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Michael P. Lynch

Extended Book Review

Profound arguments, handled lightly, are one essence of this book. Another is that it makes a case not only against dogma in politics [and religion] but relativism in philosophy. In essence, Lynch makes the case that we need to face up to skepticism about reason itself. Intelligent Design is just one high profile dogma that such skepticism breeds. The war between Mythos and Logos is explicitly revealed in the pages of Lynch’s timely little book.

The evidence that mythos often gets the upper hand is well established. Alexander Todorov and Charles Ballew of Princeton University show that college students make gut-feel selections between two candidates running for office. They were asked to judge the competence of two candidates in senate and gubernatorial unknown to any in the cohort making the judgments within one-tenth of a second of viewing their respective pictures. No time for reflection allowed. After the election results two-weeks later, the students were found to have correctly predicted the election results 70% of the time. Although tangible events can swing elections one way or the other, 70% of the time judgments are made on auto-pilot. These results are only one small part of a growing body of similar evidence. Lynch concludes: “When it comes to figuring out what we want to do, or even what to believe is true, reason is simply beside the point.”

Of course this is merely scientific proof of what leaders have always known intuitively through the ages. At the Nuremberg trials, Herman Goering put it this way: "...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Robert Baer, CIA case officer assigned to the Middle East brings the issue home to us: "I was chief of collecting information on Iraq through the mid-nineties. I know what we had, and what we didn’t have, and I’m here to tell you there was no information."

So Lynch had good reason to write his little classic. He is hopeful, as we are. After all, more than any other trait, what settles humans apart quantitatively from all other animals is our ability to think, to deduce possible results from events. But emotions intrude; we are too often led to select data and arguments in favor of our emotional preferences and ignore any data in counterpoint. Even otherwise well-trained scientists can fall err to this mistake. Nevertheless, most do not. And we have the Enlightenment to prove our case on the historic scale—not to mention the giant leaps forward during the 20th century and the discovery of the “God Particle” in our current times. That the particle is mis-named is yet more evidence of our emotional state in reporting new science. It, or something very much like it, is a first-order verification of science itself. Decades ago Higgs and co-workers deduced that it had to exist. That was logic, logos. The name it was given by those reporting the event is merely wishful thinking—mythos .

In the face of all this, Lynch quotes a British mathematician, W K Clifford, who takes an uncompromising view on the side of reason: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for one to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford relates a story to make his point. Executives of an American airline believed that their aging 737 aircraft were safe from catastrophic failure from fatigue cracks. Clifford’s point lies in the answer to a question: Did they in fact ignore the inspection directive or did they simply come to believe without evidence to the contrary that the inspections were indeed not needed? No doubt the superb history of airline safety could have led them to ignore inspections that would cost real money to ensure their continued safety. The profit motive to ignore the lack of evidence was there as well. Whether deliberate or not, the executives proceeded without evidence. Purely and simply these folks endangered all those of us who travel by air—without any evidence whatsoever. Airline safety is excellent because inspections, not in spite of them. These folks simply had no right to believe their planes were safe. It was in fact a crime against humanity.

But belief in mythos is universal to human nature. And that is the root problem. Of course there are times when there is no choice as astronauts can tell you. Some of them died before launch, others during launch, and some upon re-entry—simply because the safety precedents were not there, nor could they have been. So Clifford’s argument is not an absolute, a point Lynch makes clear.

Nevertheless, Lynch fully agrees with Clifford that humanity, in its many levels and societies, can move forward better than it has—if it adopts an attitude of open inquiry. Asking the right question leads to further questions and addressing the methods by which to reveal the truth results in progress as long as we remain agnostic in the process.

Lynch moves on to an over-arching thought: “The real lesson is that it is crucial for the good of civil society to commit to the ideal of reason. … It is not just the questions , but questions rightly asked ..that are important. …This is the attitude of one who trusts in reason, and it is precisely a lack of it that Clifford thinks is damaging to our society.” We could not agree more.

In his concluding remarks, Lynch summarizes: “Giving up on reason is not just a philosophical mistake. It is also a political mistake. Skepticism about reason encourages us to give up on the one truly inspired idea of the Enlightenment, that we share a common currency of reason with our fellow human beings. And once we give up on the idea that there is a common point of view that is partly constituted by a commitment to shared principles distinguishing what is rational from what isn’t, we also give up on the idea of a civil society. We’ll just start thinking that conservatives and liberals can’t really reasonably debate each other, that they rely on different kinds of reason. And once we do that, we are a hop, skip and a jump away from regarding out political opponents as lunatics and idiots. The currently poisonous political climate in the United States illustrates this slide with disturbing clarity. If there are no shared standards of rationality, then we are apt to think that it is not worth bothering to give and ask for reasons. We are apt to stop looking for truth and stick with what is convenient.”

“So I end with a caution and a hope. The caution is that if we slide much further from a commitment to reason, we will find it impossible as a society to claw our way back. Thus my hope. I hope to live in a society that sees a difference between what pays and what is, between what seems reasonable in the short term and what is, between everyone believing something and its really being so, between what seems reasonable in the short term and what survives the fires of national debate, between brute appeals to power and patient appeals to our better selves. I hope to live in a society, in short, that does not just passively accept reason but is passionately committed to it, that puts principle into action.”

Lynch annotates his book well and references appropriately. Five stars!


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