Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Heart's Reasons

Blaise Pascal's best known epigram is "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas" (the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing). The thought was intended by the mathematician-philosopher to question how we know what we know.

This comes to the fore as a result of recent disagreements with a friend who calls herself a cyberette. She posits vast judgments of cultures and people based on snap impressions, long held biases and, frankly, clichés. To be fair, I am not the very model of the modern major mathematician myself.

More important than the personal epistemologies of two cyberfriends is the reality that most of us face this fork in the road of our thinking at some point.

In Western societies the traditional view since the ancient Greeks has been that reason is orderly, trustworthy, Apollinian, a solid foundation for all that is legal, moral and cherished -- and predominantly male. In contrast, feelings are messy, deceptive, Dionysian, the swamp that swallows up all human order -- and predominantly female. In the Sixties, this was the philosophical undergirding of the struggle between the straights and the freaks.

Pascal, René Descartes and other predominantly French architects of modern rationalism were touchstones to the later British Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume and John Locke, whose very words echo in documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Ever since, we in the United States have had a government that purported to be devoted to the rule of law -- albeit bent to favor the privileged. Such law has been fashioned through processes thought to be rational.

Congressional committees hold hearings in which supposedly the salient relevant facts are presented and, based on these facts, laws are drawn up. As a veteran observer of committee hearings, I can assure you that the factual veneer is very thin. By and large, committee staffers pick and choose witnesses to produce testimony that will lead to predetermined conclusions.

In the last Republican-dominated Congress stacking hearings was a practice so rampant and unbridled that it fed the considerable acrimony across the partisan aisle. The Democrats are no less prone to stack, but I have noticed that they carefully invite the token witness or two to speak for the other side -- something the goose-stepping GOP could have done at little strategic cost and considerable gain to comity.

More to the point of knowledge and whence it comes, Congress often authorizes "demonstrations" or experiments to test whether a policy that does X would yield result Y. While this may work in some limited contexts -- weapons testing comes to mind -- in broader contexts demonstrations actually show the fatal flaw of all U.S. politics.

Our political system is philosophically skewed in favor of rationalism, or the aura of reason, under the Enlightenment-era assumption that "all reasonable men" will ultimately agree if they can only be presented the facts.

This, in turn, assumes that facts, or the results of independently verifiable observation, are kernels of truth. However, most "known facts" are miles away from truth.

Take the fact that the U.S. economy added 132,000 jobs last month. There are ample reasons to believe this number, an estimate based on surveying, is not accurate. Indeed, the April and May increases were both revised for a net gain of over 200,000 jobs and, as a result, June's increase may actually be a downward trend (at least until the June revision).

The honest truth is that we don't really know exactly how many people are employed. Statisticians can make educated guesses at best.

That's where a middle ground between empirical fact and irrational feeling emerges.

Philosophers have long known that intuition is a way to grasp knowledge by comparing two ideas without rational inductive processes. You know something makes sense or it doesn't and you can usually explain it by reference to previous experience.

Granted, one of the common fallacies that arise from intuition is generalization, the projection from the particular to the general.

Yet in Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena, for example, we find intuition in logic and mathematics.

Carl Gustav Jung, in his 1921 work Psychological Types, was the first psychologist to focus on intuition as a form of human perception. Unlike the philosophers, Jung describes the place of intuition functionally. Intuition is an auxiliary to thinking, helping to relate the rational to the irrational through an internal focus. In the same way, sensation aids feeling through its scanning of the external world.

It has only been in the last century that the potential complementarity between reason and feeling has been explored. There may be few facts and even these may not amount to truths, yet intuition allows the mind to check for consistency with reasonableness and common sense.

The heart's reasons entail something considerably more complex than the mere displacement of formal, organized thought in favor of unabashed, unkempt feeling.


Geneviève said...
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Anonymous said...

I love "the very modern model of the major mathmetician myself".