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July 7, 2005

A Reason for Tradition

My latest column for TheFactIs.org — "Reasoning with the Id" — responds to a recent piece by Lee Harris. To summarize too drastically, Harris seeks to find a place for tradition in a world of reason. Me, I think is more accurate to stress that rationality already exists in a world of tradition.

Posted by Justin Katz at July 7, 2005 9:52 PM
Culture
Comments
If researchers unravel the biological foundation of the "self," for example, they will have explained nothing about the experience of being a self. Yet, in developing a concrete definition based on their extremely limited perspective, they will have thrown society's sense of it out of balance. If they are incorrectly seen as having "found the self," they will have uprooted an entire system of beliefs and traditions that make the experience of being human what it is, even though the human self is much more than a mechanism.

....

Rather, he loses by allowing the rationalist to limit the terms of the debate to the narrow ground of reason, rather than the well-honed balance of intellect, feeling, and action that tradition in reality is.

A great piece, Justin. It does seem as if Harris is accepting too easily the modern conceit that man's reason is the ultimate standard of truth. Certainly that is the case is some sectors of society, and the world, but it is hardly universally accepted, or unchallenged. The bit about the scientists is quite apt - it's alternately amusing and irritating to hear biologists behave as if an evolutionary explanation for some facet of human behavior is the end of the discussion. They know that their experience as a human being is something more than a virtual reality created by neuronal firing patterns, yet they insist that science has shown that that's all we are. It's also infuriating how many people take our society for granted - they think that somehow it is the technical knowledge that has made us successful, rather than appreciating that such knowledge can only be produced and used effectively in a particular cultural milieu.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 10, 2005 10:05 PM

[scientists] know that their experience as a human being is something more than a virtual reality created by neuronal firing patterns, yet they insist that science has shown that that's all we are.

Many scientists are not as narrow-minded as that, though you might think so from their portrayal in the popular press.

Science may show that we are just a blob of cells with neuronal firing patterns, etc., but that's because it's all that science CAN show. To appreciate the full nature of a human being we must go beyond science and reason alone.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at July 11, 2005 8:37 AM

It does seem as if Harris is accepting too easily the modern conceit that man's reason is the ultimate standard of truth.

No. That is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what Harris is arguing. Go back and read his PR article carefully. "Reason," or what Harris calls "rationality," can only take place between people who already speak the language of a shared tradition.

Justin: I posted on this article in response to the gay marriage law passed in Spain. There I argued that this essay should be understood as a further development of two shorter ones he wrote for TCS which are linked in my post--and it needs to be read alongside them to grasp what Harris is trying to say.

Posted by: someguy at July 12, 2005 3:27 AM

Someguy said:

"Reason," or what Harris calls "rationality," can only take place between people who already speak the language of a shared tradition.

This is nonsense. I rationalize things to myself all the time and I'm only one person and the only person involved. That which happens between two people is bargaining, or equivocating the reasoning or rationality.

Posted by: smmtheory at July 12, 2005 8:25 AM

No. That is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what Harris is arguing. Go back and read his PR article carefully. "Reason," or what Harris calls "rationality," can only take place between people who already speak the language of a shared tradition.

Harris says,

But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason — can we rationally justify keeping it? Suppose we have been raised in the belief that we must wash our hands before every meal in order to appease a local deity in our pantheon, say, the god of the harvest; and suppose again that we have come to learn of the hygienic benefits of washing our hands before every meal. Must we keep the absurd tradition once we have grasped its scientific rationale? In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses.

Where reason shines forth, then, tradition is no longer necessary. Hence the question before us: In a world that is being more and more rationalized, does tradition have a future? Or will we one day look upon it as we now look upon the myths of the ancient world — quaint and amusing, but of no real relevance to our lives?

And Justin said,

What models that counterpose reason and tradition seem always to discard is the experience of the thing.

Harris has set up the conflict as one between the "rational" intellectuals, and the "ethical fundamentalism" of Middle America. There are a couple of problems that I see. When he says, "can we rationally justify keeping [the tradition]?", he's framing the question such that rationality is the ultimate standard by which to determine the question. Which is what I was referring to in my comment. But I think the more significant issue is that he defines "rationality" too narrowly. He places the intellectuals on the side of rationality,

But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe, and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.

while the defenders of tradition are relying only on instinct. But proficiency in handling abstract ideas is not the same thing as rational - which touches on the point someguy makes about rational discourse requiring two people with similar assumptions. Is the Sophist really being rational? If he's not really trying to seek the truth, and convince others of it, then is he being rational? Or is he just engaging in a form of power struggle? Likewise with the postmodern academic. I think Harris grants the intelligentsia too much when he calls their arguments "rational". As Justin says, "Even those who take the ability to reason as the height of the human experience should, therefore, err on the side of tradition."

