Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Edge of Reason (Julian Baggini) -- A Review

THE EDGE OF REASON: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. By Julian Baggini. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 262 pages.

                Although I am a Christian, who believes in God in a somewhat orthodox manner, I also believe that I am a rational person. There are some who believe that to affirm religious beliefs runs counter to being a person of reason, but I happen to disagree. In fact, I’m very keen to embrace reason as a major component of my life, including my spiritual life. I offer this apology for my rationality as a prelude to my review of a most interesting book written by one who claims to be a rational skeptic (in an irrational world). It’s clear that the author and I must agree to disagree on religious matters. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained for religious people by reading Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason.


The author of The Edge of Reason is a philosopher by training and co-founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine. He’s also from Britain, a vantage point from which he speaks no only to the European mind, but the American one as well. Baggini wants to reclaim the role of reason in what he believes—and rightly so—for an increasingly irrational world. I may not be the skeptic that he claims to be, but when it comes to bringing reason back into our conversation, I'm on board. What is helpful about this book is that Baggini recognizes the limits of reason. He may offer challenges to the religious world, but he’s also willing to take on (and take apart) the claims of Scientism, a view of reality that believes that science is the key to all things. Baggini believes in science, just not quite as “religiously” as some (e.g. Sam Harris).   

The author’s purpose in writing the book is to help us "develop a notion of reason which is both sufficiently thin and sufficiently substantive to enable this kind of public dialogue, one which allows for a wide variety of opinions on what is in fact reasonable but is not so permissive as to allow any sincerely held opinion" (p. 5). In other words, there needs to be room for dialogue where we can all bring our views to the table, even as we recognize that not all views have equal value for the conversation. Positions held and offered need to have substance to them.

The book is divided into four parts. He begins with a discussion of judgment in reason. In this section, he challenges those who do not allow for the role of judgment in their pursuit of objective reason. He understands that we bring our own judgment to our conversations, and our judgment is influenced by. As a historian, to give an example, I recognize that I bring my own context to my interpretation of the “facts” of history. Interestingly, he begins this section with the question of God (he's not a believer). In this section, he argues for what he calls “coherentism.” He suggests that we understand that “reason works holistically” in that “beliefs cohere rather than have unshakeable foundations.” In the end, reason by itself is unable to end intellectual debates (p. 33). That includes the question of God. He also raises questions about science, including the question of whether there is one “scientific method.” Science moves along in a variety of ways, rational and reasonable ways, but not just one way. He writes that “science is indeed a rational pursuit par excellence. But it does violence to the notion of rationality if we pretend that it is not a complicated, somewhat messy capacity” (p. 55). When it comes to logic, it too is not foolproof. To recognize the need for judgment does not lead to subjectivism, it’s simply recognizing that there is a human dimension to all of this.

If judgment is part of the equation, can Reason be a Guide? That’s the issue discussed in Part 2. Baggini argues that while reason should be our guide, he wants to qualify that answer. Part of the answer is rooted in the study of psychology, a science itself, but usually understood to be a soft science not a hard science (like physics).  He concludes that "our rationality is a somewhat messy thing that cannot be captured only in the formal processes of logic" (p. 107). I think that is the point that Dr. McCoy tried to make to Mr. Spock! By suggesting that reason is our guide, he speaks of it being an inner guide that "informs but does not dictate our decision making" (p. 109). Since he seeks to be as objective as possible in his thinking, he notes five characteristics of being objective: 1) Comprehensibility (moving from the particular to the general); 2) assessability; 3) defeasibility (open to revision or rejection); 4) interest-neutrality (epistemic rationality, believing something after setting aside goals and values); 5) compulsion (it is compelling). 

Part 3 is titled "The Motivator," and this section focuses on motives for reason or rational thinking. He also looks at morality in two forms (rational and scientific), and then he examines the claims of reason. Ultimately, for him, the normativity of reason is stated in this formula: “We should believe that which is most rational to believe.” Why we do otherwise? Of course, we do, but why? Once again, Baggini brings in judgment.  

Finally, we reach Part 4, which I think is the key to the book. Titled "The King," this section takes the form of two chapters dealing with the State and politics. The title of the section is taken from Plato's vision, laid out in "The Republic," of the value of the philosopher king. Wouldn't it be great if we were ruled by philosophers? Perhaps not, as Plato's Utopian vision was rather dystopian. Nonetheless, there is need for rationality in government! While principle is important, there is a case for pragmatism, for "politics must be about changing the world for the better and that means it is inherently pragmatic" (p. 194). That is, a principle has little value if it can't be implemented, and thus experience is key. He gives as an example the idea of the redistribution of wealth. While that might be good the way in which it is redistributed can't be based simply on principle. Experience will demonstrate whether this can be done, and how it can be done. It might, he reminds us, have unintended consequences. As an advocate for reason, Baggini sees value in conservatism, especially the Burkeian kind, which understands conservatism as seeing the need to "preserve the institutions, customs and practices of our society in order for us to flourish in that society" (p. 196). That doesn't mean that there is no room for reform, but reform needs to be undertaken with a degree of caution. In that sense, I am a conservative. Even as he lays out that idea, he reveals the problems inherent in communism and anarchism. Regarding communism, he points out the overconfidence that Marxists placed in their ability to derive theories from their observations, so that they had scientific precision. They lacked modesty about the imprecision of their political science. Again, the point here is recognition that reason is essential, but it has limits.

If for no other reason, the presence of chapter ten makes this book worthy of reading. In trying to connect democracy and reason, Baggini writes that "the only fair and tenable political systems are ones that put deliberative reason at their hearts, since reason is the only justifiable tool for negotiating political differences" (p. 211). In pursuit of this vision, he argues for political pluralism, which seeks to "balance and negotiate between competing claims and demands so as to enable as many compatible goods from different incompatible positions as is possible" (p. 212). In other words, the form of democracy he envisions is not mere majoritarianism. What is the biggest threat to this vision? He answers with populism. Yes, the very political vision that seems on the rise in the United States and elsewhere, the vision that seems to have captivated a significant portion of the American populace, is dangerous. The kind of populism he explores isn't simply grass-roots efforts. It has to do with cultivating an "us versus them" mentality. It is an embrace of the idea that what seems to be true to the common person must be true. Thus, power is gained by rejecting the insights of those defined as the elites. If that sounds familiar, it is because this is what is happening at this very moment in the United States and elsewhere. We prefer “common sense” to educated rational discourse. In this section the author helpfully takes note of how politics taps into a political consumerism that involves pandering to consumerist desires, and in doing so undermines the foundations of a democratic, pluralist state. There is much more here, including an argument for a pluralistic vision that allows for all voices to be heard, including religious ones, even we seek a more universal/general perspective.  If only we had read this book a year ago!

The book concludes with a fifty-two-point summation of his arguments, in which he emphasizes the importance of reason, while recognizing its limits. For a person who loves God and values reason, this is important. The final point is wonderfully put: "Reason is thin ice on which we have no choice but to skate" (p. 245). Indeed!

As noted earlier, Baggini and I will likely disagree on the matters of religion. However, on the importance of reason, I think we’re on similar ground. We need more reason in our discourses! Not only that, in an age when our political discourse seems to eschew reason, we need to attend to his concluding chapters. We face a dangerous future, unless we can return to reason. What is interesting is that I received this book some time in the past. I found it odd that the publisher would send a book by a skeptic to a religiously-inclined reader/reviewer. So, I put off reading it. But once I started, I found it not only engaging, but thought-provoking. As I said above, if only we had read this book before the election cycle had begun, perhaps we would be in a different place today.

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