesis that human beings are not fundamentally rational actors.

He cites psychologist Jonathan Haidt's work, and I am definitely a fan of Haidt. I readily acknowedge Haidt's conclusions, but Brooks' interpretation is essentially a misrepresentation.

I would say I disagree with Brooks' interpretations, but this criticism goes beyond disagreement. Brooks is just wrong -- his assumptions are faulty and his logic is terrible. As if those travesties were not enough, while evaluating the consequences of Haidt's research, he also misses some of the most obvious and some of the most profound conclusions of all.

He attempts to present Haidt's conclusions as an atheist dilemma.

"It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning."

However, from the premise "reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it", it does not logically follow that a pursuit of "pure reason" is ill-advised or illogical.

Brooks implies that we should combat irrationality with more irrationality.

That's like throwing lighter fluid instead of water on a burning building. It's a recipe for destruction.

Because we have realized that human beings are not rational actors, we should acknowledge the necessity of examining the basis for our decision-making as closely as possible. Because we acknowledge that humans have a propensity to make irrational decisions, then we must do everything we can to constantly reevaluate our own thought processes.

Brooks pontificates that "most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself". And what ends may we use to achieve goodness? Reason.

Much of organized religion is a stumbling block in this pursuit, which is one of the most important claims of the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

People often make bad decisions precisely because emotion circumvents reasoning, and this is why reason is critically important to improving the quality of human life.

Pope Benedict XVI advised Africans that use of condoms increases AIDS. Because of this poorly reasoned, emotionally-stoked advice, people will die. People will die because the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger failed to properly examine the scientific and medical evidence, and instead relied on his intuitions to arrive at an important decision.

People will die because of this irrational advice. It won't be because Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins waged a war of "pure reason".

It is not when reason is overwhelmed by emotion that reason is unwarranted. Rather, it is just when people do not operate primarily by reason that a faith in reason is most warranted.

David Brooks, the kerosene firefighter, has it exactly backwards.

1 comment:

Ketan said...

Teleprompter, you (and of course, David Brooks, too) forgot to look at one issue--agreed, majority of people allow emotions to interfere with the process of drawing conclusions, but Socrates was great (philosopher) only because he did NOT do that!

This is one point that'd have made your argument even stronger. To reinforce what you said, Socrates learnt to circumvent emotions with logic--and not the other way round.

Rest all has been ably put by you in perspective.