So, on the one hand we don't have to give rational arguments the final say in any given matter, but on the other hand we can give rationality a more expansive definition, which includes acknowledging the experiential and instinctive nature of humanity, as well as our rational nature.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 12, 2005 10:13 AM

When he says, "can we rationally justify keeping [the tradition]?", he's framing the question such that rationality is the ultimate standard by which to determine the question.

Again, I think that's a misreading of what Harris is saying. His answer is "No, we can't." That is, not unless we want to make the wisdom of keeping our hands off of hot stoves, to use one of his analogies:

Like certain automatic reflexes, such as jerking your hand off a burning stovetop, the sheer immediacy of our visceral response, far from being proof of its irrationality, demonstrates the critical importance, in times of peril and crisis, of not thinking before we act. If a man had to think before jumping out of the way of an onrushing car, or to meditate on his options before removing his hand from that hot stovetop, then reason, rather than being our help, would become our enemy.
Rather than saying that "rationality is the standard by which to determine the question," he is saying that it is tradition that determines what is rational. From his earlier TCS essay: "Honor and Shame: Who Needs Them?":
The intellectual, profoundly impressed by his own rationality, assumes that it is a product of his own individual mind. This is a myth, and dangerous one. Rationality is not something you and I possess as individuals; rather it is a process that occurs, if it occurs at all, between us. And it can only begin to occur among those individuals who, for some reason or other, are already willing to agree.
If I understand you, Mike S., you seem to think Harris regards "reason" and "tradition" as abstract notions without a context. I think he is arguing exactly the opposite, and that's why it seems to me that you have missed his point. Posted by: someguy at July 12, 2005 10:40 AM

I meant "...make the wisdom of keeping our hands off of hot stoves a topic of debate."

Posted by: someguy at July 12, 2005 10:41 AM

I don't think Harris understands tradition and how it relates to the human experience. That's why he did a less than credible job of explaining and justifying tradition. And he sort of makes it sound as if he has very little experience with tradition. But even non- and anti- traditionalists cannot escape tradition. They may not comprehend it, but it's part of their lives everyday. It's sort of hardwired in the way memories are stored in our brains.

Posted by: smmtheory at July 12, 2005 2:16 PM

Rather than saying that "rationality is the standard by which to determine the question," [Harris] is saying that it is tradition that determines what is rational.

Harris makes a convincing case that shared values are required for rational discourse, and it does explain why attempts to reason are so difficult when the debaters come from different traditional viewpoints.

The importance of a common culture of "honor and shame", as Harris puts it, may explain why we are in the midst of a culture war. America has some nationally-shared traditions, but on many levels it has always been divided along the Mason-Dixon line. Call it Red State vs Blue State, Union vs Confederate, or whatever, these two predominant cultural bases have some very different ideas about what is honorable and what is shameful.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at July 12, 2005 2:51 PM

someguy,

I'm not sure exactly where our disagreement lies, if it in fact exists. You say, "he is saying that it is tradition that determines what is rational", but I don't think that is quite right. In the beginning of his piece he says that "In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses." (As an aside, Yuval Levin wrote an essay with similar theme regarding embryos in the first issue of The New Atlantis.) I understand the point that something is lost when you start rationally dissecting a viscerally held tradition. But I think Harris overstates the case by saying that tradition always loses in such encounters. I also think he give too much credit to the interrogators when he says,

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

The key words here are "intellectual elite", not "rationally justified" - the elites can't rationally justify their own preferred positions any better than the defenders of tradition; the key point is that they have power to force others to submit to their worldview, not that their view is rationally justifiable.

If I understand you, Mike S., you seem to think Harris regards "reason" and "tradition" as abstract notions without a context. I think he is arguing exactly the opposite, and that's why it seems to me that you have missed his point.

I wasn't trying to say that he thinks they are abstract notions without a context, but that he too easily equated "tradition" with "irrational", and "reason" with "intellectual elites". Perhaps I'm incorrect about that, but that was my impression.

So, when Justin encapsulates Harris' argument as,

In other words, once we introduce reason into the equation, whether attacking or defending tradition on rational grounds, the tradition is all but lost.

do you think Justin is incorrect in his characterization?

Or when Justin says at the end of his essay,

The traditionalist does not lose the argument, as Harris implies, simply by allowing the forces of rationalization a podium. Rather, he loses by allowing the rationalist to limit the terms of the debate to the narrow ground of reason, rather than the well-honed balance of intellect, feeling, and action that tradition in reality is.

do you not agree that Harris is implicitly acceeding to the rationalist's limiting the terms of the debate to the narrow ground of reason? (Perhaps he isn't, and in fact he and Justin are basically saying the same thing - it's just not clear to me what you think.)

Posted by: Mike S. at July 12, 2005 4:54 PM

That hand-washing example is problematic. In that one example, Harris is defining "tradition" as the mythology that previously surrounded hand-washing, so when science proves that hand-washing is good for reasons other than "absurd tradition," then we can drop the tradition — i.e., the deity, not the hand-washing.

That's problematic, first of all, because we don't generally define tradition merely as the mythology, but as the mythology blended with the actions involved. It's problematic, second of all, because there's no further action involved in the tradition that is also being dropped. Suppose the tradition involved hand-washing and a tug on the left ear. If we discover a reason that hand-washing is desirable, do we therefore declare the entire tradition superstitious and discount the ear tug?

I say, "no," for a variety of reasons, but apart from that, I think Someguy is the one misreading Harris. He's characterizing reason/rationality/science as an objective measure external to tradition.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 12, 2005 8:33 PM

Mr. Harris wrote an excellent essay, putting forth some very deep and heavy ideas. The merit of such an essay should be judged not on whether it can be defended at every tiny point, but on whether it created new and interesting ideas, right or wrong. Anybody can criticize, but few can write like Lee Harris.

I can't untangle the discussion among the commenters here. The confusion seems to be over whether the word 'tradition' refers to specific small traditions, such as washing hands, or to larger traditions, such as Western Civilization.

I think he means both. Reason can attack specific traditions by disproving the myths built on top of them: Most of us don't avoid black cats like our ancestors did. But reason itself is a tradition, in the sense of conversations among people of goodwill who are open to the ideas of others participating in the conversation.

We've discussed this in other contexts in the blogosphere: What is the point of talking to someone who calls you a poopiehead every time he starts losing an argument? At some point, you must recognize that the person you are talking to doesn't share your tradition of intellectual discourse, and you might as well be talking to a monkey.

The only piece of Harris' essay I specifically disagreed with was his founding a moral judgment based on one person's experiences at different stages in life. It's a tidy argument, but it doesn't go far:

First, it doesn't match reality. As the cliche goes: Fools learn only from their own experiences. Must every adult have smoked to tell the young that smoking is bad?

Second, it assumes that the adult is willing to muster the will to assert that one experience is preferable to another. On what basis should the adult make that judgment? Telling a child not to smoke isn't really the conveyance of personal or even vicarious knowledge about the health hazards. It's the conveyance of a moral judgment that the long-term health hazards of smoking outweigh its short-term pleasures. But that value judgment is inherent subjective. Some people smoke until their deaths and never regret it.

So I'm not convinced that experience over time is much of an anchor for morality. But I think that his other points are very solid, especially the points about the relationship between reason and tradition. I would push his thought system in this direction: Of the many traditions that logic cannot defend, perhaps the most important is that life is worth living.

This run through many of our most emotionally powerful political issues: abortion, SSM, and euthanasia. Even the War on Terror. The argument in broad form is between the will to live and intellectual attacks on that assertion of will. As Mr. Harris explains so well, you can't have a rational discussion with someone's visceral code. We can't explain why we want to live, and we shouldn't be required to do so, because not all traditions can be reduced to logic. Reason wants to declare itself all-powerful, overlooking its limits. But there is no reason to believe, as a matter of logic, that we can understand everything with logic.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 13, 2005 2:57 AM

Ben,

Well, of course advancing new ideas and sparking dialogue brings merit to a piece, but I'm not sure what attacks you're defending Harris against. The hand-washing example, for instance, wasn't a discrete slip, but an indication of a larger problem. Consider his discussion of Maimonides, wherein the "tradition" is not just the mythology, but also part of the actions.

The point is that the "tiny points" often provide indication of whether the "new and interesting ideas" are right or wrong, and why. In this case, the varying senses of "tradition" obscures the fact that reason interacts differently (or should) with the mythology of a tradition, the mythology/history/activities of a tradition, or all of Western Civilization.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 13, 2005 5:41 AM
Mr. Harris wrote an excellent essay, putting forth some very deep and heavy ideas. The merit of such an essay should be judged not on whether it can be defended at every tiny point, but on whether it created new and interesting ideas, right or wrong. Anybody can criticize, but few can write like Lee Harris.

I can't untangle the discussion among the commenters here. The confusion seems to be over whether the word 'tradition' refers to specific small traditions, such as washing hands, or to larger traditions, such as Western Civilization.

I agree wholeheartedly - I liked the essay a lot. I'm just trying to figure out what he said, and whether I agree with it, by "thinking out loud" here, as it were. Personally, I see three sources of confusion: 1) my own fuzziness in understanding the concepts and/or articulating my own thoughts, 2) the length of Harris' piece, and the variety of topics it touches on, 3) specifically with regard to someguy's posts, my lack of understanding of what, exactly, his position is.

I think there are two general points of confusion, which various people have touched on above: what is the definition of "tradition", and what is the definition of "reason". If we had a clearer picture of those definitions, we'd better be able to discuss the relationship between them.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 13, 2005 11:10 AM

I agree, Mike. Let's explore tradition and reason.

Tradition is a very broad idea. Here's a first draft of a definition: It's any repeated non-instinctual behavior. Maybe it also needs to be transmitted across generations.

Reason is a very specific idea. This is the hard part for Western minds, because we're immersed in it. But reason is only one way to choose a course of action, or to resolve a dispute. Consider some alternatives:

Some cultures resolve disputes through combat, some through social standing or wealth, and some through age (older person wins). It wasn't so long ago that even in this country dueling was an acceptable way to settle a grudge. It's only in a few cultures that we have the idea that people should resolve their disputes through logical discourse. If two people can't resolve their disputes informally, then they have recourse to courts that will also apply logic to the facts and a pre-existing body of law. The courts won't order trial by combat any more. They won't determine guilt or innocence based on who can carry a large stone. They don't read entrails. They use logic.

You can say that obviously people ought to use logic, because it's the best way. And around here you won't find many who disagree. But that doesn't change the fact that the use of logic to resolve disputes is a facet of our culture and traditions, not something that exists independently and apart from them.

SMMTheory says that reason can't be part of a tradition because he can reason on his own without others being involved. But who taught him to base his choices on the Western idea of reason? How else might he arrive at his decisions? Historically, there are lots of other ways: He could consult religious texts. He could look for bird signs. He could pray. He could defer to what others have done in the past. He could wait for a dream to guide him.

The War on Terror forces us to see outside of our traditions, including our tradition of rationality. Many western commentators have speculated on whether the recent London bombing helped or hurt the terrorists from a rational perspective. But the terrorists aren't working from a wstern rational perspective---at least not many of them. The more astute commentators have observed that what the terrorists are really hoping for is something along the lines of Allah, being pleased by the devotion of his worshippers, comes down to smite the unbelievers.

That kind of thinking doesn't fit within our western minds. So we must either try to force it to fit, as many do, or accept that our rational style of decisionmaking is based in our traditions, and is not universal.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 13, 2005 1:00 PM

Ben Bateman said:

SMMTheory says that reason can't be part of a tradition because he can reason on his own without others being involved. But who taught him to base his choices on the Western idea of reason? How else might he arrive at his decisions? Historically, there are lots of other ways: He could consult religious texts. He could look for bird signs. He could pray. He could defer to what others have done in the past. He could wait for a dream to guide him.

You misinterpreted my statement Ben. I was disputing the concept that reason/rationality can only take place between people who already speak the language of a shared tradition. I don't need a second person to use reason. The concept suggests that reason and rationality would not exist if everybody had differing tradition. What you are describing with your examples of settling disputations is more like what I said it was, bargaining and equivocating differences between people who share same or similar tradition. That still does not make it impossible for settling/bargaining/equivocating disputes between people from differing traditions. Rationalizing a tradition, as Justin suggests, excludes an important part of the tradition, which is the experience. Because each individual is so isolated from everybody else, a tradition helps make that human connection with everybody else that lives that tradition. It's like participating in the Eucharistic celebration at Mass connects us with Christ and every other person down through history who has ever celebrated it. And Mr. Harris totally misses that facet. It's not visceral. It's not reasonable. Is that being picayune? Maybe... but that is not excluding reason from tradition. At some point, some where, way back (or sometimes not so very far back) in history, somebody made a decision to do something a certain way. That decision was the reason behind that particular tradition. It may have been totally different from a prior tradition, but other people saw the sense of it, and started doing it the same way. Over time, the tradition may become disassociated from the reason for the tradition, but that does not mean that there was no reasoning behind the tradition. And even then, people keep the tradition because it connects them to others.

And I also disagree with:

That kind of thinking doesn't fit within our western minds.
I think it fits all too well sometimes. Especially when I see people using Rationality in a manner similar to the fist of Allah.

Posted by: smmtheory at July 13, 2005 1:50 PM

Ben says:


SMMTheory says that reason can't be part of a tradition because he can reason on his own without others being involved. But who taught him to base his choices on the Western idea of reason?

I tend to agree with SMMT here. There is such a thing as objective, absolute truth, and reason is that (any?) process of thought which, given true premises, always reaches true conclusions. Truth transcends tradition, and so must reason if we define it that way.

Now we might have differences of opinion about reason's usefulness, and this is where I believe tradition intersects with reason. There are other routes to the truth than reason (faith, intuition, personal experience, ...) and we rely on tradition to tell us which route to truth is most expedient in each situation. When Harris places reason subordinate to tradition, I assume he means only the role of reason in society, not the nature of reason itself.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at July 13, 2005 2:30 PM

The point is that the "tiny points" often provide indication of whether the "new and interesting ideas" are right or wrong, and why. In this case, the varying senses of "tradition" obscures the fact that reason interacts differently (or should) with the mythology of a tradition, the mythology/history/activities of a tradition, or all of Western Civilization.

This is actually the major problem with Harris' essay; it is virtually impossible to figure out exactly what Harris means by "tradition". He spends an exhaustive amount of time attempting to do it, but never pinpoints which view/kind of tradition (mythology, narrative, rules, etc) he's discussing; or how they interplay.

This is particularly relevent when he discusses, for example, kosher food proscriptions. He mentions mythology (God described foods as clean and unclean) and actions (prohibiting certain foods in the diet) and connected them to the practical prohibition of pork due to the spread of disease. But he neglected "power". As anyone who has friends who keep keep kosher knows, it is virtually impossible to share a meal with them. Sharing a meal, more so in ancient times but also applicable today, is an essential property of a community. If I cannot sit down and break bread with you, I cannot assimilate you into my culture nor me into yours. Kosher dietary laws keep the chosen people chosen by virtue of their separation. In short, because we can't eat together we can't be friends.

A "tiny point" as Ben would say, but integral to understanding the major flaw in Harris' essay: we don't know what "tradition" or "reason" are because he isn't a very good writer or a very good philosopher. Rather than write a well-reasoned essay, he cherry-picks his philosophers and waffles in his definition of "traditon", simply to come to a foregone conclusion. More intelligent and less verbose writers have tackled the issue of cultural relativism. The more I ponder it, the more I believe that this essay really doesn't have anything "new or interesting" to say.

But it does seem to have been a great starting point for (at least the readers here) to get into a dialogue about "tradition", even though Harris bumbled that job.

Posted by: Michael at July 13, 2005 3:12 PM

My impression is that Harris already understands many, if not all, of the critiques we've been making of his essay. In the comments to the post subsequent to this one, he says,

Thus, in the final analysis, it is the great transformaive traditions that allow the full emergence of reason, and it is only the visceral code in which these traditions are encoded and embodied that guarantee that this reason will not become simply an ideology that one group can use to knock another group over the head.

Enlightened rationality is, in our world, more often than not simply a tool by which the cognitive elite assert their dominance over the masses--and thus it has lost the essential character of reason, which is its dialogical (and dialectical) openness to the possibility of self-transcendence. We can learn from others that our own views are one-sided, but only when we take seriously other people's point of view.

He also says he wrote the essay a year ago, so it's possible his views have changed somewhat since he wrote it.

I think when he says that "enlightened rationality...has lost the essential character of reason" is what I was getting at above when I was talking about the Sophists. The key aspect of reason that has been transformed in the modern age is the purpose, or goal, of reason. The short version is that it's been tranformed from a method for seeking the truth into the ultimate standard of truth. Part of the confusion here is whether we are talking about the methodology or the standard of judgement. I still feel that in Harris's essay, he is allowing reason to be the standard too much, and trying to justify tradition by it.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 14, 2005 5:19 PM